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Best known for his role in the Mutiny on the Bounty, Captain William Bligh was a brilliant seaman and navigator who served under Captain James Cook during his third and final voyage. He later went on to become Governor of New South Wales, Australia.



Captain William Bligh and his crew spent six idyllic months on Tahiti. When the Bounty weighed anchor, Bligh was unaware of the crew's restless longing to return.

The Bounty, a 215-ton armed tender originally named the Bethia,
was refitted to transport breadfruit from Tahiti to the West Indies.
From a painting by Gregory Robinson 

Early in 1787 a group of sugar planters in the West Indies conceived the idea of importing breadfruit from Tahiti as a cheap staple diet for their slaves. They approached Sir Joseph Banks and through his influence the proposal was approved and the Admiralty was instructed send a ship to take the cargo of young breadfruit trees from Tahiti to Jamaica and St. Vincent.

 An armed transport of 215 tons called the Bethia was bought and refitted for the voyage. It was renamed the Bounty. Again through Banks's influence, Lieutenant William Bligh was appointed to command her. Bligh was well qualified for the job. He was a brilliant seaman and navigator, and he had already visited Tahiti as master of the Resolution under Captain James Cook.

The Bounty was far too small a ship for the task in hand. If she had carried marines it is unlikely there would ever have been mutiny, but there was no accommodation for any. Nor was Bligh given any commissioned officers. As master he had John Fryer and as senior master's mate his own protégé, Fletcher Christian, and his crew of 45 included four midshipmen. These were virtually the only men on whom he could count to maintain discipline.

A drawing of a breadfruit by Sydney Parkinson. It was William
Bligh's task to transport breadfruit saplings from Tahiti to Jamaica.

It was Christian who, in the event, led the mutiny against him, and most of the others proved broken reeds. Bligh's orders were to sail to Tahiti by way of Cape Horn but he had to wait so long for the final instructions from the Admiralty that the Bounty did not have England until December 23, 1787. Because of this delay she ran into such foul weather approaching the Horn that after weeks of struggle against fierce westerly gales Bligh gave up trying to round it and instead made for Tahiti by the long route via the Cape of Good Hope and Van Dieman's Land. According to Bligh's narrative all had gone well on this voyage, but witnesses at the subsequent court-martial claimed thee had been constant friction between the commanding officer and his subordinates.

 When the Bounty eventually reached her destination on October 25 1788 she had covered 27,000 miles and had been at sea 10 months. In view of the slanders that have been written about Bligh's "brutal" treatment of his crew it is worth noting that in that time only two men had been flogged - one with 24 lashes for mutinous behaviour and one sixth six lashes for neglect of duty - and that all on board except for a drunken doctor were as fit and well as when they had left England.

As a result of her late arrival the Bounty had missed the proper season for transplanting and five months passed before the gardeners were able to collect and take aboard a full cargo of more than 1,000 young breadfruit trees. In that time most of the crew acquired Tahitian mistresses, and had become so enchanted with life on the islands that they were reluctant to leave.

When the Bounty sailed on April 4 1789 Bligh was completely unaware of the undercurrent of discontent, and could never have dreamed that it would explode into mutiny. The first hint of trouble came three weeks later when Christian took a party ashore for water and wood on an island. While there some natives stole an adze, and Bligh blamed Christian and said so publicly in his usual blustering tone.

Fletcher Christian and his followers built huts, took
native women for wives and hunted game in the interior

Two days later there was another argument, again involving Christian, as to who owned some coconuts. Bligh had always been a quick tempered man, although he was equally quick to forgive. To him these were passing incidents of such little significance that he invited Christian to dine with him the same night. Christian declined, saying the he was unwell.

Early next morning, April 28, Bligh was wakened by Christian and several others who came into his cabin armed with bayonets. Bligh was abused and threatened, his hands were tied behind him, and he was forced up on to the deck clad only in his shirt. It was not until he saw several others under arrest that he realized a mutiny was actually taking place. He demanded to know the reason for it and was told to keep quiet or he would be killed. All he could get from Christian was "I have been in hell for the last fortnight, sir - in hell".

The ship's launch, 23 feet long and 6 feet 9 inches wide, was hoisted out. Sails, ropes, 32 lb of pork, 150 lb of biscuit, a 28-gallon cask of water, and 6 quarts of wine were loaded into her, and Bligh, Fryer and 17 others including the gunner, boatswain and sail maker were ordered aboard. She was so heavily laden that her gunwales cleared the water by only seven inches, and many personal possessions which had been stowed in her had to be jettisoned. Bligh asked for arms, but the mutineers laughed at him. Finally four cutlasses were thrown aboard and the launch was cast adrift.

As the Bounty moved away there were shouts from the mutineers of "Hurrah for Tahiti!? and for the first time Bligh began to realize the real cause of the mutiny.

An engraving of Thursday October Christian, Fletcher
Christian's son. Taken from T. Murray's Pitcairn, the Island

Bligh and his companions agreed that their only chance was to reach Timor, 3,600 miles away, with stops at various islands on he way to replenish food and water supplies. Their first stop was at Tofoa, one of the Friendly Islands, the morning after they had been cast adrift. Far from being friendly, however, the natives pelted them with volleys of stones, killed one man and chased the launch out to sea.

Mutineers from Bligh's ship landed at Bounty Bay
in Pitcairn Island, from an engraving by Beechey, 1831

It was obvious that without firearms the same risk could not be taken again. So plans were changed. A direct course was set for Timor and food and water were strictly rationed. Only Bligh's dogged resolution kept them going during the next three weeks. The weather was atrocious with heavy rainstorms and gale-force winds whipping up mountainous seas. They hardly slept at all, and for days on they were never dry. Their daily ration was two ounces of ship's biscuit and a little water. Occasionally a mouthful of pork was added, and now and then Bligh issued a toty of rum.

On May 24 the Great Barrier Reef was sighted ahead, and they knew they were near the north-eastern coast of New South Wales (now Queensland). They had decided to bypass Botany Bay, the expected site of the new colony, because at this time Bligh was unaware of whether the First Fleet had yet arrived and how successful the enterprise had been. Four days later, inside the reef they landed on an uninhabited island where they found water and a good supply of shellfish. Several days were spent on various islands recouping their strength, and on June 3 they rounded Cape York and sailed west for Timor.

Eleven days later they rounded the Dutch port of Koepang so exhausted and starving that they could barely crawl ashore. They had covered 3,618 miles in 41 sailing days, a feat almost without parallel, and a remarkable tribute to Bligh's tenacity, navigational skill and seamanship. It is ironic that the long voyage had claimed only one life and that as a result of native hostility, whereas a short stay in Koepang had claimed the lives of three of Bligh's crew, all from fever, Eastern ports in those days were notoriously infested places.

Fletcher Christian's house on :Pitcairn Island. The mutineers' idyllic
holiday was short lived. Their native slaves revolted and killed
five of their masters, including Fletcher Christian

Bligh arrived in England in March 1790. Word of the open-boat voyage had preceded him and he was almost a national hero. A routine court-marshal into the loss of the Bounty ended inevitably in his honourable acquittal. Soon afterwards the Government dispatched the frigate Pandora, under Captain Edward Edwards, to Tahiti to hunt down the mutineers. As soon as she arrived in March 1791 two of the Bounty's midshipmen, George Stewart and Peter Haywood, came aboard and gave themselves up, and in the next few days another 12 men, all those remaining on the island, either surrendered or were rounded up.  

They told Edwards that under Christian's leadership the mutineers had attempted to settle on the island of Tubuai, but after several clashes with the natives they had given up the idea and returned to Tahiti.

 Arrest and callous brutality

Here they had split into two groups. One group of 16 had decided to stay at Tahiti and the other nine, including Christian, had decided to look for another island, this time uninhabited, where they could live in peace, safe from pursuit. With their native wives and several other native men and women they had sailed in the Bounty on September 23 1789 and had not been seen since. Of these who remained on Tahiti one had killed another in a quarrel, and in turn he had been killed by natives.

Edwards treated the mutineers he had arrested with callous brutality, confining them in a cage 18 feet by 11 feet, built on the quarter-deck of the Pandora. Its only entrance was a scuttle in the reef, and the side walls had smaller scuttles with iron gratings for air. During rain the roof leaked badly, and in fine weather the place became unbearably hot. Although escape was almost impossible the prisoners were kept in handcuffs and leg irons. They remained in this box for several months while the Pandora cruised around in a vain search for the rest of the mutineers. Then Edwards gave up and headed for home. At the entrance to Torres Strait the Pandora ran hard on to a coral reef and began to break up. Some mutineers were released to help work the pumps but the rest stayed locked in their cage, still in irons. Next morning the ship sank and four of them, including Midshipman Stewart, went down with her. In addition, 31 of the Pandora's crew were drowned. The survivors reached Koepang in open boats after an arduous voyage of a fortnight. The conduct of Captain Edwards to his prisoners both before and after the wrecking of the Pandora has been condemned as brutal by all writers, including officers of the naval service.

John Adams, only survivor of the revolt, became head man of
the community on Pitcairn Island. From an engraving by Beechey, 1831

When the mutineers reached England in June 1792 Bligh had been 10 months away on a second voyage to transport breadfruit trees from Tahiti to the West Indies. In fairness they should not have stood trial until his return, but the Admiralty decided not to wait. Four were acquitted and six found guilty and sentenced to death, of whom two, Midshipman Heywood and James Morrison (boatswain's mate), were recommended for mercy and daily pardoned. A third was pardoned on the eve of execution and the remaining three were hanged from the yardarm as a warning to other would-be mutineers. For this second breadfruit voyage Bligh was given two ships, HMS Providence and a tender, the Assistant. Profiting from his earlier experience he made no mistake this time, and in due course 544 plants were landed at Kingstown, St. Vincent, and another 633 at various places in Jamaica. All were in splendid condition. As a reward Bligh received from the planters of St. Vincent a piece of plate valued at 100 guineas, and the Jamaican House of Assembly voted him 1,000 guineas. The breadfruit thrived in their new environment, but the West Indians never really took to them and would eat them only when other food was unobtainable.

 Another 15 years passed before the world learned of the fate of Christian and his companions. In 1808 the American sealer Topaz put in to Pitcairn Island, about 1,400 miles south-east of Tahiti, which was supposedly uninhabited and found there a small community who spoke English and were devout Christians. Their leader John Adams (also known as Alexander Smith) was the only surviving mutineer but most of the Tahitian women who had sailed in the Bounty were still alive and between them they had about 35 children. As other ships called the story was gradually pieced together. After landing at Pitcairn the mutineers had stripped the Bounty and burned her so that her presence could not give them away. The native men had been reduced to slave status and in time they had revolted and killed five of their masters, including Christian. Of the four survivors one had fallen over a cliff, one had been killed by his companions and one died of consumption. Adams, the last of them, had turned to religion and had become the spiritual father of the little community.

Lieutenant Bligh and his crew being received by the

Governor of Timor after a 3,600 mile longboat across the Pacific

Today some descendants of the mutineers still live on Pitcairn and others on Norfolk Island. They are a peaceful, quiet and gentle people, respected by all who know them.


Concerned about the state of anarchy of New South Wales, the Government searched for a man who could crush the rebellious Rum Corps. The man they found was Captain William Bligh.

By 1805 it had been accepted by the authorities in London that Governor King had failed to get the colony of New South Wales on its feet, and in particular that he had filed to break the power of the officers of the New South Wales Corps, who were virtually running the place for their own profit. Indeed, King had already admitted himself to be helpless against the strength of the opposition, and as early as 1803 had written home asking to be relieved. Obviously a man of a very different calibre from King, or from his predecessor, Governor Hunter, was needed to pull the colony out of the mire. He would need to be a man whose reputation and integrity were unimpeached, a man firm in discipline and prepared to exert his authority in the face of overt hostility and threats; in short, a man of physical and moral courage, prepared to stand alone and do battle against to closely-knit gang of unscrupulous racketeers.

An engraving of Admiralty House, London, from a sketch
by S. Wale who was a founder member of the Royal Society

The problem was referred, almost as a matter of course, to Sir Joseph Banks who had long been unofficial adviser to the government on all matters relating to New South Wales. Banks's reply was simple and to the point. "I know of no man but Captain William Bligh who will suit", he said, "but whether it will meet with his views is another question." Bligh's reaction, when the proposition was put to him, was by no means enthusiastic. After an active and hazardous career in the navy which had included two long voyages to the Pacific, he was reluctant to face yet another separation from his wife, who was to terrified of the sea that she could never be expected to travel to a remote colony. 

There were other things to consider. He was by no means sure that as governor he would have the legal power to achieve necessary reforms or, if he did, the means to enforce them. He was worried that if he took the job he might have to resign from the navy and so lose his chance of eventual promotion to flag rank. And, of course, there was the question of whether it would be worth his while financially. With regard to his naval status the Admiralty assured him that his rank would continue, as Governor Phillip's had, and that in addition to being governor he would be commander-in-chief, on full pay, of all British naval vessels on the New South Wales station. Certainly this did not solve the problem of separation from Mrs. Bligh, but it meant that he would be able to take with him as his naval lieutenant his son-in-law Lieutenant John Putland and, of course, Putland's wife, Bligh's daughter Mary.

On the question of salary Banks was firm on Bligh's behalf. The three previous naval governors had received only 1,000 pound sterling a year each. To attract a senior officer of Bligh's standing such a sum was ludicrous. "I could not undertake to recommend any one unless 2,000 pound sterling was given", he wrote, "as I think that a man who undertakes so great a trust as the management of an important colony should be certain of living well and laying up a provision for his family."

The increase was granted, and in the face of those powerful persuasions Bligh yielded to the desire "to procure a little affluence", and his appointment was recommended to the King by Lord Camden, Secretary of State for the Colonies, and was approved. Bligh sailed from England in the transport Lady Madeleine Sinclair in February 1806. In company with five other transports, whalers and merchantmen, and escorted by HMS Porpoise, captained by Joseph Short. Bligh's daughter and Putland were in the same ship, but during the voyage Putland transferred to the Porpoise. Short was accompanied by his wife and seven children, and his intention was to take up a grant and settle in New South Wales.

For all his good qualities - and they were many - Bligh was one of those men who seemed fated to be always involved in trouble of one kind or another. The voyage out proved no exception. Short's instruction from the Admiralty was that he was to take command of the convoy, but was to put himself under Bligh's authority as soon as he reached the colony. He assumed, therefore, that he was independent of Bligh on the actual voyage, except in the matter of what course was to be followed and what ports were to be visited. Bligh's interpretation was different. Because of his senior rank, he maintained, he was to have supreme command of all ships on the voyage.

Neither would yield to the other or lose any opportunity to assert what he believed to be his authority, and the voyage out, as a result, was punctuated by a series of trivial but violent quarrels. Once Bligh altered the course of the Lady Sinclair and Short signalled him to return to the original one. When Bligh took no notice Short fired across the bow and stern of Bligh's ship and ordered Lieutenant Putland to stand by to fire a third shot amidships. When Putland refused, his wife, after all, was aboard the Lady Sinclair - Short stormed at him and threaten him with arrest. Not surprisingly this incident ruined any possible chance of reconciliation between Bligh and Short. When the convoy reached Sydney Bligh appointed a court of inquiry to investigate events on the Porpoise. The court found Short guilty of breaches of naval discipline, including drunkenness, and pronounced that relations between officers on the ship were "full of personal rancour, prejudice and partiality?, Short brought counter-charges against the master and first lieutenant of the Porpoise, but these were dismissed. At the end of 1807 Bligh ordered Short to England to face a court-martial, and when Short refused to give up his command he was sent back under arrest.

Bligh officially landed at Sydney on August 8 180-6, but did not officially take over the government from King until six days later, during which time he was a guest at government House. Before he relinquished the reins King made Bligh three grants of land - one for a private residence near Sydney which he called Camperdown after the naval battle he had taken part in, and one of 1,000 acres near the Hawkesbury which Bligh announced he would turn into a model farm for the instruction and enlightenment of the community in general. As soon as Bligh took over he reciprocated by making a substantial land grant to Mrs. King which she called, appropriately but perhaps tactlessly, "Thanks". Even Bligh's warmest admirers find it had to condone this deal, and certainly it caused some raised eyebrows in Whitehall.

Bligh warned of his enemies

Before he left London Bligh had been warned that his strongest adversary in the colony would almost certainly be John Macarthur, now a civilian and well-established with his flocks of sheep on his 5,000 acres grant at Camden, and everything that King told Bligh bore this out. He soon learned that Macarthur was by no means popular with the general public. On August 14 Bligh received a congratulatory address of welcome signed by the Judge-Advocate, Richard Atkins, on behalf of the civil officers, by Major George Johnston on behalf of the military officers and by Macarthur on behalf of the free inhabitants. A few weeks later he received another address, this time from 125 free inhabitants, and soon afterwards yet another from 244 settlers at the Hawkesbury, and both of these specifically repudiated Macarthur's authority to sign on their behalf. 

 At the time the Hawkesbury settlers were in a bad way. In February and March the river had disastrously flooded the agricultural settlements along its banks. apart from the loss of livestock and property the season's grain crops had been destroyed, and as a result the whole colony faced an acute shortage of food with prohibitive prices for what grain remained. In this crisis Bligh acted quickly and efficiently. He toured the devastated areas and inquired personally into the circumstances of the individual sufferers. He ordered meat to be slaughtered from the government herds and distributed to the needy, and agreed to buy at 10s. a bushel any surplus wheat from the next harvest. Settlers who needed goods of any kind were authorized to buy them at reasonable prices from the government stores and given credit against their next season's crops. 

At the same time Bligh turned his attention to various government buildings which were in need of repair. Public stores and granaries were no longer water-proof, public offices in the various settlements were dilapidated, churches at Sydney and Parramatta had been started but never finished. Fort Phillip had been left half built and even Government House was barely habitable. Bligh diverted labour to repair buildings, and wrote of Sydney: ""When I have done I think it will be a very charming place." However, he was under no delusions that these first temporary steps had brought him to grips with the real evils of the situation in New South Wales. In November 1806 he wrote to Banks: "I have many difficulties to encounter both as to the ways and manners of the inhabitants, all of which must be touched upon so lightly that they cannot perceive it until the reform is accomplished - indeed the country is in a very poor state, and the customs of the people very bad."

New Governor moved cautiously

His main tasks, as he well realized, were to bring the rum traffic in the colony under control, to regulate the economy so as to do away with monopoly and extortion, and to ensure that the New South Wales Corps no longer had any association with trade. At the same time he was fully aware of the opposition that would be raised when he tried to implement his instructions and how vulnerable and isolated was his own position. The need for tact and discretion was obvious, and it is to Bligh's credit that he was content to spend several months exploring the situation before he took any action.

"I am aware", he wrote in his first dispatch to London, "that prohibiting the barter of spirits will meet with the marked opposition of those few who have so materially enriched themselves by it." Nevertheless, it was a step that could not be postponed for long. In February 1807 Bligh felt himself sufficiently well entrenched to take it, and issued a general order which prohibited absolutely the exchange of spirits or other liquors as payment for grain, other food, labour, clothes or any other commodity. The penalties were severe. A convict could receive 100 lashes and 12 months hard labour; and emancipist faced three months imprisonment, a fine of twenty pounds and the loss of all indulgences from the Crown, and a free settler could be fined fifty pounds and lose all privileges. Informers were to receive half the proceeds of all fines.

Bligh's determination was clearly expressed in a letter to Banks: "If Government supports my dignity and determination", he wrote, "things will go on right, and let them be aware of this, as I am not here for my ease or comfort, but to do justice and relieve the oppressed poor settlers, who must be the support of the country and are honester men than those who wish to keep them under."

The  weakness of Bligh's position was that he had no fiscal means of enforcing this or any other order he choose to issue except through the New South Wales Corps, the very people who had introduced rum trafficking and who were enriching themselves by it. He was further handicapped by the fact that the colony's civil and criminal courts were in effect military court, and that his Judge-Advocate, Atkins, was irresponsible, a drunkard and completely ignorant of the law. Bligh sought to remedy this situation by asking London to appoint an independent attorney general and a judge and to send out a dependable lawyer or solicitor. In the meantime, he had to put up with the situation as it stood.

An eventual trial of strength between Bligh and Macarthur was inevitable, and it was typical of Macarthur that when he launched his challenge it was through the colony's law courts, and that his apparent adversary was not Bligh himself but Andrew Thompson, and emancipist who was also the bailiff of Bligh's farm.

Before the flood of 1806 Macarthur had accepted from Thompson a promissory note for a sum of money. According to local custom this sum was expressed on the note in term of bushels of wheat at the price then current. When Macarthur called up the note the price of wheat had increased four folds because of scarcity. Thompson offered to meet his commitments by paying grain equal to the value of the note at the time it was issued, but Macarthur declined to accept this and sued Thompson for the larger sum in the civil court.

The court ruled that the note was an expression of value and not of quantity of produce. Macarthur appealed, and Bligh, who as Governor was himself the Court of Appeal decided in favour of Thompson. It was a reasonable decision, but it gave Macarthur the opportunity to claim that he was being victimized by Bligh and he did not fail to seize it.

Until this time, relations between the two men had been friendly enough, on the surface at least, and Macarthur and his wife had been regular visitors to Government House. Now the visits ceased and at a later date Macarthur explained why.

During a social call he sought to interest Bligh in the prospect of the fine wool industry and its advantages to the colony. He mentioned that Lord Camden had promised him another 5,000 acres of land once he had proved the value of the industry, and suggested that Bligh might care to implement that promise. Bligh, he declared, had immediately flown into a rage, accused him of obtaining land grants by false representations, and asserted that he would not be manipulated like the Secretary of State or the Privy Council.

Campaign to depose Bligh began

Bligh firmly denied the truth of Macarthur's story. All the same, Bligh was undoubtedly skeptical of Macarthur's pretensions as a colonial benefactor because of his developments of the wool industry, and would certainly never willingly have granted him extra concessions in the way of land or convict labour.

Nevertheless, Bligh was justified in believing that during the first twelve months of his governorship he had retained all the initiatives in his policy-making, and if there was feeling against him in some quarters it was not yet overt. Excluding Macarthur, everyone of note, civil and military, was still to be met at Government House, though Bligh carefully avoided becoming intimate with any particular person or group.

Even so, he was aware that certain people had been troublesome during King's regime would quickly seize upon anything that might discredit him, and in fact, through their friends, were already circulating stories about him in London. Reports were passed around that he had tried to interfere in the internal management of the New south Wales Corps, and it was alleged that during the period of scarcity he had sold provisions at exorbitant prices for his own benefit.

Just how dangerously effective this campaign had become was not evident until the court marshal of Captain short, of the Porpoise. Surprisingly, Short was acquitted, and the President of the court, Sir Isaac Coffin, took the exceptional course of writing the Admiralty making several accusations against Bligh, including one that he had influenced Short's officers to testify against him.

The above image of a painting exhibited at Sydney shortly after the
Rum Rebellion illustrates the virulence of the anti-Bligh campaign of defamation.
From: Rum Rebellion by H. V. Evatt published by Angus and Robertson Ltd., Sydney, 1943

Fortunately Bligh did not lack strong supporters in London. His wife disproved at least part of the story by obtaining from one of the officers concerned an affidavit that denied any collusion with Bligh in his charges against Short. Sir Joseph Banks produced admiralty documents which he felt were enough "to prove that the admiralty admits that the censor of the court marshal had no foundation in evidence", and declared that at the colonial office all concerns continued to praise Bligh's talents, perseverance and spirited conduct. The colonial office itself told the admiralty firmly that a quarrel between two naval officers was not a sufficient reason to recall a Governor.

None of this, of course, had much to do with Bligh's actual government of the colony, except in so far as it indicated that he was an embarrassment to some interests who had got rid of his predecessors, Hunter and King, by ridiculing them in England and who hoped to dispose of him in the same way. In the event they were to fail, and were forced into more direct and dramatic action.

Bligh's naval career had seasoned him to danger but it had not fitted him for a difficult administrative post, and he was quite unable to cope with the intrigue that surrounded him. The rebellion in which he was deposed by Major George Johnston of the News South Wales Corps may not have been inevitable had Bligh played his cards a little more shrewdly, but it certainly came at no surprise. After his return to England, Bligh became a Rear Admiral in 1810 and a Vice-Admiral in 1814. He retired from the Navy and died on December 7, 1817 aged 64.

William Bligh - Portrait of an Artist

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