Captain William Bligh was the man behind the most famous mutiny in history – the mutiny on the Bounty.
But was he truly a cruel tyrant, a slave driver who pushed his crew to the brink of desperation and who commanded his ship with an iron fist, or was all of that just fiction attributed to a man who has been unjustly maligned by history? Let’s find out as we examine the life and career of William Bligh, and take a look at the real story behind the mutiny on the Bounty.
William Bligh was born on September 9, 1754, either in Plymouth, Devon County, or the village of St. Tudy, in Cornwall. His parents were Francis Bligh, a customs officer, and Jane Pearce.
To say that William Bligh was made for a life out on the sea would still be a huge understatement. He sailed on his first ship at the ripe old age of seven, as a captain’s servant aboard the HMS Monmouth, a position that he technically held for eight years, between 1762 and 1770. He didn’t really because he was just a kid, but this was a move done at the time to help boys gain more sailing experience, at least on paper, so that it would be easier for them to get commissions later on, since these required a certain number of years at sea. Of course, this kind of privilege was not afforded to any waif who stumbled onto the brig off the streets. It was only because Francis Bligh was a customs officer that he managed to secure this position for his son.
Therefore, by the time William Bligh obtained his first real position aboard a ship, he was already a salty sea dog, on paper. In 1770, the 16-year-old Bligh sailed aboard the HMS Hunter as an able seaman, which paid better than the entry-level ordinary seaman. By 1771, Bligh was already able to become a midshipman, which was the lowest ranking officer position. Later that same year, he transferred to the HMS Crescent, at the same rank, where he spent the next three years of his career.
Fortunately for Bligh, it did seem like he had some genuine skills to complement that non-existent experience of his. Besides being a natural when it came to sailing and navigation, he was also good at mathematics, writing, and illustrations, so he proved himself useful aboard all the ships he traveled. From the Crescent, he transferred to the Ranger, and, from there, he joined the HMS Resolution in 1776 where he was promoted to sailing master. This was not only an impressive career move for a 22-year-old, but the Resolution was commanded by none other than Captain James Cook, so Bligh joined him on his third and final voyage that ended with Cook being killed by native Hawaiians and getting the flesh boiled off his bones.
Not exactly a fitting end for the captain, but most of the crew made it safely back to Britain, and Bligh even earned some praise for the skills and behavior he displayed during the crisis. His services were in demand, but he decided that maybe some R&R would be in order after that ordeal, so he took a break for most of 1780. During that time, he met and married Elizabeth Betham and the couple would go on to have six children together.
In February 1781, Bligh resumed his nautical career aboard the HMS Belle Poule, again as a sailing master. This time, though, he saw some action as he took part in the Battle of Dogger Bank during the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War. We have no idea about how he acted in combat, but apparently, his performance was impressive enough to warrant another promotion, to lieutenant.
Bligh spent the next couple of years serving as a lieutenant aboard several ships, including the HMS Cambridge, where he sailed alongside a young cabin boy named Fletcher Christian. That name will become relevant in a short while. Anyway, Bligh saw more combat in 1782 fighting at the Siege of Gibraltar under Lord Howe, as part of the American Revolutionary War. By that point, the war had pretty much ended in North America, but Spain and France kept the conflict going, eager to take Britain down a peg or two in the naval power rankings.
It wasn’t until 1783 that hostilities ended and this put Bligh into a bit of a conundrum. He could have stayed in the Royal Navy, but now that Britain wasn’t fighting anyone, his chances at upward mobility decreased significantly since there were already plenty of officers to go around. Bligh’s goal was to become a captain of his own vessel, so in 1783 he decided to leave the Royal Navy for a spell and join the merchant service.
This strategy paid off. Bligh started off as a commanding lieutenant and, in 1786, he achieved his ambition, being awarded the captaincy of the merchant vessel Britannia. As a bonus, he reunited with Fletcher Christian, who joined the ship as an able seaman but was soon promoted to second mate, as Captain Bligh took a shine to the young sailor. Together, they sailed to and fro the West Indies a couple of times, but in 1787 William Bligh received an offer he could not refuse – to sail for the Royal Navy again, this time as a captain, aboard a ship called the HMS Bounty.
In 1787, William Bligh rejoined the British Royal Navy with his old rank of Lieutenant but was immediately promoted to Lieutenant Commander as part of his new job. It was a pretty sweet gig. The Navy had this new ship called the Bethia which it had just purchased from a private party, refitted at great cost, and renamed the HMS Bounty. It was a three-masted, full-rigged, snub-nosed ship with no superstructures and capable of only a 215-ton burden. In other words, it wasn’t particularly impressive, especially given that the British Navy already had around 600 other vessels at its disposal. There were other ships that were bigger, other ships that were faster, so why was the Bounty chosen specifically?
It all came down to the mission that the Bounty had been chosen for. This was a scientific experiment more than anything else. The plan was to sail to Tahiti, fill up the ship with loads and loads of breadfruit (the whole plant, not just the fruit), and then travel to the West Indies, hopefully with as much intact breadfruit as possible, so that they could be planted there as a new and cheap source of food for the slaves who worked on the plantations. The biggest obstacle was getting the breadfruit to its destination in one piece since Tahiti was in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and the West Indies were on the other side of North America.
That was why the Royal Navy asked botanist Joseph Banks for help since he was the top dog of the day in naturalist circles after serving as the scientist aboard the HMS Endeavour during Captain James Cook’s first voyage. After looking over a list of ship candidates, Banks was the one who suggested the Bounty and also recommended specific changes that would increase the chances that the breadfruit would survive their lengthy journey. This included sheathing the bottom of the hull in copper to protect it from woodworms, and transforming the captain’s quarters into a two-story plant nursery lined with lead sheets to prevent water from spilling in.
It was quite an ambitious project and the custom refits ended up costing more than double the price of the actual ship. But where exactly did Bligh come in? Surely, given how much money the Royal Navy invested in this little experiment, they could have found a more experienced captain, or perhaps one with some background in botany. Well, actually, we’re not sure why Bligh was chosen to captain the ship. Usually, the story goes that he was recommended by Joseph Banks himself. Perhaps the scientist was familiar with Bligh’s service since both sailed with Captain Cook, albeit on different voyages. Others pointed to a more straightforward case of nepotism, claiming that the original private owner of the ship was a man named Duncan Campbell, who happened to be the uncle of Bligh’s wife Elizabeth.
Regardless of how he got the job, Bligh was ready to go by the end of the year. All the extra stuff that was added to the Bounty meant that there wasn’t room for a lot of men or guns. The ship only had four cannons and ten swivel guns, and a small crew of 46. Bligh was not only the captain, but also the only commissioned officer aboard the ship, accompanied by 43 Royal Navy personnel and two gardeners. One of those 43 was Fletcher Christian, whose presence was requested by Bligh personally and promoted to first mate. On December 23, 1787, the Bounty left England and sailed for Tahiti.
The Voyage to Tahiti
The first leg of the journey across the Atlantic went rather well. In fact, the only incident recorded in the logbook was a punishment of 24 lashes to a crewman named Matthew Quintal for insolence/contempt. And even this was done mainly at the insistence of the sailing master, John Fryer, who was second-in-command aboard the ship. Which really brings us to the core issue behind the mutiny on the Bounty – was Captain Bligh really a tyrant who deserved what he got?
By all available accounts, Bligh was more considerate and less severe than the average British officer at the time. Sure, he swore and shouted a lot and expected discipline and competence, but we have a detailed logbook of all the movements aboard the Bounty during its year-and-a-half journey and there were only a dozen or so floggings recorded, and half of those were for attempted desertion. As one historian put it, “he scolded when others would have whipped, and whipped when others would have hanged.” Other than that, two men named Mills and Brown were punished by having their grog rations stopped for refusing to dance. And that’s not a joke, by the way. Apparently, Bligh encouraged his men to do various physical exercises such as dancing in order to keep fit. And he was also quite fanatical when it came to the cleanliness of the ship, a habit he picked up from Captain Cook, but that was about it. And you could argue that both of those idiosyncrasies were for the good of his men.
The Bounty encountered its first major obstacle in late March 1788, when it tried to round Cape Horn at the southern tip of South America to cross into the Pacific Ocean. There were violent storms and Captain Bligh made the decision to turn back and head for Africa instead, rounding the Cape of Good Hope and entering the Indian Ocean. He then stopped in Tasmania to resupply and resumed his voyage towards Tahiti, finally arriving at the end of October. During the first half of the journey, the Bounty only lost one crewman named James Valentine, who died of asthma. Whether or not his men were willing to admit it, Bligh’s leadership kept them alive during a long and treacherous expedition.
After a ten-month-long sea voyage, the Bounty was in Tahiti, or Otaheite as it was called back then, but the alternate route caused a lengthy delay which meant that the precious breadfruit was out of season by the time Bligh arrived. He had to wait for five months until it was back in season again. The crewmen had no choice but to spend five carefree, leisurely months in Tahiti. Nothing but sun, sea, and sandy beaches all day long. Those poor bastards…
And really, if we’re being honest, we are now starting to arrive at the true cause of the mutiny. For your average illiterate, ill-mannered, unwashed sailor, Tahiti was paradise on earth. Sure, they still had some work to do, but it was nothing compared to their duties at sea. Plus, many of the men, Fletcher Christian included, fell in love with Tahitian women. Why would they ever want to leave?
Captain Bligh also started to realize that his men were getting a bit lax and that he needed to increase discipline. Almost all of the lashings he issued happened during their time in Tahiti, most of them for neglect of duty or attempted desertion. One sailor named Isaac Martin was lashed 19 times for hitting a Tahitian man, showing us that Bligh was also keen to maintain an amicable relationship with the locals. By the end of March, the breadfruit had been grown, collected, and loaded onto the ship. The Bounty was ready to leave Tahiti, but what about its crew?
Mutiny on the Bounty
The Bounty set sail out of Tahiti on April 4, 1789, and, almost immediately, many of the men began pining for the carefree life they left behind. The buildup to the mutiny was a slow burn, however, lasting for over three weeks before the sailors decided to act, although this could have also had something to do with them waiting for the right opportunity. On the night of April 28, Fletcher Christian led the watch, accompanied by a few other mutineers. While everyone else was asleep, they armed themselves and entered Bligh’s cabin, but we’ll let the captain tell the story. He wrote:
“Just before Sunrise Mr. Christian and the Master at Arms . . . came into my cabin while I was fast asleep, and seizing me tyed my hands with a Cord & threatened instant death if I made the least noise. I however called sufficiently loud to alarm the Officers, who found themselves equally secured by centinels at their doors . . . Mr. Christian had a Cutlass & the others were armed with Muskets & bayonets. I was now carried on deck in my Shirt in torture with a severe bandage round my wrists behind my back, where I found no man to rescue me…”
The mutiny happened without a drop of bloodshed. Once the other loyalists saw that Captain Bligh had been taken captive, they obeyed the orders of the mutineers. And here we have another point against the whole “Bligh was a cruel slave driver” idea. You might think that the entire ship rose up as one to cast off the shackles of tyranny, but that’s not what happened. Of the 45 men aboard the Bounty, 22 of them remained loyal to Bligh. That’s right! Almost half of the crew sided with the captain. Four of them were kept aboard the ship by force because they were too valuable to release, while the other 18 plus Bligh were loaded onto a launch with a compass, a sextant, a few cutlasses, and about a week’s worth of supplies.
Don’t get the wrong impression. Bligh and his men were placed inside a small vessel with no charts, no marine chronometer, little food and water, and cast off in the middle of the ocean. This was supposed to be a death sentence, just without anyone pulling the trigger.
But here was where Bligh showed that he was genuinely a brilliant sailor because he was able to navigate across the Pacific using the few tools he had at his disposal. And he had quite the challenge ahead of him because the nearest friendly European outpost was the island of Timor, in modern-day Indonesia, which was over 4,000 miles away.
First things first, though. They absolutely needed more supplies. The first place they reached was the island of Tofua, which was not friendly, but the men would have never made it without more food and water. They did get into a fight with the locals, and quartermaster John Norton was killed, but also managed to secure more supplies. Afterward, they tried avoiding unknown islands as much as possible, but still had to make occasional stops. On June 14, Bligh accomplished the seemingly impossible and arrived at Timor. After a two-month rest, he departed for Britain, to inform the government of what had happened. Despite his best efforts, five of his men were too ill from their arduous voyage and died before reaching England.
But what about the mutineers? Well, they returned to Tahiti, obviously, but some of them had the sense to realize that the British Navy would be coming after them for revenge. And that’s just what happened. In March 1791, the HMS Pandora arrived in Tahiti and captured 14 of the mutineers. Four of them died in a shipwreck on the way to England, four were acquitted during their trials for going along unwillingly, two were pardoned, and four were hanged for mutiny.
As for the other nine, Fletcher Christian included, they quickly left Tahiti aboard the Bounty with some of the locals and established themselves somewhere else. It wasn’t until almost two decades later that we found out where – Pitcairn Island, in the southern Pacific Ocean. By that point, all of the mutineers had died except for one – a man named John Adams, who was eventually pardoned. The descendants of these men still live on Pitcairn Island today.
The Rum Rebellion
Back in England, Bligh was greeted with a court-martial. He did lose a ship, after all, but he was not only exonerated, but also promoted to the rank of captain. The evidence and testimony from surviving crewmen of the Bounty were enough to convince the Admiralty that Captain Bligh had acted within reason and that the mutiny was not his fault. Furthermore, he even got the chance to redo his last mission, this time with two ships instead of one.
After another two years at sea, his second voyage to Tahiti was successful, and Bligh was honored by the Royal Society. That being said, upon his return to London, the captain discovered that his reception was decidedly frostier. That’s because, while he was away, the captured mutineers were brought to stand trial, and they all painted a dark picture of the tyrannical captain which swayed public opinion against him and his reputation definitely took a hit. The image of the dreaded Captain Bligh that still exists today had begun to form. The remainder of his nautical career wasn’t exactly front-page news, although he did take part in the Napoleonic Wars and was praised by Admiral Nelson himself for his role in the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801. Curiously enough, Bligh was involved in another mutiny during this time. In 1797, his crew participated in the Nore and Spithead mutinies, although these were widespread throughout the Royal Navy and were not the result of anything Bligh did personally. Still…it was beginning to look like a pattern, but surely Bligh would not be involved in a third mutiny…surely not…
Anyway, in 1805 Bligh was appointed the fourth Governor of New South Wales in Australia, back then still a British penal colony. On this occasion, it was actually the captain’s reputation as a strict disciplinarian that won him the job. New South Wales had fallen under the corrupting influence of the thriving rum trade, perpetrated by the local military, the New South Wales Corps. Originally, the regiment was created to assist the governor, but they quickly realized that New South Wales was a long way away from England, and there, they had all the guns and power. The rum trade was so big in the region that, eventually, rum became the de facto currency in the colony since there was a shortage of coins and paper money. Therefore, whoever controlled the rum controlled the local economy.
Bligh arrived in August 1806, with orders to end corruption in the Corps and the rum trade monopoly. Easier said than done, considering that the previous governors all failed and that Bligh showed up without an army of his own. Presumably, the British government thought that Bligh could still make these soldiers stand at attention and shape up, but just like his crew in Tahiti, these men had gotten a taste of the easy life, and they weren’t interested in giving it up for king and country.
Admittedly, tensions between the two sides rose slowly. For over a year, Bligh tried to steadily put New South Wales on the straight and narrow, but eventually, he got tired of this strategy and went with a more direct approach and arrested one of the main players in the rum trade, the former Corps paymaster, John Macarthur. His trial was supposed to take place in January 1808, but six Corps officers who were supposed to preside over the proceedings all refused to do so because, you know, they were his rum buddies. Bligh then wrote to them all to show up at the Government House to face charges of treason… and you could probably guess how things went from there. Again, he did not have his own army, and most of the New South Wales Corps were on the same page, so on January 26, 1808, the regiment marched on the Government House, deposed Bligh, placed him under arrest, and took control of the colony, claiming that they did it to end Bligh’s “tyranny.”
The Rum Rebellion, as it came to be known, still represents, to this day, the only time that a military coup took down a government in Australian history, so, who knows, maybe all the mutinies were Bligh’s fault after all. You know the saying: If you met a jerk in the morning, then you simply met a jerk. But if you keep meeting them throughout the day, then chances are that you’re the jerk. Maybe Bligh had one of those faces that you just wanted to mutiny against.
Bligh was once again court-martialed, acquitted, and promoted. Pretty much the definition of “failing up,” but he never received another important post in his career. He died in London, on December 7, 1817, aged 64, leaving behind one question regarding his legacy which still remains unanswered. Captain Bligh – villain or victim?