William Bligh - Vice Admiral of the Blue
Created | Updated Sep 1, 2011
The courtyard of a building on the banks of the Thames is a splendid example of an English garden. There is a tombstone in the centre of the garden. The inscription on the stone reads:
TO THE MEMORY OF
WILLIAM BLIGH ESQUIRE FRS
VICE ADMIRAL OF THE BLUE
THE CELEBRATED NAVIGATOR
WHO FIRST TRANSPLANTED THE BREADFRUIT TREE
FROM OTAHETTE TO THE WEST INDIES
BRAVELY FOUGHT THE BATTLES OF HIS COUNTRY
AND DIED BELOVED RESPECTED AND LAMENTED
ON THE 7th DAY OF DECEMBER 1817
Before the Bounty
Vice Admiral Bligh was born in Plymouth, England in 1754. Bligh sailed with Captain Cook on Cook's final voyage in 1776 - 1779 and was present at Cook's death after Cook unwisely provoked an armed conflict with natives in Hawaii. Bligh was only 23 at the time but he was a highly skilled chart maker and navigator. Bligh developed many charts during this voyage which were unfairly attributed to Cook's Lieutenants.
Bligh observed Cook's methods for preserving the lives of his crew. Cook's innovations included daily enforced dancing, regular baths, clean clothing, eating sauerkraut and drinking lime juice to prevent scurvy. British sailors are sometimes called 'limeys' as the result of the practices that Captain Cook developed.
in 1781 Bligh was promoted to Lieutenant after the naval action at Dogger Bank. He took part in the relief of Gibraltar in 1782. During a period of peace from 1773 - 1787 he joined the Merchant Service.
Mutiny on the Bounty
At the age of 33 Bligh was selected to command the Bounty on an expedition to take breadfruit from Tahiti1. and deliver it to the West Indies. Bligh was not promoted to Captain before the journey. As a result, the ship had no officers, other than Bligh, and no marines to enforce discipline. These handicaps, combined with Bligh's unfortunate temperament and lack of physical stature are factors which eventually allowed the mutiny to develop.
The voyage of the Bounty began at Spithead on the south-east coast of England on 23 December, 1787. More than 10,000 miles were added to the planned voyage when Bligh failed to navigate the Bounty around Cape Horn because of unfavourable winds and huge seas. Bligh then turned east and arrived at Cape Town on 24 May where he spent several weeks refitting and provisioning the Bounty before entering the Indian Ocean.
On 19 October, 1788, nearly 28,000 miles and ten months into the journey, John Mills and the assistant gardener, William Brown, refused to participate in the evening's mandatory dancing. Bligh's inhumane response was to cut off their grog2.
The Bounty arrived in Tahiti on 24 October. Following Cook's example, Bligh drafted a set of rules to govern contact with the natives. These rules were intended to keep the death of Captain Cook secret and also forbade discussion of the breadfruit mission. Another purpose was to establish an official market for trade with the natives; however, a black market trade for hogs soon was established by members of the crew.
On 5 April, 1789, loaded with breadfruit plants, the Bounty began a 12,000-mile journey westward toward home. On 27 April Bligh apparently provoked the mutiny in a dispute over coconuts. He questioned all the ranking men closely, especially Fletcher Christian, accused Christian of stealing from Bligh's coconut stack and threatened to make half the crew jump overboard. Bligh also threatened to cut the grog ration entirely and reduce the daily yam ration from 1 1/2 lb a day to 1/4 lb. Mr Christian was reduced to tears by this brutal tongue-lashing.
At dawn on 28 April, Christian and three other men entered Bligh's cabin. Bligh was bound and taken on deck. Eventually he was placed in a small 23-feet-long boat, but so many men wanted to accompany him that it was in danger of being capsized. Finally the boat was loaded with only 18 men, a sextant, four cutlasses, 150 pounds of bread, 32 lb of pork, six quarts of rum, six bottles of wine and 28 gallons of water. As he pulled away he shouted either:
'Never fear, my lads; I'll do you justice if I ever reach England'.3.
'You villains - you God-damned villains. I'll be revenged on the whole pack of you. I'll have every man jack swinging at the yardarm before I'm done - God damn me if I don't'.4.
Bligh suffers unfairly from a reputation as a bully and tyrant. He only had ten men flogged on the long journey with a total of 217 lashes. In contrast, before he was killed by his crew, Hugh Pigot ordered 85 floggings with a total of 1,392 lashes. Pigot's record was twelve times worse than that of Bligh for a voyage of similar length5.
The Long Row
Bligh bleakly assessed his situation and decided to head west to a Dutch trading post on Timor, nearly 3,618 miles distant. Bligh and his party landed on Tofoa in the Friendly Islands to seek water. One member of the party was killed by natives and the rest fled to the boat. After 48 days, on 14 June, 1789, helped by favourable winds, Bligh reached his destination in Timor. This was an astounding feat of navigation, through largely uncharted waters. He lost only one of the eighteen aboard, John Norton, at Tofoa.
It was characteristic of Bligh's good character, generosity and deep concern for his men that he paid for their food and lodging in Timor from his own personal funds for an extended period. After arranging his own passage from Timor to England, Bligh was found not guilty of all charges at the Bounty inquiry and court martial.
The great botanist and gardener, Sir Joseph Banks, was always in the background guiding Bligh's career. He arranged both trips to Tahiti as well as Bligh's later Governorship of New South Wales. Eventually Banks arranged for Bligh to become a Fellow in the Royal Society, accounting for the FRS letters on his tombstone.
Banks made a spirited defence of Bligh:
'Of what use is 'the truth' to the journals and broadsheets? Their readers don't want the truth. They never do, and they never did. They want heroes and villains.' He thumped the table. 'They want men of wonder, handsome, tall, men of honour – like your supposed image of Fletcher Christian, and men of evil, cunning, unstoppable, who would spit roast their own relatives for the joy of hearing their screams. Like the Captain Bligh's of your fantasy world.'
Bligh was promoted to Captain and given command of the Providence. He returned to Tahiti, but gave few punishments during the voyage. This voyage was a triumphant success. Bligh delivered a load of breadfruit plants to St Helena and also St Vincent in the West Indies to feed the slave populations. He also delivered nearly 1300 plants to the Royal Gardens at Kew. The 36 species he brought back included apple, orange, mango, pear and yam. Some of these species still grow in the Royal Gardens.
The Mutinies at Spithead and the Nore
In 1797, Bligh found himself once again relieved of command by his men. He also learned that his common nickname among men in the fleet was 'that Bounty Bastard'. These two mutinies, however, were widespread, involved a fair number of English ships and were based on issues of pay and involuntary service for common seamen.
The Spithead mutiny did achieve some of its aims. The common sailors wanted better pay, better food and a dismissal of some of the more sadistic and brutal officers. All officers were sent ashore and the seized ships were run by committee.
Bligh became more directly involved in the Nore Mutiny. The Nore is a Royal Navy anchorage on the Thames estuary. This mutiny in the British fleet, just after the Spithead mutiny in 1797, failed to achieve its goals of a fairer division of prize money and an end to brutality. The Nore mutiny was led by Richard Parker, who was later hanged. About 30 others were also hanged but most of the mutineers were sent off to the prison colony in New South Wales.
The Rum Rebellion
Bligh was appointed Governor of New South Wales colony in Australia in 1805. Astonishingly, he was relieved of his command once again within eighteen months of his arrival. This time the 'mutiny' was a well-orchestrated coup led by a Major George Johnston. Bligh is perhaps the only English Captain to be credited with having an entire continent rebel against him. The rum rebellion grew from a dispute over Bligh's attempt to prohibit the use of spirits to pay for commodities.
Bligh spent nearly two years under guard on a ship offshore until a ship from England arrived and restored him to office. Bligh apparently lacked the diplomatic skills to manage the government which then was largely run by officers engaged in the rum trade. Johnston and others simply decided to remove him from power. One of Johnston's defences at the trial in England was Bligh's magnificently offensive bad language which apparently had overwhelmed the tender sensibilities of the Australian Major.
Promotion and Shore Duty
When the Rum Rebellion trial in London was concluded in 1810, Bligh was again completely exonerated. However, 'Breadfruit Bligh' or 'The Bounty Bastard', had by now acquired a widespread, if possibly unjustified, public reputation for tyranny and mismanagement.
Bligh was promoted to the rank of Rear Admiral of the Blue. The admiralty kept him on active pay rolls, later promoting him to Vice Admiral. Perhaps wisely, they did not send him to sea again. He died in 1817 and he now rests in an English garden in London.
The Museum of Garden History
In London, walk south from Westminster and Parliament to Lambeth Bridge and cross the Thames. Just on the other side of the river is a former church which is now the Museum of Garden History . The museum tells the story of the history of gardening and of the travels of royal gardeners who went to the new world to bring back new plants for the pleasure of Kings and Queens. The courtyard of the museum contains Bligh's tombstone.
It seems strangely fitting that the church of one of the finest gardeners and navigators the world has ever known now has become the Museum of Garden History.