William Bligh

from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
William Bligh as Rear Admiral in 1814; Painting by Alexander Huey

William Bligh (born September 9, 1754, probably in Plymouth , † December 7, 1817 in London ) was a British naval officer and governor of New South Wales in Australia . He was best known for the mutiny directed against him on the three-master bounty and for his subsequent 3,618 nautical miles (6,701 km) long journey in an open boat from the waters around Tonga in western Polynesia to the island of Timor in 1789. Another time he made a name for himself in 1808 when his actions against corrupt officers of the New South Wales convict colony sparked the so-called rum rebellion .



Bligh came from an old seafaring family. His father Francis Bligh and his wife Jane Pearce headed the customs office of the south-west English port city of Plymouth . He was probably born in the city where St. Andrews Church was baptized on October 4th. Other sources also name Ink Manor, the Bligh's country estate in the village of St. Tudy near Bodmin in Cornwall , as the place of birth.

Career as a naval officer

Bligh may have gone to sea as Captain's Servant on the Monmouth at the age of seven . He made his first proven experience as a seaman at the age of 15 as a cadet on the Hunter .

Captain Cook's death in 1779, witnessed by Bligh

At the age of 21, Bligh was given the chance, as the Navigator of the Resolution, to take part in James Cook's third South Seas expedition from 1776 to 1780. The nautical charts and records he made on this occasion were so accurate that some of them were still in use in the 20th century. Bligh was an eyewitness to Cook's violent death in Hawaii on February 14, 1779 . He then led the Resolution in the further course of the expedition to Kamchatka , the Bering Strait and back to England, where it arrived on October 6, 1780.

On his return home, Bligh married Elizabeth Betham, the daughter of a tax collector, on February 4, 1781 on the Isle of Man . In the same year he was promoted to lieutenant . As such, he took part in the naval war against the Netherlands , France and Spain for the next two years , all of which supported the US in its war of independence with Great Britain. Bligh fought in the Battle of Dogger Bank in the summer of 1781 and in the Defense of Gibraltar in 1782 . After the Peace of Paris in 1783 he retired from the Navy and for four years commanded a merchant ship that operated in the rum and sugar trade between England and the West Indies. There he got to know Fletcher Christian , who later became the second officer of the Bounty and leader of the mutineers. Both of them were close friends at first.

The Bounty Expedition

At the instigation of his sponsor, the naturalist Sir Joseph Banks , Bligh returned to the service of the Admiralty in 1787 and was given command of HMAV (His Majesty's Armed Vessel) Bounty . The ship should offshoot of breadfruit from Tahiti to the West Indies bring to the local sugar cane - growers to supply a cheap food for their slaves. For cost reasons, Bligh was not promoted to captain, but kept on board as such for the sake of form. This, and the Admiralty's refusal to give him marines on board, should prove problematic for maintaining discipline.

Sir Joseph Banks, Blighs patron and initiator of the Bounty Expedition

On December 23, 1787, the Bounty set sail from Spithead . The trip went largely smoothly, although the Bounty was prevented by heavy storms from the planned circumnavigation of Cape Horn . Bligh therefore decided on the eastern route around the Cape of Good Hope . On October 27, 1788, the Bounty anchored several months late in Matavai Bay of Tahiti. Since Bligh was to be exploring the Endeavor Strait on the way back , he had to wait for the next east monsoon in Tahiti , which would not start before April. The loading of the breadfruit trees took little time, so that the crew was able to spend the five-month stay on land largely free of the everyday duties of the ship. Quite a few crew members developed relationships with Tahitian women during this period.

Unlike what is often portrayed in novels and films, Bligh was not a cruel commander; he considered flogging and scurvy to be hallmarks of a poorly managed ship. Seafarers under his command were flogged far less often than crew members on other ships. To an officer who had refused to obey him, he only issued a warning instead of the usual sanction, which at the time could also have been the death penalty.

The mutiny

Bligh and eighteen men are evacuated

On April 5, the Bounty left Tahiti and headed west onto the Endeavor Strait. Three weeks later, on April 29, 1789, south of the island of Tofua, which belongs to the Tonga group , the well-known mutiny took place under the leadership of Second Officer Fletcher Christian .

He and Bligh had argued the previous evening over a few missing coconuts, which the captain had rationed to provide vitamin-rich food for the crew on the return voyage. Christian then got drunk and expressed to some of the team members that he wanted to leave the bounty on a raft and return to Tahiti. The mutiny was probably not triggered by the insignificant dispute, but rather the fact that Christian's remarks met with open ears from some of the crew members. After the long stay in Tahiti, they found it difficult to get used to the discipline on board the ship and finally convinced Christian, who was on the morning watch, to take control of the bounty.

“Shortly before sunrise, while I was still asleep, Mr. Christian, the armorer Churchill, the constable's mate John Mills and the seaman Thomas Burkett came into my cabin, grabbed me, tied my hands behind my back with a rope and threatened to kill me instantly to want if I made the slightest noise. Notwithstanding this threat, I shouted so loudly that everyone in the ship had to be alerted, but the rebels had already assured the officers who were not on their side by having guards posted in front of their cabins. "

- William Bligh

In the early hours of the morning, the mutineers took the ship completely under their control. Then they put Bligh with 18 crew members loyal to him in an open launch , including helmsman John Fryer and artillery master William Peckover .

The ride in the launch

The routes of the bounty and the launch through the South Seas

Those who had been disembarked first set course for the nearest island of Tofua , but had to flee from the hostile local population there. One man, Quartermaster John Norton, was killed. Bligh, a master of navigation, managed to bring the small, completely overloaded boat through the barely explored Torres Strait between Australia and New Guinea to the island of Timor, about 6,700 km away . After more than six weeks of hardship, the launch of the Bounty reached the Dutch trading post in Kupang on June 12th . This easternmost known Bligh outpost of a European colonial power in Asia was the only place from which he and his men could hope to get back to England. He only found out about the founding of the British convict colony near Sydney in Australia in 1788 after his arrival in Kupang.

The barge voyage is one of the longest journeys ever made in such a small open boat and represents an extraordinary nautical achievement. On the way to Timor, Bligh was the first European to discover several islands in the Fiji Group and the northern New Hebrides . The sea area north of the Fiji island of Viti Levu , which the launch crossed, was named "Bligh Water".

Return to England

William Bligh's home at 100 Lambeth Road, London

After arriving in Kupang and later in Batavia , several of Bligh's companions died of the malaria that was widespread there or of the consequences of the deprivation of the barge. Among the dead was the gardener David Nelson, who had been responsible for the breadfruit plants. However, of the launch's 19 occupants, 12 survived and, after recovering, returned to England on various ships. Bligh left Kupang on August 20, 1789 and sailed to Batavia, in order to start the journey home on October 16 with a mail ship of the Dutch East India Company . After another stay at the Cape of Good Hope , he went ashore on March 13, 1790 on the Isle of Wight . He had previously obtained arrest warrants against the mutineers from the Dutch governors in Batavia and on the Cape and had also sent a corresponding notification to the governor of the new British colony in Sydney in the event that the bounty should turn up there.

The fate of the Bounty in England had become known through letters sent home by Bligh and his companions before they even got there. Bligh was celebrated as a hero when he returned to England on March 13, 1790. In a trial before the Admiralty, he was acquitted of all guilt for the mutiny and the loss of the bounty. He published a report on the journey with the Bounty, which was published in 1791 and 1793 by Georg Forster in the magazine of strange new travelogues as a German translation. The detailed descriptions of William Bligh still form the basis for the numerous literary and cinematic adaptations of the "Bounty" material.

Later career

As a naval officer

William Bligh, 1792

For Captain transported, Bligh received in the year after his return home again command offshoot of breadfruit from Tahiti to the West Indies to bring. He commanded HMS Providence , which was accompanied by HMS Assistant . With their commanders, Lt. Portlock , Bligh was very pleased. This second voyage in the South Seas 1791-1793 was successful and without incident - apart from Bligh's serious illness, which kept him at the Cape for weeks. He was probably infected with malaria when he had to stop in Batavia in 1789. Bligh took the opportunity to explore Torres Street further. Later he served as a naval officer in the Napoleonic wars and took in 1801 under Admiral Horatio Nelson at the Battle of Copenhagen in part.

Before that, in 1797, William Bligh had witnessed his second mutiny on HMS Director , which was in the Thames estuary. It affected the entire fleet, to which the Director belonged, and was directed not against him personally, but against the Admiralty. This mutiny was altogether less severe than the first and the third that followed.

As Governor of New South Wales

Propaganda against Bligh of his arrest during the Rum Rebellion. In fact, there was no way he was hiding under a bed.

In 1805 William Bligh was appointed governor of the British colony of New South Wales in what is now Australia . Here he got involved in the Rum Rebellion , a revolt of corrupt officers.

Rum had a particularly high value in the convict colony and was also used as a means of payment . Among other things, every convict was given a weekly ration of rum. The trade monopoly on rum, however, lay solely with the military. Corrupt active and inactive officers took advantage of this and sold the "liquid gold" at exorbitant prices. The main culprits were Colonel George Johnston and John Macarthur .

Since Bligh was known for his energetic leadership style, he should replace the weak governor Philip Gidley King . When he arrived in New South Wales in 1808, he took action against the machinations of the officers. This soon sparked an armed rebellion, in the course of which Bligh was banished to the offshore HMS Porpoise , which he was not to leave until 1810. Contrary to what he had promised the rebels, he did not sail back to England, but ordered the captain of the ship to bombard the city of Sydney . Since he refused, Bligh used the time to map the coast of Tasmania .

Johnston and Macarthur knew that their self-appointed government could not last. Therefore they went to England voluntarily in 1809. Because of their good relationships, they got off lightly. With newly arrived British troops, Bligh deposed the corrupt government in 1810.

Retirement and death

William Bligh's tomb

In 1811 William Bligh returned to England. The following year, his wife Elizabeth died after 31 years of marriage. Before Bligh retired, he was promoted to Rear Admiral and Vice Admiral in 1814. After retiring from active service, he lived with his daughters on a country estate in Kent. His youngest daughter Anne, born in 1791, was mentally handicapped, never learned to speak and also suffered from epilepsy . Unlike some members of his social class at the time, Bligh had a very close relationship with his disabled daughter and drove her e.g. B. walking in a wheelchair .

At the age of 63, on December 7, 1817, William Bligh collapsed and died on the way to see his doctor on Bond Street , London . The cause of death was likely stomach cancer . Bligh was buried at the side of his wife and two sons, who both died shortly after their birth, in the cemetery of Lambeth Congregational Church. The burial site - located on the east side of the church on the corner of Lambeth Road and Lambeth Palace Road - fell into disuse over time, but was rediscovered and restored in the 1980s.


Bligh's fame as one of the most skilled seafarers and navigators of his day faded in his lifetime. It was overlaid with distorting depictions of the mutiny and character of Bligh, mostly traced back to the mutiners' families. They had an interest in washing their relatives and with it their family honor, and tried to portray Bligh as an overly strict, stingy and unsuitable officer who had provoked the mutiny through his tyrannical regiment.

These arguments fell on fertile ground by a historical coincidence: In the same year in which the mutiny became known in England, the French Revolution took place , whose ideas also found many supporters in England. They interpreted the mutiny and the revolution as an uprising by the oppressed against the will of an individual.

Edward Christian's campaign

In particular, the lawyer Edward Christian , the elder brother of the mutineer's leader, did a great job of questioning Bligh's reputation. He put together an unofficial committee to investigate the mutiny and its causes. This consisted mainly of committed abolitionists who had been critical of Bligh's breadfruit expeditions, which were supposed to serve the slave economy on the Caribbean islands, from the start. The report that the committee eventually released during Bligh's absence first portrayed the captain as a "despicable villain . "

What had actually made him unpopular with individual crew members was a certain severity with which he insisted that officers and men obey the rules on which, in his eyes, the survival of all depended. So he encouraged the sailors to exercise every day by having a violinist specially taken on board play to dance. He also made sure to have enough drinking water and fresh food on board, especially sauerkraut, to prevent scurvy from breaking out . The latter explains the violence of the dispute over coconuts on the eve of the mutiny. It appears on this occasion that there was one of the rare outbursts of fury that would strike Bligh when faced with indiscipline or incompetence.

However, this severity is hardly significant in comparison with the usual conditions in the British Navy at the time. Corporal punishment, poor work organization and deficiencies in food and medical care were the norm there. According to all historical sources that do not come from the environment of the mutineers and their families, William Bligh was not only a prudent and experienced, but even an extremely caring naval officer for his time, who - influenced by James Cook - set his ambition in everyone Bring crew members back to England safe and sound. For example, when the sea was stormy, he left his cabin to the sailors to rest. The best proof of his attitude is the fact that almost all the occupants of the open launch survived the extremely dangerous and grueling journey alive. Historians also regularly refer to Bligh's logbooks , which are considered reliable sources due to the regulations in force in the British Navy at the time. According to them, Bligh imposed fewer and milder sentences than were customary or even legally required in the English Navy at the time. He imposed draconian punishments such as flogging far less often than his role model James Cook.

In addition, Bligh can be seen as a pioneer in the field of modern work organization, as he converted the two-shift system common in the Royal Navy to a modern three-shift system. Instead of the harsh alternation of four hours of guard duty followed by four hours of sleep, the crew under Bligh enjoyed an eight-hour rest or sleep phase after a four-hour watch. In short: both his leadership behavior and his innovations in the work processes on board make him appear extremely modern.

Nevertheless, Edward Christian's campaign had an impact: when Bligh returned from his second breadfruit expedition in 1793, he was already feeling the changed mood in the naval command. The First Lord of the Admiralty refused to see him for months. Because unlike Bligh, who came from a humble background, the families of some mutineers, e. B. those of Fletcher Christian, Edward Young and Peter Heywood, about relationships that reached up to the highest levels of government. It was only at the urging of his friend and sponsor Sir Joseph Banks that Bligh decided to respond to the public allegations.

With his own account and affidavits by former crew members of the Bounty, he refuted point by point the picture that Edward Christian's committee had drawn of him. At first, Bligh's efforts seemed crowned with success. For example, British Critic wrote :

"We have the indisputable impression that Christian's friends would do the best to leave the events in which this young man played such a prominent and criminal role to oblivion as much as possible."

From then on, Bligh cared no further about his public image. In historical research - for example with his biographers Mackaness and Kennedy - this predominantly positive image has remained largely untroubled to this day. Public opinion was quite different during Bligh's lifetime, and over time, fictional depictions of mutiny tended to paint a bleak picture of Bligh's character. His biographer Caroline Alexander explains the effect of these depictions as follows:

"Bligh [...] didn't understand that he was fighting a force that was stronger than any enemy at sea - the power of a good story."

Bligh's image in novels and films

In the 20th century, novels such as “ Mutiny on the Bounty ” by Charles Bernard Nordhoff and James Hall, as well as the films based on them , provided such good, but factually false, stories . The film adaptation of Frank Lloyd's Bounty material from 1935 with Clark Gable and Charles Laughton in the roles of Christian and Bligh describes the latter as a complex neurotic. Also in Lewis Milestone's film adaptation of Nordhoff's novel from 1962 with Marlon Brando as Christian, Bligh, played by Trevor Howard , is portrayed as a sadistic, inhuman captain. For a more historically accurate picture tried 1984 The Bounty by director Roger Donaldson after the book Captain Bligh and Mr Christian by Richard Hough (1922-1999), in which Mel Gibson appeared as Christian and Anthony Hopkins as Bligh.

Manipulated logs of the bounty

During a restoration of the Bounty logs in 2007, the Australian Anthony Zammit discovered evidence of manipulation of the second volume: The page on which Bligh described the day of the mutiny must have been replaced afterwards. There is a solid stain of tea or coffee on the preceding and following pages, and the ink used to write on them contains traces of volcanic ash, such as those found in the South Seas. Both are missing on the page that records the events of April 28, 1789. A pH analysis and various watermarks in the paper provided additional clues. However, since the typeface is the same on all pages and can be proven to have been made by William Bligh, he must have known about the manipulation. When and why it happened - whether Bligh z. B. wanted to present his own role more positively or that of protégés of influential supporters who were among the mutineers - can no longer be determined today. Ultimately, in more than 200 years it has never been fully clarified how the mutiny actually took place and what exactly triggered it.


  • Narrative of the mutiny on board HM ship Bounty . London (1790)
  • A Voyage to the South Sea
    undertaken by command of His Majesty, for the purpose of conveying the breadfruit tree to the West Indies, in His Majesty's Ship the Bounty, commanded by Lieutenant William Bligh. Including an account of the mutiny on board the said ship, and the subsequent voyage of part of the crew, in the ship's boat, from Tofoa, one of the Friendly Islands, to Timor, a Dutch settlement in the East Indies. Published by permission of the Lords commissioners of the admiralty.
    London 1792
    • Transl. Georg Forster : William Bligh's, Captain of the Great Britain Fleet, voyage to the South Sea, which was undertaken with the ship Bounty to transplant bread trees to the West Indies. From the English. Along with Jean François de Sürville, French captain, journey to the South Seas, now for the first time ... translated and accompanied by comments by Georg Forster. With coppers and a card. Vossische Buchhandlung , Berlin 1793 online . Berlin again in 1793 (as a monograph); Berlin 1794; udT log of the bounty . The brigantine, Hamburg 1963
    • Excerpt: Georg Forster, magazine of strange new travelogues, translated from foreign languages ​​and accompanied with explanatory notes. Vol. 9. Vossische Buchhandlung, Berlin 1793, pp. 1-24


  • Caroline Alexander: The Bounty. The real story of the mutiny on the Bounty . Berlin-Verlag, Berlin 2004, ISBN 3-8270-0163-3 . (Carefully researched book, English original title: The True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty .)
  • Hermann Homann (Ed.): Mutiny on the Bounty. Reported by William Bligh / Pirate hunt on the frigate "Pandora". Records of Dr. George Hamilton 1787–1792 , Stuttgart 1983
  • Richard Hough: Captain Bligh and Mr Christian , London 1972
  • Gavin Kennedy: Bligh , London 1978
  • Gavin Kennedy: Captain Bligh: The Man and his Mutinies , London 1989
  • George Mackaness: The Life of Vice-Admiral William Bligh, RN, FRS , reprinted Sidney 1951
  • Markus Pohlmann: The mutiny on the Bounty - About revolutions and some of the myths that surround them , in: Ingrid Artus, Rainer Trinczek (Ed.): About work, interests and other things. Phenomena, Structures and Actors in Modern Capitalism . Hampp, Munich / Mering 2004, ISBN 978-3-87988-809-2 .
  • Christiane Conway: Letters from the Isle of Man - The Bounty-Correspondence of Nessy and Peter Heywood , The Manx Experience, Isle of Man 2005. ISBN 1-873120-77-X
  • Jann M. Witt : The bounty was his fate. The adventurous life of William Bligh. Primus, Darmstadt 2014, ISBN 978-3-86312-041-2 .

Web links

Commons : William Bligh  - collection of pictures, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. ^ ZDF.de Terra-X on the mutiny on the Bounty
  2. cit. after Hermann Homann (Ed.): Mutiny on the Bounty. Reported by William Bligh - Pirate hunt on the frigate "Pandora". Records of Dr. George Hamilton 1787–1792 , Stuttgart 1983, p. 142.
  3. The journey was documented cartographically by Daniel Friedrich Sotzmann in the map “Fahrt des Lieut. William Bligh from Tofoa to Timor in the year 1789 in the boats of the Bounty "(Staatsbibliothek Berlin SBB_IIIC_Kart. T 12610)
  4. Markus Pohlmann: The mutiny on the Bounty. On revolutions and some of the myths that surround them , p. 83
  5. Alexander, Bounty , p. 437
  6. Alexander, Bounty , pp. 437f.
  7. ZDF.de Terra-X: Logbook Bounty - The Riddle of the Mutiny - Manipulated Pages
This version was added to the list of articles worth reading on June 14, 2006 .