British Navy Admiral. While a Lieutenant in the British Navy, he was in command of the armed vessel “HMS Bounty” when the crew famous mutinied in 1789 on an expedition to the South Pacific Ocean. The son of a custom's officer, he was born in St. Tudy, near Plymouth, England. As a child he wanted to be an artist, and he remained illustrator throughout his life. His parents, however, had him earmarked for the Royal Navy from birth. In 1762, at the age of seven, he was made to spend a year aboard the warship “HMS Monmouth” as a Captain's servant, a traumatic experience that had lasting effects on his character. He excelled in his nautical studies and was considered a prodigy in navigation and cartography. In 1776 explorer Captain James Cook appointed Bligh as Sailing Master of the “HMS Resolution” for his third voyage to the South Seas. He was only 21, and to achieve that senior rank on a major scientific expedition was a great tribute to his abilities. During the voyage he discovered the breadfruit plant and in later years he came to be known, somewhat disparagingly, as "Breadfruit Bligh." He served with Captain Cook for three years and witnessed Cook's killing by Hawaiian natives in 1779. Upon his return to England Bligh got married, and his wife’s family connections would prove to be helpful to Bligh's career. Her uncle, Sir Duncan Campbell, employed Bligh in his fleet of West Indies merchant vessels and gave him his first two commands – first of the “SS Lynx” (1784) and the “SS Brittania” (two voyages, 1785 to 1787); and it was through Campbell that he met his most loyal patron, Sir Joseph Banks, and acclaimed botanist and President of the Royal Society. His wife also introduced her husband to a young seaman named Fletcher Christian and urged his appointment as a petty officer on the Brittania. Bligh respected Christian's seafaring skills and when they weren't at sea together he was a welcome guest at the Commander's home. In August 1787 the Royal Society commissioned William Bligh for a scientific journey to the South Seas to transport the breadfruit plant from the island of Tahiti to the West Indies in order to grow cheap food for slaves. Bligh was given a three year-old merchant vessel “SS Bethia”, which was refitted and renamed the “HMS Bounty” by Banks. It was a small ship for such a long voyage, and its living space was even further reduced to make room for the breadfruit cargo. William Bligh and his crew of 45, including Fletcher Christian as Master's Mate, set sail from Spithead, Portsmouth, on December 23, 1787. It proved to be an adventure celebrated not for what was accomplished but for what went awry, with a great many myths and misconceptions surrounding the voyage that historians took nearly two centuries to get a reasonably clear factual accounting of the event (Bligh himself was responsible for much of the misinformation, since in his Commander's log and later writings about the “Bounty” he was careful to omit anything that would show him in an unfavorable light). During the Bounty's 10-month trip to Tahiti Bligh apparently antagonized the crew with a combination of standard naval discipline (such as flogging) and antisocial aloofness, with coupled with his crew being left with too much time on their hands. A number of them, including Christian, developed attachments to native women on the island, making a return to duty under an unpopular Commander even less appealing. After Bligh had three sailors flogged for desertion the mood of the men grew openly resentful. On April 28, 1789, the crew munitined, seized control of the ship, and put William Bligh and 19 men out to sea in a launch. After a harrowing 47 day trip, he and the surviving crewmembers made to safety to Indonesia. Court-martialed for losing the “Bounty” to the mutinieers, he was aquitted, and remained in the British Navy. Ironically, the incident might have been forgotten had it not been for Bligh's own vanity. After reporting to the British Admiralty on March 16, 1790, Bligh wrote a best-selling book, "The Mutiny On Board the HMS Bounty". In it he portrayed himself as the ideal Commander of a happy ship, only to be betrayed by "hedonists" who wanted to lead a carefree life in Tahiti. This proved too much for muntineer John Fryer, who published his own account of the Bounty in 1792 and then helped Christian's brother Edward mount a campaign to discredit Bligh. Sir Joseph Banks came to Bligh's defense and Bligh responded to Fryer's charges in a series of angry open letters, but public opinion turned against him. His personal reputation was permanently tarnished and his authority was considered suspect for the rest of his life. He was promoted to Captain in November 1790 and the following year Banks sent him on a second (this time successful) breadfruit expedition to Tahiti. In 1795 Bligh was given his most important command, the “HMS Director”, a 54-gun warship with a crew of 500. It was on this ship that Bligh found himself involved in the mutiny of the Nore, an estuary of the Thames, in May 1797. To protest harsh conditions in the Royal Navy, the crews of 14 vessels overthrew their captains and tried to blockade the river; the “Director”, which had just moored at the Nore, was involved. Once again Bligh was put off his own ship, though this was a more civil affair and he only had to be rowed a few hundred yards to shore. The crew of the Director later said Bligh was blameless in the incident and called his behavior "exemplary". He then served as Captain of the “HMS Glatton” in the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801. Having spotted a Dutch frigate maneuvering to attack the “HMS Elephant”, the flagship of Admiral Horatio Nelson, Bligh sailed directly into the line of fire and caught most of the enemy's broadside. The “Glatton” was severely damaged but remained afloat; the “Elephant” was saved. After the battle Nelson personally thanked Bligh for his bravery. In 1805 Bligh was appointed Governor of New South Wales (now part of Australia) on the recommendation of Banks. He was soon at odds with the New South Wales Corps, a military detachment under the tyrannical influence of pioneer wool merchant John Macarthur. Bligh felt the Corps' use of rum as a form of currency was causing widespread corruption in the colony and tried to outlaw this practice; this led to the so-called "Rum Rebellion" of January 27, 1808. The Corps' 102nd Foot Brigade, under the command of Major George Johnston, stormed the Governor's House in Sydney and arrested Bligh on charges of "oppressive behavior and cowardice"; the last charge came about because the soldiers discovered Bligh hiding under a bed in a back room. (Bligh claimed he was trying to elude his captors so he could rally support later, and this was probably true. It may not have occurred to him that his conduct would appear to others as less than courageous). He was put on a ship and ordered to return to England, but after a week at sea he turned around and went back - and was arrested again. This time he was imprisoned in Sydney for a year. The British Government ended the impasse by dissolving the Corps and appointing a new Governor; Major Johnston was court-martialed in England (though he received only a dishonorable discharge). Bligh went home, his days of active service over. He was promoted to Rear Admiral in 1810 and to Vice Admiral in 1814, but he was never given another command, and died of cancer at the age of 63. The story of the Mutiny on the Bounty has become part of historical literature, and had been made into five Hollywood motion pictures.
Bio by: Bobb Edwards