Biography - William Bligh - Australian Dictionary of Biography
William Bligh (1754-1817), by Alexander Huey
William Bligh (1754-1817), by Alexander Huey
(1754-1817), naval officer and governor, was born on 9 September 1754 at Plymouth, England, where his
father was a boatman and land waiter in the customs service.
was descended from a family settled in St Tudy, Cornwall, since 1680, whose members had been mayors of Bodmin in the sixteenth century.
was entered in H.M.S. Monmouth on 1 July 1762, was paid off the following February, and effectively joined the navy on 27 July 1770.
Since there was no vacancy for midshipmen, he
was rated 'able-seaman', but he
messed with the former and officially became one in February 1771.
formal education, in later life he
showed wide interests and very considerable attainments.
On 17 March 1776 he
was appointed master of the Resolution, then setting out on James Cook's third voyage.
On it he
was frequently employed in 'constructing charts … and in drawing plans of … bays and harbours'.
Between the return of the ship in October 1780 and the end of the French war in 1783, Bligh
was master of the Belle Poule, was promoted lieutenant and fought in two general actions.
In February 1781 he
married Elizabeth Betham, of Glasgow, daughter of a customs officer on the Isle of Man, and niece of Duncan Campbell, merchant, shipowner and contractor in charge of convict hulks in the Thames.
Between 1783 and 1787 Bligh
served Campbell in the West Indian trade.
Bligh was certainly extremely hot-tempered; he swore well and vigorously and was infuriated by any incompetence shown by his subordinates; but the evidence suggests that his rages were short-lived, that in general he was not a harsh commander and that the mutiny was his misfortune, not his fault.
This was certainly the view of the Admiralty, which promoted him captain in November and in 1791 sent him in the Providence to make a second attempt to transplant bread-fruit from Tahiti to the West Indies.
This time he
successfully accomplished his
This verdict did Bligh no harm, for on 15 March, Banks, always a man of influence where New South Wales was concerned, offered to obtain for him the post of governor to New South Wales in succession to Governor Philip Gidley King, at a salary of £2000, double that of his predecessor, and large enough to attract a senior post-captain.
reached Sydney on 6 August 1806.
did not assume office for a week, and in the interval received from Governor King grants of 240 acres (97 ha) at Camperdown, 105 acres (42 ha) near Parramatta and 1000 acres (405 ha) near Rouse Hill on the Hawkesbury Road; curiously enough, there is no mention of these grants in the dispatches or of the 790 acres (320 ha) called 'Thanks', which Bligh
granted to Mrs King the following January, though for grants of this size the governors had been instructed to obtain the approbation of the secretary of state.
However, the governor rigidly insisted on his
having such approval before he
indulged other applicants even when they had letters from the under-secretary, to the great annoyance of Dr Robert Townson, Eber Bunker and Captain Short.
With Short, Bligh
had quarrelled on the voyage out, in a dispute which the secretary of state thought arose from 'very trivial causes' and 'proceeded to a length to which it could not possibly have advanced had you both been impressed with a just sense … of the propriety … of preserving a good understanding with each other'.
never possessed this sense; instead, he
showed 'an unfortunate capacity for breeding rebellion'.
In this incident, he
was probably legally in the right, but the affair, like all such affairs, made enemies.
In New South Wales Bligh found great distress, caused partly by the disastrous Hawkesbury floods, partly by the falling off in ships arriving with supplies and convict labour after the renewal of the Napoleonic wars and partly by the increasing influence of the local trading sharks as Governor King's
health had grown worse.
at once organized the distribution of flood relief and promised settlers that the government stores would buy their crop after the next harvest; but he
temper to get the better of him in a violent blast against John Macarthur about his
sheep and cattle.
was right to stress the shortage of herdsmen.
Convict labour was scarce.
No prisoners had arrived in 1805 and only about 550 males in 1806-07, fewer than those becoming free by effluxion of time; but the shortage never affected the farm which Bligh
himself had bought on the Hawkesbury.
claimed, was a 'model', to show the settlers the benefits of efficient cultivation.
later suggested that he
would have paid for these supplies in due course, but he
time about even considering to do so.
had suspended D'Arcy Wentworth for employing 'invalids' from the hospital on his
private concerns, and refused to tell that officer why he
had done so.
Such actions helped to increase the opposition raised to his
otherwise proper and urgently needed reforms.
On 4 October 1806 he
issued new port regulations to tighten up the government's control of ships, their cargoes, including spirits, and their crews, including possible escaping convicts.
On 3 January 1807 he
ordered that all promissory notes should be drawn 'payable in sterling money', a regulation which would prevent any repetition of a legal dispute in the preceding year between Macarthur
and Thompson over the value of a note expressed in wheat.
On 14 February he
reissued the often-broken order about illicit stills, and forbade under stringent penalties the bartering of spirits for grain, labour, food, or any other goods.
These orders, desirable though they were, aroused intense opposition among interested parties; it was no wonder that Bligh
told the Colonial Office in October that the governor 'must be determined and firm in his
measures and not subject to any control here'.
had little time to concern himself with Van Diemen's Land, but he
proceeded, as instructed, to organize the removal of the settlers from Norfolk Island to the Derwent.
In Sydney, perturbed by a suspected rising of the Irish, he
decided to split up eight of the alleged ring-leaders, though six had been acquitted when tried, and five were not legally convicts under sentence to transportation.
sent two each to Norfolk Island, the Derwent and Port Dalrymple.
Then after Simeon Lord, Henry Kable, James Underwood and John Macarthur in turn had come into conflict with the governor's efforts to enforce the law, Bligh
so annoyed officers in the New South Wales Corps
by his interference in its concerns and his abuse of its members, that Major George Johnston felt called upon to complain to the commander-in-chief.
In a laudable effort to improve the appearance of Sydney, Bligh
ordered those said to be illegally occupying certain town sites to move, and questioned the leases of others, including Macarthur
, Johnston, Garnham Blaxcell, John Jamieson and David Mann, which conflicted with the plan of the town.
The bulk of the citizens were apathetic; many of the Hawkesbury settlers supported the governor; but Bligh
had been singularly successful in antagonizing a number of leading men in the colony, and he
was personally quite unfitted to handle the situation that was developing.
Macarthur's ranting about the defence of liberty and property, which were never in danger, gave Johnston excuse to claim that 'insurrection and massacre' were imminent because Bligh
was planning 'to subvert the laws of the country' and 'to terrify and influence the Courts of Justice'.
This was grossly exaggerated.
On the criminal court six of the officers had always to sit.
During 1807 the governor had removed Surgeon Thomas Jamison from the magistracy as 'inimical to the government' and had replaced some of the military magistrates by civilians, but when Macarthur had won his suit against Robert Campbell junior, Bligh accepted the decision without ado.
For more than a year after his
arrest in January 1808 Bligh
remained in confinement in Sydney, refusing to promise to sail to England if liberated.
In February 1809 he
agreed to go if placed in the Porpoise, but when on board he
word on the ground that it had been extorted by force.
On 17 March he
sailed to the Derwent, hoping for the support of Lieutenant-Governor David Collins; but though Collins at first welcomed him he
refused to denounce the rebel government and relations soon became strained.
Notwithstanding his promise not to meddle in local affairs, Bligh
interfered with boats on the river, stirred up local animosities and became such an intolerable nuisance that Collins, finding his conduct 'unhandsome in several respects', felt compelled to forbid local boats to approach or to victual the Porpoise.
Thus isolated, Bli