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Rear Admiral William Bligh (1754 - 1817)

Arguably one of the most misunderstood and complex characters in maritime history.

William Bligh was born on the 9th of September 1754 in the small town of St. Tudy, Cornwall. His career in the Royal Navy began at the age of 9, and by the age of 23 he had joined Captain Cook on his third and final voyage in 1776. Bligh was appointed Master on the H. M. S. Resolution, and was responsible for the navigation of both ships on Cook's mission to continue exploring the Pacific. It was his skill as a cartographer that had first brought him to the attention of Cook, who had personally requested that the young Bligh be assigned to the mission. By all accounts, Bligh was a genuine prodigy with navigation and cartography.

Bligh implemented Captain Cook's regimen of exercising the crew regularly, while also requiring clean laundry, regular bathing and the consumption of sauerkraut and lime juice to fight scurvy,. It was not until 1795 that limejuice rations were provided for all sailors in the Royal Navy, and to this day, British sailors are known as 'Limeys'.

Breadfruit,  Artocarpus altilis

William Bligh, commander of the HMAV Bounty (His Majesty's Armed Vessel) at the age of 33, was charged with conducting the first part of Sir Joseph Banks' experiment to transplant a major food crop from one part of the world to another. Such a thing had never been done before on such a grand scale.

When the Bounty arrived in Tahiti in 1788, the breadfruit trees had to be seeded and grown into saplings large enough for transport, a process that would take at least six months. Contrary to popular opinion, Bligh was the sort of man who wanted his crew to be happy, so instead of sailing the South Pacific exploring and mapping, he decided to give his men six months of shore leave in paradise. In hindsight, it was the biggest mistake of his life.

Many, if not most, of the men had formed deep attachments with the islanders during their long layover, and were quite naturally reluctant to leave when the time came. The mutiny is well documented and even fictionalized extensively (here's a hint; none of the movies got it quite right, although the version starring Anthony Hopkins and Mel Gibson came close). The part of the story that few people know about is what happened after the Captain and his men were cast adrift. With nineteen men in a single longboat, very few supplies, his log books and navigational tools, Commander Lieutenant Bligh was able to navigate almost 6000 kilometres (3700 Miles) across the Pacific, to finally make landfall at the island of Timor. This staggering feat of precision navigation was accomplished with no loss of life, although David Nelson, the botanist, died of fever several weeks later.

Sir Joseph Banks defended William Bligh to the Admiralty, and believed in Bligh so much he insisted that the newly promoted Bligh lead the return expedition to Tahiti and finish what he had started. This time, the breadfruit trees were successfully transported to Jamaica using two ships, the Providence and the Assistant.

Elizabeth Bligh by John Russel

William Bligh went on to have a long and relatively distinguished career in the British Navy, despite the fact that the family of his former colleague, Fletcher Christian, did their level best to discredit him. In particular Edward Christian, Fletcher's brother, who went to great lengths to alter public opinion. Never before had a single moment in history been so well documented and scrutinized, only to be so sadly misrepresented in the following centuries.

William Bligh had six children with his wife Elizabeth. In 1794 Bligh was given the Society of Arts medal for his remarkable feat of navigation during the 42-day longboat voyage, and in 1801 he was made a fellow of the Royal Society for services to navigation and botany. He fought in a number of sea battles including The Battle of Copenhagen, where Lord Nelson personally thanked him for his bravery.

The unfortunate fact was that Bligh was all bluff and bluster in his youth, doleing out corporal punishment less often than his famous mentor, Captain Cook, and perhaps his subordinate officers saw this as weakness. Then, after the humiliation of the Bounty, Bligh's authority would be forever suspect, leading to a number of confrontations, which would leave him increasingly bitter and even vindictive. The question remains, was this in his nature, or was this attitude imposed upon him after years of scorn and abuse?

Blighia sapida by Marianne North. Painted during her visit to Jamaica in 1871-1872The story of the Bounty is a complex one, and well worth further pursuit. This link will take you to a site that has some excellent information on the Bounty and her crew. Including an extremely well researched and detailed history of the very complex issues of Mr. Bligh's Bad Health There is even a brief biography of the ship's botanist, David Nelson, whom Bank's had personally appointed to the mission.

The Genus Blighia, which consists of some four species of evergreen tropical shrubs and trees, is named in William Bligh's honour. The most commonly cultivated of these is Blighia sapida. Captain Bligh provided specimens to the Royal Botanical Garden at Kew circa 1793. Although some sources have credited Bligh with its introduction to the New World, history indicates that this West African Native was likely already established in Jamaica, probably arriving as a seed secreted away in a slave ship some years earlier.

Known by the common name 'Akee' the fruit enjoys moderate local popularity in the West Indies. The only edible part is the fleshy cream coloured aril behind the shinny black seeds. Overripe or under-ripe fruit is very poisonous. Image after a painting By Marianne North. Click on the image to learn about the artist and her many journeys.

Joseph Banks

 

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