By Marian Maitland
FRS, RN 1754-1817
The London County Council erected a Blue Plaque at 100 Lambeth Road, honouring Vice Admiral William Bligh. He was an officer in the Royal Navy and a Colonial Administrator. Controversy has surrounded him since mutiny broke out on HM Armed Transport Vessel, The Bounty which was under his command in 1789.
William Bligh’s birthplace is not known for certain. It was probably Plymouth, as there is a record of his Baptism in St. Andrew’s Church in that town. His father, Francis Bligh was a Customs Officer and his mother, Jane Pearce, was a widow at the time of her marriage to Francis Bligh.
At the age of seven, William Bligh was ‘signed for the Navy’ which was customary and at sixteen years he joined HMS Hunter as an Able Seaman, rising to Midshipman the following year. In 1776 Captain James Cook selected him to be sailing master of Resolution and he accompanied him to the Pacific. On this voyage Cook died. Bligh was able to provide details of the voyage on his return.
William Bligh proceeded to serve on various ships. He fought at The Battle of Dogger Bank under Admiral Parker, gaining his commission as Lieutenant at that time. He also fought with Lord Howe at Gibraltar.
William Bligh was selected as Commander of HM Armed Transport Vessel, The Bounty. Its mission was to collect young breadfruit plants from Tahiti so they could be used in an experiment as a food crop for slaves on British plantations in the East Indies. Mutiny took place on The Bounty in the Pacific Ocean in 1789. It was led by his Master’s mate, Acting Lt. Fletcher Christian. The mutinous crewmen seized control of the ship, having bound the Captain in his cabin. There was no bloodshed.
William Bligh and eighteen loyal crewmen were set adrift in the launch. They were provided with a week’s supply of food and water, four cutlasses, a quadrant and a compass. They had no charts or a marine chronometer. Remarkably, miraculously in fact, they survived and arrived at the Dutch East Indies. Proceedings were started to bring the mutineers to justice. William Bligh was honourably acquitted at the Court Martial in 1790. Later becoming Governor of New South Wales in Australia. He reached the rank of Vice Admiral in the Royal Navy. He had married Elizabeth Blethan and they had a big family.
The causes of the Mutiny have been much discussed. Some sources say Bligh was a cruel, sadistic tyrant, who abused his crew. It is also said that he was no worse than any other Captain of his time. Another theory is the crew may have been corrupted living idly in Tahiti, whilst waiting for the breadfruit to be ready for travel.
Vice-Admiral William Bligh died in Bond Street. London and is buried in the family plot at St. Mary’s Church. Lambeth, which is now the Garden History Museum. His tomb built with lithodipyra (Coadestone ) is adorned with a breadfruit in a bowl. The secrets of the Mutiny remain with him for evermore.