The Life of Rear Admiral William Bligh

William Bligh by John Smart, 1803

The Bligh family were resident in the parish of St. Tudy from at least 1680 and a John Bligh (or Blygh) of Bodmin was a commissioner for the suppression of monasteries in the reign of Henry IV.

William Bligh was born at Tinten Manor, St. Tudy on September 9th, 1754, the only son of Francis Bligh (died Dec 27, 1780) and his wife, Jane Pearce, a widow whose maiden name was Balsam. (Dictionary of National Bibliography, Vol. 2). Jane died when William was 14 years old. There is some confusion as to where Bligh was baptized, the baptism is registered at St. Andrew’s Church, Plymouth, where his parents were married in 1853, but it is possible that he was actually baptized either at St. Tudy Church (where there is a family plaque) or in St. Nicholas Chapel which was part of Tinten Manor.

Extract from ‘A Guide to the Ancient Parish Church of St. Tudy’:

‘William Bligh was born at Tinten Manor on 9th September 1754 but was baptized at St. Tudy on 13th February 1757 with his sister Mary. There are several theories for this delay. The most probably being that, as his father was an Excise Officer based at Plymouth, the family waited until the birth of the next child before coming back to the ancestral home for baptism. (The baptism could have taken place at St. Nicholas Chapel and later recorded in the parish church registers). This delay in baptism has led to Plymouth, St. Kew and St. Teath, variously claiming to be the birthplace of William Bligh but without proof. Other branches of the family who lived at these places also had off-spring named William, but the Admiral’s birthplace at St. Tudy is recorded by his own testimony.’

In Polwhele’s ‘Biographical Sketches’ he states “Bligh (as himself informed me) was a native of St. Tudy.”

Note – In the Parish Guide the names of William’s parents are shown as Charles and Margaret, whereas in the Dictionary of National Biography they are shown as Francis and Jane. Further research is being undertaken to clarify. There is a memorial plaque on the south wall of the church to the Bligh family, it reads: ‘In memory of Charles Bligh son of Mr. John Bligh of Tinten in this parish who departed this life ye 7th day of July 1770 in the 74th year of his Age’ (William’s grandfather?)

Bligh first went to sea in 1762 – at the age of 7, as a captain’s personal servant on board HMS Monmouth. He joined the Royal Navy in 1770 where he served on HMS Hunter and became a Midshipman in 1771, serving on HMS Crescent and HMS Ranger. He was an intelligent man, well-versed in science and mathematics, and was also a talented writer and illustrator. He became Sailing Master on the Resolution, commanded by Captain James Cook, quite an achievement as he was only 22 years of age. This voyage ended with the death of Cook on February 14th 1779 in Hawaii (known at that time as the Sandwich Islands).

It is rumored that when not at sea, Bligh was the ‘bouncer’ at the Cornish Arms public house in St. Tudy, a nice story, but not one that can be substantiated.

During a 12 month leave from active duty he met his future wife and on February 14, 1781, at the parish church of Onchan, Isle of Man, Bligh married Elizabeth Betham, the daughter of the Collector of Customs. He was already a Lieutenant, and he made several important hydrographic surveys. Shortly after his marriage he saw action in the battles of Dogger Bank in August 1781, and also fought with Lord Howe at Gibralter in 1782.

In 1787, aged 33, he was given command of the Bounty, a three-year-old ship, his mission was to transport breadfruit from Tahiti to the West Indies. Various books and films have portrayed him as a villain, a violent and unpleasant man – but is this true? Commanding a ship required a man of strong character, his crew would have comprised of mostly illiterate men, probably recruited by the press-gangs and he was most likely no better or worse than any other commander of his time.

The Bounty sailed on December 23, 1787.

In April 1789, the famous mutiny took place, led by Bligh’s one-time friend, Fletcher Christian. The following is an extract from Bligh’s logbook for April 28, 1789:

‘Just before Sunrise Mr. Christian and the Master at Arms . . . came into my cabin while I was fast asleep, and seizing me tyed my hands with a Cord & threatened instant death if I made the least noise. I however called sufficiently loud to alarm the Officers, who found themselves equally secured by centinels at their doors . . . Mr. Christian had a Cutlass & the others were armed with Musquets & bayonets. I was now carried on deck in my Shirt in torture with a severe bandage round my wrists behind my back, where I found no man to rescue me. . . ‘

Bligh and 18 other crew members loyal to him were set adrift on April 28th in the Bounty’s launch, an open boat, 23-foot long by 6’9″ wide. In most cases such an act would have led to certain death for the men aboard, but Bligh was a magnificent seaman and he sailed from Tofua, one of the Friendly Islands (Now called Tonga), landing in Timor, Java, without any loss of life on June 14th. The journey of 3,618 nautical miles took them 47 days.

The mutineers, meanwhile, after having made stops in Tahiti, continued on to the Pitcairn Islands where Fletcher Christian and eight others founded a colony which remained undiscovered until 1808. (Descendants of the mutineers still live on Pitcairn.)

Bligh eventually returned to England and his career in the Navy continued, seemingly unaffected by the mutiny. In 1790 he became Captain of the sloop HMS Falcon, followed by service on HMS Medea and HMS Providence. In 1792 he again visited Tahiti and successfully transported breadfruit to the West Indies.

In 1797, he commanded HMS Director at the battle of Camperdown and as Captain of HMS Glatton in 1801 took part in the battle of Copenhagen, after which he was commended for his bravery by Admiral Nelson. Also in 1801 Bligh was elected a fellow of the Royal Society, in consideration of his distinguished services in navigation, botany, etc.

In 1805, Bligh was sent to New South Wales as Governor, but once again his oppressive manner contributed to an uprising, in Sydney in 1808 – the Rum Rebellion – he had attempted to end the use of rum as a form of currency. The rebellion was led by one John Macarthur, a pioneer and wool merchant originally from Stoke Damerel, Devon, who became a leader of settlers in New South Wales. The British soldiers mutinied and Bligh was forcibly deposed by Major George Johnston of the 102nd foot brigade and was imprisoned for two years. On his release he returned to England where he was cleared of all blame and Major Johnson was tried at Chelsea Hospital in 1811 and cashiered. Bligh was promoted to Rear Admiral of the Blue and in 1814 became a Vice Admiral of the Blue.

In the latter years of his life, Bligh lived at the Manor House, Farningham, Kent, and died on December 7, 1817, aged 64, in Bond Street, London. Bligh’s tomb in Lambeth churchyardHe was buried in the eastern part of Lambeth churchyard, by the side of his wife by whom he had six daughters.

The inscription on Bligh’s grave reads:



Courtesy of Pacific Union College.

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