Bligh, William 1754-1817, admiral, was baptised at St. Andrew's Church, Plymouth, on 4 Oct. 1754. He was the only son of Francis Bligh (d. 27 Dec. 1780), by his wife, Jane Pearce, a widow, whose maiden name was Balsam. They were married at the church of St. Andrew, Plymouth, on 4 Oct. 1753 (Notes and Queries, 8th ser. ii. 30, 94; Boase and Courtney, Bibliotheca Cornubiensis). Francis Bligh resided at Tynten or Tinten (the seat of an ancient Cornish family of that name), in the parish of St. Tudy, Cornwall. It is clear that the Blighs were settled in the parish of St. Tudy in 1680-1, and that a John Bligh or Blygh of Bodmin was a commissioner for the suppression of monasteries in the reign of Henry VIII. Moreover, four members of the family were mayors of Bodmin between the years 1505 and 1588. Indeed, the Cornish Blighs may be traced back as far as the reign of Henry IV. It is believed that Admiral Sir Richard Rodney Bligh [qv.], and other naval officers named Bligh, were relatives of the subject of this notice.
Bread-fruit Bligh, as he was called, having entered the navy, accompanied Captain Cook on his second voyage round the world in 1772-4, as sailing-master in the Resolution; and during this voyage the fruit associated with Bligh's name was discovered at Otaheite. He became a lieutenant in the royal navy, made several important hydrographic surveys, was present at the memorable battle off the Doggerbank 5 Aug. 1781, fought under Lord Howe at Gibraltar in 1782, and, having acquired a high reputation as a skilful navigator, was appointed to the Bounty of 250 tons, in December 1787, arriving at his destination, Otaheite, ten months afterwards. Here he remained for five or six months, during which period his crew became demoralised by the luxurious climate and their apparently unrestricted intercourse with the natives. The object of the voyage, namely to obtain plants of the bread-fruit, with a view to its acclimatisation in the British West India islands, having been accomplished, Bligh set out on his voyage thither. But his irascible temper and overbearing conduct excited (under the leadership of Fletcher Christian) a mutiny on board the ship; and on 28 April 1789 he, with eighteen of his crew, were overmastered and cast adrift in an open boat, only twenty-three feet long, and deeply laden; they had a small amount of provisions alloted to them, but no chart. In this frail craft they sailed, for nearly three months, a distance of 3,618 miles, touching at some small islands, where they got only a few shellfish and some fruit; but at length, thanks to Bligh's skill, resource, and courage, they reached Timor, an island off the east coast of Java, on 14 June 1789. Here Bligh took passage in the Vlydte packet and reached England on 14 March 1790. Twelve of his companions, the survivors, followed in the Dutch fleet. The mutineers settled on Pitcairn Island, where their descendants still exist, happy and prosperous [see Adams, John, 1760?-1829]; but some of the ringleaders were captured by the commander of the Pandora, and brought back to Portsmouth, where three of them were executed. Byron's poem, The Island, is based upon the story of the relations which existed between the women of Otaheite and the mutineers. Bligh was forthwith promoted to the rank of commander, and shortly afterwards, on his return to England, to that of post-captain. In 1791 he was appointed to the Providence, and sailed on a similar, but more successful, errand to his last, for the Society Islands, obtaining, in recognition of his discoveries, the gold medal of the Society of Arts in 1794; but there was only a small practical result of his voyage, as the West Indians preferred the plantain to the bread-fruit. In 1794 we find him captain of the 74-gun ship Warrior off Ushant, and in 1797 at Camperdown, commanding the 64-gun ship the Director. Bligh further distinguished himself in the same year by his intrepidity and address at the mutiny at the Nore. On 21 May 1801 he commanded the Glatton, of 54 guns, at Copenhagen, and was personally thanked by Nelson. On 21 May in the same year he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society, in consideration of his distinguished services in navigation, botany, &c. In 1805 he was appointed captain-general and governor of New South Wales; but from his temperament he was unsuited for the post, both his civil and military subordinates strongly resenting his harsh exercise of authority. Nevertheless the main object which he had in view seems to have been a good one, namely, the prevention of an unlimited importation of ardent spirits into the colony; and in this as well as in other respects he received the loyal support of Lord Castlereagh; but on 26 Jan. 1808 Governor Bligh was forcibly deposed by Major George Johnston of the 102nd foot, and was imprisoned until March 1810 (cf. Wentworth, New South Wales, and Bonwick, Curious Facts of Old Colonial Days). For this act Major Johnston was tried at Chelsea Hospital in 1811, and was cashiered. Bligh on his release returned to England, and in the following year, on 31 July 1811, obtained his flag as rear-admiral of the blue, proceeding to vice-admiral of the blue in June 1814. He resided, towards the close of his life, at the Manor House, Farningham, Kent, and died in Bond Street, London, on 7 Dec. 1817 (Gent. Mag. lxxxvii. 630). He was buried in the eastern part of Lambeth churchyard, near the Tradescant tomb, by the side of his wife, Elizabeth Betham. She was a woman of superior attainments, whose father was a scholar, and the friend of Hume, Black, Adam Smith, and Robertson. Bligh left six daughters. Richard Bligh [qv.] was a son-in-law and distant relative.
Marshall's Naval Biographies, ii. iii. and iv.
Belcher's Mutineers of the Bounty
Notes and Queries for 1856, 1871, and 1872
Gent. Mag. 1793-8, 1806, 1809, 1812, and 1815
information from Reginald Peacock, Esq.
Contributor: W. H. T. [Walter Hawken Tregellas]