This Cornish lad had a rapid rise up navy ranks. Captain James Cook, of international fame, made Bligh his sailing master on the Resolution. Bligh accompanied the great man in July 1776 on Cook's final voyage to the Pacific.
In the 1780s, Bligh was a captain in the merchant service. Then in 1787, he became commander of HMS Bounty. The botanist Sir Joseph Banks wanted to transplant a crop of breadfruit to the West Indies as food for slaves. The Bounty arrived in Tahiti in 1788, having been delayed 11 months by severe weather, only to find that the breadfruit was out of season. Bligh decided to give the crew six months' shore leave in the tropical paradise; there they waited for the new seeded breadfruit to grow into saplings mature enough for transportation.
Transplanting Breadfruit from Tahiti
by Thomas Gosse, 1796.
National Library of Australia
Many of the crew settled into cosy domestic relationships with local women, making life in Tahiti very pleasant. So when it was time to sail for the West Indies in 1789, there were already rumblings in the ranks. Under the leadership of Fletcher Christian, the crew mutinied at sea and placed Bligh and 18 loyal followers in an open 7-metre boat with food and water, but with no charts or navigation aids.
Why did the crew do it? Probably not because Bligh was a vicious and cruel ship captain, at least by standards of the time. He might have been an arrogant sod, but he was an educated man, a scientist, and a captain interested in the health and welfare of his crew.
Bligh, in what is regarded as one of the greatest seagoing feats in history, navigated from the memory of his charts, guiding the overloaded and unstable vessel on a very long voyage and arriving in Timor 47 days later.
A second successful attempt was made to transport the breadfruit, accomplished in 1793.
The mutineers turning Lt Bligh and some of the officers and crew adrift from His Majesty's Ship Bounty,
by Robert Dodd, April 1789
The first medal up for auction today was awarded in 1794, given by the Royal Society for Bligh's successful work relating to breadfruit. Bligh’s medal carries the inscription on the rim: BREAD FRUIT TREE CONVEYED TO THE WEST INDIES. The estimate for the medal is $50,000.
The second slightly smaller medal, estimated at $200,000, is the Naval Gold Medal 1795, awarded to ship captains. Bligh won it for his role at the Battle of Camperdown 1797. This was an important naval action between the Royal Navy fleet and the Dutch navy, in which the British captured 11 Dutch ships without loss of any of their own.
After his exoneration by the Court Martial inquiry into the loss of the Bounty, Bligh remained in the Royal Navy. He even served under Admiral Nelson in one important battle or another in 1801.
Bligh was offered the position of Governor of New South Wales by Sir Joseph Banks and appointed in March 1805 at a hefty salary. William Bligh was the fourth Governor of NSW between 1806-1810, still very professional and exacting, and still irritating other people. He was aware that some of the officers were acting in their own interests, at the expense of farmers. When he legitimately questioned the unjust trade and land grants being exercised by New South Wales Corps officers, Bligh was arrested by the army in 1808. This was Australia’s only military coup and for the next two years, until the arrival of a new Governor, officers of the Corps took over the role of Governor! Only when the new Governor Lachlan Macquarie arrived with his own regiment in 1810 was justice regained.
Another trial back in Britain and another promotion for Bligh! He was promoted to rear admiral of the Blue and then to vice-admiral in June 1814. What a career!
Portrait of William Bligh, 1804. National Library of Australia (left) and his medal (right)