The British Empire and its effect on Plymouth

William Bligh

William Bligh was the son of a customs and revenue official who worked at the old Customs House on the Parade. Having grown up with the hustle and bustle of a busy port, it was only natural that he felt a call to join the Royal Navy and did so at the very tender age of just 7 years old. He joined HMS Monmouth. He very quickly established himself as an accomplished navigator.

At the age of 22, he was posted to Captain Cook's Resolution on its four year journey of exploration of the Southern Seas and the Pacific. He impressed Cook with his navigational skills to such an extent that Cook named an island in the Indian Ocean in Bligh's honour. After Cook was murdered in Hawaii, Bligh took over as principal navigator for the remaining two years of the expedition.

Bligh's infamous Bounty voyage was actually one that perfectly encapsulated Britain's new imperial dreams and power. Kew Gardens and the Admiralty identified a staple crop of the South Pacific, breadfruit, as being a possible food source for the slaves and workers on the Caribbean plantations. This reordering of nature was quintessential imperialism in action. Moving plants from one side of the world to another in order to test its suitability was regarded as cutting edge scientific research that would ultimately enrich the empire. Bligh's navigational skills marked him as the perfect person for the long and arduous journey. What made it more difficult still were the alterations made to the ship in order to allow the transportation of the breadfruit. This meant that existing cabin space, which was already cramped, was even tighter still. It also meant that the normal demarcations between crew and officers were not able to be maintained. This familiarity and the uncomfortable conditions seems to have been a catalyst in causing the infamous mutiny.

The remarkable part of the story is his navigational skill that enabled Bligh and his 18 loyal crewmen to sail 3,618 miles to the safety of the Dutch colony of Timor. He wrote an account of this remarkable journey as:

A Voyage to the South Sea for the Conveying of the Bread-fruit Tree to the West Indies, Including the Narrative of the Mutiny.

Despite being court martialled by the Royal Navy for the loss of his ship, he was honourably acquitted and there was much sympathy for the privations of his loyal band in the aftermath of the mutiny and their incredible journey.

Bligh had been a good friend with the artist Sir Joseph Banks who recommended him for the vacant post of Governor of New South Wales in 1805. It was here that Bligh would face another mutiny of sorts, but one led by a fellow Plymouth, or rather Devonport, man John Macarthur.

Macarthur had arrived early in the colony as a guardsman of the convicts sent to the open prison but had made his fortune with sheep farming and selling illegal rum. This latter activity put him on a collision course with Bligh who was determined to maintain the rule of law. A struggle for control of the militia saw Bligh being put under house arrest by militia men for nearly two years before Britain could sort out the mess. Bligh was cleared and the mutineers were punished but it was clear that his reputation was irretrievably damaged. He was promoted to the rank of Rear Admiral, but never saw active or political service again.

Bligh: William Bligh in the South Seas

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by Stephen Luscombe