BLIGH, William (1754-1817)
Plaque erected in 1952 by London County Council at 100 Lambeth Road, Lambeth, London, SE1 7PT, London Borough of Lambeth
Armed Forces, Travel and Exploration
WILLIAM BLIGH 1754-1817 COMMANDER OF THE "BOUNTY" LIVED HERE
William Bligh was a naval officer and later governor of New South Wales, Australia. He is best known as commander of the Bounty – a ship whose crew mutinied and cast him adrift in an open boat.
Until recently, less attention has been paid to the ship’s main cargo – breadfruit, which was intended for cultivation in the West Indies as food for enslaved workers.
The mutiny on the Bounty
Bligh was born in Plymouth and was a ship’s boy at the age of just six. As a young seaman, he held a junior command in the third and final round-the-world voyage (1776−80) of Captain James Cook.
In 1787 Bligh was appointed by the naturalist Sir Joseph Banks to command the Bounty on an expedition to transport breadfruit and other plants from the Pacific Islands and South East Asia to the West Indies.
Breadfruit was intended as a cheap and high-energy food for enslaved workers on sugar and cotton plantations in what were then Britain’s slave colonies. Bligh and his crew of 44 reached Tahiti in October 1788 and loaded the ship with 1,000 breadfruit plants.
The resulting cramped conditions, the attractions of Tahiti and Bligh’s foul temper and acid tongue have all been cited as reasons for the famous mutiny led by Fletcher Christian that took place on 28 April 1789. According to Bligh, the crew were simply incompetent.
Set adrift in a small open boat with minimal food and navigational equipment, together with 18 men who had remained loyal, Bligh reached Timor, some 3,600 miles away, in June. Some of the mutineers settled on Pitcairn Island (where their descendants remain today) and others stayed in Tahiti, where they were arrested: three were later hanged.
The episode was famously portrayed in the film Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), starring Charles Laughton. In later adaptations, Bligh was played more sympathetically by Trevor Howard (1962) and Anthony Hopkins (1984).
In 1791–3 Bligh returned to the Pacific with the Providence and the Assistant, and this time succeeded in bringing the breadfruit to the West Indies. Many enslaved workers, however, refused to eat it.
In New South Wales
Bligh took several commands during the Napoleonic War, including that of the Glatton at the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801, under Nelson. In 1797 he suffered another mutiny at the Nore (in the Thames estuary); in this instance he vigorously defended those involved.
In 1805 Sir Joseph Banks obtained for Bligh the governorship of New South Wales. This turned out to be another poisoned chalice: the colony was desperately divided between free settlers and former convicts, and he was eventually deposed in the so-called ‘Rum Rebellion’ after he challenged a monopoly on the spirit.
Bligh was exiled to a ship moored off Hobart, Tasmania, in January 1808 and did not return to England for two years. His replacement, Lachlan Macquarie, found him ‘a most disagreeable Person to have any dealings, or Publick business to transact with’.
Bligh was the first resident of 100 Lambeth Road – then known as 3 Durham Place, and part of a terrace built in about 1794 that faces the Imperial War Museum. He shared the house with his wife, Elizabeth (to whom he appears to have been devoted), and their six daughters. The house remained his London base until around 1813, shortly after Elizabeth’s death.
Unlike most blue plaque recipients, it is fair to say that Bligh is more notorious than famous. The plaque, however, went up in 1952 – just before the condition of ‘a positive contribution to human welfare or happiness’ was written into the awarding rules.