William Bligh was born at St Tudy, Cornwall, in 1754 and joined the Royal Navy at the age of seven, as was normal then for ‘young gentlemen’ hoping to become naval officers. He would have come to ‘know the ropes’, as he became a midshipman at sixteen – an officer cadet who worked and berthed in the middle of the ship (midships), and he would have taken the formal examinations set by the Royal Navy, as he was selected by Captain James Cook to serve as a sailing master on the sloop HMS Resolution.
Captain Cook, described as the ‘first navigator in Europe’, had already made two voyages of discovery to the South Seas, and in 1776 he departed on a third voyage, with the primary aim of finding a Northwest Passage, a sea route between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans north of the North American landmass via the Canadian archipelagos. Such a route, if found, would eliminate the risks involved in rounding the southern capes (particularly Cape Horn). Serving under Cook, the young Bligh would have received the finest available naval education in the arts of navigation, surveying, cartography and seamanship. Unfortunately, due to misunderstandings, Hawaiian natives murdered Cook in February 1779 and the Northwest Passage remained undiscovered. Resolution returned to England in October 1780.
Bligh left the Royal Navy and worked for the merchant fleet until 1787, when he rejoined the service to take command of HMAV Bounty, partly in recognition of his experience gained with Cook. The Hull-built collier Bethia had been bought and refitted for the specific mission of transporting breadfruit and mangosteen plants from Tahiti to the West Indies.
|Plan of Bounty - showing how breadfruit plants were stored - from Bligh's Voyage to the South Seas|
Bethia was chosen over five other vessels by Sir Joseph Banks, who had sailed as botanist on Cook’s first voyage, when he discovered numerous new species of plants, the profusion of which had caused Cook to rename his proposed Sting Ray Harbour as Botany Bay, Australia, the discovery of which marked the beginning of England’s interests in the newly-found continent. Banks had noted the benefits of the breadfruit when Cook’s expedition landed in Tahiti (then called Otaheite) in 1769. The plant offered a nutritional food, with a high yield of about 200 fruits per tree, which could be used as a cheap food for plantation slaves.
|Breadfruit - from Bligh's Voyage to the South Seas|
As President of The Royal Society, Banks proposed a money prize and Gold Medal for an expedition to transport the plants, and lobbied the Admiralty for a ship. Lieutenant Bligh assumed command of the Bounty and departed on December 23rd 1787.
|Title page of Bligh's Voyage to the South Seas - 1792|
The initial aim was to round Cape Horn and enter the Pacific by a western route, but storms at the Cape prevented the Bounty from making progress, and after a month of trying, Bligh abandoned the attempt, turned about and set sail for Cape Horn and the longer, easier, eastern route to Tahiti. His log shows him to have been an excellent sailor and officer; he was scrupulous about cleanliness onboard ship, organised regular exercise for the men to maintain their fitness, and made sure they were served with a varied, nutritious diet. Bounty made landfall in Tahiti on the morning of October 26th 1788; Bligh calculated they had sailed 27,086 miles in ten months, at an average of 108 miles per day.