My history hero: William Bligh (1754–1817)

Chosen by Peter Kerry, BBC History Magazine reader

Portrait of Captain William Bligh. (Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images)

William Bligh was born in the south-west of England and joined the navy at a young age. In 1776 he accompanied Captain Cook on his third voyage to the Pacific ocean.

Bligh took command of the Bounty in 1787 and two years later, in a famous mutiny, he and 18 others were abandoned in the Pacific by disgruntled crew members. After nine weeks at sea, Bligh navigated the party to safety. He then continued his naval career until he was appointed governor of New South Wales in 1805. Unable to control the squabbling inhabitants he was deposed in 1808 and returned to England where he rose to become a vice-admiral in 1814.

When did you first hear about William Bligh?

From watching films. During my childhood, at least one of the versions of Mutiny On The Bounty seems to have been on telly every other Sunday afternoon. There was Charles Laughton’s pantomime monster or Trevor Howard’s obsessive sadist. It wasn’t until Anthony Hopkins played Bligh in the 1980s that I saw a glimpse of humanity. As a professional writer I’ve always been intrigued by the debate about myth versus fact and having read about Bligh I’ve found that the truth is more fascinating than the fiction.

What kind of person was he?

He was very humane – certainly compared to the other sea captains of the time. He’d sailed with Cook and adopted his ideas about sailors’ welfare, ensuring they had plenty of fresh fruit in their diet and maintaining good standards of hygiene. He had an aversion to corporal punishment, even recording in the ship’s log his pride at the low number of floggings he’d ordered. Bligh also seems to have taken an almost fatherly delight in the young protégés he had as junior officers, particularly [Bounty mutineers] Fletcher Christian and Peter Heywood. He did however have a temper and often gave his men a good tongue-lashing.

What made Bligh a hero?

He got his people home in the face of overwhelming odds. When the Bounty‘s launch was cast adrift in the middle of the Pacific (a craft 23 feet long with 19 people crammed into it), they were effectively facing a death sentence.

What was Bligh’s finest hour?

Commanding the launch from off the coast of Tofua to Timor with only one fatality was an incredible feat. It was a journey of 4,162 miles in treacherous seas. They had hardly any food or water and they couldn’t make landfall on any islands they passed as the Tofuans had already proved hostile enough to kill one of them. Bligh kept his head, used his navigational skills, was disciplined enough to make sure their meagre rations lasted and steered them to safety.

Is there anything you don’t particularly like about him?

I suspect he was lacking in ‘people skills’, plus that temper of his was certainly his undoing a lot of the time. His single-mindedness could also work against him. He seems to have insisted the Bounty‘s crew spend once a day engaged in dancing sessions, even though the crew plainly hated these activities.

If you could meet William Bligh, what would you ask him?

I’d ask if he felt his career had been jinxed. Not only did he lose the Bounty to a mutiny, he was also present at a mass mutiny at the Nore anchorage in 1797 and later when governor of New South Wales, he found himself being usurped once again after a local political struggle erupted. After three mutinies he must have felt insubordination followed him wherever he went.

Peter Kerry was talking to Rob Attar

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Peter Kerry is a freelance writer working mainly in TV. His writing credits include Emmerdale, The Archers and an adaptation of The Little World of Don Camillo for Radio 4. He lives in Stockport with his partner Beverley and has two children: Louie and Kate.