A Philatelic History of the Royal Navy Pt 12 – Captain William Bligh

Captain William Bligh – 1745-1817 and the Mutiny of the Bounty

William Bligh is famous for two voyages of exploration to transport breadfruit from the Pacific to the Caribbean.

1787-1789 – The first Bread Fruit Voyage ended in the famous mutiny led by Christian Fletcher.
1791-1793 – The second Bread Fruit Voyage was successful in bringing breadfruit to Jamaica.
Bligh also collected samples of Jamaican Akee, which he introduced to the Royal Society. Its scientific name is Blighia sapida.

William Bligh was born on 9 Sept. 1754, most likely in Plymouth, Devon. He joined the navy at age 16 and started as an able seaman on HMS Hunter. In 1776, Bligh was selected by Captain James Cook for the position of sailing master of HMS Resolution and accompanied Cook on his third voyage of discovery. Bligh witnessed the slaughter of Cook in Hawaii.

Bligh and HMS Resolution

On his return to England from Cook’s third voyage, Bligh married Elizabeth Betham on 4 Feb. 1781 at a church in Onchan, Isle of Wight.

Bligh and the church he was married in, in Onchan , I.O.W.

In 1787, Bligh was selected as the commander of His Majesty’s Armed Transport Bounty. She was launched in 1784 as the Bethia, a merchant vessel, then purchased by the Royal Navy in 1787. Her fate was to be burned by mutineers in 1790 off Pitcairn Island. The vessel was purchase for a botanical mission to the Pacific Ocean and renamed HMS Bounty, also known as HM Armed Vessel Bounty.

HM Armed Vessel Bounty
HMS Bounty

Bligh knew Christian Fletcher who had served under him on three ships. Bligh hired him on as the Master’s Mate and took him under his wing as Fletcher was eager to learn navigation from Bligh; the two became friends.

Fletcher was born in the county of Cumberland, NW England
Fletcher Christian

First Breadfruit Voyage 1787

Map of the eastbound voyage of HMS Bounty to Tahiti.

Bligh took command of the Bounty in order to win a premium offered by the Royal Society to bring breadfruit from the Pacific to the Caribbean. Breadfruit was wanted for experiments to see whether it would be a successful food crop for African slaves on British Colonial plantations. The notion that Breadfruit had to be collected from Tahiti was intentionally misleading. Tahiti was one of many places that breadfruit could be collected from but the reason for choosing Tahiti had its roots in the territorial contention that existed between France and Great Britain.

The voyage to Tahiti was difficult. Bligh tried unsuccessfully to go west around Cape Horn but was defeated by notoriously bad weather in the infamous ‘Roaring Forties.’ He was then forced to head east around the Cape of Good Hope which cause a further delay requiring an additional 5-month wait in Tahiti for the breadfruit plants to mature sufficiently to be potted and transported.

The mutiny took place on 28 Apr. 1789 during the return voyage. The reasons behind the mutiny are still matters of debate. One view is that Bligh was a cruel tyrant whose abuse of the crew left them with no other option than to take over the ship. Another view is that after spending 5 months on Tahiti, the crew was corrupted by freedom, idleness and sexual licence and were unwilling to return to the rigors of life on board the ship.

Bligh and eighteen crew members were set adrift in the ship’s boat with enough food and water for a week, four cutlasses and a compass. They were given no charts or marine chronometers. Bligh navigated the boat from Tahiti to Timor in the Dutch East Indies, a voyage of 3,618 nautical miles (6,701 Kms) with the loss of one life, a seaman killed when they landed on Tofua to find supplies and were attacked by locals. Bligh had confidence in his navigational skills which he had perfected under the instructions of Captain Cook; whose brilliant navigational skills insured the success of his three voyages of discovery.

The Royal Navy sent Captain Edward Edwards in HMS Pandora to the South Pacific to find the mutineers and bring them to trial; The Royal Navy would never allow a crime of this nature to go unpunished. Edwards was the cruel man that Bligh was unfairly accused of being. He captured 14 men on Tahiti and had them confined to a wooden cell on the deck of Pandora. Four died when the Pandora sank after running aground, the other 10 were brought home to face trial; three of whom were hanged.

The First Voyage – 1787-1790

Outfitting the Bounty at Deptford.

1787, Jun.
Bounty is provisioned and outfitted at Deptford for the voyage with the great cabin converted to house the potted breadfruit.

1787, Dec. 23
Bounty sails from Spithead. 

The Bounty leaving Spithead.
The Bounty leaving Spithead.
The route of the Bounty to Cape Horn

1787, Dec. 27
Bounty arrives in Tenerife then heads south towards Cape Horn.

The Bounty trying to round Cape Horn.

1788, May 24
After a futile attempt to round Cape Horn, Bounty sets sail to the east and arrives at the Cape of Good Hope, South Africa.

1788, Aug. 20
Arrives in Tasmania and anchors in Adventure Bay. Bounty spent some time at Adventure Bay recuperating, fishing and replenishing fresh water. It was here that the first signs of discord began to appear between Captain Bligh and his officers.

At anchor in Adventure Bay
The Bounty off Tasmania

1788, Oct. 26
Bounty arrives in Matavai Bay, Tahiti, and the crew sets to work collecting breadfruit.

Bligh and the crew spent five months in Tahiti collecting some 1,015 breadfruit. During this time, whilst the crew lived ashore and cared for the potted breadfruit, they also became socialised to the customs and culture of the Tahitians. Fletcher Christian married Maimiti, a Tahitian woman, and others of the crew were said to have formed close connections with native women.

Breadfruit in the Great Cabin
Collecting Breadfruit
The Bounty leaves Matavai Bay for Jamaica.

1789, Apr. 4
Bounty leaves Matavai Bay for the journey to the Caribbean.

1789, Apr. 12
Bligh sights Aitutaki islands. Bounty anchors offshore but Bligh does not go ashore. In the meantime, a canoe with four men paddle out to greet the ship. According to Bligh they were friendly and came bearing gifts. Bligh later revisits and lands on Aitutaki during his second voyage to collect breadfruit. Bligh is recognized as the discoverer of Aitutaki.

Bligh’s early map of Aitutaki
The Bounty and a map of Aitutaki

Relations between Bligh and Fletcher, which had started to deteriorate back when the Bounty had landed at Tasmania, had become much worse.

Bligh and Christian quarreling

The Mutiny

1789, Apr. 28
Some 1,300 mile west of Tahiti, near Tonga, after 24 days at sea the mutiny begins. A gang of mutineers led by Fletcher seize Bligh around dawn when the ship was close to Tofua Island.

Tofua Island and a Breadfruit plant
Confrontation between Christian and Bligh
Bligh being awakened by Mutineers

Bligh and 18 loyalists are forced into a 24-foot launch and cast adrift. Bligh was allowed to take with him a sextant and a pocket watch, no charts or compass and limited supplies of food and water.

Bligh and his crew being caste off from the Bounty

After the Bligh and his crew were caste off in the longboat, Bounty was now under the command of Christian and sets sail with the mutineers, who proceeded to throw all the breadfruit plants into the sea.

The mutineers toss the breadfruit plants into the sea.

Bligh’s Voyage

1789, Apr. 28
After being cast adrift, Blight heads for Tofua, one of the Tonga islands, to get provisions but encounters hostile locals who kill one of his crew.

Tofua & Kao Islands – the mutiny occurred close to Tofua, where Bligh headed after being cast adrift.
Bligh, the Bounty off Tofua
Bligh and HMS Bounty

Fleeing from Tofua, Bligh dares not stop in the Fiji Islands as the islanders were known to be hostile and to be cannibals. However, he is noted as the principal discoverer of Fiji as he landed on Fiji on his second breadfruit voyage.

Bligh’s route through the Fiji Islands, chased by natives.
Bligh’s signature & his route through the South Pacific.

Bligh heads for Timor, the nearest European colonial outpost. Bligh had confidence in his navigational skills which he had perfected under the instruction of Captain Cook. With only a compass, a pocket watch and a sextant, and with food and water for a week, Bligh navigates the Bounty’s launch the seemingly impossible 3,618-nautical-mile journey to Coupang, a settlement on Timor, present day Indonesia.

1789, May 29
They reach the Great Barrier Reef off Australia and land on a small coastal island which Bligh names Restoration Island. They then island-hop north along the reef and pass through the Endeavour Strait in early June followed by sailing west across open sea until they reach Coupang on 14 June 1789.

1789, Aug. 20
Bligh and his entourage leave Coupang in a purchased schooner, the Resource, bound for Batavia. Several men who had survived this arduous journey were so weak that they soon died of sickness, possibly malaria in the pestilent port of Batavia.

1790, Mar. 13
Bligh returns to England where he was honourably acquitted in a court-martial inquiring about the loss of Bounty. Bligh remained in the Navy and took command of HMS Providence. It was in this ship that he undertook the second breadfruit journey leaving on 2 Aug. 1791.

The movement of The Bounty and Bligh after the mutiny.

The Mutineers’ Voyage

1789, May 24
Bounty anchors off Tubuai (350 miles south of Tahiti) where the mutineers land and start to build a colony.

1789, Jul.
The mutineers fight with Tubuaians over women, leaving 66 Tubuaians dead. This conflict with locals causes the mutineers to abandon any attempt to establish a colony.

1789, Sep. 21
Bounty heads to Tahiti and after dropping off 16 shipmates there leaves Matavai Bay. Bounty leaves Tahiti for the last time.

1790, Jan. 15
Christian forms the idea of sailing for Pitcairn, a remote island whose exact location was unknown. After months of searching, Bounty arrives at Pitcairn Island with 9 mutineers, 11 Tahitian women, six Tahitian men and one child.

The Bounty close to shore.
Excitement at sighting Pitcairn.
The mutineers sight Pitcairn.
Ferrying goods ashore.
Landing on Pitcairn.

After possessions and goods were removed from the Bounty, she was set on fire in order to avoid detection by any search parties looking for the mutineers.

Burning the Bounty
Burning the Bounty

Pitcairn was first discovered by a Portuguese sailor in 1606. It was next sighted by Captain Carteret on 3 July 1767 and he named it after a fifteen-year old crew member who was first to sight the island, Robert Pitcairn. He recorded the latitude and longitude but without a marine chronometer his recorded longitude was incorrect by 3° – a 210 mile error. This error was the reason that the mutineers managed to remain undiscovered for so long; the island as shown on current charts did not exist in that position.

1791, Jul.
The Bounty mutineers in Pitcairn were safe from Capt. Edwards who was searching nearby for the mutineers in HMS Pandora. Edwards did rediscover Dulce Island, one of the Pitcairn group of islands, but that was several hundred miles from Pitcairn itself.

The mutineers led by Fletcher build a settlement on Pitcairn. The settlers survived by farming and fishing however tensions arose over time and alcoholism, murder and disease and other ills took the lives of most mutineers and Tahitian men. Most of the current resident islanders are descendants of the Bounty mutineers and Tahitians and Pitkern, a Creole language, is spoken as the first language by the population. The current population of Pitcairn has been declining since 1936 when it was 250; in 2018 is was 50.

A community is established.
Exploring Pitcairn
Christian’s lookout on Pitcairn
A view of the village


As Pitcairn was incorrectly marked on naval charts it was not visited until much later when an American whaler, The Topaz captained by Mathew Folger, stumbled on the island in February 1808.

Mathew Folger meets John Adams, the last surviving mutineer
Islanders paddling out to the Topaz
The Topaz nearing Pitcairn
Presentation of the Chronometer

HMS Pandora’s Voyage to Find and Arrest the Mutineers

HMS Pandora’s route through the Pacific to find the mutineers

1790, Nov.
HMS Pandora is commissioned to journey to the South Pacific under Captain Edward Edwards to find Bounty and capture as many mutineers as could be found.

HMS Pandora

Captain Edward Edwards has been characterized by some as one of England’s most ruthless, inhumane, callous and incompetent naval captains. His treatment of the captured mutineers does prove this as being mostly true.

1791, Mar.
Pandora arrives at Matavai Bay, Tahiti, where a large group of mutineers remain.

1791, Apr.
The last of the fourteen fugitives in Tahiti are rounded up and brought on board Pandora.

1791, May 8
Pandora leaves Tahiti with fourteen mutineers locked in a make-shift prison cage on the quarter-deck nicknamed Pandora’s Box.

1791, May 19
Sails past Aitutaki and Hervey Islands.

1791, Jun. 6
During his search for more mutineers, Captain Edwards visited Atafu. There were no permanent inhabitants but some fishing huts existed which showed that fishermen did visit the island. Atafu had been visited by Captain John Byron in HMS Dolphin in 1765.

Edwards: HMS Pandora & Nukunonu
Byron: HMS Dolphin & Atafu

Both Atafu and Nukunonu are atolls of Tokelau.

1791, Jun. 12
Pandora then visits Samoa, Tonga and Rotuma (Fiji) searching for more mutineers and the Bounty, without success.

1791, Jul. 29
Pandora charts Niuafo’ou, at the north end of the Tonga Island group. A curious volcanic island seen in 1616 by a Dutch explorer and never since visited. Edwards named it Proby’s Island, it later became known as Tin Can Island from the habit of mail being delivered in tin cans as there was no safe anchorage and it had an active volcano.

Map showing Pandora’s route
HMS Pandora
HMS Bounty

1791, Aug. 8
Captain Edwards discovers Rotuma, Fiji, but he left a very meagre account of his visit to this interesting community, possibly believing they were hostile.

Map of Rotuma Island

1791, Aug. 13
Pandora passed by Vanikoro Island which they did not visit or investigate obvious signs of habitation. If they had stopped there they would most likely have discovered early evidence of the fate of the French explorer La Perouse’s expedition which had disappeared in 1788 after leaving Australia. Later accounts show that many of the crew survived the cyclone that wrecked their ships Astrolabe and La Boussole on Vanikoro’s reef.

La Perouse and Astrolabe
La perouse sets sail with is two ships for New Caledonia.

La Perouse led an expedition in Astrolabe and La Boussole around the world with objectives that were geographic, scientific, economic and for the eventual establishment of French bases. He left Brest in France on 1 Aug. 1785. He arrived off Botany Bay on 24 Jan. 1788 where La Perouse encountered the “First Fleet” led by Captain Phillips who was establishing the Penal Colony of New South Wales. The French were received courteously by the British and spent six weeks at the British colony. On March 10 he set sail for New Caledonia; neither he nor any of his crew were ever seen again by Europeans.

It wasn’t until 1826 that an Irish sea captain found evidence to piece together the fate of the ships and crew. He found remains of the ships in the water between a coral reef on Vanikoro. Both ships had been wrecked on the reef and some of the survivors had been massacred by local inhabitants. The remaining survivors built a small ship out of wood from the two wrecks and set sail in a westerly direction; it is unknown as to their fate. When Captain Edwards was searching for the remaining mutineers, he sailed past Vanikoro and observed smoke signals coming from the island. He ignored these, as he assumed the mutineers would not likely be advertising their location, and in his single-minded search for the mutineers, he sailed on by thus missing his chance to become one of the heroes of maritime history by solving the mystery of the disappearance of La Perouse’s expedition.

1791, Aug. 28
Pandora runs aground and sinks on a reef between New Guinea and Australia, in the Torres Straits, a treacherous area of shallow waters and reefs, claiming the lives of 35 men including 4 mutineers. The survivors sailed for Timor in four open boats, arriving there September 16th.

HMS Pandora runs aground on a reef.

1792, Jun. 19
The ship carrying the surviving mutineers anchors at Spithead, England. Within two months the court-martial of ten mutineers begins. Six of the mutineers are convicted and sentenced to be hanged. Mercy is recommended for two, Peter Haywood and James Morrison. Four were hanged.

Peter Haywood was an officer on the Bounty during the mutiny. He was captured in Tahiti, tried and sentenced to hang but was subsequently pardoned. The extent of his true guilt was never clear and was clouded by contradictory evidence and false testimony. There was also the influence of a powerful family that may have helped clear his name.

Peter Haywood

Second Breadfruit Voyage – 1791

On Bligh’s return to England in March 1790, after his open-boat voyage, he was warmly welcomed by the nation and praised for his courage and skill. He was promoted to Post Captain. George III was very enthusiastic that he be assigned two ships to return to Tahiti to again collect breadfruit to transport to Jamaica.

Two ships were secured for the voyage, HMS Providence and HMS Assistant.

HMS Providence
Bligh and HMS Providence

1791, Jun. 12
Providence and Assistant sail from Spithead heading for the Cape of Good Hope.

1791, Aug. 27
The two ships reach the island of Tenerife

1792, Jan. 18
Bligh passes Ile St Paul but does not land due to bad weather; it is a remote island in the southern Indian Ocean which is a part of France’s Southern & Antarctic Territories.

1792, Feb. 8
Bligh lands on Tasmania at the same place he landed when he sailed on Captain Cook’s third voyage.

1792, Apr. 8
Arrives at Tahiti.

1792, Jun. 1
After spending several weeks loading breadfruit into Providence, Bligh sets sail for the Caribbean.

Bligh, HMS Providence, HMS Assistant, collecting breadfruit in Matavai Bay

1792, Jul. 25
Bligh alights on Aitutaki – The first European to land on the island.

1792, Aug. 2
After leaving Aitutaki, Bligh proceeds to Rotuma, Fiji where he is generally recognised to be the discoverer of the islands.   

1792, Aug. 7
Bligh returns to Fiji aboard HMS Providence and spends several days sailing and exploring the line of Fijian islands. On Bligh’s first visit, he had named these islands Bligh’s Islands.

Bligh’s map of the Fijian islands (Bligh’s Islands) he made after being cast adrift by the mutineers.
Bligh, HMS Providence and a map of Fiji

1792, Aug. 11
Both ships leave Fiji and sail towards the New Hebrides.

1792, Sep. 3
They Navigate carefully through the treacherous Torres Strait.

1792, Dec. 17
Arrives at St Helena.

HMS Providence off St. Helena
HMS Providence arrives at St Vincent with breadfruit.

1793, Jan. 23
Anchors in Kingstown Bay, St. Vincent and proceeds to unload some of the breadfruit which were transported to the Botanical Gardens.

1793, Feb. 24
Arrives in Port Royal, Jamaica, and starts unloading the Breadfruit pots that will be carried up to the Hope Botanical Gardens. Bligh also collected some rare plants to bring home for the King’s Garden at Kew. There are a number of breadfruit trees in the Botanical Gardens today that were planted by Bligh some 200 years ago.

One of the rare plants that were transported back to England was an Achee, whose botanical name is Blighia Sapida. Salt fish (salted Newfoundland cod) and Achee is the national dish of Jamaica.

1793, Aug. 7
Anchors at Deptford, England.  

Note: The breadfruit experiment failed as the African slaves in the Caribbean did not like and did not eat the breadfruit, they preferred plantains instead.

Subsequent Career of Bligh

Bligh had gained a reputation as a firm disciplinarian and accordingly in March of 1807 he was offered the position of the Governor of New South Wales. During his time in Sydney, his confrontational administrative style inflamed the wrath of a number of influential officials. This culminated in the “Rum Rebellion” when soldiers of the New South Wales Corps marched on Government House to arrested Bligh. The deposed Bligh made for Hobart aboard HMS Porpoise where he effectively remained imprisoned until January 1810. At this time the British government declared the rebellion as illegal and appointed Lachlan Macquarie to replace him as governor. Bligh returned to England where he was promoted to rear admiral. He never again had a command of a naval vessel.

Bligh’s tomb, St Mary’s Church, Lambeth
Bligh’s tomb, St Mary’s Church, Lambeth

Bligh died in Bond Street, London, on 7 December 1817 and was buried in the family plot at St Mary’s church in Lambeth.

HMS Tagus and HMS Briton visit Pitcairn

HMS Briton and HMS Tagus made landfall on Pitcairn Island on 17 Sep. 1814. There was initial puzzlement as to what this island was as it did not appear on any of their charts. Their astonishment was further compounded when a boat rowed out and hailed the Briton in perfect English. The man came on board and it soon became evident that he was Thursday October Christian, the son of Fletcher Christian. When a party was sent ashore, they found the last remaining mutineer, John Adams. He was granted amnesty for his part in the mutiny. As the captain of the Briton had no instructions to take any action in this event, he returned to Valparaiso after receiving an account of what had happened since the mutiny.

HMS Briton & HMS Tagus

One thought on “A Philatelic History of the Royal Navy Pt 12 – Captain William Bligh

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