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William Bligh was an outstanding sailor, an accomplished navigator and a cartographer. But because of an uncompromising attitude, bad temper and tyrannical leadership style, he is most often remembered as the captain of the Bounty when its crew mutinied, and as the failed Governor of New South Wales who was overthrown by the military.
Born in England on 9 September 1754, Bligh possibly inherited his sea legs from his father – a boatman and customs officer. Bligh joined the navy in 1770, and sailed with Captain James Cook on his third, fateful voyage in 1776. During this trip Bligh became adept at charting coastlines.
He returned to England and fought against the French before being appointed both commander and purser of HMS Bounty, tasked to take Tahitian breadfruit plants to the Caribbean to feed the slaves. But not long after leaving Tahiti in 1789, Fletcher Christian and the crew mutinied, casting off their commander and 18 of his supporters in an open boat only 7 metres long. It was so overladen that the sides had just 17 centimetres freeboard. They were given a sextant, compass and five days’ food and water.
During an extremely difficult, six-week voyage – with tensions running high – Bligh brilliantly navigated the vessel to Timor, a distance of 5800 kilometres, charting part of the north-east coast of Australia along the way. A narrow passage through the Great Barrier Reef to Torres Strait is named Bligh Boat Entrance as a result.
On returning to England, Bligh was court-martialled, but honourably acquitted, for the loss of his ship. He was promoted to captain and sent in the Providence for a second attempt to transplant breadfruit from Tahiti to the West Indies. This time he succeeded and charted some of Tasmania’s south-east coastline (then called Van Diemen's Land) along the way.
After a long stint in England, during which he served as captain on various ships (one crew of which also mutinied), he was given the post of Governor of New South Wales in 1806, with a brief to curb the ferocious trade in spirits. Bligh’s consequent bad handling of the military (the so-called ‘Rum Corps’), among other poor management, led to him being deposed in 1808 – the only successful armed takeover of government in Australia’s history.