Captain Bligh, Cornishman?

Curator Pieter van der Merwe explores the Cornish credentials of Admiral William Bligh, best known as commander of the Bounty when part of its crew mutinied in the Pacific in 1789.  

'2017 is the bicentenary of the death of Admiral William Bligh. Famously, Bligh and 18 loyal companions were cast adrift in the Bounty’s 23-foot launch, in which all but one (killed by hostile islanders on Tofua) survived a 3600 mile voyage to safety in the East Indies.

Captain Bligh: Myth, Man and Mutiny  is an exhibition running now, to January 2018, at the National Maritime Museum Cornwall, in Falmouth, to celebrate the bicentenary and launch voyage, and because Bligh is counted a famous Cornishman. 

However, being Cornish does not necessarily mean being born there and – popular myth notwithstanding – he was probably not. His birth was almost certainly in Plymouth, Devon, on 9 September 1754, where his father was serving as a Customs officer, and where he was baptized at St Andrew’s church on 4 October. Bligh himself may have been partly responsible for the confusion, since the Cornish historian, the Reverend Richard Polwhele  stated in 1831 in his Biographical Sketches in Cornwall that "Bligh (as he himself informed me) was a native of St Tudy", in north Cornwall. 

Local wish-fulfilment has seized on this over a long period and tried to square it with the fact that two children, William and Mary Bligh, were baptized at St Tudy early in 1757, with Mary reported as being Bligh’s sister and reasons puzzled over as to why he appears to have been baptized twice, three years apart. 

The answer is simple: the William and Mary baptized at St Tudy in 1757 were the twin younger children of different parents, Charles and Margaret Bligh, who had married there in 1752. "Bounty’"Bligh had no sister Mary, although he did have an elder half-sister, Catherine Pearce (1735–1805), his mother Jane’s daughter from her first marriage to Richard Pearce at Plymouth in 1729. Born Jane Balsam (1717–68), she was a widow when she remarried there in 1753 to Francis Bligh and William was their only child. The St Tudy Blighs were relatives, however, since Charles and Francis had the same paternal grandfather: he was John Bligh of Tinten Manor, St Tudy (1646–1702), thereby great-grandfather both to the later Admiral and the twins baptized in 1757. 

What Bligh in fact appears to have told Polwhele is not that he was born at St Tudy, but that he claimed a family allegiance there from it being birthplace of his grandfather, Richard Bligh (1680–1757), son of John, as Polwhele more specifically recorded in his History of Cornwall (1803, vol. 5, p. 8). This also gives amusing details of how he and Bligh met shortly before, when the latter was detained as a spy by local constables while inspecting Cornish river defences and brought before him as the local Justice of the Peace. The Charles Bligh (b. 1725) whose twins were baptized in 1757 was son of another Charles (1697–1770), a younger brother of Richard, the Admiral’s grandfather.  It also seems likely that Bligh’s father Francis, the Customs officer (1721–80), was born at St Tudy, since he was certainly baptized there. Polwhele’s 1831 report of Bligh claiming to be "native" to the village is therefore true as regards his family origin, but there appears to be no other evidence it was his birthplace and Plymouth is much more likely. 

The Cornish link also continued in the next generation. In November 1817, just before Bligh died on 7 December, his third daughter Elizabeth (1786–1854) married in London to the barrister Richard Bligh KC (1785-1838). He was her second cousin, being a great-grandson of Richard Bligh of St Tudy through his son Richard (1717–73), an elder brother of Francis and thereby Admiral Bligh’s uncle: they went on to have seven children. Bligh’s only other grandchild was Mary Barker (later Mrs Glennie), daughter of Elizabeth’s eldest sister, Harriet, who had married the well-known panorama showman Henry Aston Barker (1774-1856). Of Bligh's other four surviving daughters only one married (twice) but had no children.'

Pieter van der Merwe devised Captain Bligh: Myth, Man and Mutiny, which displays a number of loans from the Greenwich collections, including our model of the Bounty and relics from the launch voyage: Bligh’s coconut bowl, the horn beaker and the bullet weight used to ration out provisions.