20 August 2012
Breadfruit, Rum and Mutinies: the career of William Bligh
I’ve been doing further reading on Australian history this week and you can’t cover early nineteenth- century Australia without coming across William Bligh. Bligh became Governor of New South Wales in 1806 but prior to this he had already undertaken a number of missions for the British Government in European, Caribbean, Atlantic and Pacific waters. One of these missions provides Team Americas with another blog on the links between Australasia and the Americas.
While in Tahiti as part of Cook’s first Pacific voyage, Joseph Banks noted that the local Uru, or breadfruit, had potential as a source of cheap, high energy food that could be cultivated in British colonies. Banks successfully promoted his idea after returning to London, and Bligh was dispatched with HMS Bounty to acquire plants for use in the Caribbean. After one mutiny, a trip back to London (via Koupang) and two trips to Tahiti for specimens, Bligh finally delivered the breadfruit plants to Jamaica.
Following success as a Naval captain in Europe, and having earned Nelson’s favour at the Battle of Copenhagen, Bligh was appointed Governor of New South Wales. Arriving in 1806 Bligh immediately had to deal with the New South Wales Corps, the standing regiment for the colony which had set up a decent sideline in profiteering illegal trade items – namely, rum. Eventually this led to the 'Rum Rebellion' of 1808 and Bligh was forced to take another ignominious trip on the sea (this time to Hobart).
While mutinies grab popular attention, Bligh's career offers a good example of the way in which many individuals in the British Navy helped to developed global networks of exchange and control which underpinned the British Empire. He’s also a case study of what binds Team Americas and Australasia together.
I’ve noted in an earlier blog the Library’s collections on Cook and his expedition, and there is also a significant collection on the expeditions of Bligh; for starters see, A Voyage to the South Sea, 1792 [BL Shelfmark: RB.31.c.503(1)] and A Narrative of the Mutiny on Board His Majesty’s Ship Bounty, 1790 [BL Shelfmark: G.3066].