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Old Blighty

by Angus Trumble, 24 March 2016

Angus Trumble ponders the many faces of William Bligh.

William Bligh, c.1776 by John Webber
William Bligh, c.1776 by John Webber

The life of William Bligh (1754–1817) offers up a handful of the most remarkable episodes in the history of Britain’s eighteenth and early nineteenth-century maritime empire. Bligh’s epic journey to Timor with his companions in a small, open boat the 3,600 miles whence they were ejected from H.M.S. Bounty on 28 April 1789 remains an astonishing feat of navigation by the stars. Bligh’s misfortune was not merely to have gone through the ordeal of mutiny aboard the Bounty, but to have faced insurrection in Sydney during his tenure as fourth Governor of New South Wales. The Rum Rebellion of 1808 damaged Bligh’s reputation, but he was vindicated in London and promoted to vice-admiral of the blue. He ended his enormously eventful career by mapping Dublin Bay. 

Bligh has become for us a mythic figure. There has been a bellwether William Bligh in every phase of Australian history – the martinet versus the brilliant cartographer and genius of navigation; the deeply misunderstood versus the merely blinkered man; the blackguard versus the gentleman and officer of the Royal Navy, steeped in its sometimes brutal disciplinary code; the angry tyrant versus the lonely husband and father; the victim of circumstance, stoutly defended again and again, as a matter of principle, by their Lordships of the Admiralty.

When in the mid-1960s A. G. L. Shaw drafted his measured, even cautious entry for Bligh in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, and, at around the same time, Manning Clark was writing his vividly hostile account of Bligh in his Short History of Australia, the distance between these two extraordinarily different appraisals encapsulated the turbulent character of that decade. In other words Bligh was then made to fit the needs of, on the one hand, an established order wary of rapidly developing social fissures, and, on the other, an ambitious sense of national identity from which Britain herself was rapidly retreating towards the Common Market. Thirty years later, when in 1992 Greg Dening published his Mr. Bligh’s Bad Language, Bligh furnished the material for a ground-breaking contribution to the burgeoning field of historical anthropology – and an entirely new approach to historiography itself. No doubt Bligh will continue to ebb and flow in the esteem of future generations. That is as it should be.

Mutiny on the Bounty (The Mutineers turning Lieutenant Bligh and part of the officers and crew adrift from His Majesty's Ship the Bounty), 1790 by Robert Dodd

This William Bligh is none of these. When the painting first came to the attention of the National Portrait Gallery in London in the early 1860s, it was proposed that William Bligh is represented here at the age of about twenty-five, several years before his marriage, wearing the uniform of sailing master, already skilled in navigation and seamanship, no doubt ambitious for himself, his men and his vessel, shortly before he was hand-picked by James Cook to go aboard H.M.S. Resolution, on which the artist John Webber also sailed. It is not clear why the National Portrait Gallery decided then not to acquire the picture, although it seems likely that, coming so early in its history – the National Portrait Gallery was founded in 1856 – many other subjects yet to be netted for the collection were deemed more important priorities than William Bligh. At that date it may also have been decided that he was insufficiently famous, fame having been their most important early criterion. If so, London’s decision not to acquire the work ultimately paved the way for Canberra to do so, for this major acquisition, made possible by the Liangis family, could not have been a more apposite way in which to mark the launch of the National Portrait Gallery Foundation on March 12 last year.

For we, too, have commenced the next leg of a voyage that has already led to the creation of a new and vibrant institution with much to say to our ancient country (and youthful nation state) about herself and our people. There are adventures in store, uncharted oceans to ply, a sleek vessel well equipped for fair weather or foul, and a fine and dedicated crew. Having come so far, and with such committed and loyal support, we hope you will join us – and indeed encourage others to come aboard