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William Bligh

by Angus Trumble, 30 March 2015

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 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.

This William Bligh is none of these. He is represented here at the age of about 25, 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. This major acquisition, lately 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.

For we, too, are commencing the next leg of a voyage that has already led to the creation of a new and vibrant national institution with much to say to our youthful country 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.

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