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William Bligh

by John Webber

William Bligh by John Webber
Video: 2 minutes

Twice rebelled against, and twice vindicated, William Bligh occupies an ambivalent space in Australian history. Angus Trumble, former Director of the National Portrait Gallery, explains.

Video credits: ‘Brandenburg Concerto No 3’ by Bach performed by Advent Chamber Orchestra.

William Bligh was one of the most extraordinary products of the 18th century Royal Navy, and unfortunatley his life was overshadowed by two extraordinary experiences: the mutiny aboard the Bounty; then the 3,600 nautical mile journey in an open boat from the point at which he was ejected from HMS Bounty to landfall on Timor, navigating entirely by the stars. Quite an extraordinary achievement. And then the insurrection that he faced as fourth governor of New South Wales, the so called “Rum Rebellion” of 1808. In both cases Bligh was vindicated by their Lordships of the Admiralty, and in due course promoted. But the experiences clearly affected him.

Since 1808, each and every phase of our history has brought forth an aspect of William Bligh that seems apposite to the day. The martinet, the tyrant, versus the gentleman, an officer of the Royal Navy. This William Bligh is none of those at all. This is Bligh at the age of 25. A very ambitious young man, highly skilled in cartography and navigation, who was hand-picked by James Cook to go aboard The Resolution together with the artist John Webber.

So it is that we find Bligh, Cook, and the artist John Webber all together on the same ship, and that’s given rise to the attribution of this painting to John Webber.