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Explorers of the Pacific: European and American Discoveries in Polynesia

William Bligh

William Bligh

1787 to 1789

The accounts of Dampier, Anson, and Cook concerning the food value of the breadfruit led, in 1787, to a request from the merchants of the West Indies to King George III that the tree be introduced into those islands. This request, supported by Sir Joseph Banks, was granted, and the 215-ton Bounty was fitted for the task. William Bligh, who had accompanied Cook on his third expedition as Master on the Resolution, was raised to the rank of lieutenant and placed in command of the ship and its complement of 44 men and officers. Two specially selected men were appointed to look after the plants.

The Bounty sailed from Spithead on December 23, 1787, to reach Tahiti via Cape Horn, but encountering contrary winds off the Strait of Le Maire, she altered her course and sailed east via the Cape of Good Hope and south of New Holland and New Zealand. She reached Tahiti on October 26, 1788, and remained for nearly six months. With her supply of breadfruit plants, she sailed away on April 4, 1789. After calling at Huahine, Bligh discovered the most northerly of the high islands of the Cook group on April 11, 1789 page 37A native came out in a canoe, rubbed noses with him, gave him a pearl-shell breast ornament suspended with human-hair braid, and told him the island was Wytootackee (Aitutaki). Savage Island was seen next, and on April 23 the ship anchored off Annamooka (Nomuka) in the Tongan islands.

On April 27 the ship sailed between the Tongan islands of Tofoa (Tofua) and Kotoo (Kotu). It was the next day that Bligh was seized in his cabin by Fletcher Christian and some of the other mutineers. Bligh and eighteen others were placed in the ship's launch and set adrift with a scanty supply of provisions, and Fletcher Christian and 24 others took the Bounty back to Tahiti. The story of their ultimate fate is well known. Bligh made the historic boat voyage through the Fijian islands and along the coast of New Holland, and reached Timor in June 1789. He reached England on a Dutch packet on March 14, 1790. His boat trip evidently impressed his superiors, for he was raised to the rank of Commander and soon after to that of Post Captain.

1791 to 1793

King George had not lost interest in the breadfruit mission, and he directed that Captain Bligh be given command of two ships to complete his original mission, the procuring of breadfruit plants from Tahiti for the West Indies. His two ships, the Providence and Assistant, sailed from Spithead on August 3, 1791. They called at Table Bay and Van Diemens Land and steered south of New Zealand until they reached the meridian of Tahiti. On the way north, on April 5, 1792, Bligh discovered another atoll in the Tuamotus. It was Tematangi, which he called Lagoon Island. The ships made a short call at Meetia and anchored in Matavai Bay, Tahiti, on April 9. Having collected the breadfruit plants, Bligh sailed from Tahiti on July 20. After passing Moorea, Huahine, and Raiatea, he sailed for Aitutaki to make closer acquaintance with the discovery of his first voyage on the Bounty. He reached the island on July 25 and recorded useful information concerning the inhabitants, who proved very friendly. Lieutenant Tobin drew a picture of one of their canoes, and Lieutenant Portlock, commander of the Assistant, recorded valuable information in his journal. Bligh sailed past Savage Island and called at the Tongan group of Vavau. He sailed on through Fiji, Melanesia, the Torres Strait, and the East Indies.

The ships rounded the Cape of Good Hope, and on December 17 called at St. Helena, where Bligh left some breadfruit plants. He arrived at St. Vincent in the West Indies on January 23, 1793, and anchored at Port Royal, Jamaica on February 5. The plants were duly delivered in Jamaica, but subsequent information revealed that the West Indians disliked the flavor of breadfruit and preferred their own bananas. The two ships anchored at Deptford on August 7, 1793. Thus, Bligh's two voyages resulted in failure as far as the breadfruit project was concerned. However, apart from the mutiny on the Bounty providing much literary material, they did result in the discovery of Aitutaki and Tematangi.