Our Tasmania Visitors Guide

Exploration: William Bligh

Born at St. Tudy, near Plymouth, on 9th Sep 1754, William Bligh first appears on Naval roles at the age of 9. After a number of years of naval service, he received what was to be his first opportunity to visit the South Seas, when he was appointed Master of HMS Resolution, commanded by James Cook, just prior to Cook's third voyage in March 1776. At 22, to be appointed sailing master on a major research vessel was a great tribute to his skill and connections. The Resolution and Discovery included a visit to Adventure Bay, Tasmania. Cook was killed in Hawaii later in the expedition and it was left to Bligh to brings the ships home. The voyage ended in late 1780, and Bligh took a 12-month leave from active duty, during which time he was married.

It was on the voyage of HMS Bounty to collect breadfruit plants from Tahiti, that Bligh was cut adrift in the ship's longboat by Christian in the finamous mutiny on the Bounty of 28th April 1789. After the Bounty voyage, Bligh commanded a number of scientific voyages. Late in 1796, he was appointed commander of HMS Director. It is also interesting that in 1797, Bligh was involved in another serious mutiny, known as the Mutiny at the Nore. Brave in battle, he was line astern of Nelson at Copenhagen in 1801. The wartime period ended in 1802, and Bligh again commanded a scientific voyage, this time a hydrological expedition.

William Bligh, first visited Van Diemen's Land in 1777, with James Cook on HMS Resolution. Bligh, a young navigational officer, had a great sense of location and navigational ability. He had been appointed Master of Resolution, commanded by James Cook, at the age of 22, and would accompany Cook throughout his third and final voyage of discovery into the Pacific. Cook never completed the voyage - he was killed in Hawaii - and it was Bligh who took Cook's place to bring the expedition safely home.

Adventure Bay, Bruny Island, as recorded by William Ellis, surgeon's mate aoard the Discovery in 1777

Below: the same scene today

The success they had in finding plenteous supplies of water and timber during their week long sojourn at Adventure Bay on Tasmania's Bruny Island in late January 1777, combined with the peacefulness of their communication with the Tasmanian aborigines they encountered must have made its mark on Bligh's mind, as he would return to the bay a number of times again.

Eleven years after his first visit, while charting the south-east coast of Van Diemen's Land, Bligh sailed HMS Bounty into Adventure Bay and dropped anchor on 19 August 1788, needing fresh water supplies and wood for the ship's fires. It was an expedition to Tahiti to collect breadfruit trees for transplanting to the West Indies.

Bligh watered his ship with fresh clean water in a gully that was dry on his previous visit with Cook. The ship's crew included a botanist, David Nelson, lost no time in going ashore to collect botanical specimens. Fletcher Christian, who would later lead the famous mutiny against Bligh, was in charge of the shore party and he took this opportunity to augment Nelson's collections with his gun. He shot a number of birds, one of which Bligh identified as "a very beautiful plumaged bird which we call the Lauryquet, being longer than a Parroquet but it had nearly the same colours only the blue & red was rather more brilliant." A pod of whales cavorting in the bay escaped a similar fate only because the ship's armoury did not include any "proper harpoons for them."

On board the Bounty was a nursery of fruit trees which Bligh had acquired at the Cape of Good Hope. With the help of Nelson he "chose what we thought the safest situations, and planted three fine young Apple-Trees in a growing State, nine Vines, six Plantains, a number of Orange and Lemon seed, Cherry stones, Plum stones, Peach, Apricot & Pumpkins, also two sorts of Indian Corn, and Apple and Pear pips" in order "to do good the most in our power to the Natives or those who may come after us."

Sketch of a black cockatoo from the sketch book of William Bligh

Bligh was concerned to make contact with the Aborigines but in this he was, for a time, frustrated. It was a fortnight before he saw sign of them and this was only in the distance through his telescope. Eventually he set out in the ship's longboat to where several fires had been seen near the shore. It was not long before a group of about twenty men and women emerged from the bush making "a prodigious chattering of speech."

Owing to a heavy surf it was not possible to land and he was restricted to throwing presents tied up in paper to them. Nevertheless from a distance of twenty metres he was able to observe them in some detail. "They were certainly woolly headed", he noted, "as much as even a Negroe was. Their teeth appeared remarkably white - They run very nimble over the rocks. They talked to us sitting on their heels with their Knees close in to their Arm Pits. They have a quick eye, as they caught small Nails and beads I threw at them with some cleverness".

On 4 September the Bounty weighed anchor and put to sea. On board were a variety of plants which Nelson had carefully collected, some 70 of which "were either new or valuable." The celebrated mutiny took place on 28 April the following year - Bligh was set adrift in a longboat with eighteen others. He navigated the remarkable 6,400 km to Timor in a longboat. It would be another eleven months before Bligh returned to England. After being acquitted by court-martial for the loss of the Bounty he was offered the command of HMS Providence and Assistant with orders to complete the transfer of breadfruit trees from Tahiti to the West Indies.

The "Providence" and "Assistant" at Anchor in Adventure Bay. Drawn by Lieut. G. Tobin, 1792.

Bligh returned to Van Diemen's Land anchoring once again in Adventure Bay in February 1792. Parties were immediately sent on shore for wood and water. Lieut George Tobin, a talented artist, was greatly impressed by the giant Tasmanian blue gums fringing the bay. He measured one that was 29 feet in girth and noted that "the trunks grow to a great height before they branch out; the leaf is not long and not unlike a peach, and the bark is light-coloured and has the appearance of having been peeled." He added, " I saw no signs of any ships having been here, and the trees I marked remained the same as I had left them in 1788".

Bligh was disappointed to find that, of the fruit trees he had planted on his previous visit, only one apple tree had survived. It had not grown at all but was still in a healthy state and he had hopes that it would eventually produce fruit. His lack of success as a gardener did not stop him from planting nine oak trees as well as sowing more fruit stones and some fir seed. A cock and two hens were released into the bush in the hope that "they would breed and get wild" although their chances of evading the Aborigines were not rated very highly.

Bligh's curiosity led him to explore a small lake at the back of the beach in one of the ship's boats. Although its water was brackish it was plentifully stocked with fish, particularly bream, "of which we caught seven in a few minutes with Hook and line." The lake also supported a large variety of birds including wild ducks, pelicans, black swans and herons.

One of the "Young Gentlemen" shot a cockatoo which Bligh described in some detail: "the plumage was brown tinged with black & olive, on each side of the head a yellow spot. Six of the long tail feathers were yellow speckled with black, about 3 inches in the middle, so that when they flew it formed a circular yellow mark." It was probably a variety of the Banksian cockatoo. Gannets were also a favourite of Bligh's but for a different reason - "Roasted with its skin off (it) is preferable to any of the others, & is remarkably free of any fishy taste."

Naval lieut George Tobin's sketch of an aboriginal hut at Adventure Bay, drawn in 1792

During their excursions to different parts of the Bay kangaroos were often seen by the visitors but none were killed as they always managed to escape into the dense undergrowth. "A good Dog would give a great deal of sport", lamented Bligh. Other animals he took note of were a "rat" with a head like a mole and a type of lizard called by the seamen a "Gally Wasp." It was black in colour, spotted with yellow; its had was flat with a large mouth and a thick blue tongue.

But perhaps most peculiar of all was a creature shot by Lieutenant James Guthrie. "It had a beak like a Duck - a thick brown coat of Hair through which the points of numerous Quills of an inch long projected & were very sharp. It was 17 inches long & walked about 2 ins. from the ground. Had very small eyes and fine claws on each foot. The mouth was a small opening at the end of the Bill and had a very small tongue." Despite the misleading reference to a duck bill this "animal of very odd form" was not a platypus but an echidna.

Once again the Aborigines proved to be very elusive but on 19 February a part of Bligh's men unexpectedly met a group of 16 men and 6 women. "There was so much suspicion on both sides, mixed with fear, that their interview was very short." All Bligh learned was that the men were named and had thick bushy beards while the women wore a covering of skin over their bellies. On another occasion Bligh was intrigued to note that the only thing they coveted was a hat - "trinkets, such as rings, that were given to them, they returned." He also observed that they seemed to have an aversion to "being wet with the sea." While gathering mussels "the men flew away from every surge of the water, which would not have reached their knees."

Bligh's departure from Adventure Bay was delayed when it was discovered that one of the crew was missing. Signal fires were lit, search parties were sent out and eventually the man was found. "It is wonderful to relate", wrote Bligh, "that this unhappy creature has determined to stay behind with a wish to perish and never to return to his Native Country. I found he was of creditable parents, but had been a Disgrace to them, therefore they had recommended him to go on this Voyage, as the most likely means of either improving or destroying him".

It was not until 24 September that Bligh finally left Adventure Bay for Tahiti. However he was to visit Tasmania once more, although in very different circumstances. On 26 January 1808 he was deposed as Governor of New South Wales and spent almost 10 months on board his ship in Hobart or sailing about the coast, visiting Adventure Bay numerous times. Understandably his observations during this period were mainly political, rather than botanical, as he manoeuvred for support in his unsuccessful efforts to regain his governorship.

Bligh's chart of Adventure Bay (click to enlarge)