Select Page

William Bligh

Naval officer and colonial administrator William Bligh[16] played a major part in early Australian history, first in 1776 as a 21-year-old Master on board HMS Resolution on Cook’s third and fatal voyage to the South Seas, and subsequently as the captain in charge of transporting breadfruit from Tahiti to the West Indies with gardener David Nelson. The first attempt with HMS Bounty ended with the infamous mutiny in 1789, but the second attempt was successful. Bligh’s Australian connections resulted in his appointment as fourth Governor of New South Wales from 1806 to 1808.

A descendant, Anna Bligh, was Premier of Queensland from 2007 to 2012.

William Bligh
William Bligh
Painted in 1814
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

First Breadfruit voyage 1787-1790

Anxious to take advantage of new plant finds the Royal Society had offered a prize for the effective transfer of breadfruit from Tahiti to the Caribbean to be used as a staple food for the thousands of English slaves working in the sugar plantations. Bligh’s botanist-gardener was Kew-trained David Nelson who had been working for seven years at the King’s palace until the breadfruit expedition on the Bounty where he had a key role, that of caring for Breadfruit as they were transported from Tahiti to the British West Indies, being allocated plenty of valuable ship space for his 800 pots, water casks etc.[1]

Adventure Bay, Tasmania

On the way from Britain Bligh picked up seeds, plants and fruit trees at the Cape of Good Hope. By Aug 1788 he was anchored in Adventure Bay, Bruny Island, Bligh collecting wood and water at Quiet Corner as he had done with Cook.

Nelson & William Brown

Banks had selected Kew gardener William Brown as a gardener’s assistant to Nelson and the two were well occupied as, on 1 Sept., tubs were prepared for live plants and about 70 were planted. The pair also investigated the vegetation from Quiet Corner to East Cove where Bligh helped find sites to plant three apple trees, nine vines, six plantain trees and around the bay Nelson sowed seed of lemon, orange, plum, apricot, pumpkin, corn, apple and pear. Onions, cabbages and potatoes were planted near the watering place at Quiet Corner. This was the first introduction of cultivated plants to Tasmania but on an offshore island.


The ship then sailed for Tahiti, anchoring on 26 Oct. 1788. Here, over a period of about six months over 1,000 breadfruit trees were loaded along with some other ornamental and food plants of interest.

Mutiny on the Bounty & demise of its gardener-botanists

A few weeks into the homeward voyage there was a mutiny under the leadership of acting lieutenant Fletcher Christian. Bligh was renowned for his vicious temper and liberal cursing which no doubt contributed to the mutiny that occurred when he and 18 ‘loyalists’, including David Nelson, were cast adrift with four cutlasses and a meager supply of food and water in an open boat just 7 m long. Water demands of the breadfruit had also resulted in an unpopular water-rationing for the crew.[2] In a staggering feat of endurance and navigation, this small boat covered the 5,822 km to Timor in six weeks, even charting part of the north-east coast of New Holland on their way. Ironically, a few days after arriving in Timor Nelson, who was always keen to botanize, could not resist spending a day in the mountains where he caught a cold and died of ‘inflammatory fever’.[3] He was buried in a grave in Timor that was to later include ?Riedle and Alexander Zippelius a Dutch gardener-botanist, curator of the Buitenzorg Botanic Gardens (now the Bogor Botanical Gardens) who died in Timor in 1828.

William Brown had served as Gunner’s Mate on the Resolution during Cooks third voyage, and had spoken in Cook’s favour against assertions that Cook had, through anger, provoked his own death.[4] Brown had joined the mutineers who had first tried to establish a colony on Tubuai (one of the Austral Isles in French Polynesia), but after feuding with the natives they moved back to Tahiti, Christian marrying the daughter of one of the chiefs. While on Tahiti, he dropped off sixteen crewmen including four Bligh loyalists who had been left behind on the Bounty and two who had shown no particular allegiance. Christian and his band consisting of nine mutineers, six Tahitian men, and eleven Tahitian women eventually settled on Pitcairn Island where they stripped and incinerated the Bounty. Fights over the women and mistreatment of the Tahitian men by the mutineers eventually led to brawls and the deaths of most of the men. Brown had taken a partner from among the kidnapped women and was eventually clubbed and shot during a brawl.[5] Meanwhile Bligh had returned to London only to face a court martial on October 1790 for the loss of his ship and from which he was honourably acquitted.[6]

Second Breadfruit voyage 1791-1793

Thwarted on his first expedition Bligh was, following Banks’s recommendation to the Admiralty, directed for a second time to transplant bread-fruit from Tahiti to the West Indies. He set out in Nov. 1791 in command of HMS Providence with a small brig HMS Assistant commanded by Lt Nathaniel Portlock – and this time he was successful, faring better with the crew but he managed to fall out with midshipman Matthew Flinders, one of Cooks former ?sailors, who complained that one of his charts had not received due credit.

Wiles & Smith at Adventure Bay

Again Banks advised on the ship’s plant facilities also selected and sponsored two Kew gardener-botanists, James Wiles and Christopher Smith with meticulous instructions on plant care. Wiles had gained his horticultural experience at Chapel Allerton the estate in Leeds of the father of English botanist and horticulturist Richard Salisbury (Salisbury’s collection of exotics was at ?Mill Hill in London). Smith was probably a gardener from Kew.[7] Adventure Bay was reached on 9 Feb. 1792, the third time for Bligh who assumed it to be on the mainland (his midshipman Flinders would, six years later, be the first to circumnavigate Van Diemen’s Land). On the next day the gardeners visited the hill at East Cove and planted a pot of watercress in the fresh water and leaving a ‘note’. Just one apple tree remained from the 1788 visit, healthy but only a foot taller after more than 3 years.[8] (Somerville) This time on the hill, near Nelson’s garden, were planted 9 oaks, each about eight inches, 5 figs, 3 pomegranates, 3 quinces and 20 strawberries. Cook had, in 1777, instructed that a memorial be carved on a tree and Bligh instructed he addition of his own inscription Near this tree Captain William Bligh planted seven fruit trees 1792:- Messrs S and W, botanists. Botanist Labillardiere on the French Baudin expedition who visited the site on? read Bligh’s carved notice and was quick to condemn the despotism which condemned men of science to initials and gave a sea captain a monopoly of fame.

On Penguin Island and Grass Point they sowed seeds of fir, apricot and peach. Tobin in his illustrated log recorded his observations of the vegetation. Fruit planted included apples, quince, pomegranate and strawberries as well as watercress and ? rosemary.(check Somerville & elsewhere). No trace is left of any of these plants. The ship remained until the 24th, the crew making contact with the Aboriginals and sketching the plants and animals. Matthew Flinders, who was 17, was transferred to the HMS Providence in 1791 as midshipman, befriending Wiles, the two later maintaining active correspondence in later life, Flinders commemorating his friend through Cape Wiles on the Eyre Peninsula of South Australia.[9]


In the East Indies at Kupang where the expedition anchored on 2 Oct. 1792 Bligh wrote triumphantly to Banks reporting that on sailing from Tahiti he had on board 1,281 pots and tubs on board filled with 2,634 plants of which only 200 had been lost on the passage to the East Indies. Over the next few days in Kupang Smith and Wiles collected 92 pots of local plants that included mangoes, betel nut and a seed-bearing breadfruit to replace plants lost in Torres Strait. On 22 Jan 1793 Barbados was sighted and the next morning Port Royal ?Jamaica on the island of ?St Vincent where they were met by Anderson, within a day, a line of natives carrying 544 potted breadfruit plants on their heads had walked two miles to the Botanic garden and returning to the Providence with 465 pots containing a selection of West Indian plants for the King’s gardens at Kew.[10]

The ships returned to England on 7 Aug. 1793 complete with Paupo, a Tahitian stowaway who had acted as assistant to Wiles: Smith and Wiles had persuaded Bligh that Paupo’s knowledge of Tahitian plants would be invaluable on the voyage.[11] Wiles later published an article in the Royal Gazette (Kingston, Jamaica) on the ‘Death of Pappo’ who died on 27 October 1793 after remaining with Wiles in Jamaica, assisting him in the cultivation of breadfruit and other Tahitian plants.[12] Smith and Wiles numerous herbarium collections from Timor, the South Sea Islands, West Indies as well as two live plants from Adventure Bay were presented to Kew by Bligh, the dried specimens now held in the Natural History Museum.(check Somerville) After the expedition Wiles remained in Jamaica where he became Director from 1793 to1805 of the Botanic Garden in Liguanea[13] (???now the Hinton East Gardens) and then a plantation owner although he did not do well.[14] He had written reports to Banks during the voyage and later maintained an active correspondence with botanical associate Francis Masson and his friend Matthew Flinders.

They arrived at St. Helena on 12th December and Kingtown Bay, St. Vincent on 22nd January 1793, then Port Royal, Jamaica, on 5th February 1793. About 40% of the breadfruit trees collected in Tahiti and Timor, and about two-thirds of the other plants collected, arrived safely at their destinations in Jamaica, St. Vincent and St. Helena.(Biographies of collectors, BM & Steenis)

On 9th February 1793, four days after arrival in Jamaica, James Wiles was offered and accepted the post of gardener in charge of a Public Nursery at Bath (Jamaica), with responsibility for tending the plants that had come on HMS Providence that had been allotted for public use. Writing to Sir Joseph Banks on 16th October 1793, James said he hoped the House of Assembly would purchase land for a nursery elsewhere as the one at Bath was far from satisfactory. In the same year a garden formerly belonging to Mr. Hinton East, who had died was purchased and became the Liguanea Botanic Garden. In 1794 James Wiles was appointed Superintendent with continuing responsibility for the Nursery at Bath. James was appointed Island Botanist in 1803 in succession to Dr. Dancer, and in 1805 was requested to revise the catalogue of plants in the Botanic Garden, ‘Hortus Eastensis’, “”adding thereto the other plants since introduced into the botanic gardens of this Island.” By this time he had acquired two small coffee but managed to publish an edition of ‘Hortus Eastensis’ in Jamaica in 1806. In a letter from his friend Matthew Flinders in 1811, James was that on the map of South Australia , he would find places named Cape Wiles and Liguanea Island . After many tears he made a brief visit back to England saying I am but a foreigner here” and returned to Jamaica where he assisted in dealing with a serious rebellion of negro slaves in December 1831, in which numerous plantations were burnt and many lives lost. Although the slaves were emancipated at the beginning of August 1834, Jamaica remained in a state of uncertainty. Jamaica languished, many families in poverty due inter alia to the failure of the Planters Bank and in 1850 Jamaica was devastated by an epidemic of Asiatic cholera when about 50,000 people died, James dying in Jamaica aged 83.(Botanical collectors)

Smith found employment as a botanist with the East lndia Company at Calcutta (1794) before leaving for the Moluccas (1796-1805), sending plants from the Spice Islands to Joseph Banks and including material for Kew. From 1805-6 he became Superintendent of the Botanic Garden at Penang where he died in 1807.[15] Breadfruit, though slow to be accepted by the inhabitants, was to eventually become a major component of their diet.

In 1793 HMS Providence returning from the second voyage to source breadfruit docked at Deptford on the Thames with 800 filled pots, the largest single despatch ever made to Kew.

First published on the internet – 1 March 2019


HMS Bounty II – replica of the original ship built in 1960
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons – Dan Kasberger – Accessed 9 March 2021

Print Friendly, PDF & Email