A controversial post, a controversial man and a controversial claim

This is going to be a controversial post, but it is about a controversial person. He is best known for a mutiny against his command. Mention his name, and most people will imagine a sadistic bully. I am talking, of course, of William Bligh.

The popular image of Bligh has been informed (or rather misinformed) by several films about the Mutiny on HMS Bounty. Bligh was neither the pompous, strutting martinet as depicted by Charles Laughton, nor the icy sadist portrayed by Anthony Hopkins. In reality, he was one of the most lenient Masters of his day, a man who would “scold when others would have flogged, and flog when others would have hanged.”

Bligh was the Cartographer on James Cook‘s voyages of discovery and drew a great many new maps. In fact, he was the man who originally charted the reef that the Exxon Valdez struck in 1989. He was later responsible for mapping Dublin Bay. He designed North Bull Wall at the mouth of the River Liffey. This cleared a sandbar and formed North Bull Island.

After the Bounty Mutiny, Bligh’s next command was as Governor of New South Wales. There, he faced a mutiny known as the Rum Rebellion. Several high-ranking officials, in collusion with influential settlers, were engaging in private trading to the detriment of less well-connected settlers. This was illegal, and Bligh was determined to end it. He faced an uphill battle as the Rum Runners had already removed several previous Governors.

In 1808, Major George Johnston led a rebellion that toppled Bligh. Three years later, Johnston was cashiered. Bligh was no longer Governor, but the power of the Rum Runners was broken. The newer settlers were grateful to Bligh for his efforts to end the exploitation. Many boys born in New South Wales between 1807 and 1811 were named William Bligh [Surname].

Bligh was strongly influenced by Cook, and took pains to ensure that the men under his command had good food and enough exercise. During the time he commanded HMS Bounty, only two of the crew died. This was a notable achievement. At the Battle of Camperdown HMS Director, commanded by Bligh, was engaged by three Dutch ships. The Dutch suffered heavy casualties, but only seven of Director’s crew were injured.

Bligh’s final command was as Vice Admiral of the Blue, commanding the Channel Fleet.

Although technically skilled, Bligh was terrible at handling people. I mentioned earlier that he would “scold when others would have flogged”. In fact, he nagged. He followed orders and regulations to the letter. When the Rum Runners demanded that Bligh remove someone from his command Bligh refused, as he didn’t have the authority to remove the man in question. Bligh handpicked Fletcher Christian, the man who led the Bounty Mutiny. According to a man named J. C. Beaglehole, Bligh “never understood that you don’t make friends of men by insulting them.”I am now going to make a controversial claim.

I believe a case can be made that Bligh was a high-functioning autistic. He was brilliant at the technical aspects of his job, but dire when it came to managing people. He followed the rules strictly, but used methods that alienated his subordinates. These are typical traits of autistic people.

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About autismjungle

I am a Software Test Analyst. Shortly before I turned 21 I was officially diagnosed, although I had long suspected I was autistic. Welcome to my blog
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2 Responses to A controversial post, a controversial man and a controversial claim

  1. Interesting post. I am the Australian mother of a 10 year old with autism and author of a book on autism. I had heard previously that Bligh was misunderstood and the description you provide does hint at high functioning autism. Interestingly the current Premier of Queensland, Anna Bligh, who received great accolades for her handling of the recent natural disasters in Queensland, is a direct descendant of William Bligh.

  2. autismjungle says:

    Thanks for your comment, Benison. This post has been in my mind for years, and the name Anna Bligh gave me the final nudge to put it up. I suspected, but did not know, that she was a descendant of William Bligh. That was very interesting news.

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