PORTRAIT OF BLIGH THE ARTIST

A famous figure in Australian history, William Bligh is less well-known for his love of natural history and his sketches of the wildlife he saw in his travels.

                   

William Bligh, who crossed the vast Pacific Ocean in an open boat with 18 companions after being cast adrift by the Bounty mutineers, has become a legendary figure of maritime history. But there was another much less known side to Bligh. He was an artist and keen natural historian whose log books contain numerous detailed references to the exotic flora and fauna he encountered during his voyaging in the South Seas. These observations are complemented by a series of robust watercolours.

For Bligh the object of these voyages was "the advancement of science, and the increase of Knowledge." This was a policy ardently encouraged by his patron, Sir Joseph Banks, and nowhere was its implementation more evident than during Bligh's travels in Tasmania, whose many curious inhabitants stimulated his interest in the natural world.

Bligh's first visit to Tasmania occurred in 1777 when, as Master of Captain Cook's ship Resolution, he stayed in Adventure Bay on the east coast of Bruny Island for five days. His next visit was eleven years later as commander of H.M.S. Bounty on an expedition to Tahiti to collect breadfruit trees for transplanting to the West Indies. After leaving Capetown on 1 July 1788 he headed east across the Indian Ocean and on 21 August dropped anchor once again in Adventure Bay. The ship's crew included a botanist, David Nelson, whom Bligh lost no time in sending ashore to collect botanical specimens, promising him all the assistance he needed.

Fletcher Christian 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."

A pencil drawing of William Bligh by Henry Aston, drawn in 1805

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."  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 and it was 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.

Two birds from the sketch book of William Bligh described as being a large paraquet and a parakeet

He sailed in August 1791 and by 9 February 1792 his ships were riding at anchor in Adventure Bay. Parties were immediately sent on shore for wood and water. Lieutenant George Tobin, also 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."

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 succe4ss 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."

A member of Bligh's crew, naval lieutenant George Tobin,
sketched an aboriginal hut at Tasmania's Adventure Bay 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 h4ad 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 & 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."

A sketch of a heron by William Bligh

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 & never to return to his Native Country. I found he was of creditable parents, but had been a Disgrace to them, therefore they had recomme4nded 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. 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.

Captain William Bligh Of The Bounty

Oceania-The Second Voyage of Captain Cook

Oceania-The Last Voyage of Captain Cook

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