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The Life, Times and Travels of the Extraordinary Vice Admiral William Bligh

By July 17, 2011transmedia

9 September 1754 — 7 December 1817

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This project is about history, Australian history — the narratives, the facts and the fictions. This project, though, isn’t just about our rich and dramatic past it also asks the question what is history? If you wish to know the facts about William Bligh, and of course they are contested, or you wish to know someone else’s view of the history, then you can read the books or even search the original documents. If you want to create the history for yourself then you must visit our broadband site.


Here we tackle some of the false assumptions about Australian history. First that it is boring, next that it begins in 1788. By focusing on the Iife of Bligh we have chosen one of the most colourful characters of the time and someone whose life and achievements have been the subject of debate, celebration and detraction almost from the moment he lived them. The official history has always said that Bligh’s intersection with Australian history was limited, that he came to the Colony of New South Wales for barely three years from August 1806 as its third Governor and was sent packing by unimpressed locals. But William Bligh’s inter-connectedness to Australia dates back much further It begins with Captain Cook’s third voyage to the Pacific in 1776, indeed a time when Bligh was one of the first Englishmen to step ashore on a beach in Van Deiman’s Land, at Adventure Bay, to meet with and communicate with the Tasmanian Aboriginal people. Bligh too was the first person to chart most of the North Coast of Queensland and the Torres Strait in 1789 when sailing the Bounty’s launch to Timor. These were the days of pre-settlement Australia — a time when the explorations and commentaries by less than ahandful of seaman like Bligh informed the British decision to colonize . It is certainly arguable that without the work of Bligh and others the colony may never have happened the way it did.
“And I? How can I not be product of my times? Look to Mr Bligh’s bad language, I say, and all that may mean. Our lives are a double helix of past and present. We are the language of our representations. We are caught in our webs of significance.”
GREG DENING, MR BLIGH’S BAD LANGUAGE. CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY PRESS, 1992 P.9.

This is a project about image and history and the creation of both. It allows for many perspectives to be constructed around the one historical event — but most particularly it allows for both the contemporaneous constructs and the present-day, retrospective constructs. Bligh can be seen through his own eyes via his narratives published at the time, or through the eyes of his contemporaries; or he can be seen in the context of twentieth century space exploration or the politics of Australia in the 1970s.

William Bligh is a multi-faceted character, a pivotal figure of Australian history. Bligh has the honor of being the first head of government in Australia to be deposed, the second was Gough Whitlam 167 years later and under strangely similar circumstances. Governor Bligh was deposed on the 26 January 1808. A great national occasion — Australia Day. Prime Minister Whitlam was deposed on the 11th of November 1975, another great national day — Remembrance Day. Bligh’s nemesis, the person who had the most to gain from his removal, but not the person who deposed him, was a Scottish grazier John Macarthur. Whitlam’s of course was another Scottish grazier John Malcolm Fraser. Governor Bligh was deposed by the head of the armed forces in the colony Lieutenant Colonel George Johnston — a man so drunk the night before the coup that he fell off his horse and injured his arm. Whitlam was removed by Sir John Kerr, the commander-in-chief of the Australian Armed Forces and a man not noted for his sobriety. The uncanny similarities between the two leaders Bligh and Whitlam and their separate trajectories, does not end there. Bligh came to the colony in a hurry to clean up a decadent and corrupt regime, that of the Rum Corp, that had held sway for twenty years and with particularly weak Governor’s in the last few years. Whitlam was also in a rush. The Liberal/Country party coalition had ruled for 23 years continuously and the last few Prime Ministers were weak and vain men. Bligh did great things for the least powerful in the colony, like Whitlam, and both lasted less than three years in the job. This broadband project will deliver a case for and against the Governor and put him and his government in historical context with direct reference to those that have come before and after.

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