Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Bligh Women

William Bligh, 1814.
State Library of New South Wales
History is full of individuals guaranteed to create heated debate whenever they are discussed and one of the most famous is Captain William Bligh who has been the subject of numerous biographies and much historical analysis, including caricature at the hands of Hollywood, although his actions trying to control the corrupt maverick New South Wales Rum Corps have never been given quite the same world-wide attention that the Mutiny on the Bounty has warranted.

But what is known of the women in his life?

In 1780, soon after Bligh returned from the final voyage of Captain James Cook during which he was Master of the Resolution, he met Elizabeth (Betsy) Betham, the Glasgow-born daughter of the collector of customs and water bailiff at Douglas, Isle of Man. It seems there was instant mutual attraction and the couple were married at the parish church at Onchan on 4 February 1781. (The original church was replaced early in the 19th Century.)

Betsy was a refined, cultured and well-educated woman with family connections that would prove a great asset to Bligh’s career. She was the niece of Duncan Campbell, an influential merchant and shipowner who was the overseer of the convict hulks anchored in the Thames and who was also instrumental in the establishment of New South Wales as a penal colony.
It is most likely that it was Campbell who recommended to Sir Joseph Banks that Bligh be appointed for the infamous breadfruit expedition that would eventually lead to the Mutiny. (Bounty had been one of Campbell’s own vessels, a collier named Bethia)

Other individuals known to Betsy and her family who became involved with the Bounty included Thomas HaywardPeter HeywoodJohn Hallett and Fletcher Christian, with whom Bligh had sailed twice to Jamaica prior to the fateful voyage to the South Pacific.

Betsy had eight children in total, including two sets of twins – one set being her only sons, William and Henry, both of whom tragically died shortly after birth in 1795. Her daughters were Harriet, Mary, Elizabeth, twins Frances and Jane, and Anne – allegedly an epileptic and mentally incapable.

Elizabeth (Betsy) Betham Bligh
Pitcairn Islands Study Center

She [Betsy] was probably Bligh’s only friend in life. He had two patrons who stood by him: Betsy’s uncle Duncan Campbell and Sir Joseph Banks, but, as far as we know, he had no friends. Bligh did not have the kind of personality required to keep a friend; he was far too preoccupied with proving his own excellence and lack of faults to engage in the giving part of a give-and-take friendship. 
Betsy, however, was devoted to him and stood by him through thick and thin. When stories began to arrive from New South Wales that were uncomplimentary to Bligh, to say the least, she actively campaigned on his behalf writing letters right and left to persons with influence, especially of course to Banks.
Most of their married life they had been apart from each other. When Bligh came back from New South Wales in 1810, his active career was finished and the two of them might have looked forward to spending his retirement years together. But Betsy’s health was broken – some say as a result of the agony she had experienced when faced with stories about her husband which she could not or would not believe. 
She died on April 15, 1812, at the age of fifty-nine, and was buried in the family grave in Lambeth Churchyard where Bligh was to follow her five and a half years later.
William and Betsy Bligh had many descendants including quite a number of Australians.

The same autocratic gaze of her father
Mary O'Connell, daughter of  Captain William Bligh, c 1847
National Library of Australia

Mary Bligh Putland had married Maurice O’Connell in 1810,  her second marriage. She was also the subject of a historical novel by Penelope Nelson and these paragraphs about the book make Mary sound like a woman who knew her own mind and would not be crossed!

Mary caused a sensation one Sunday when lace pantaloons were visible under her sheer muslin dress. She nursed her dying husband at Government House (he had tuberculosis) and was widowed just three weeks before the Rum Rebellion.
She outlined the colony’s growing political tension in letters to her mother. On 26 January 1808, she tried to repel 400 armed soldiers – their bayonets were drawn - with insults and a parasol. She spent a year under house arrest with her father in Government House and shared Bligh’s incarceration at the Barracks in January 1809. Later that year Mary endured cold months marooned at the mouth of the Derwent [river in Tasmania] on HMS Porpoise.
On her return to Sydney in early 1810 she was befriended by Elizabeth Macquarie [wife of the next Governor] and courted by Colonel Maurice O’Connell, Macquarie’s deputy. Despite her father’s initial disapproval, she married O’Connell, and became the mother of a large family. After serving in Ceylon and Malta, the O’Connells returned to Sydney in 1838, living at Tarmons on the Darlinghurst Estate (now St Vincent’s College, Potts Point). After the death of her husband, many years her senior, Mary lived in Paris.

Tarmons, Woolloomoloo, Sydney 1845 (State Library of NSW)
More detail can be read in an article about Mary and her role in the Rum Rebellion by Shirley Seale for the Hawkesbury Historical Society and that has Mary’s contemporaries describing her as:
"... sauciest, daintiest and most determined little spitfire ever to preside at Government House ..." 
"... conceited and extremely affected and proud ..." 
"Extremely violent and passionate, so much as now and then to fling a plate or candlestick at her father's head."
And so it would seem that Mary was definitely a chip off the proud and irascible old block that was her father!

Caricature of Bligh being dragged out from under his bed by officers of the Rum Corps
1808. (State Library of New South Wales)

The name of Bligh can still arouse political controversy today in Australia. Another descendant who learned what it is like to be deposed is the former Premier of the State of Queensland, Anna Bligh, Betsy and William Bligh’s great-great-great-great-great-granddaughter - the direct descendant of Elizabeth, who married her own cousin, Richard Bligh, thus preserving the name.

Campaign advertisement Anna Bligh