Saturday, April 28, 2007

Not Quite Off Topic: did Lieutenant Bligh meet Adam Smith?

On this date 218 year ago, sometime after 4 am on 28 April 1789, Master’s Mate and acting Lieutenant, Fletcher Christian, with a small party of armed seamen, arrested Lieutenant, William Bligh, commander of HMS Bounty, an armed vessel carrying botanic specimens to the West Indies, about 30 miles off the Pacific island of Tofoa, in what was to become the most famous, and also least important, mutiny in the history of the Royal Navy.

The connection to Adam Smith is tenuous, in that 19 years ago I wrote a biography of William Bligh (‘Captain Bligh, the man and his mutinies’, Duckworth, 1988) using the primary source papers, journals and letters, most of them held in the Mitchell Library of New South Wales, Australia. Much of the context of the 18th century, so important for understanding Adam Smith and his world, overlapped in the lives of these two gentlemen from the middling ranks of British society.

I wrote ‘Bligh’ with an economist’s eye on what was going on in his professional and personal life, as I have when tackling many incidents in Smith’s life, such as the ‘interest’ system that both men used to effect in their search for ‘place’ in the social structures within which they excelled, Bligh the navigator within the strict hierarchy of the Royal Navy and Smith the philosopher within the democratic hierarchy of the Scottish Enlightenment. They had much in common (and also many differences). They were both ‘Celtic’ in disposition and spoke in their vernacular tongues socially.

Both men exhibited ‘warm’ behaviour, with Bligh’s taken to extremes of passion (he couldn’t abide indiscipline or professional slackness), Smith impatient with those who impugned his integrity. Both of them excelled in their chosen professions, Bligh the sailor and Smith the professor.

Did their paths cross? Indirectly, yes. Neil Campbell, Principal of Glasgow University, who appointed Smith as professor, was the grandfather of Peter Heywood, midshipman on Bounty and convicted mutineer, and Smith also corresponded on other matters with Sir Joseph Banks, the naturalist and President of the Royal Society, who was Bligh’s main sponsor and source of his interest with the King and Royal Navy.

Did they meet? Possibly. Bligh visited Edinburgh many times when ships he served on anchored at Leith Roads, the port of Edinburgh in the Firth of Forth. We know he was in Edinburgh doing the social rounds as Master on the frigate HMS Belle Poule, escorting as a prize, a captured French merchant, La Cologne, in April 1781, and later as 5th Lieutenant on HMS Princess Amelia, ship-of-the-line.

On 1 Jan, 25 and 30 January 1782, he attended dinners in Edinburgh when James Boswell was also in attendance, and he is recorded in Boswell’s diary as a ‘celebrated navigator’ with Captain Cook (Bligh was Master on HMS Resolution on Cook’s fatal third voyage, when he was killed at Hawaii on 14 February 1779). Smith had copies of Cook’s voyages in his library. It is highly likely that Smith met Bligh at one of the many dinners that officers from visiting ships would attend as a matter of course (only officers had shore-leave; the crew were likely to desert).

Well, it was just a thought when I went for my morning walk this morning at 6.30 am and my mind turned, as it always does on 28 April each year, to the events that early morning, so far away and so long ago in 1789.

And when I think of young Bligh and Christian now, I am soon led to think about Smith, the older man, at that time at the top of his career, Commissioner for Customs, who would die in July 1790, followed by Christian who died in 1793 on the Pacific island of Pitcairn (named after Midshipman Pitcairn whose father, Major Pitcairn, was the first British officer killed at Bunker Hill).

What might they have said to each other if they had met in 1782? What Bligh said to Boswell was not recorded by him in his diary...


Blogger Peter WARD said...


Betham's wife, Mary, was the sister of Duncan Campbell (1726-1803) the primary provider of the various prison hulks used to house convicts, pending their transportation to Botany Bay.

Mary's father was Neil Campbell, Principal (1728-1761) of Glasgow College, whose uncle had become involved in Jamaica Plantations; and into which family Duncan married, inheriting the plantation and some wealth before moving into the tobacco business as well as the transportation of convicts to work the American plantations.

Given these connections it is virtually inconceivable that Bligh would not have met Smith at some point.

Peter Heywood was also a distant cousin of Fletcher Christian.

I am a 7th-generation descendant of F.C. via the G.H. Nobbs/Sarah Christian line.

Cheers, Peter Ward.

2:24 a.m.  

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