Captain William Bligh

William Bligh will be forever associated with the infamous mutiny on his ship, HMS Bounty, but in Cook Islands' history he will always have a special place as the man who discovered Aitutaki. It was more by luck than judgement though, as he records in his log book...

"I had little reason to expect making any New Discovery, as my tract altho not traversed by any one before, yet was bordering so near on others, that I scarce thought it probable to meet with any land"


It's Saturday, 11th April, 1789 - 17 DAYS BEFORE THE MUTINY - and His Majesty's Ship 'Bounty' has been at sea four days, after setting sail from Matavai Bay in Tahiti. Dawn is breaking and the weather is far from kind. In his log, the captain writes of fresh gales, much rain, very severe squalls and lightning. He ha​s just made sail amid more heavy rain when he sees a small island "about 5 leagues off" and begins to head for it. These are his first impressions as his vessel approaches 

"...we discovered an island of a moderate height with a round conical Hill towards its northern extreme.....a number of small Keys were seen from the Masthead lying to the SE and at Noon could count nine of them - They were all covered with Trees, and the large Island, had a most fruitfull appearance. The shore was bordered by flat land with innumerable CocoaNutts & other Trees, and the higher grounds were beautifullly interspersed with Lawns

"I could not get near the shore on account of the Wind, nevertheless, there appeared broken water between all the Keys, & I am inclined to think they are all joined by a Reef. I saw no Smoke or any Sign of Inhabitants, it is scarcely to be imagined however, that So charming a little Spot is without them."

Aitutaki palm trees


It's now Sunday 12th April, 1789 and the winds have changed to light and variable all day with calms. Bligh's meeting with the islanders is recalled in the catchily titled "A voyage to the South Sea undertaken by the command of His Majesty for the purpose of conveying the Bread-Fruit tree of the West Indies in His Majesty's Ship the Bounty commanded by Lieutenant William Bligh", which was published in London in 1892.

"At two in the afternoon we were within three miles of the southernmost key and could see a number of people within the reefs. Shortly after a canoe, in which were four men, paddled off to us and came alongside without showing any signs of apprehension or surprise. I gave them a few beads and they came into the ship. One man, who seemed to have an ascendancy over the others, looked about the ship with some appearance of curiosity, but none of them would venture to go below. They asked for some boiled fresh pork which they saw in a bowl belonging to one of the seaman, and it was given them to eat with boiled plantains. Being told that I was the Earee or chief of the ship the principal person came and joined noses with me, and presented to me a large mother of pearl shell, which hung with plaited hair round his neck; this he fastened round my neck with signs of great satisfaction."
Wiliam Bligh's map of Aitutaki

Bligh made his own remarkably accurate sketch of Aitutaki. He was acknowledged as a great map maker

Other gifts were also exchanged

"​I ordered a young boar and sow to be put into their canoe with some yams and tarro, as we could afford to part with some of these articles. I also gave to each of them a knife, a small adze, some nails, beads, and a looking-glass. The latter they examined with great curiosity; but with the ironwork they appeared to be acquainted; calling it aouree, which is the common name for iron among the islands where it is known....​J​ust before they quitted us they gave me a wooden spear which was the only thing, the paddles excepted, they had brought with them in the canoe. It was a common longstaff pointed with the toa wood ."

Bligh records his impressions of the islanders themselves. And he notes that they resemble people from Hervey's Islands which was the name given to the Cook Islands by Captain Cook. This observation is not surprising as Bligh had been the ship's Master on  HMS Resolution during Cook's third and final voyage in April, 1777 which passed through the Islands.

"The people that came off to us did not differ in appearance from the natives of Hervey's Islands, seen in Captain Cook's last voyage, though much more friendly and inoffensive in their manners. They were tattooed across the arms and legs, but not on the loins or posteriors, like the people of Otaheite [Tahiti]. From their knowledge of iron they have doubtless communication with Hervey's Islands, which are not more than eighteen leagues distant from them."
Close up of William Bligh's signature

This is a detail from Bligh's map drawing. He also noted:

"The island of Wytootackee is about ten miles in circuit; its latitude from 18 degrees 50 minutes to 18 degrees 54 minutes south, and longitude 200 degrees 19 minutes east. A group of small keys, eight in number, lie to the south-east, four or five miles distant from Wytootackee and a single one to the west-south-west; the southernmost of the group is in latitude 18 degrees 58 minutes south." 

Note the spelling of the island's name as Wytootackee and Bligh's own signature (written as 'Wm Bligh')

The sketches are part of the collection of the State Library of New South Wales. The whole of Bligh's book, including an account of the infamous mutiny, is available on line thanks to the amazing Project Gutenberg

Click here to download it

I am indebted to the State Library of New South Wales, Australia for providing me with the extract from Bligh's log book, and to their librarians for creating a transcript of the entry. All spellings and capital letters are exactly as they appear in the log


Bligh returned to Aitutaki on 25 and 26 July, 1792 as Master and Commander of HMS Providence.  And this time he took a closer look.  In this extract from his log he says of the Island:

"It is beautifully clothed with wood and exceeds any place I ever saw in cocoanut trees...We had no sooner got round the north end of the island than we observed several huts on the shore and the natives about their canoes. As soon as we were well under the lee of the shore, they launched through the surf and came off to us...They were confident of our good intentions towards them, and instead of any look of surprise and astonishment it was rather of complacency and admiration...They said that no white person had been or was on the island."

“Cannoe of Whytootachee  Discovered by HMS Bounty”.
Image by Captain William Bligh, 1792 
State Library of New South Wales 

The men are wearing the maro and a pearl shell pendant similar to the one given to Bligh when he discovered Aitutaki in 1789