Final salute: Captain Bligh’s medals sold

HMS Bounty captain earned them after losing ship

Two gold medals earned by Captain William Bligh during his exploits at sea during the late 1700s were auctioned in July in Australia and were expected to fetch more than $272,500 (U.S. dollars).

Captain Bligh, who is best known for being ousted from his post aboard the HMS Bounty by a mutinous crew, won the medals during his long and distinguished career in the Royal Navy. The medals themselves, which have been handed down by Captain Bligh’s descendants for generations, have been described as “extremely rare,” but it is their association with the renowned seafarer that lends them special value.

Captain Bligh was on a mission to bring back breadfruit, which the British empire hoped it could cultivate to feed to slaves in the West Indies, in 1789 when the famous mutiny took place and he and a group of his men were set adrift in a 22-foot launch without navigation equipment in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. In a remarkable feat of endurance, the celebrated British seaman and his crew spent 47 days at sea, catching fish and seabirds and drinking rainwater to survive while navigating thousands of nautical miles by memory. After eventually making land in West Timor, Captain Bligh returned to Britain, where he was subject to a court martial over the loss of the Bounty. He later returned to seafaring and went on to be appointed governor of New South Wales in Australia.

He won the first medal, estimated to be worth $54,500, from The Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce when he finally completed his original mission and succeeded in bringing breadfruit back from Tahiti in 1794. It sold for $126,440.

The other medal, named the Naval Gold Medal 1795, was awarded in recognition of his actions during the successful 1797 Battle of Camperdown against the Dutch, in which the British fleet captured 11 Dutch vessels without losing any of their own. It sold for $235,440. 

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