Although Bligh was certainly not the vicious man portrayed in popular fiction, some claim his over-sensitivity and acid tongue damaged what would have otherwise been a distinguished career.
Bligh was the son of Francis and Jane Bligh (née Balsam) in Plymouth Devon, although of a Cornish family. He was signed up for the Royal Navy in 1761, at the age of seven, in the same city. Whether he went to sea at this tender age is doubtful, as it was common practice to sign on a "young gentleman" simply in order to rack up the required years of service for quick promotion. In 1770 at the age of 16, he joined HMS Hunter as an able seaman, the term being used only because there was no vacancy for a midshipman. He became a midshipman early in the following year of 1771.
In September 1771, Bligh was transferred to the Crescent and remained on that ship for three years.
In 1776, Bligh was selected by Captain James Cook for the position of Sailing Master on the Resolution and accompanied Captain Cook in July 1776 on Cook's third and fatal voyage to the Pacific. He reached England again at the end of 1780 and was able to give further details of Cook's last voyage.
Bligh married Elizabeth Betham, the daughter of a Customs Collector, on 4 February 1781, at the age of 26. The wedding took place at Onchan, on the Isle of Man (coincidentally Fletcher Christian was descended from a Manx family). A few days later, he was appointed to serve on HMS Belle Poule as its master. Soon after this, in August 1781, he fought in the Battle of Dogger Bank under Admiral Parker. For the next 18 months, he was a lieutenant on various ships. He also fought with Lord Howe at Gibraltar in 1782.
Between 1783 and 1787, Bligh was a captain in the merchant service.
In 1787 Bligh was selected as commander of HMAV Bounty.
Bligh would eventually rise to the rank of Vice Admiral in the British Royal Navy.