Captain Bligh and the Breadfruit

Bounty

The story of the mutiny on the Bounty and the aborted introduction of the breadfruit from Tahiti to Jamaica is one that is well known to lovers of classic cinema.  However, the tale told rarely gives the breadfruit plant the starring it deserves.

The breadfruit tree has been cultivated by man for so long that its exact origins are unclear. It has certainly been grown since ancient times from India and the Malayan archipelago across the islands of the Pacific. A member of the mulberry family, the breadfruit plant is a tree some 25 m tall, with large dissected leaves of almost a metre long by half a metre in width. The most commonly grown type is seedless with round fruit measuring up to about 30 cm in diameter. These statistics may appear dull, but they are an integral part of the story of Captain Bligh and the mutiny.

By the first part of the eighteenth century, the breadfruit had gained an undeserved reputation with the colonial powers of Europe, as a crop that could feed their expanding slave based colonies in the Americas. Thus, when a series of famines stuck Jamaica, the plantation owners began to petition King George III to have the breadfruit introduced from Tahiti to feed their starving slaves. Curiously, because of rivalries between colonial powers the plantation owners appear to have missed the fact that the French had already introduced the breadfruit into their Caribbean colonies. Indeed, even before Bligh set out on his ill-fated voyage, it appears that the British had captured a French ship bound for Martinique and already returned to Jamaica with the bounty which included breadfruit plants! Still this fact was not about to deter the great Captain and thus five years later in 1787, he and his crew set-sail for Tahiti in search of breadfruit.

What the filmmakers fail to appreciate is the scale of the task Bligh and his small ship had set themselves. As stated above, the breadfruit in question is seedless, and thus could not easily have been transported as a convenient packet of seeds. No, the breadfruit is a fair sized tree with leaves almost a metre long. Travelling half the way around the world under sail it would not be possible to stow the plants below desk, obviously they needed to be in the light.  So, picture this, more than a thousand (yes, 1,015 – Bligh was not one to do things by half measures) trees in pots with massive leaves flapping everywhere. With the drying winds of the open ocean, it is no great surprise that they used lots of water and no surprise either that the crew became fed-up with the damned things and threw them over-board.

Not easily deflected from his task, four years later Bligh set out once more with a new crew and a new ship, the Providence. Apparently learning nothing from his experience on the Bounty, he more than doubled the number of breadfruit plants on board to more than 2000. Indeed, Bligh, being a man of ambition, stopped at the West Coast of Africa on route to Jamaica and picked up a consignment of akees, another tree crop intended to feed the slaves of the West Indies. Some reports however say that Bligh was responsible for transporting the akee from Jamaica to the gardens at Kew.

Although it was rapidly established around the British Caribbean, the breadfruit never did substantially feed the starving slaves of the West Indies and to this day it is often still held in low regard throughout the region where it carries the stigma of being slave food. It appears to be cropped as much for its rubbery latex, as for food. Breadfruit trees throughout the Caribbean carry the scars of numerous cutlass blows inflicted to tap the latex. The sap is rolled into balls and placed in the branches of trees where parrots appear to be stupid enough to become ensnared in the sticky stuff.

In contrast to the breadfruit, the akee (which is called Blighia in Latin, in honour of Captain Bligh) is held in the highest regards in Jamaica, where it is the national fruit and the national dish is salt-fish and akees. The cream coloured fleshy tissues, which surround the black marble like seed, are eaten with great relish. This activity is, however, associated with a degree of risk, as the fruit is said to be poisonous if eaten too young or overripe or if the wrong portions are consumed. These stories are probably somewhat exaggerated and deaths in Jamaica from akee poising are rarer than they were.

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