William Bligh and the Jamaican Breadfruit Tree

 William Bligh and the Jamaican Breadfruit Tree

William Bligh

There is a memory of the Bounty’s William Bligh in the form of a tree in the Jamaican mountains outside of Kingston.

It should be obvious by now that I have a thing for historic travelers.

I’m not sure how old I was but after reading the 1932 novel “Mutiny on the Bounty” by Nordhoff and  Hall I couldn’t get out of my mind what happened to Captain Bligh? So I dove into  “The Bounty Mutiny: Captain William Bligh’s Firsthand Account of the Last Voyage of HMS Bounty”, “The Journal of Bounty’s Launch” and the Bligh’s courts-martial papers “A Narrative of the Mutiny on board His Majesty’s Ship “Bounty“.

It turned out Bligh was one of the more capable and amazing sea captains of his day – and not at all the tyrant the Nordhoff and Hall made him out to be. As has been shown, this brilliant man was the victim of some major press spin as well as extreme social snobbery.

If Jamaica is one of your winter vacation destinations then head to the pretty little village of Bath up in the mountains beyond the capital.  There, you’ll find a one of the most interesting botanical gardens in the world and where you’ll find a memory of Bligh.

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The plantation owners in Jamaica were less concerned about starving slaves than slaves so hungry they would revolt. After several hard-hitting hurricanes in the 1780′s food on the Caribbean island was in short supply.  At the time it was already well-known there existed a South Pacific island fruit that provided abundant food throughout the year.  This was breadfruit.

A species of mulberry, breadfruit is an easily grown and highly productive tree native to New Guinea.  Cooked, the texture and taste of the fruit is very similar to bread.  I’ve eaten it in Haiti and found it delicious. Ancient Polynesians spread the tree throughout the Pacific region about 3,500 years ago. The thing about breadfruit is that it is tough and highly adaptable.  The breadfruit is an amazing food as I discovered in Haiti.  A mature tree can produce up to 200 pounds of fruit in a season.  Highly caloric, full of protein and packed with vitamin C, B3 and loads of nutrients, it has become a staple in Caribbean diets where it is roasted, steamed, boiled, fried, made into breads, muffins, cookies, soups and puddings.

Breadfruit drawing John Frederick Miller 1759 1796 William Bligh and the Jamaican Breadfruit Tree

Breadfruit by John Frederick Miller 1759-1796

The plantation owners of Jamaica saw breadfruit as an answer to the food insecurity of their slaves and offered rewards to any ship captain who could bring a transplant to the Caribbean. Ultimately though, it required a directive from King George III to organize a special expedition to find and deliver the tree to Jamaica.

Bligh had sailed with Cook on his second voyage around the world and was highly regarded by the Admiralty.  So it was he who sailed for Tahiti on the Bounty.

There is no reason to discuss the famous mutiny here.  Google that one.

After the mutiny and Bligh’s incredible return to England the young Captain, recently cleared by the Admiralty of wrong-doing in the mutiny and promoted from Lieutenant, Bligh was sent off an another two-year mission to the South Pacific to get the troublesome breadfruit.  This time, he was given more men and more ships but it still wasn’t an easy task.  Bligh himself suffered fevers and migraines from the malaria he’d picked up in Timor. His crew reported water shortages, cold sea spray and troublesome flies.  Nonetheless, they were able to collect 2,100 breadfruit plants of five varieties, store them on deck in pots and tubs, establish a nursery in the hold and head for the Caribbean.

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Bligh’s ship Providence docked at Port Royal on February 5, 1793 with 678 trees still alive and “in the finest order.”  His ship was described as a “floating forest”.  After unloading a great number of the trees in the capitol he sailed around to Port Morant, Bath’s harbor, where the remaining 346 trees were carried six miles overland and deposited in the Bath Botanic Garden.

The breadfruit thrived in the dark soils and tropical climate of Jamaica but it took another two generations and the abolition of slavery before the people of Jamaica took to eating the Pacific food.

The Bath garden, where Bligh’s tree is to be found, is one of the oldest botanical gardens in the world. It was established in 1779 when the English captured a French ship laden with mangoes, cinnamon and jackfruit. The English saw right away that the French were onto something and they jumped to the task of preserving the plats they had captured. Bath was one of the key points in the botanical empire building that saw the establishment of the famous gardens at Kew, Calcutta, Sydney and St. Vincent.

DSC 0266 1 William Bligh and the Jamaican Breadfruit Tree

Breadfruit in Haiti. Photo by author

The breadfruit success points to an amazing fact about Jamaica’s natural environment.  The islands most important food sources and economically important plants such as oranges, pineapple, ginger, coffee, cassava, bananas, cedar, mahogany and pimento are NOT actually native to the island. The national food the ackee is actually from West Africa.  By far the majority of Jamaica’s flora is exotic.  Bligh also brought back what are known as otaheite apples, another well-known food on the island.

Today, Bath is not what it once was. After a series of floods, the colonial government moved the garden to Castleton, much closer to Kingston.  The one hectare property is still maintained though for its historical significance and continues to host the August Breadfruit Festival.

Still today, on the western edge of the garden the traveler will find a small cluster of breadfruit trees and a memory of the great traveler William Bligh.

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Check out other historic traveler posts here and here.

 

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23 Responses to William Bligh and the Jamaican Breadfruit Tree

  1. Marc d'Entremont December 18, 2012 at 1:32 pm #

    If you’re lucky enough to find breadfruit (in North America) it can be used in ANY recipe that calls for potatoes. My favorite is to simply steam cubed bread fruit until tender and then lightly saute in butter & garlic. Of note is the fact that there are male and female breadfruit. The male fruit is totally different in that within it’s mushy interior are “chestnut” sized nuts that, literally, can be cooked in the same way for ANY recipe for chestnuts! “Breadnuts roasting on an open fire….”

    • Jim O'Donnell December 19, 2012 at 11:59 am #

      Thank you for that Marc. Good to know. I’ve never seen breadfruit in CO or NM. I really want to try Vago’s curried breadfruit recipe for sure. I was really stunned in Haiti at all the different and delicious ways it was used.

  2. Kerwin December 18, 2012 at 3:12 pm #

    Interesting.
    I grew up in Jamaica and there was a tree in my yard from which I ate forever it seems. Had no idea of the history of the fruit. Its one of my favorite foods though.

    As for replacing potato recipes with breadfruit; I’m not too certain about that at all Marc.
    Mashed breadfruit is not the same consistency as mashed potatoes :)

    • Jim O'Donnell December 19, 2012 at 11:58 am #

      Thats a great share Kerwin! Thank you! Its always amazing the stories behind many of the things we take for granted – especially food!

  3. Marc d'Entremont December 18, 2012 at 7:17 pm #

    Hi Kerwin, As a chef I’ve done it many times. It’s not the “same” but that does not mean it does not work as a substitute for potatoes in just about any recipe – except maybe baked in its skin with sour cream, bacon, cheddar cheese and chives…just follow the imagination.

  4. María Elena December 18, 2012 at 7:28 pm #

    What a nice an interested article !

    • Jim O'Donnell December 19, 2012 at 11:51 am #

      Thank you Maria. I’d really like to go and visit that garden – after Cuba of course!

  5. Mary McLaughlin December 19, 2012 at 3:12 pm #

    Trees That Feed Foundation is planting thousands of Breadfruit trees in Jamaica, Haiti, Costa Rica and Ghana. We work with the National Tropical Botanical Gardens, The Jamaican Ministry of Agriculture, Three Angels Children Relief and many NGO to plant the trees. New cultivars are introduced, smaller trees and fruit richer in protein. TTFF is working to develope the breadfruit flour production. Helping people and helping the environment at the same time. We are always looking for partners to help spread the word and plant trees.
    Mary MLaughlin
    312 933 0241

    • Jim O'Donnell December 20, 2012 at 8:04 am #

      Mary, Thank you for the comment and all your good work. I’d love to work with you all. My other hat is that of a certified Permaculture designer and my focus is developing “Food Forests”. I’ve worked in New Mexico, Haiti and India. I think a complex, botanically rich and diverse forest ecosystem can serve a multitude of purposes from healing aquifers to holding soil to cleaning air to feeding people and wildlife. I’ll be in touch.

  6. Trees That Feed Foundation December 19, 2012 at 10:14 pm #

    This is a good tree that can help the environment and produce great food at the same time.

    • Jim O'Donnell December 20, 2012 at 2:59 pm #

      I completely agree and appreciate that comment.

  7. Rachel December 21, 2012 at 7:45 pm #

    I’ll be serving my family breadfruit cooked some kind of way at the first opportunity, without telling them what it is. (This is how I get my kicks.) Let you know how it goes.

    Re: Bligh — people in leadership positions often get painted darker than is just by their inferiors; perhaps inferiors just don’t like being under anybody, so they deflect the shadow upwards. In any case I always found the narrator in that book (Byam, right?) a tad immature and self-centered.

  8. Linda April 7, 2013 at 4:05 pm #

    I guess you tweeted this again or something, because sometime in the last couple of days I saved it to reader later i.e. now. It’s fascinating. Breadfruit was just a name for me before, now I have a much better idea of what it is, and its possibilities seem amazing. Co-incidentally, today I also read this http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-22043002 on the BBC website. Probably it’s something with which you’re already familiar. I had a vague idea about the baobab, but no idea of how important it might prove to be. It seems that there is more than one potential source of food capable of easing our problems, and at the same time providing all the benefits which trees give to the environment?

  9. SHIJU T PUNNOOSE April 29, 2013 at 9:11 am #

    There is wide spread belief in KERALA, INDIA that if you plant a BREAD FRUIT tree you will become debtor and may lose all your wealth and remain as a debtor through rest of your life and eventually thrown out of your house. It is called CHEEMA CHAKKA or KADA CHAKKA in malayalam language and the tree is called KADA PLAVU where KADA means debt and PLAVU means jack fruit tree.

    • Jim O'Donnell April 29, 2013 at 10:50 am #

      Shiju, thank you for that very informative comment. So, the name for breadfruit is a combination of “debt” and “jackfruit” even tho jackfruit is an entirely different tree? Very fascinating. I wonder where this belief came from and how it might be overcome given how valuable breadfruit could be in solving malnutrition issues. I worked in Karnataka on a project that involved planting food producing trees. Breadfruit was high on the list of options and I never heard about this type of belief in Karnataka. Not to say it wasnt there but that I didnt hear about it. Its worth more investigation. Thank you again for the great comment.

  10. Yolande Dickinson-Smith December 21, 2013 at 10:10 am #

    My ancestor is James Wiles, one of the botanists that sailed with Captain Bligh on the Providence – his job was to collect plant specimens and maintain them. He took over the upkeep of Bath and then Linguanea. Do you know more about him? Family tree search…Thanks

  11. Kite Erasito April 22, 2014 at 4:18 am #

    Breadfruit – tree the Decade

  12. Jim O'Donnell April 23, 2014 at 1:54 pm #

    I did not know of him. Thank you for that info. Fascinating historically but also….thats a job I could love!

  13. Jim O'Donnell April 23, 2014 at 1:54 pm #

    Tree of the Decade?

  14. Kite Erasito April 23, 2014 at 7:12 pm #

    Jim O'Donnell thank you for correcting me

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