In Havana I joined a group of carpenters, plumbers and electricians for a game of…
William Bligh and the Jamaican Breadfruit Tree
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.
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.
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.
Check out other historic traveler posts here and here.