Captain Bligh’s Cursed Breadfruit

The biographer of William Bligh—he of the infamous mutiny on the Bounty—tracks him to Jamaica, still home to the versatile plant

Stately palms and winding walks imbue the Castleton Gardens with an aura of refinement. (George Butler)
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An hour out of the maelstrom of Kingston's traffic, the first frigate bird appeared, and then, around a bend in the road, the sea. There are few beaches on this southeastern side of Jamaica, nothing resembling the white sands and resorts on the opposite shore, around Montego Bay. While Jamaicans might come to the village of Bath, where I was now headed, this part of the island is little visited by outsiders.

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Six miles inland I and my guide Andreas Oberli—a Swiss-born botanist and horticulturist who has lived in Jamaica for nearly 30 years—arrived at Bath, seemingly deserted at this late morning hour. A pretty village of sagging, historic houses, it had formerly been a fashionable spa known for its hot springs; the 17th-century privateer Henry Morgan is reputed to have enjoyed the genteel practice of taking the waters. There are two reasons a visitor might come to Bath today: the springs and its botanical garden, which now, beyond its Victorian-looking iron gate, lay snoozing in the sun.

Unfolding lazily from the shade of the garden wall, a straggle of young men with ganja-glazed eyes leaned forward to scrutinize us as we approached. Inside the gate and beyond the sentinel of royal palms, few flowers bloomed, for this garden is given less to blossoms than to trees.

Elephant apple from India; Christmas palm from the Philippines; Ylang ylang from Indonesia; two aged tropical dragon's blood trees and a Barringtonia asiatica, believed to be 230 years old. The stark botanical labels hinted at the labor and eccentric vision that lay behind the garden. Established in 1779, Bath is one of the oldest botanical gardens in the world, its collection jump-started, in this time of English-French hostilities, by the capture of a French ship coming from Mauritius laden with Indian mangoes, cinnamon and other exotics that included the euphonious bilimbi, brindonne and carambola, as well as jackfruit and June plum. Eighteenth-century botanizing had become a global enterprise, undertaken by colonial powers such as France, Spain and the Netherlands as well as Britain, to establish encyclopedic plant collections for study and sometimes useful propagation. While most specimens gathered by British collectors were destined for the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, outside London, some went to satellite stations at Calcutta, Sydney, St. Vincent and to Bath.

And it was in homage to the second, transforming consignment of plants brought to Bath that I now paid my visit, for Bath Gardens played a small but poignant part in one of the great sea sagas of all time—the mutiny on the Bounty. As the world well knows, in the year 1789, Lt. William Bligh lost his ship Bounty at the hands of one Fletcher Christian and a handful of miscreants on a voyage back to England from Tahiti, where the Bounty had been sent to collect breadfruit and other useful plants of the South Pacific. The breadfruit expedition, backed by the great and influential botanist Sir Joseph Banks, patron of Kew Gardens and president of the Royal Society, had been commissioned to transport the nutritious, fast-growing fruit to the West Indies for propagation as a cheap food for slave laborers who worked the vast sugar estates. The mutiny, therefore, not only deprived Bligh of his ship, but defused a grand botanical enterprise. Dumped into a lifeboat with 18 members of his crew, and with food sufficient for a week, Bligh navigated through high seas and perilous storms over a period of 48 starving days, drawing on his memory of the few charts he had seen of the mostly uncharted waters. His completion of the 3,618-mile voyage to safety in Timor is still regarded as perhaps the most outstanding feat of seamanship and navigation ever conducted in a small boat. As a token of its esteem and trust, the British Admiralty had promoted the young Lieutenant Bligh to captain—and packed him off on another two-year mission, back to Tahiti for the infernal breadfruit. Two thousand one hundred twenty-six breadfruit plants were carried from Tahiti, in pots and tubs stored both on deck and in the below-deck nursery. The expedition's gardener described depredations inflicted by "exceedingly troublesome" flies, cold, "unwholesomeness of Sea Air," salt spray and rationed water; nonetheless, 678 survived to the West Indies, being delivered first to St. Vincent and finally to Jamaica. And it was in February 1793 that Capt. William Bligh, fulfilling at last his momentous commission, had overseen his first deposition of 66 breadfruit specimens from Tahiti, all "in the finest order," in Bath Botanical Gardens.

"The Botanic Garden had no rare things in it, except the Sago Plant, the Camphor and Cinnamon," Bligh noted in his log with palpable satisfaction; Bath's meager holdings would only enhance the value of his own, which included more than 30 species in addition to the breadfruit—the carambee, which Malays used for perfume, and the mattee and ettow, which "Produce the fine red dye of Otaheite."

Bligh's ship Providence had arrived at Port Royal, Kingston, to some fanfare, its "floating forest," according to an officer of the ship, "eagerly visited by numbers of every rank and degree"— so much so that, as another officer complained, "the common Civility of going around the Ship with them and explaining the Plants became by its frequency rather troublesome." Leaving Kingston, Bligh had sailed for Port Morant, Bath's harbor. Here, the day after his arrival, with moderate temperatures in the 70s and a fine breeze blowing, the Providence had been emptied of its last 346 plants, which were carried six miles overland on the heads of bearers and deposited in a shady plot in these gardens.

Today, a cluster of breadfruit trees still flourishes, demure on the edge of dark shade by the western wall. As most breadfruit reproduce not by seed but by sending out long suckers, the modern specimens are affectionately presumed to be "daughter" trees of Bligh's transports. Andreas Oberli, who has aggressively agitated for the restoration of the island's historic gardens, regarded them critically. "You see, this one is from Timor—it has a totally different leaf than the others." The glory of the "classic" Tahitian breadfruit is its large, ornamentally lobed, glossy green foliage. "They should get the labels right," he said curtly, Bligh-like in his keen attention to botanical duty.

Under the towering shade of the oldest trees, a young couple strolled reading the labels of each. Two little boys stood looking intently into a Chinese soapberry, incriminating slingshots in their hands. "Not while I'm here, OK?" Andreas growled, and the boys shrugged and wandered off. Three enormous women entered the garden and, spreading blankets on the grass, arrayed themselves massively along the earth. Andreas and I picnicked under the shade of a cannonball tree, the high rustling of the garden's glinting fronds and foliage masking most other sounds. Birds, buffeted but triumphant, rode the wind. On the ground, unmolested and untroubled, a rooster strode among the shadows in conscious magnificence, his comb, backlit by the lowering sun, glowing red. "A survey was taken at Kew some years ago," said Andreas; "only 16 percent of the people who visited were there to see the plants." We looked around. "They came for the garden."

My interest in the botanical gardens of Jamaica arose mainly from their little-known role in the saga of Bligh and the mutiny on the Bounty, which I had researched for a book. There was also a personal incentive. I had briefly lived in Jamaica as a child, and one of my earliest true memories is of the parklike Hope Royal Botanical Gardens, in Kingston. In my memory, I see a tunnel of climbing vines with trumpety orange flowers; there had been a bandstand and beds of flowers you could touch. But I had not traveled inland, nor had I seen—and until my Bounty studies, even heard of—Jamaica's other historic gardens.


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