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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Out of the dripping mist loomed a piratical figure, black of beard and with a stumping gait, who, although his face remained inscrutable, in the country way, greeted Andreas warmly. Glen Parke had worked with Andreas during his superintendence in the 1980s. Living in the nearby village of Westphalia, he was still employed as a gardener by the Ministry of Agriculture. The clipped lawn and weeded beds were partly his work, carefully maintained far from admiring eyes. He and Andreas embarked upon a short tour of old friends, remarking on a tender cinchona sapling that stood where there should have been a tree. "Yah, we lose him," said Glen sadly, of the sapling's predecessor.

Each of Jamaica's four great gardens, although established along similar principles, has acquired its own distinctive aura. Hope Gardens, in the heart of Kingston, evokes postcard pictures from the 1950s of public parks, gracious and vaguely suburban and filled with familiar favorites—lantana and marigolds—as well as exotics. Bath has retained its Old World character; it is the easiest to conjure as it must have looked in Bligh's time. Cinchona of the clouds is otherworldly. And Castleton, the garden established to replace Bath, fleetingly evokes that golden age of Jamaican tourism, when visitors arrived in their own yachts—the era of Ian Fleming and Noel Coward, before commercial air travel unloaded ordinary mortals all over the island.

A showcase of terraced, tropical glamour, Castleton is dotted with ornamental ponds, wound through by artful, cobbled pathways that lead hither and yon beneath the canopies of its famous palms and its streamers of dangling orchids. Unlike Jamaica's other gardens, Castleton's star has never dimmed, perhaps because, straddling the direct road from Kingston to Ocho Rios, it has been accessible and in plain sight. Many Jamaicans recall family picnics taken beside its river, whose palest turquoise water delineates the garden's eastern boundary. Today, Castleton is a featured stop for tourists; on this day, the roadside parking lot was full, and local guides possessed of uncertain knowledge were conducting impromptu tours.

Across the river a cliff wall loomed, hung with its own flowering vines, lanced with its own straight-backed palms straining for light. Jamaica's own flora had been of great interest to Bligh's patron, Sir Joseph Banks, and Bligh's instructions directed that after disposing of his Tahitian cargo he was to take on board a consignment of Jamaican specimens, potted in readiness by the island's chief botanists.

"I find that no Plants were as yet collected for His Majestys [sic] Garden at Kew," Bligh recorded in his log on February 13, 1793, the understated entry bristling with irritation at this failure of duty. Bligh's health had not recovered from his ordeal following the loss of the Bounty, now four years past, and he was wracked with recurrent malaria he had caught in the Dutch East Indies. Indeed, early in this second voyage, Bligh's officers had feared for their captain's life; but he had rallied, as always, and with head pounding, suffering savagely from sun glare under the Pacific skies, he had returned to Tahiti, overseen the transplantation of 2,634 plants, conned his ships through the treacherous Endeavour Straits and arrived in Jamaica. Now, at this final stage of his long and arduous passage, delays mounted and Bligh's health again faltered. The late-arriving Jamaican plants destined for Kew were eventually stowed on board the Providence, then unloaded, as word came from the Admiralty that because of events in France—the guillotining of Louis XVI and subsequent war with England—British ships, the Providence included, should stand by for possible action.

It was early June when Bligh at last received orders to sail. The Providence, stowed with 876 carefully potted Jamaican specimens, weighed anchor at Port Royal, and struck west for Bluefields Bay. Here, Bligh intended to rejoin his tender, the Assistant, which had been earlier dispatched with 84 breadfruit, along with four mysterious "Mango-doodles," for estates at this opposite end of the island. Bluefields had assumed a place of some importance in my own botanical pilgrimage; not only was this the site of Bligh's final anchorage in Jamaican waters, but, so it was rumored, inland from the bay, two of Bligh's original breadfruit trees survived.

Although old Jamaican hands pronounce Bluefields "ruined," to a first-time visitor it appears as one of the more unspoiled stretches of Jamaica's coastline. In living memory, floods and hurricanes have silted and altered the shoreline—Ivan, in 2004, caused memorable damage—and the beach, it is true, is scant, wedged between narrow stretches of mangroves that parallel the coastal road. A string of bright fishing boats lay beached, and opposite some desolate food stalls a wooden jetty extended into the now flat-calm sea.

I had arranged to meet with a professional guide of the ambiguously named Reliable Adventures Jamaica. Wolde Kristos led many ventures in the area—nature tours, bird-watching tours, tours of Taino, Spanish and English history—and was an ardent promoter of Bluefields as the tourist destination best representing "the real Jamaica." He knew the fabled breadfruit trees well, as his foster mother, born in 1912, had told him, "All senior citizens in Bluefields tell of William Bligh," Wolde said.

I had obtained rough directions to one of the trees: "Near bend in the road where you would go up to Gosse's house"—"Gosse" was Philip Henry Gosse, who in 1844-45 had stayed at an old "Great House," or former plantation house, while he researched and wrote his classic book The Birds of Jamaica.

The Great House stood, semi-derelict, at the end of a grassy drive in an overgrown yard. A mother goat and her kid had taken shelter from new rain under the porch, whose supportive timbers had been replaced by twin concrete columns. The exuberant Wolde, with his associate, Deceita Turner, led the way decisively up the front steps and pounded on the locked door. "We will get the caretaker," he said. At length the door was opened by an attractive young woman, who greeted us politely and allowed us in to view the house's historic interior—its mahogany stairway and arches, the old flooring and a hallway of tightly shut mahogany doors.


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