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)
Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

(Continued from page 3)

"They are afraid I would rent the rooms," said the caretaker, explaining why every interior door to every room was locked, except the one to the room in which she slept; "they" were the absent owners, an Indian family who now lives in England. "I saw them about two years ago," she mused. She was paid no salary but was allowed to live here and to cook her meals outside. "She is guarding this place with her life!" said Wolde in sudden passion. "If she were not here, people would not move into the house, but they would cut down the trees—cedar is expensive."

One of Bligh's fabled breadfruit trees had allegedly stood in the grassy yard, until it had been felled by Ivan. A stump and rubble of wood still marked the site. Behind it, at a plausible distance among some undergrowth, was a sturdy breadfruit sapling, several feet high, which Wolde speculated was a sucker of the old original.

The breadfruit tree that still survived stood just around the corner, off the road from Bluefields Bay, in a grassy lot in which a battered bus was parked. The long rain at last stopped, and now, in the last hour of daylight, this little patch of secondary forest glittered greenly.

Rising to a magnificent 100 feet, the tree stood at the foot of a small gully, backed by a vine-covered embankment. A mottled white bark covered its six-foot girth, and the wide ground stretching beneath its broad canopy was littered with lobed leaves and fallen fruit. Wolde pointed to the gully wall. "This is what protected it from Ivan."

On June 11, 1793, Bligh had overseen the Providence washed "fore and aft and dried with Fires." He had spent the week off Bluefields readying his ship—overseeing the land parties that scavenged for timber or filled water casks from the Black River—and exercising the ship guns. Twice he gave the signal to sail, and twice the "constant Calms and light Variable Airs" prevented him from doing so.

The passage from Jamaica to England was one that Bligh, the consummate navigator, could surely have accomplished in his sleep. He knew this particular route well, for from 1784 to 1787, before his fateful commission on the Bounty, Bligh had lived in Jamaica, employed by his wealthy uncle-in-law Duncan Campbell to sail merchant ships loaded with rum and sugar between Jamaica and England; Lloyds List, a registry of shipping movements, records ten such voyages made by Bligh during this time. Remnants of the Salt Spring estate, the Campbell property that had been Bligh's base when he was not on his ship, lie on Green Island Harbor less than 20 miles from Lucea, the attractive old 18th-century town; the earliest known chart made by William Bligh is of the Lucea Harbor.

At the old British fort, its black guns still trained on the sea, I met with Evangeline Clare, who had established the local historical museum and has long conducted research of her own into the sprawling and powerful Campbell clan; it was she who had supplied me with the Lloyds shipping lists. A striking African-American woman with silver-blond hair, she had come to Jamaica 44 years ago as a Peace Corps volunteer, married a Jamaican and stayed on.

In the heat of the day, we drove the short distance from her house on Green Island down a dirt track to the site of Campbell Great House, which, built in the 1780s, was slipping brokenly into scrub. "Cane cutters have been camping here," Evangeline told me, and was clearly concerned about the reception we might meet; but in fact the ruined house, which wore an air of ineluctable abandonment, was deserted. It had lost its roof to Gilbert, but its thick, immutable walls, built of ballast stone carried from England, still held off the heat. The Campbell garden had been legendary, "with beautiful lawns, groves, and shrubberies," as a contemporary visitor glowingly reported, "which give his residence the appearance of one of those charming seats that beautify the country, and exalt the taste of England." In particular, Mr. Campbell had been assiduous in his cultivation of the breadfruit, which had continued to flourish around the house over the passing centuries, and were cut down only in recent years.

Beyond the house stretched the remnant cane fields, the basis of Jamaica's enormous wealth during the 17th and 18th centuries, when it was the world's leading producer of sugar, molasses and rum, and one of Britain's most valuable possessions. This heady run as the center of the economic world had ended with the end of slavery in the 19th century.

"Somewhere along the line, I think people figured out that if they could just get rid of this cane, they could do away with the whole slave thing," said Evangeline. "I mean—can you imagine..."


Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus