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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All of Jamaica, it has been said, is a botanical garden. Inland, the mountain clefts and gullies, often coursed by streams, are tangled with greenery, the trees woolly and blurred with epiphytes, ferns, orchids and the night-scented, night-blooming cereus. An island with a total area of less than 4,000 square miles, Jamaica has 579 species of ferns alone, a higher density, it is believed, than anywhere else in the world. Epiphytes dangle from telephone wires; the forests are hung with flowering vines; often on this trip I thought of how Bligh and the men of the Providence must have been reminded here of the lush blue-green landscape of Tahiti.

But the emphasis on a botanical garden in particular is significant. Existing for study, experimentation and display, a botanical garden is encyclopedic, learnedly diverse, replete with exotic specimens. It is a stunning fact that in the natural garden of Jamaica, the majority of the island's defining plants were imported and disseminated by botanical ventures like those conducted by William Bligh. Few of Jamaica's important economic plants—cassava, pineapple, cedar, mahogany and pimento—are native, and most of the island's defining flora is exotic. In the 16th century, the Spanish brought in sugar cane, bananas and plantains, limes, oranges, ginger, coffee and a variety of European vegetables. The British, driving out the Spanish in 1655, were responsible for the mango, which by 1793, as Bligh noted, grew "luxuriantly, and...are plentifull all over the Island." Similarly, the glossy, red, pear-shaped ackee, poisonous if eaten unripe, and today the national food of Jamaica, came from West Africa, brought either by European slaver or African slave.

For it was not, of course, only Jamaica's flora that was imported. When Columbus first reached Jamaica in 1494, the island had been inhabited by the Taino, a northern Caribbean people. The first Africans arrived shortly thereafter, in 1513, as servants, herdsmen and cowboys, as well as slaves to the Spanish. Under British rule, slaves were imported in ever-increasing numbers to do the brutal work in the cane fields of the great sugar estates. Most, including the Comorantee, Mandingo, Ashanti and Yoruba, came from West Africa, but thousands of bondsmen, slaves in all but name, came from Ireland, where Oliver Cromwell was intent on the extermination of the Irish people; some speculate that the characteristic lilt in Jamaican speech comes from the Irish, not the English. Today, Jamaica's population of just under three million is descended from its many transplanted peoples—West African slaves; Irish, Scottish and Welsh bondsmen and servants; British soldiers; Chinese, Indian and Lebanese merchants; and English landowners. The native Taino, who virtually disappeared as a people within 30 years of the arrival of the Spanish, are today encountered only in relics of their language, in words such as "hammock" and "canoe," and the island's name—Hamaika, the "land of wood and water."

Jamaica has also attracted a striking number of accidental transplants, random wanderers, who, like the buoyant fruit of the Barringtonia, drifted ashore and took root. Such a transplant was Andreas Oberli, who came to Jamaica in 1978 and eventually stayed on. "This was after Allen and before Gilbert," he said, locating events in the Jamaican way, by their relationship to landmark hurricanes.

We were again navigating traffic out of Kingston, headed for another historic garden. Kingston's setting, between its magnificent natural harbor (the largest in the Caribbean) and the Blue Mountain foot­hills, should make it one of the most striking cities in the world; but even in this season of violent bougainvillea bloom, the traffic and sprawl overwhelm, and most visitors look wistfully to the hills, where we were headed. Now, on the narrow road that winds along the Hope River valley, we found ourselves navigating pedestrians, veering cars and goats. "Never in Jamaica has a car hit a goat," Andreas declared defiantly, as goats and their kids skipped and grazed along the precipitous roadsides. Shortly before the paved road ran out, he stopped again to point to the ridgeline above us, darkly profiled against the clouded white sky. A tree with a tufted crown, like a bottlebrush, could just, with guidance, be discerned. "Cinchona," he said.

Half an hour later, our four-wheel drive jeep lurched into the garden. Here, at the top of the island, the white sky settled determinedly upon us. Sometimes in sharp, dark silhouette, sometimes misted indistinctly, towering trees breasted the pressing clouds that trickled in white drifts and threads from where they boiled out of the valley. Andreas looked about him, pleased; things were in not-bad order. The grass was clipped and green with cloud dew; the raised brick beds, filled with old favorites—begonias, geraniums, masses of daylilies—were all well tended. The beds he had built himself, between 1982 and 1986, when he had been superintendent of the garden.

"The big trees were lost to the hurricanes," Andreas said. He had begun his duties in the wake of Allen (which hit in 1980) with the aid of two Peace Corps workers who had been assigned to him. "For the first year, we did nothing but drag and clear trees; we cut up or felled between two to three hundred." The debris gone, he had turned to reclaiming the garden. A ramshackle bungalow, dating from the first years of the garden's creation, had survived Allen, and on the grassy platform before it Andreas had laid the beds and fishpond, before moving down the slopes to more naturalistic plantings—the green stream of moss with its banks of polished bamboo, the azalea walk and avenue of ferns, the blue hill slope of agapanthus.

The origins of Cinchona Gardens lay in the abandonment of the garden at Bath, which had suffered from frequent severe floodings of the nearby Sulphur River, as well as its inconvenient distance from Kingston. Consequently, in 1862, the Jamaican colonial government established a new botanical garden at Castleton, some 20 miles north of Kingston, a decision that seems also to have inspired the afterthought of the Hill Gardens, as Cinchona was also known, which at nearly 5,000 feet is the highest in Jamaica. Originally, its generous allotment of 600 acres had been envisioned as a plantation of "Peruvian bark," or cinchona trees, from which the anti-malarial drug quinine is made. When the East Indian industry usurped the quinine market, plans for Cinchona shifted to the cultivation of temperate tropical plants; among other things, English planters had long harbored the hope of cultivating those necessities of life fondly associated with Home, such as the potato and the almighty cabbage, which, in this land of tropical abundance, were still found wanting.

"Up here, we have European weeds," said Andreas, and pointed out the clover, dandelions and daisies that spangled the grass around the ruined station house. "A lot of stones were imported for building, such as sandstone and Carrara marble; they were shipped covered with hay that was afterwards fed to horses. The seed in their manure did not germinate in the lowlands, but they do well up here in this European climate."

At the edge of the mountain, the clouds briefly dissolved to reveal the green, sunlit valley, combed with small farming plots; then the mist closed in again, effacing the sky entirely, and it began to rain. The old station house, shown in photographs in the 1920s and 1930s as a trim little bungalow, hulked ruinously and uselessly behind us, offering no shelter, and we tramped wetly through the garden, past the Japanese cedar conifers (Cryptomeria) and the Lost World avenue of ferns.


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