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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By 1793, when the Providence at last delivered its Tahitian transplants, the days of the slave trade were already numbered. The sentiment of ordinary Englishmen, long opposed to the practice, was being felt in their boycott of West Indian products. While Bligh's own views regarding this institution are not known, the official view of his commission was enshrined in the name of his first ship; when purchased by the Admiralty from Duncan Campbell it had been named Bethia, but was rechristened for its fateful mission—Bounty. Although the breadfruit tree flourished and spread across Jamaica, more than 40 years passed before its fruit was popular to local taste, by which time, in 1834, emancipation had been declared in the British Empire.

Today, the breadfruit is a favorite staple of the Jamaican diet. A mature tree produces in excess of 200 pounds of fruit a season. One hundred grams of roasted breadfruit contains 160 calories, two grams of protein, 37 grams of carbohydrates, as well as calcium and other minerals. Breadfruit is eaten roasted, grilled, fried, steamed, boiled and buttered, and as chips and fritters; over-ripe, the liquid fruit can be poured out of its skin to make pancakes, and mashed with sugar and spices it makes a pudding. For its longevity and self-propagation it is perceived as a symbol of perseverance, a belief, according to the Encyclopedia of Jamaican Heritage, "encoded in the saying, ‘The more you chop breadfruit root, the more it spring.'"

Its indelible association with William Bligh, then, is appropriate, for he had persevered through two momentously arduous voyages to fulfill his commission. Other ordeals were to come; back in England, families of the mutineers had been spinning their own version of the piratical seizure of the Bounty, recasting Bligh, who had departed England a national hero, as a tyrannical villain. Weighing anchor in Bluefields Bay, Bligh had no premonition of the trials ahead; he was mindful only of what he had accomplished. "[T]his was the quietest and happiest day I had seen the Voyage," he wrote, as a private aside, in his log, on the day he discharged his plant cargo at Bath. He had done his duty and believed that all that remained was to sail home.

Caroline Alexander wrote The Bounty and the forthcoming The War That Killed Achilles. George Butler's films include Pumping Iron and other documentaries.


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