Nancy D Valladares

Captain Bligh’s Cursed Breadfruit

by Caroline Alexander

“ 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.“