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September 2, 2008

"Breadfruit Bligh"

Those folks over at the Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog manage to dig up some good stuff:

National Tropical Botanic Garden - Breadfruit Collection

I've got to admit that breadfruits aren't a fruit I have too much experience with, and realistically most of what I could put together here is already going to be on that page, only written by people who know much, much more.

I did have a grizzled old banana worker, shy a few fingers, attempt to sell me one on a roadside outside of Cauhita, Costa Rica. I had a good time talking to him, alternating between my broken Spanish and his barely intelligible (to me) Caribbean English. What I really wanted was one of his bananas (he did eventually sell me one), but he really wanted to sell that breadfruit. He'd have sold it cheap, too, and I have to confess that I was curious, but I wasn't exactly sure what I was going to do with a raw breadfruit nearly the size of a volleyball, with no knife, no room in my bag, and at that point, not even a place to sleep. So I turned it down, assuming I'd see breadfruit again in my travels there. But I didn't.

It's hard to say what variety it was--I certainly am not an expert on breadfruit cultivars--but according to my notes at the time, of those listed on the Selected Varieties page, it most closely resembled 'White', which would at least be geographically consistent.

Which does bring up an interesting intersection of history and the breadfruit. Although many people are familiar with the story of the mutiny on the Bounty, most seem to forget the whole reason behind the H.M.S. Bounty's mission, namely to collect breadfruit trees in the Society Islands, for use as a source of high energy food for slaves in the Caribbean (you can read Bligh's orders here). (They were also supposed to pick up mangosteens to replace any breadfruit trees that died). Captain Bligh's zeal for his mission was such that his crew took to calling him "Breadfruit Bligh". The crew collected 1,015 plants in Tahiti and set off on their return voyage, but the crew had become a bit too attached to Tahiti, and three weeks later they rose up in their famous mutiny, pitched the plants overboard, and headed back to Tahiti.

You've got to give Bligh credit, though. He took the whole breadfruit thing pretty darn seriously. I like fruit—a lot, actually. But if my friends and I headed out to fetch some, say, grapes, and on the way home, my companions, say, set me adrift in an open boat for 47 days, then the next time it occurred to me that some grapes might be good, I think I might decide that, you know what, maybe I didn't need grapes after all. Not our man Bligh. A year and a half after finally making his way back to England, he set sail again, on the H.M.S. Providence, once again in search of breadfruit. This time he successfully retrieved 2,126 breadfruit trees (one of which is believed to have been the source of the 'White' cultivar in the Caribbean). He also brought back a vast collection of other plants, the names of many of which I can't even recognize. I've transcribed one such list, accompanied by my guesses as to the plants indicated. Please feel free to make suggestions! (some of this may be archaic names, some may be obscure plants):



TAHITI
BreadfruitBreadfruit (Artocarpus altilis)
RattahTahitian Chestnut (Inocarpus edulis)?
Ay'ah?
Av'vee or VeeVee Tree, ambarella, Otaheite apple (Spondias dulcis)
Oraiah"a very superior kind of plantain" (Musa paradisiaca)
Pee'ah?
Vai'hee?
Cocoa NutCoconut (Cocos nucifera)
EttowGeiger Tree (Cordia sebestena)
MatteeDye fig(Ficus tinctoria)

POSSESSION ISLAND, NEW GUINEA
Sao, or Sow"a kind of plum"

TIMOR
Breadfruit, Otaheite (Taihiti) KindBreadfruit (Artocarpus altilis)
Breadfruit, which bears feed?
MangoMango (Mangifera sp.)
IamblangJambul (Syzygium cumini)
Iambo Iremavah?
Iambo Ma'ree?
BlimbingBilimbi (Averrhoa bilimbi)
CheramailahCherimoya? If so, what's it doing in Timor?
KarambolaStarfruit, Carambola (Averrhoa carambola)
Nonefang, or Lemon ChinaLimeberry (Triphasia trifolia)
Cosambee?
NankaJackfruit (Artocarpus heterophyllus)
Namnam(Cynometra cauliflora)
PomegranatesPomegranates (Punica granatum)
Seeree boah, or Long Pepper(Piper longum?)
Seeree down?
Bintaloo?
Dangreedah?
Bugahnah KanangahYlang-ylang (Cananga odorata)
Iattee, or Tickwood?

ST. HELENA
PlantainPlantain (Musa paradisiaca)
China OrangeSweet orange (Citrus sinensis)
Dwarf PeachPeach (Prunus persica)
AlmondsAlmonds (Prunus dulcis
Nutmeg from St. Vincent'sNutmeg (Myristica sp., probably fragrans)
CoffeeCoffee (Coffea sp.)
GwavahGuava (Psidium sp.)
Poorah'owCoconut (Cocos nucifera)


An impressive collection, even in an age when trucking plant species around the planet was almost frighteningly common. Bligh established (or at least attempted to establish) these species in St. Helena, St. Vincent, and in Jamaica. While in Jamaica, he also brought back to England samples of akee, which had been previously transported to the Carribbean from West Africa, and introduced it to the scientific community. The scientific name, Blighia sapida, honors the captain.

Still, despite all this, Bligh remains best known for his mutinous crew. And, amazingly, though Bligh does not appear to have been an especially harsh captain for his time, the Bounty was not the last mutiny under his command. His crew revolted during the Spithead and Nore mutinies as well (these were large movements, and affected multiple ships and captains, though), and then, as Governor of New South Wales, he was deposed in an uprising called "the Rum Rebellion".

Bligh died in London in 1817, having crossed the globe several times, served on dozens of ships, and collected dozens of plant species. His tombstone lists the introduction of the breadfruit to the West Indies as one of his accomplishments, and the monument itself is crowned by a stone breadfruit.



(photos by Miranda Hodgson, used under the terms of the Creative Commons License).

Labels: , ,

8 Comments:

At 9/28/2008 11:12:00 PM, Anonymous Lord Mulefat said...

Ah yes, the trials and tribulations of Captain Bligh. Having lived in the South Pacific for a couple years, I became quite familiar with the story of the Bounty and its ill-fated expedition to Tahiti. Poor Captain Bligh...

It is a testament to his impressive skills as a navigator and seaman that he was able to survive as long as he did on the open sea in a dinghy. Having been exposed to the climate, I can't even begin to imagine how difficult it must have been for him.

But alas, Bligh's hardship didn't end there. Breadfruit, which many believed would be an inexpensive miracle food to feed slaves in the Caribbean, turned out to be a total disaster in that regard. Nobody would eat it because they didn't like its taste. Bligh's two trips to the South Pacific had proven economic failures.

As for the taste of breadfruit, it isn't the easiest fruit to figure out. Boiled and eaten straight, it tastes uncannily similar to wet cardboard. But there are a few ways to prepare it that make it a really tasty treat.

I recommend either cutting it into slices and frying it to make breadfruit chips, or boiling it and mashing it in coconut milk (not coconut water, mind you). In Kiribati, they call the latter approach breadfruit soup, and it's really delicious. It's also very filling.

If you ever find yourself in possession of a breadfruit and don't know what to do with it, let me know. I have a few tips on how to prepare it.

 
At 11/29/2008 11:49:00 PM, Blogger FatHer said...

Bligh didn't mistakenly confuse Breadfruit with Jackfruit,did he?
Not likely,as the shape and size is different

One book says that Breadfruit,when ripe, is seedless,soft,sweet and yellow.
So is that sweet but tasteless?
*
To Lord Mulefat :
* The ' wet cardboard' breadfruit was probably an unripe,firm,green-rind fruit and so have you not eaten a raw ripe fruit with a yellow-green rind?

 
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