Captain Bligh and breadfruit trees

Jeff Cheek

Thanks to Hollywood, everybody knows about mutiny on the “Bounty”. Less known is the fact that cheap food for slaves generated the voyage, and a forbidden love affair may have been the spark which ignited the mutiny.

In 1667, English explorer William Dampier first reported seeing natives on c eating breadfruit. These are cantaloupe sized green, warty halls. Boiled or roasted, the starchy inside tasted like potatoes. One tree could feed 3 or 4 people for a year. By 1787, the British had thousands of slaves toiling on their sugar plantations in the West Indies. Breadfruit seemed the ideal cheap food for them.

Captain William Bligh was given command of HMS “Bounty” and instructed to sail to Tahiti, load with breadfruit seedlings and deliver them to St. Vincent, Virgin Islands. The “Bounty” sailed Dec. 23, 1787, arriving in Tahiti on Oct. 25, 1788. This is summer in the southern hemisphere, when breadfruit could not be transported. Bligh had to remain in Tahiti for six months. Those six months were fatal. Tahiti was paradise for his sailors, with little work to do, a warm climate, and beautiful, sexually liberated girls. Even his second-in-command, Fletcher Christian, fell in love with a Tahitian maiden named Maimiti. She was three months pregnant when the “Bounty” finally sailed on April 5, 1789.

Three weeks later, April 28, 1789, Christian led the mutiny. To a loyal sailor, he excused himself: “I have been in torment these last three weeks.” Was he thinking of Maimiti and his unborn child she carried? Nobody knows. Bligh and 18 loyal sailors were cast adrift in an open boat. His iron discipline and sailing skills paid off. 48 days and 3,600 miles later they reached Portuguese Timor.

Bligh and his crew returned to England March 14, 1790. In October a Naval Court of Inquiry cleared Bligh of any misconduct. He was promoted, and given command of another ship, HMS “Providence,” with the same mission: Sail to Tahiti and transport breadfruit seedlings to the West Indies,

The “Providence” sailed on August 3, 1791. En route, it stopped at Tasmania to plant apple seedlings introducing a new fruit to Australia. Years later, Bligh would be appointed Governor of the colony. Meanwhile, he collected twice as many breadfruit trees as required, so that, when the “Providence” dropped anchor at St. Vincent on Jan. 23, 1793, the natives called it ” the ship that looks like a bush.” The second voyage was an unquestioned success. Bligh won back any respect the mutiny had cost him. He was promoted to Admiral on July 11, 1811. He died peacefully, in bed, seven years later at the age of 64. Bligh had lived long enough to learn the fate of the “Bounty” mutineers.

With Fletcher Christian in command, the mutineers had returned to Tahiti. He warned them that the British Navy would avenge the insult to its authority, but 16 of the mutineers insisted on remaining there. Christian and eight men, along with their Polynesian wives, loaded the “Bounty” with food and livestock and sailed away, looking for a safer place to settle. They disappeared for almost 20 years.

Christian’s warning was borne out. HMS “Pandora” was dispatched to arrest the mutineers. Two were dead, but 14 were arrested and tried. Three were banged, the others given lighter sentences. But Fletcher Christian, the ringleader, had disappeared. His story was revealed 18 years later.


There is no space for a recipe this week. There will be one in next week’s column, along with the conclusion of the “Bounty” mystery. Also, an evaluation of the two voyages to bring breadfruit to the West Indies. Were they worth the cost?

Jeff Cheek lives in, or at the Siuslaw News at P.O. Box 10, Florence, Ore. 97439)

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