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The tale of the Breadfruit


I notice that in this year’s emancipation celebrations the breadfruit has been highlighted and there is no doubt about the significant role played by that plant in the gastronomic and social history of this colony. In fact, the term ‘to cut down one’s breadfruit tree’ testifies to its embedment in the language and psychology of our people. {{more}} It is now 211 years since Captain Bligh landed on these shores with the breadfruit plant, over three hundred of them, some planted at the Botanic Garden and others transported to the rest of the Leeward and Windward Islands. Indeed this was a mere 28 years after the establishment of the Garden, the first of its kind in the Western Hemisphere. This, of course, adds to the historical interest that the Garden holds.
What were the circumstances that prompted the decision to bring the breadfruit plant to the West Indies? Although St.Vincent at that time did not typify developments in the rest of the English speaking Caribbean, yet the general trends impacted on it. That country had become British by the Treaty of Paris of 1763 but the sugar industry was not firmly established since the Caribs still controlled the best sugar lands.
The introduction and the monopolistic nature of the sugar industry and the easy availability of foods before the period of the American War of Independence meant that food was neglected on most of the plantations in the Caribbean. Increased costs following the independence of the American colonies led to a move to acquire cheap sources of food. Naturalist and fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, Sir Joseph Banks, who had traveled the South Sea Islands on Captain Cook’s voyage from 1768-1771, had become fascinated with the breadfruit plant. Sir Joseph had also developed a profound interest in plant life in the colonies and was behind the move to have that plant introduced to the Caribbean colonies. The Royal Society had even offered incentives to do so.
Even without knowing the details, many persons will be familiar with the mutiny on the ‘Bounty’, a ship in the charge of Lieutenant William Bligh. Bligh and his men were put in what was described as a long boat and traveled over three thousand miles before reaching back to London. That was the first, though aborted effort by Bligh to bring the breadfruit plant to this part of the world. A second voyage was later arranged. Bligh sailed from England on August 3, 1791 and left Tahiti in the South Pacific on July 20, 1792, eventually arriving in St.Vincent on the evening of January 22, 1793. The following day the plants were transported on the heads of Negro slaves to the Botanic Garden. We are left an account of this. “A number of Negroes carried the pots on their heads to the Botanic Garden which is about two miles distant from the beach; and on returning, they brought back in the same manner, the plants that Dr. Anderson had got ready for His Majesty’s garden at the Kew.” Bligh was, shortly after, given a gift of 100 guineas and two fat bullocks were made available to the men on board who were feted by the local authorities. St.Vincent was the first stop on this voyage the remainder of the breadfruit plants, were then taken to Jamaica. Of note was the fact that Bligh used a Negro pilot to guide him into the Kingstown harbour and one of his men later deserted and remained in St.Vincent.
It is said that the plant was not at first readily accepted by the African slaves but Dr. Anderson, a Surgeon who was appointed superintendent of the Botanic Garden puts this in perspective in 1806. He declared, “They say that Negroes do not like it and will not eat it, if they can get anything else; but this is not really the case, as I know and can declare from experience that the very reverse is the fact, when once they are a little accustomed to it. The fact is the planters hate giving it a place on their estates, as they regard it as an intruder on their cane land and dislike any other object but canes.” Even for the planters the collapse of the sugar industry later, changed this.
Anderson also left us a description of the preparation of the breadfruit- “For Bread, the best mode of dressing it, is baking it entire in an oven as bread. When properly prepared, laying aside all prejudices, and with a little custom, it is equal to, if not better than any kind of bread, as it is lighter and very easy of digestion. Boiled like yams, it is very good, and by many preferred to being baked. Negroes either eat it in that condition or cut it in half and roast it in the ashes. It may be sliced in the same way as bread, and toasted on a gridiron. For a pudding scarcely anything equals it. After baking or boiling, formed into a mass like dough, and then baked as a biscuit, it is nearly the same as biscuit and will keep as long.”
There was no doubt however about the importance of the breadfruit after emancipation. In 1876 naturalist Frederick Ober said that it flourished in greater abundance in St.Vincent than in any other of the Caribbean islands. The breadfruit was said to have ‘tided many a family over different periods of scarcity.’ Over the years it was the policy of planters to hire breadfruit trees to workers and in the 1930s workers from the Chateaubelair area complained to representatives of the St.Vincent Workingmen’s Association that there was little work available on the estates and they had to resort to the hiring of breadfruit trees in order to get something to eat.
When we emphasize the point that wood from the breadfruit tree was used for the construction of homes we get an even better picture of its importance to workers. Moreover once planted little effort needed to be put into it. It became the custom to ensure that each plot of land had a breadfruit tree planted on it. The emphasis over the years was not on the production of the breadfruit for export but on its domestic use. The fact that the breadfruit could be prepared in a variety of ways made it an important food product for just about any meal. It was therefore commonly bartered in the rural areas for fish or any other product. It was also very valuable during the war years when there were periods of food shortage. The Times newspaper in an editorial on June 27, 1942, in commenting on the existing food shortage, made reference to buyers rushing, fighting and tearing each other’s garments to buy fish and other food on the market and ‘even breadfruit’. The agricultural census of 1946 listed 6,878 breadfruit trees planted on small plots and 30, 728 on farms. There is really no gainsaying that the breadfruit plant played a central role in developments following emancipation.