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The Botanic Garden and the breadfruit – an historical peep


It is of some significance that the Botanic Garden was established in St Vincent in 1765, two years after the start of British colonization. General Robert Melville, first Governor of the British Windward Islands, based in Grenada, paid a visit to St Vincent in June 1765 and raised with Dr George Young, surgeon at the military hospital, the idea of starting a botanic garden. Young himself was an ardent horticulturalist. He was asked by Melville to write to him as governor, seeking permission to establish the Garden.{{more}} Initially six acres of crown land, reserved for military use, were turned over for that purpose, but it subsequently rose to 20 acres.

It is not clear why Melville selected St Vincent. One suspects that the presence of Dr George Young with his interest in botany and horticulture might have been the deciding factor. The Garden was to be a repository for plants introduced into the colony and also a nursery for plants to be distributed to other colonies. Young was made first superintendent. Despite inadequate funding, with the support of Governor Melville, he set about collecting plants for the Garden. The period 1778-83 found St Vincent in the hands of the French, who took a keen interest in maintaining the Garden, until the last year when they realized that St Vincent was likely to be turned over to Britain at the peace treaty. Young, who had been sent to St Lucia during the war, seemed to have lost interest on his return, but nevertheless recommended Alexander Anderson, who was surgeon to the troops, for the post. The Garden found its best years under Young and Anderson and flourished, particularly in the years from 1785-1811. Lockhead, who succeeded Anderson in 1812, died in 1815. His successor George Caley had to be recalled in 1819 because of his constant bickering. It was then put into the hands of the Colonial government. Three acres were given for the establishment of Government House in 1828. The Garden, however, continued to fall into disrepair until it was abandoned in 1849, with many of the plants sent to Trinidad. It was not until 1890 that it was reactivated during a period of agricultural reorganization that followed the decline of sugar.

This period coincided with a great deal of activity by the Kew Garden in England and the Royal Society, to attract plants and seeds to the colonies and particularly to St Vincent, in which Joseph Banks, one of its advisers, took a keen interest. It was through his influence that in 1787 the Garden was officially recognised as His Majesty’s Botanic Garden of St Vincent. The Royal Society, which was started in England in 1754, cherished the idea of reforming colonial agriculture and began to provide rewards for introducing plants to the West Indies. It was in this context that incentives were offered to bring breadfruit plants to St Vincent, following the touting of the usefulness of that plant as a food for natives of the Pacific islands. Captain Bligh was given the responsibility to bringing breadfruit and other plants from the Pacific islands. That first voyage, 1787-1788 turned out to be ill-fated, with the well-known mutiny on board the Bounty.

Bligh was given a second chance and set sail in 1791 on the HMS Providence, accompanied by the ‘Assistant’ with armed Royal Marines. The boats, after collecting breadfruit and other plants, left the Pacific islands on December 27 and arrived in St Vincent on January 23. Captain Bligh wrote about his arrival in St Vincent: “I was induced to bring to near a French sloop for a pilot. I got a negro who was perfectly acquainted with the harbour, and I anchored at half past ten without accident: the winds were light but fortunately the merchant ships knew who we were and sent assistance to tow us in.”

News was sent to inform the governor of his arrival. “In the morning, Dr Anderson, the superintendent came on board and with him I waited on General Seton, and it was agreed to have the plants brought up to the Garden by negroes…On the morning of the 24th…A number of negroes carried the pots on their heads to the Botanic Garden…and on returning they brought back in the same manner the plants that Dr. Anderson had got ready for His Majesty’s Garden at Kew… A deputation from the Hon. Council and Assembly waited on me the day after my arrival and presented me with a resolution and request to accept a piece of plate valued at 100 guineas as a mark of their approbation and esteem. They likewise did me the honour to give a public dinner to all my officers and during our stay were unremitting in their kindness and attention. Two bullocks were given us on behalf of the ships’ companies so that everyone benefitted by their hospitality. I left in all 544 plants at this place.” Among the plants left were 331 breadfruit plants.

The ship then left for Jamaica on the second leg of its journey.

The breadfruit would have impacted significantly on the socio-economic history and development of the colony. There is no indication that it had any big impact during slavery. The peasant farmer and former slaves, following Emancipation, adopted it as a food that became an important part of their diet, since it could be used for any meal. It was especially important during the war years when with the shortage of flour and rice many people had to depend on it. Its lumber was also used for timber and it could be bartered for fish and other foods. The breadfruit tree remains significant to working people who are prepared to defend it, both physically and metaphorically.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.