The Breadfruit


In the reign of George III, Captain James Cook, who was called captain out of necessity, he was a mere lieutenant before that, left England for that land mass in the Pacific Ocean called then Terra Australis Incognita, to observe the planet Venus as it traversed the space that stood between the Earth and the Sun. He sailed on a ship called the Endeavour and he took with him: botanists (Joseph Banks, who brought along Daniel Carlsson Solander, a disciple and former student of Linnaeus, who brought along his friend and fellow botanist Herman Sporing); artists (the painters William Hodges and Sydney Parkinson); and scientists, and it is in this way that the Second Age of European global domination begins. Cook and his crew left England in August, 1768. They stopped off in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where they noticed that there were no beggars on the streets. And if anyone told them that those former beggars now owned land and owned people to work that land, and so therefore had no need to be beggars anymore, I can so far find no record of this. 


A Scottish geographer named Alexander Dalrymple was originally named captain of the Endeavour on this first voyage, but the First Lord of the Admiralty, a man named Edward Hawke, objected to Dalrymple because he was not a seaman, only a mere geographer. I note Edward Hawke because I grew up in a section of Antigua called Ovals, a term associated with cricket, a sport with rules said to embody the honorable character of the English people. This place is a neighborhood made up of five streets, and each street was named after an English maritime hero/criminal: Rodney, Nelson, Hawke, Hood, and Drake. Among my daily duties was to pick up our bottle of cow’s milk from a woman who lived on Hawke Street. We lived on Nelson Street, and this was only two streets away from Hawke, but for me the journey was full of dread, for I was afraid of dogs, and there was always a dog who would bark at me, and I imagined that the bark and the bite were the same; and there was also a house in which lived a beautiful girl, not so much older than me, who did live with her mother but had silenced her, so that her mother’s commands not to play calypso music very loud, and not to congregate with boys or men were completely ignored. Her name was Marie, and she frightened me, but not for very long: She ran away to Trinidad to be with The Mighty Sparrow, and we all knew the song by him, “I love the way you walk Marie, I love the way you talk Marie,” was about her. She lived on Hawke Street, I lived on Nelson Street. The Mighty Sparrow was of Trinidad, and Trinidad is a word of Spanish origin, a word born of the imagination of that other greater and earlier explorer, whose name does not appear in James Cook’s Journals, as far as I can tell.


In Rio de Janeiro, the women are addicted to gallantry. Solander notes that in the evening, women appear at every window to present “nosegays” to the men they favor. 

But Solander knows flowers, and a nosegay is made up of flowers. What flowers made up these nosegays? He does not say. In any case the climate of Rio, which in August is not Summer, he finds okay. The soil, he notes, produces all the tropical fruits: oranges, lemons, limes, melons, mangoes, cocoa nuts. And then this: “The mines are rich, and lie a considerable way up the country. They were kept so private, that any person found upon the road which led to them, was hung upon the next tree, unless he could give a satisfactory account of the cause of his being in that situation. Near 40,000 (forty thousand) negroes are annually imported to dig in these mines, which are so pernicious to the human frame, and occasion so great a mortality amongst the poor wretches employed in them, that in the year 1766, 20,000 more were drafted from the town of Rio, to supply the deficiency of the former number. Who can read this without emotion!”  That was on August seventh.


On the eighth, they left Rio and sailed on into the Pacific Ocean where nothing happened until the twenty-second, when they came upon a colony of water-dwelling mammals, grey in colour. On the twenty-third, they witnessed an eclipse of the moon, and the next morning, this: “a small white cloud appeared in the west, from which a train of fire issued, extending itself westerly; about two minutes after, we heard two distinct loud explosions, immediately succeeding each other, like those of cannon, after which the cloud disappeared.” 

(Right here I want to interject something: for the journal keeper, and this is Cook, the world is still familiar: he knows beggars and so the absence of beggars is interesting; women who are in a confined role and now women who are whores and borrowing the symbols that flag purity and worthiness; the contents of the mines being extracted by forced labour.)


On the fourth of January, 1769, Cook’s crew mistook a fog bank for an island. On the fourteenth, they encountered a storm in the Strait of La Maire, but found shelter in a cove which Cook named St. Vincent’s Bay. Banks and Solander went ashore, and the journals recount: “having been on shore some hours, returned with more than a hundred different plants and flowers, hitherto unnoticed by the European botanists.”


On April tenth: “looking out for the island to which they were destined, they saw land ahead. The next morning it appeared very high and mountainous, and it was known to be King George’s III’s Island, so named by Captain Wallis, but by the natives called Otaheite. The calms prevented the Endeavour from approaching it till the morning of the twelfth when, a breeze springing up, several canoes were making towards the ship. Each canoe had in it young plantains, and branches of trees, as tokens of peace and friendship; and they were handed up the sides of the ship by the people in one of the canoes, who made signals in a very expressive manner, intimating that they desired these emblems of pacification be placed in a conspicuous part of the ship; and they were accordingly stuck amongst the rigging, at which they testified their approbation. Their cargoes consisted of cocoa-nuts, bananas, breadfruit, apples, and figs, which were very acceptable to the crew, and were readily purchased.” (But how was this purchase made? There is no account of it.)


Twenty days later: “Tomio came running to the tents and taking Mr. Banks by the arm, to whom they applied in all emergent cases, told him that Tubora Tumaida was dying, owing to something which had been given to him by the sailors, and prayed him to go instantly to him. Accordingly Mr. Banks went, and found the Indian very sick. He was told, that he had been vomiting, and had thrown up a leaf, which they said contained some of the poison he had taken. Upon examining the leaf, Mr. Banks found it to be nothing more than tobacco, which the Indian had begged of some of their people. He looked up to Mr. Banks while he was examining the leaf, as if he had not a moment to live. Mr. Banks,  now knowing his disorder, ordered him to drink cocoa-nut milk, which soon restored him to health, and he was as cheerful as ever.”


On Tuesday the ninth of May: “The natives, after repeated attempts, finding themselves incapable of pronouncing the names of the English gentlemen, had recourse to new ones formed from their own language. Captain Cook was named Toote; Hicks, Hete; Gore, Toura; Solander, Tolano; Banks, Opane; Green, Treene; and so on for the greatest part of the ships crew.”


On July fourth, Banks planted “a quantity of the seeds of water melons, oranges, lemons, limes, and other plants and trees which he had brought from Rio de Janiero. He gave these seeds to the Indians in great plenty, and planted many of them in the woods: some of the melon seeds which had been planted soon after his arrival, had already produced plants, which appeared to be in a very flourishing state.”


On the ninth of July, when Captain Cook wished to leave, two of his men were missing. He held important native people hostage, demanding his men be freed. But the “Indians” did not have them. They were in the mountains, they had taken wives. When his men returned, they told him that the Indians were right, they wanted to stay there, and had hidden themselves, hoping he would leave without them. In the middle of all this, Cook’s note: “They have no European fruits, garden stuff, or pulse, nor grain of any species.” 


Between the fifth of August and the fifteenth of August: “The island of Ohiteroa does not shoot up into high peaks, like the others which they visited, but is more level and uniform, and divided into small hillocks, some of which are covered with groves of trees; they saw no bread-fruit, and not many cocoa-nut trees, but great number of the tree called Etoa were planted all along the shore.”


On the twenty-fifth of August, the adventurers from England celebrated being away from home for one year with Cheshire cheese and port, and the port would have come from Portugal or Spain, places they didn’t think much of, but which all the same contributed much to their intimate identity, their intimate mannerisms and posture, the people they were when no one cared to look. The journal records that the port was “as good as any they had ever drank in England.”


Sometime around the twentieth of October: “Mr. Banks and Dr. Solander visited their houses, and were kindly received. Fish constituted their principal food at the time, and the root of a sort of fern served them for bread; which, when roasted upon a fire, and divested of its bark, was sweet and clammy; in taste not disagreeable, but unpleasant from its number of fibres. Vegetables were, doubtless, at other seasons plentiful. The women paint their faces red, which, so far from increasing, diminishes the very little beauty they have.” 


On the morning of November third: “they gave the name of The Court of Aldermen to a number of small islands that lay contiguous. The chief, who governed the district from Cape Turnagain to this coast, was named Teratu.”


On November eleventh: “oysters were procured in great abundance from a bed which had been discovered, and they proved exceedingly good. Next day the ship was visited by two canoes, with unknown Indians; after some invitation, they came on board, and trafficked without fraud. Captain Cook sailed from this bay, after taking possession of it in the name of the King of Great Britain on the fifteenth.” (For me, it’s rare to see that: taking possession in the name of a monarch of Great Britain.)


On the eighteenth (still November), Cook, Banks and Solander go off to examine a bay where a river empties. They find trees that are tall and thick in trunk, trees they have never seen before. Cook calls the river Thames, “it being not unlike our river of the same name.” 


William Bligh was born on the ninth of September, 1754. He joined the navy at 16. At 22, he was appointed master of the Resolution, one of the ships accompanying James Cook on his third and last voyage to the Pacific. After this, he was placed in command of ships that protected trade in the West Indies. In 1787, Joseph Banks commissioned him to go to Tahiti and collect plants of the breadfruit tree, which were to be taken to the West Indies and distributed among the many British-owned islands, where they would be grown as food for the enslaved African population. This journey was not a success. His crew mutinied, and threw him and the plants he had collected overboard. He did not sink to the bottom of the ocean, but the plants did. In an open boat that was about 20 feet long, and accompanied by some sailors loyal to him, he arrived in Timor six weeks later. In 1791, in a ship called Providence, he sailed again to Tahiti, to get some more of that same monoecious tree, and this time his efforts were successful. The men did not mutiny, but they did complain that he rationed their supply of water, all to make certain that not one plant would die. Bligh was eventually made governor of the prison colony that Australia had become, but eventually the prisoners, like his crew, mutinied against him. He was arrested and jailed in Sydney for more than a year. He returned to England in 1810 and died in 1817. He is buried in a churchyard in Lambeth, with his wife and two of his five children. In that same churchyard are buried the Tradescants, Father and Son. I once saw these graves while visiting an exhibition devoted to Gertrude Jykell. The church is now a museum devoted to the garden.


The breadfruit belongs to the genus Artocarpus, and in that genus there are some 60 shrubs and trees. The genus in turn belongs in the Moraceae or mulberry family. The name Artocarpus comes from the Greek language: artos means bread, karpos means fruit. These plants were named so by Johann Reinhold Forster and J. George Adam Forster, father and son botanists who accompanied James Cook on his second voyage to the Pacific. They were passengers aboard the Resolution.


HMS Providence arrived in Kingstown, St. Vincent in early 1793 with many live breadfruit plants. By then, in St. Vincent as would be so in many other islands that were British-owned, a Botanic Garden had been established. In actuality, these places were not Botanic Gardens at all. They were primarily of economic importance, involved in the prosperity of the mother country. They were modeled on Kew Gardens, which was established by Joseph Banks, who became its first Director. (The second and third were the Hookers, father and son.) Some of this first collection of breadfruit plants was also sent to Jamaica, which was the largest British-owned island. 


Near the end of the eighteenth century, there were many slaves in the West Indies. Certainly by then to say you were from the West Indies was to say you were black or of African descent. Europeans didn’t like living there. Most people who owned plantations paid other people to manage them. White people who lived in these places, where there were so many enslaved black people, were not considered really white people anymore: they were creole, the first meaning of that word. The word now can mean all sorts of things but it’s in that way it was first used: to designate a white person born and living in the black and enslaved world.


Those many slaves had to eat food. And they had to have time to cultivate it. It isn’t hard to imagine the calculation: If an easy source of nourishment could be found for these people, they would produce more valuable goods instead of growing their own food. 


The slaves never liked the breadfruit. They refused to eat it. With the exception of my mother, a woman who was born on the island of Dominica, I have never met anyone who liked the breadfruit. In particular, and especially, I have never met a child who liked the breadfruit. The breadfruit is said to be bland but there are other bland foods and they are not shunned. It is said to be starchy, but I can think of many other foods that are starchy and they are not shunned. 


The breadfruit or Artocarpus altilis is a flowering tree in the family Moraceae. It is cultivated in a lot of places that are warm in climate all year round. It is native to the islands in the Pacific Ocean. It grows to an enormous height. Its leaves are large, thick and deeply incised. The plant yields a latex-like fluid that can be used in boat caulking. The fruits are seasonal, says a book I consulted about it, but I seem to remember it as always in season and readily available to my mother, who used to insist to me that it was of great nutritional value. The tree itself is of such generous height and breadth that it can be used as a shade tree, yet I have never seen such use made of it, even in a place as sun-drenched as the place where I grew up.


My mother was born on the island of Dominica, and notice the way this is phrased: for of James Cook, I would say that he was born in a village, and that village would be in a country, not an island. An island is ephemeral, and yet James Cook was born on an island; but my mother was born on the island of Dominica, and she grew up there; she left when she was 16 years of age, taking passage in a boat that almost sunk when it ran into a hurricane in an area called the Guadeloupe Channel. She had quarreled with her family and did not see them again for 30 years. She continued her quarrel with them through letters, and those letters traveled through the postal arrangement that had been put in place by Anthony Trollope. When she was in her sixth decade of living, she began to return to Dominica and see the people who made up her understanding of the world before she knew men and children and other people. While there, she ate a breadfruit that to her had such extraordinary flavor, that she collected the seeds, and brought them back to Antigua. She planted the seeds just on the boundary of our yard, and from those seeds grew one tree of unusual height and of unusual beauty. Shortly before her son, my brother, died, there was a hurricane, one with a man’s name, and it was very destructive but we were spared, except that the breadfruit my mother had planted was destroyed. It fell down on her neighbor’s house, completely destroying it. Its loss was never spoken of with any sadness, it was just one of the many things that came from somewhere else and then disappeared into an even vaster somewhere else, which is nowhere nameable at all.


If a want of food is signal of poverty, then as a child, I was never poor at all. I had an abundance of food, only all the food that was presented to me was food I didn’t like at all. I wanted food that had the names of food I had read in a book. I wanted food from far away. Once, I saw an advertisement in a magazine for beans: there were brown beans in a heap, saturated with brown sauce, and on the top of the heap was a piece of meat, glistening and large, which was pork, for underneath the image was a description of the dish, and it said it was pork and beans. I longed for it. No food my mother could cook came close to tasting the way the advertisement for pork and beans looked. I was an extremely tall and thin girl, and my mother was always making me foods that she thought I would like, and would also make me fat. Or stout. That was a compliment, a stout woman. One day she presented to me an unusual looking dish, something that looked in texture like potato, but was arranged in form like rice. I had never seen it before. In colour it looked like the breadfruit and knowing my mother, I refused it because I thought it was breadfruit. Again and again, she told me that it wasn’t breadfruit, that it was a new form of rice from England. I ate it, not with any enthusiasm, and all the time I kept saying that I was sure it was breadfruit. After I ate the meal of it, she said, yes, it was breadfruit and she told me how good it was for me. 


Near the end of his third voyage, which was just as spectacular as the other two, regardless of the weather, interfering with views of the transit of Venus on the first outing, and treasured friends and colleagues dying before returning from the first outing, and all the rest, while trying to return to his beloved England, which is the seventeenth largest island in the world, Captain Cook was killed by some people who seemed to wish they had never set eyes on him in the first place. I am so sorry to say my belief that they boiled and ate him after capturing him is not supported by the facts.