Up until the late eighteenth century, Jamaica was not self-sufficient in food, relying on imports to feed the ever-increasing slave population. As a result, the American War of Independence (1775–81), which severely disrupted food supplies, brought tragedy, with thousands dying of malnutrition and related disease. To eliminate this catastrophic dependence, planters lobbied the British government for a source of cheap food that could be grown locally. The starchy, nourishing breadfruit – about which Captain Cook had rhapsodized, “If a man plants ten of them…he will completely fulfil his duty to his own and future generations” – was at the top of their wish list.
Setting sail from England in 1787, the HMS Bounty commanded by Captain William Bligh, was assigned the task of procuring breadfruit plants from their native Tahiti. After a dangerous journey around Cape Horn, captain and crew were garlanded with flowers before loading up the breadfruit plants and moving on. Three weeks later, on another arduous crossing with a captain who seemed to care more for his plants than for his men, the ship’s crew mutinied. Bligh was cast adrift in the Pacific with a handful of loyal followers, while the rest made for Ascension Island and their place in history. Incredibly, Bligh survived. He found his way back to England, where he was cleared of any blame and entrusted with another ship, HMS Providence, to complete his mission. The Jamaican House of Assembly conferred him a substantial gift of 500 guineas to encourage his endeavours, and the Providence left England in 1791, finally delivering the breadfruit to the island in February 1793. The plants were propagated at Bath Botanical Gardens and eventually spread throughout the island, an important step towards Jamaican self-sufficiency.