Photograph by Wolfgang Kaehler, LightRocket via Getty
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Breadfruit was once a tough sell in the Caribbean, but its a common and nutritious part of cuisine there today.
Photograph by Wolfgang Kaehler, LightRocket via Getty

Breadfruit and ‘The Bounty’ That Brought It Across the Ocean

April 28 is the anniversary of the mutiny on The Bounty, possibly the most famous mutiny in history, and probably, when it comes to mutinies, the only one that most of us can name.

On that fatal date in 1789, the crew of the H.M.S. Bounty, led by first mate Fletcher Christian (a distant relative of poet William Wordsworth), revolted against their tyrannical captain, William Bligh. The upshot was that Bligh and 18 loyal supporters were sent off to sea in a 23-foot open boat, presumably to their deaths, while Christian and followers, after a brief stop in Tahiti to collect women, retired to isolated Pitcairn Island in hopes of living happily ever after. In the 1962 movie, Mutiny on the Bounty, Fletcher Christian is played by a young Marlon Brando and the mutineers are described as reckless, romantic, and devil-may-care.

In reality, Christian and cohorts were less romantic than popularly portrayed; Bligh, though admittedly lacking social skills, was not wholeheartedly evil; and breadfruit, which generally gets short shrift in the narrative, actually played a starring role.

Breadfruit, officially Artocarpus altilis, is a member of the fig family, a tall, leathery-leaved tropical tree that bears prickly, yellow-green, football-sized fruits. Europeans first discovered it in 1769 when Captain Cook arrived in Tahiti, where he and his crew of scientists were tasked with observing the transit of Venus. Along for the ride was botanist Joseph Banks, who zeroed in on breadfruit as a potential source of cheap and nutritious food for slaves on the sugar plantations of the British West Indies. Banks pitched the idea to King George III, who authorized Bligh to spearhead the breadfruit-gathering expedition.

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The 1962 movie gave short shrift to its main star—breadfruit. Image by AF archive, Alamy

Researchers generally agree that Banks made a great pick. Today breadfruit is touted as the world’s next superfood. It’s prolific: A single tree can produce 450 pounds of fruit per season; it grows rapidly, producing fruit within three to four years; and it’s relatively maintenance-free.

The fruits are nutritious. They’re heavy in starch, with a carbohydrate content equivalent to that of potatoes, corn, and rice; and they contain a hefty complement of fiber, minerals (including potassium, phosphorus, and calcium), and vitamins. Furthermore, breadfruit thrives in the tropics and subtropics, where today 80 percent of the world’s most hungry live.

As food for the 18th-century Caribbean sugar plantations, however, breadfruit got off to a rocky start. Lieutenant Bligh, after a storm-fraught, 27,000-mile voyage that involved shuttling between Cape Horn in South America and Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, finally arrived in Tahiti. From there, after a prolonged and happy shore leave, he departed for the Caribbean with a cargo of 1,015 fledgling breadfruit plants. Some three weeks later, mutiny ensued.

There’s debate over just what drove the mutineers to crack: high on the proposed list is Bligh’s arrogance and abuse (including some nasty accusations about stolen coconuts and yams); also cited are Fletcher Christian’s possible mental instability, water deprivation (Bligh was saving it for the breadfruit), and a longing of the crew for the Tahitian women they’d left behind.

Enraged mutineers hurled the breadfruit plants into the drink, which was the end of them, but not of Bligh. Astoundingly, navigating with nothing more than a pocket watch and a sextant, Bligh’s open boat made it safely to Timor, a Dutch-owned island in the Indian Ocean some 3,600 miles from where the mutineers—after supplying them with 16 chunks of salt pork, six quarts of rum, and four cutlasses—had abandoned them to their fate.

Bligh came out of his ordeal a hero, and was promoted to captain. But he wasn’t done with breadfruit.

In 1791, he was dispatched again for Tahiti on board the Providence. This time he collected 2,126 breadfruit seedlings, of which 678 survived the voyage to the Caribbean. (It was a tough trip for plants; the expedition’s chief gardener complained of flies, cold, salt spray, inadequate fresh water, and the “unwholesomeness of Sea Air.”) Bligh delivered his breadfruit to the islands of St. Vincent and Jamaica.

And there, after all that time and trouble, breadfruit hit a culinary wall. Nobody liked it. The slaves refused to eat it. They fed it to the pigs.

Though the common name “breadfruit” comes from the fruit’s supposed resemblance to fresh-baked bread, the broader consensus is that its taste is bland to blah. Some compare it to a cross between undercooked potato and plantain. Others mention wallpaper paste. It was over 40 years before the new food was generally accepted in the islands, by which time slavery, abolished in the British Empire in 1834, was a thing of the past.

Today, however, breadfruit is a staple of Jamaican cuisine. The versatile fruit can be boiled, baked, fried, and steamed, mashed to make porridge or pudding (with added vanilla and nutmeg), packed into pies, or ground into flour. Creative cooks have managed to turn it into everything from tamales to tarts, pickles, curry, and pizza. It can also be pureed to make baby food. (See How to Cook Breadfruit.)

Under the auspices of Jamaica’s National Tropical Botanical Garden’s Breadfruit Institute, breadfruit as a potentially life-saving food crop is being promoted worldwide (See Can Breadfruit Beat Its Bum Rap?). Breadfruit is now grown in a wide swathe across the globe, from the South Pacific islands through South and Southeast Asia, the Caribbean, Central America, and Africa.

It thrives on Pitcairn Island, the final home of the Bounty mutineers. You have to wonder how they felt about that.