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Breadfruit: how a climate-change superfood popular from Jamaica to London is linked to Captain Bligh

Some four years after Captain William Bligh survived the infamous mutiny on HMS Bounty, he once more set sail from the Pacific bound for the Caribbean. His vessel carried 2,000 or so breadfruit saplings – a plant which cared so little for its seaborne surroundings that the on-board gardener complained bitterly of his battle to keep them alive amid “exceedingly troublesome flies, unwholesomeness of sea… and rationed water”.

By the time Bligh’s vessel, HMS Providence, had reached its first Caribbean port of call on St Vincent in the late summer of 1793, just 678 of the Artocarpus altilis plants survived. This was nonetheless still sufficient to serve the ruthless purpose for which the trees had been transported across the oceans – to provide a carbohydrate-rich food source to sustain the slaves used to turn Britain’s Caribbean colonies into cruel and vastly profitable hubs of the sugar trade.


Some 230 years later, scientists have for the first time traced a direct lineage from the Caribbean’s now thriving breadfruit crop back to the saplings from Bligh’s grim transplantation, just as the plant gains increasing attention as a stable source of nutrition in the world’s tropical zones against another man-made scourge, namely climate change. The staple may also be about to make inroads into UK homes with one Midlands wholesaler selling nearly a ton of breadfruit a week.


Researchers have unveiled the results of a study proving for a DNA link between varieties of breadfruit grown on former UK colonies such as Jamaica and St Vincent and the Grenadines with the saplings taken on board by Bligh from Tahiti at the request of the Admiralty as Britain claimed, disingenuously, to be harnessing a golden age of botanical acquisition to improving the welfare of the enslaved.


Despite being a meticulous record keeper, Bligh had made no note of the varieties of breadfruit he took on board the Providence from Tahiti, where the indigenous tree crop – a carbohydrate, mineral and fibre-rich fruit likened to potato – had been farmed by Polynesians for centuries.


As a result, mystery surrounded the genetic roots of the increasingly important staple until an international team set about the task of tracing just which Tahitian cultivars were on board Bligh’s vessel.


The findings, jointly made by American, Caribbean and Tahitian academics and reported in the journal Current Biology, show a common lineage between five varieties of Artocarpus altilis grown in the Caribbean and in its native Oceania.


As such, they close a controversial circle between Bligh’s 18th-century colonial enterprise to transplant breadfruit, which ironically failed in its original purpose, and the plant’s emergence as a source of respite against the dangers of hunger and economic insecurity posed by global warming.


Professor Nyree Zerega, a plant conservation expert at Northwestern University in Illinois, who led the study, said: “Breadfruit is an under-utilised crop and it doesn’t get nearly as much attention as other major crops. However, interest in breadfruit is increasing globally.


“We really don’t know much about the genetic diversity of the fruit in the Caribbean. Because this is an important crop for food security we wanted to characterise the genetic diversity of breadfruit crops in order to conserve them.”


It is one of the paradoxes of the grim colonial history of breadfruit that the first crops from the 678 breadfruit trees successfully transported by HMS Provident were rejected out of hand as inedible by the enslaved African labourers on the sugar plantations. Instead, the fruits were fed to pigs.


By the time the crop had begun to be accepted into the local diet in the 1840s, emancipation had taken place in Britain’s colonies and breadfruit came to be seen more as a symbol of the successful abolition of slavery rather than its intended use as a tool of its entrenchment.


Indeed, the claim of the plantation owners that they were looking to improve nutrition for their slaves, many of whom were worked to death, should be set against the fact that one of the attractions of breadfruit was that it could be grown on hillsides of Caribbean islands and thereby not impinge on the amount of agricultural land available for the growth of sugar cane.


Nonetheless, Bligh’s persistence in achieving his orders from London to ensure the exotic foodstuff – first identified by the botanist Joseph Banks when travelling with Captain Cook to Tahiti in 1769 – reached the Caribbean resulted in some longterm gains.


HMS Bounty had been carrying some 2,500 breadfruit saplings in 1789 when Fletcher Christian staged his on-board insurrection, casting off then Lieutenant Bligh and a number of loyal crew in a small boat for an extraordinary 3,600-mile voyage of survival.


The diversion of rationed water from the crew to the saplings has long been suggested as one of the reasons for the mutiny, though never proven. Either way, Christian and his fellow rebels had no interest in the plants and simply cast them over the side.


It was only on the second voyage that Bligh achieved his mission, depositing plants in St Vincent and Jamaica, from where they were spread throughout the Caribbean. It is now a staple of the cuisine on many islands, lending itself to being boiled, baked, fried and steamed for inclusion in dishes from porridge to puddings or as a flour (the fruit is named for its quality of smelling like freshly-baked bread).


But it is the ability of the successors to Bligh’s saplings to deliver some 200kg of fruit a year from trees which live for 50 years or more, all the while sequestering carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, which has sparked renewed interest in the crop and is driving its spread once more around the world.


The staple is in strong demand in Britain from customers including members of the Caribbean diaspora, with a strong preference for fresh rather than canned fruits.


A Birmingham-based importer said it was receiving orders for about 700kg of breadfruit a week. One wholesaler in London said: “There is no reason why it shouldn’t go more mainstream – it’s really nutritious, tastes great and keeps for ages.”


A study by climate-change scientists last year found that breadfruit is unusually resilient to the effects of global warming compared to other staple crops such as rice and soya beans.


Whereas future climate models suggest yields and suitable growing areas for many staples will shrink, breadfruit will remain remarkably stable, meaning there is an opportunity for its use to be extended to areas likely to be hardest hit by food shortages created by global warming.


The Breadfruit Institute, an offshoot of America’s Hawaii-based National Tropical Botanical Garden, has distributed some 100,000 saplings to 40 countries around the globe. Development experts are focusing in particular on sub-Saharan Africa, where Artocarpus altilis has the potential to thrive without the risk of becoming an invasive species because the most popular breadfruit cultivars are seedless.


Professor Diane Ragone, a co-author of the Bligh study and a former director of the institute, explained, “The breadfruit tree has many benefits for tropical countries for food security, for regenerative agriculture and economic development for small-holder farmers.”


All of which is long way from the attitudes exhibited by Captain Bligh more than two centuries ago. In his log of the voyage of HMS Providence, the notoriously harsh naval officer described finding hidden on board a Tahitian who had helped care for the breadfruit plants while on land.


Bligh wrote: “I had not a heart to make him jump overboard. The botanists told me he had been a valuable man to them and would be of great use if I kept him. I conceived he might be useful to our friends in Jamaica in attending the plants, about which he knew a great deal.”


It would seem entirely possible that the story of the breadfruits cultivated in the Caribbean, now traced back to their Polynesian origins and touted as a future superfood, owes its success as much to the expertise of a Tahitian stowaway, who went on to help establish the crop, as the cruel economic ambitions of imperial Britain.


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