Trees That Feed Foundation

History of Breadfruit

Welcome to the History of Breadfruit! 

We’ll start off with a series of articles by Michael Morrissey.  This is a brief example of what you can learn from Michael’s book, which is available now on Amazon.  Michael, who recently passed away, was a researcher, educator and writer from Jamaica. At the end of his life, he was living and publishing from his home in Bali, Indonesia. We thank Michael for sharing early copies of his work with Trees That Feed Foundation!  Michael asks … DID YOU KNOW?

DID YOU KNOW. . . Banks commissioned Joshua Reynolds to paint the above portrait of himself. It was painted soon after his return voyage from Tahiti – keen to promote his global ambition, the world is hinted at by the background!

DID YOU KNOW … that Joseph Banks could purchase six breadfruit in Tahiti in 1769 for the price of a tiny glass bead?

Part 1

In his diary entry of 18th April 1769 Banks wrote: “The Indians brought down so much provision of Cocoa nuts and bread fruit today that before night we were obligd to leave off buying and acquaint them by signs that we should not want any more for 2 days; every thing was bought for beads, a bead about as large as a pea purchasing 4 or 6 breadfruits and a like number of Cocoa nutts.”

Banks was a close friend of King George of England, promoted the idea of transported breadfruit from the Pacific to the Caribbean, and established Kew Gardens in London.

DID YOU KNOW. . . that Joseph Banks’s passion for breadfruit resulted in the untimely death of its first illustrator?

DID YOU KNOW. . . that Joseph Banks’s passion for breadfruit resulted in the untimely death of its first illustrator?

Part 2

Sydney Parkinson, an extraordinarily talented 22-year-old botanical artist was hired by Banks as part of the British scientific expedition to Tahiti in 1768 in the naval ship Endeavour. Parkinson, a Quaker from Edinburgh, Scotland, recorded his horror at the wanton brutality of the Endeavour’s captain, James Cook, and his men, toward Tahitians.

On Tahiti for over three months in 1769, Parkinson made a host of botanical sketches but was prevented from painting by swarms of flies. He completed some of his drawings in full colour when at sea on route to New Zealand and Australia and made 94 exquisite drawings in the place which Banks christened “Botany Bay”, the name by which it’s known today. Banks made sure that breadfruit drawings were prioritised.

But Parkinson did not live to see Scotland again. On the return voyage, Cook was forced to put the Endeavour into Jakarta, Batavia Indonesia?, for major repairs, and it was there that Parkinson and many others of the crew contracted a fatal combination of malaria and dysentery. He succumbed several weeks later on January 26, 1771, at sea. Sydney’s brother, Stanfield Parkinson, published a volume of his work posthumously in 1773.

The only known image of Sydney Parkinson is this self-portrait. Sydney is remembered as the first Quaker ever to set foot in Australia, which he did en route to Tahiti.

DID YOU KNOW. . .that the first Linnaean name for breadfruit was Sitodium altile Parkinson?

Part 3

This name was published after the death of Sydney Parkinson by his brother, Stanfield Parkinson, in “Journal of a voyage to the South Seas in H.M.S. Endeavour” in a chapter entitled “Plants of use for food, Medicine & c. in Otaheite”.  In his publication, Stanfield used the scientific names from Sydney’s journal. Sydney took the names in his journal from Solander’s manuscripts when on board HMS Endeavour and made the drawings of the natural objects under the direction of Banks and Solander.  But in 1776, Johann Reinhold Forster and his son George, botanists on Cook’s second voyage (1772–1775), named the genus Artocarpus disregarding Parkinson’s name.

Fosberg in 1939 proposed the conservation of Artocarpus against Sitodium Parkinson, because of the continuous use of the former name since 1776, but he then proposed the new combination Artocarpus altilis (Parkinson) Fosberg, the name currently used.  All of which is to say that in the botanical names for breadfruit, Sydney Parkinson, who died at sea surrounded by 1000 breadfruit suckers, is remembered two centuries later.

A map of the island of Jamaica divided into Counties and Parishes, for the History of the British West Indies, prepared by Bryan Edwards in 1794

DID YOU KNOW. . . that there was not a single breadfruit tree in Jamaica in 1793?  But by 1794 breadfruit trees were springing up in every single parish?

Part 4

Jamaica’s plantocracy promised gold on delivery of enough healthy young plants to plant across the island’s main sugar estates. On arrival in Port Royal, the suckers transported by Captain Bligh were methodically shared to Jamaica’s three counties and from the county town to every parish – see the map for parishes of the time!

For example, the county of Cornwall, in the west of Jamaica, was allocated 82 breadfruit suckers. These were delivered by sea to the Custos of Westmoreland in Savana-la-Mar. The Custos shared these out to big plantations in the parishes of St. Elizabeth, Hanover, St. James and Trelawny, as well as his own parish of Westmoreland which was allocated 15 suckers. The plantation owners intended that breadfruit would feed enslaved Africans on their properties, mostly sugar producers. So valuable was each sucker that beneficiary plantations reported back on the health of individual trees.

Mr. Samuel Jeffries of Shrewsbury Estate in Westmoreland reported to the Custos that his breadfruit sucker was “strong and vigorous”.  I wonder whether descendants of this sucker can be traced today near Roaring River, once part of Shrewsbury?  Large numbers of suckers were kept aside for Jamaica’s two botanical gardens – to propagate more breadfruit suckers for later distribution.

The above sketch is a view from the St. Vincent Botanic Garden looking southwest to the Caribbean. It was drawn by Lansdown Guilding in 1824 and appeared in his “Account of the botanic garden in the island of St Vincent, from its first establishment to the present time” published in Glasgow in 1825.

DID YOU KNOW. . . that on that famous voyage to Jamaica, Captain Bligh stopped off at St. Vincent en route to Jamaica (even though his breadfruit suckers were already three years later than the delivery date agreed!)?

Part 5

Yes!  A botanical garden had been established near Kingstown in St. Vincent in 1765 – the first British one in the Americas. It was a military operation under the head of the British regiment based on the island. Its purpose was to nurture and distribute plants to islands the British were capturing throughout the West Indies, except for Jamaica.

When Bligh’s Providence docked off Kingstown in January 1794, the botanic garden was superintended by a Scottish plant enthusiast named Alexander Anderson. Bligh offloaded 559 plants from Tahiti, including 330 breadfruit suckers (although he kept back the best suckers for Jamaica!).

Mr. Anderson recorded: “Such a number of live plants were never before seen on board a single ship. On her arrival she was one of the most beautiful objects of the kind it is possible to conceive. Such a number of live plants of many different kinds brought from the remotest parts of the globe in such a state of preservation and carried through nearly all the climates of it was surprising to behold. Nor is it less surprising that the share of them allotted to the Garden have arrived to such perfection in so short a time in it. Some of the breadfruit plants began to produce fruit at the end of eighteen months from their arrival.”

Anderson continued: “In two years and three months all the fifty plants reserved in the Garden produced a large crop. This will appear the more surprising as the half left here were the smallest and the most sickly-looking plants. The largest and most healthy in appearance went to Jamaica. In this division there appeared partiality.”

Eight varieties of breadfruit tree were received from Bligh. Suckers were distributed by Anderson to other places captured by the British across the West Indies and the Guianas, including Dominica and Trinidad.

DID YOU KNOW … that the breadfruit tree and Tahiti gave surfing to the world?

Part 6

” … some are so expert as to stand on their board till the Surf breaks” noted in 1788

Joseph Banks joined Captain Cook’s expedition in the Pacific and landed in Tahiti in 1769. Banks was interested in everything he saw, as well as his interest in breadfruit.  Banks is the first known European to observe and record the ancient Tahitian sport of surf-riding.

With Cook, and Dr. Solander, a Swedish botanist, Bank took an exploratory trip on 28th May 1769 to the west coast of the island, initially by small boat and then on foot, and camped overnight. This is what he recorded about his journey back to Matavai Bay the next day:

“In our return to the boat we saw the Indians amuse or exercise themselves in a manner truly surprising. It was in a place where the shore was not guarded by a reef as is usually the case, consequently a high surf fell upon the shore, a more dreadful one I have not often seen: no European boat could have landed in it and I think no European who had by any means got into could possibly have saved his life, as the shore was covered with pebbles and large stones. In the midst of these breakers 10 or 12 Indians were swimming who whenever a surf broke near them dived under it with infinite ease, rising up on the other side; but their chief amusement was carried on by the stern of an old canoe, with this before them they swam out as far as the outermost breach, then one or two would get into [on] it and opposing the blunt end to the breaking wave were hurried in with incredible swiftness”.

Banks continued: “Sometimes they were carried almost ashore but generally the wave broke over them before they were halfway, in which case the [they] dived and quickly rose on the other side with the canoe in their hands, which was towed [paddled] out again and the same method repeated. We stood admiring this very wonderful scene for full half an hour, in which time no one of the actors attempted to come ashore but all seemed most highly entertained with their strange diversion”.

Not one of these three well-travelled men had ever heard of nor seen surf riding before.  While Bank called it “the stern of an old canoe”, it was a purpose-made surfboard cut from the trunk of a breadfruit tree.  The wood of the breadfruit is light, flexible and strong, ideal for the purpose, and, of course, in good supply in Tahiti. It’s remarkable that this first-ever European record of surfing details four of the basic elements: the paddle-out, the take-off, the ride-in and the pull-out.

1819 Kalaimoku Arago Leuras

Those surfing that morning, oblivious to the European spectators, were sophisticated: the take-off at “the outermost breach” is probably on the green wave face and not merely in the white-water, maximizing the potential wave size and length of the ride. Banks’ phrase “with incredible swiftness” may indicate an element of riding transversely across the wave, the rider apparently travelling faster than the wave speed. When the wave “broke over them’ the ride was terminated (“the pull-out”) by the rider diving down and forcing the board under the water to emerge behind the wave and paddle back out. The board was called by Tahitians “papa-fa’ahe’e’ “, literally “board-for-surf-riding”.

Sydney Parkinson adds to the story in his own journal: “This tree, which yields the bread-fruit so often mentioned by the voyagers to the South-seas, may justly be stiled the Staff-of-life to these islanders; for from it they draw most of their support. This tree grows to between thirty and forty feet high, has large palmated leaves, of a deep grass-green on the upper-side, but paler on the under; ….  of the wood they build canoes”. It was also the wood to make surfboards.

You might ask: How could they make surfboards without metal saws?  Tahitians used their stone adzes to dub out boards from a section of the breadfruit tree trunk of required length, from five to 15 feet long (see illustration below of a long surfboard in 1819).  The rough boards were “then rubbed down with rough coral to remove the adze marks and polished with stone rubbers, in the same way as canoe hulls were smoothed. They were stained a dark colour with the root of the ti plant (mole ki) or the juice of pounded kukui bark (hili). Sometimes the soot of the burned kukui nuts were used. Juice from banana buds and charcoal from burnt pandanus leaves are also used. When the stain was dry, a dressing of kukui nut oil was applied as a finishing process”.

(Intrigued? This is just a snippet. Buy the book below.)

Michael Morrissey was an honorary professor of The University of the West Indies, where he earned postgraduate degrees and taught for nearly 30 years. After that, he provided analytical services in many countries across Asia, Africa and the Caribbean in the field of primary and secondary education development. He was author of many geography and social studies textbooks for Caribbean schools.

Michael first came across breadfruit when he migrated from England to Jamaica in 1968 and was instantly addicted to the wafting aroma of the fruit roasting on an open fire in the parish of St Ann, his first Jamaican home. When he moved to Indonesia in 2006, he focused research interest on Indies/West Indies linkages.  This series of DID YOU KNOW? pieces, written specifically for the Trees That Feed Foundation, are a by-product of this continuing research. We’re pleased to report that the book, Breadfruit Stories: A tree’s journey from Tahiti to the West Indies, 1760s-1840s,  is now published and available from Amazon!  Click here. 

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