A Golden Fruit With a Colorful Past

BY AWAKE! WRITER IN FIJI

THE year is 1789. The 23-foot [7 m] open boat is tiny in the vast ocean and loaded with men. Its passengers are weakened by hunger and exhausted because they have been bailing for days while battling mountainous seas and high winds. Ahead lies an expanse of more than 3,000 miles [5,000 km] of uncharted ocean, studded with treacherous coral reefs. Food supplies are scanty​—each man is rationed only one ounce [30 g] of bread (ship’s biscuit) per day along with a little water. The men’s chances of survival seem small indeed.

Within the space of a little more than a week, they had suffered mutiny at sea, they had been set adrift, and one of their number had been killed in an attack by natives. They had also faced fierce thunderstorms and had barely succeeded in outrunning canoes that  gave chase from the islands then known as the Cannibal Isles.

What had drawn these men to this remote and dangerous part of the South Pacific, so far from their homes in England, a land of well-ordered groves and gardens? The object of their quest involved the noble breadfruit tree. Let us explain how this beautiful tree and its nourishing fruit played a key role in this story and in earlier epic voyages of discovery.

Perhaps you have identified the men in the boat in the above-mentioned account as the survivors of the infamous mutiny on the Bounty. The 215-ton British naval ship Bounty, under Captain William Bligh, had set sail from England bound for Tahiti. On arrival Bligh was to take on board a company of very unusual “passengers”​—close to 1,000 breadfruit tree saplings. These potted plants had the potential of paying for their passage by producing nourishing golden fruit once they were established in their new home in the British colonies of the Caribbean.

This project was arranged on the basis of advice that Sir Joseph Banks had given to the British  government, which at the time was urgently seeking a new food source for slaves working in the cane fields. Banks, then acting as an adviser to the Kew Botanical Gardens near London, England, had previously sailed as botanist with Captain James Cook on his earlier voyage of discovery in the Pacific. * Both he and Cook had foreseen promising possibilities for the breadfruit tree.

Although not personally accompanying Bligh, Banks drew up plans for the on-board care of the plants during the long sea voyage, giving particular thought to their need for fresh water. Some writers believe that the attention and water lavished on the trees​—at the expense of the crew—​may have helped to drive the already dissatisfied crew to mutiny. Off the coast of Tonga, early on the morning of April 28, 1789, Bligh and 18 loyal men were set adrift at the point of a cutlass. The breadfruit “passengers” were probably cast overboard, consigned to a watery grave by gleeful mutineers.

Bligh, however, was not a man easily deterred. He embarked on what has been called “the most celebrated open-boat voyage in the chronicles of the sea.” In seven trying weeks, he sailed this small boat more than 3,600 miles [5,800 km], northwest through the middle of the islands now known as Fiji, up the east coast of New Holland (Australia), and on to safety on the island of Timor.

On his return to England, Bligh was given command of two more ships, whereupon he returned to Tahiti to collect breadfruit trees. This time, in the year 1792, he successfully  transported some 700 potted “passengers” to the islands of St. Vincent and Jamaica in the West Indies. To this day, breadfruit trees flourish there​—producing a crop of gold, as it were, beneath their verdant, leafy crowns.

While Bligh’s voyage is surely an epic tale of survival and discovery, it is but a recent chapter in the breadfruit story. If the breadfruit tree could only speak, what stories it would tell of a time thousands of years ago when it accompanied ancient mariners on great voyages of discovery!

The Breadfruit Tree’s Early Voyages

Archaeologists believe that several waves of migration took place in the western Pacific, the most recent of these commencing about 1500 B.C.E. * Starting in Southeast Asia, the Lapita people used large double-hulled canoes to migrate through countries known today as Indonesia, New Guinea, New Caledonia, Vanuatu, and Fiji and on out into the central Pacific. These journeys included truly amazing feats of navigation, considering that some trips between islands involved crossing hundreds of miles of open ocean.

The Lapitas’ oceangoing double-hulled canoes could carry a large number of people along with domestic animals, food supplies, and a variety of seeds, cuttings, and potted plants. As the Lapita fanned out across the Pacific, they discovered and populated the islands of Melanesia, Polynesia, and Micronesia to the north and New Zealand to the south. They spread out like the waves of a tide, eventually rippling as far afield as Easter Island and Hawaii. * Wherever they voyaged, among their most distinguished “passengers” was the hardy breadfruit tree.

A Versatile and Nutritious Food

Today in Fiji, as in many other parts of the world, the breadfruit is of great value as a nutritious, low-cost food. Some varieties of the tree are hardy and prolific, bearing fruit as often as three times a year for up to 50 years, even when weather conditions are not ideal. The fruit has a breadlike texture, and its many varieties have differing flavors. The taste is usually described as being partway between bread and potato. It can be boiled, steamed, baked, or fried, and it is often made into a dessert. It can be dried and crushed into flour for cooking, and when pulped and fermented, it stays fresh for years.

The leaves can be wrapped around such foods as fish or chicken in order to retain moisture and flavor during cooking. The peeled seed too is edible and has a nutty taste. The sap is sometimes collected and enjoyed by children as chewing gum. What a variety of uses! It is not hard to understand why some Pacific islanders feel a particular affinity for the breadfruit tree.

Ledua, who lives in Fiji, tells us that the mention of breadfruit brings back both good and bad childhood memories. Her family had five big breadfruit trees. It was Ledua’s job to clean the yard of their leaves, a chore she hated. On the other hand, often after school, she and her siblings picked the fruit and sold as many as they could from door to door. Their parents then used the proceeds for items that they needed for attending Christian assemblies, such as food, bus fare, or new shoes.

Perhaps you live in one of the many parts of the earth now playing host to this widely traveled “passenger” with the high-sounding name Artocarpus altilis. Previously you may not have thought of this wonderful creation as a treasure or even as an item of value or beauty. However, many who live in the Pacific find that the name breadfruit conjures up images of great nautical feats and voyages of discovery, of the Lapita people, and of Captain Bligh.

[Footnotes]

^ par. 7 See the article entitled “Kew Gardens​—Transplant Center for the World,” appearing in the Awake! of January 8, 1989.

^ par. 13 Of course, this date is based on archaeology alone and does not take into account the Bible’s chronology.

^ par. 14 Some historians believe that a few of these ancient Pacific travelers reached as far as the Peruvian coast in South America and that on their return journey, they introduced the South American sweet potato to the Pacific. If this is true, it would mean that the sweet potato island-hopped in the reverse direction of the breadfruit, eventually reaching Southeast Asia, where the breadfruit originated.

[Box/Picture on page 25]

A Tree That Bears Many Gifts

The mature breadfruit tree is a spectacular evergreen. It originated in the forests of Malaysia. As a member of the family Moraceae, it is a relative of the fig, mulberry, and jackfruit trees. When mature, it may grow to a height of 40 feet [12 meters], and it puts out suckers that can be cut and planted. The breadfruit tree produces distinct male and female flowers in separate clusters. These flowers, which in the wild depend on small fruit-eating bats for their pollination and seed dissemination, develop into large round or oval fruits, about the size of a small melon, green outside and cream to golden yellow inside.

The breadfruit tree also produces very large, glossy, dark-green leaves, which provide welcome shade from the hot tropical sun. Its soft, lightweight wood is used for making furniture and canoes, while the inner bark is sometimes used to make a kind of cloth known throughout the Pacific as tapa. The milky sap is used as a waterproofing compound, and in some places the latex has been used to plaster bone fractures and even as a glue to capture birds.

[Picture on page 24]

Painting by Robert Dodd depicting the mutiny on the “Bounty”

[Credit Line]

National Library of Australia, Canberra, Australia/Bridgeman Art Library

[Pictures on page 26]

Breadfruit can be prepared in many different ways