The stories of how so many of our garden and food plants were found, and arrived, might sound like dry, boring history – but it isn’t. the incredible tales of explorers bent on finding new plants, and the importance of plants in the economies of previous centuries makes it sometimes uplifting, sometimes tales of bravery and endurance – and sometimes it brings out the worst.
Few tales of plants combine all these things, as well as the dark history of slavery, empires, national and professional ambitions, egos, ambition and the power of chance events as the tale I am going to tell.
Almost everyone knows in some form the tale of the Mutiny on the Bounty – perhaps from the 1962 film of that name, that helped thrust Marlon Brando into stardom. Or perhaps from the tales of an idyllic paradise on Pacific Islands that helped trigger it. Captain Blight, who’s ship the “Bounty” was highjacked by his sailors in 1789, has become a symbol of the excesses of authority, and how it leads to disaster.
But maybe you never asked what the “Bounty” was doing sailing across the Pacific in the first place, or why it was such an important voyage. Almost nobody knows the recently-uncovered story I am going to tell, of how it could have all been very different, and how good luck could have robbed Brando of his iconic role, because the “Bounty” might never have set sail in the first place.
Breadfruit and Slavery
Joseph Banks has been the naturalist on James Cook’s expedition just a few decades earlier, that had discovered and claimed Australia for the British. When the ship arrived in Tahiti, Banks, noticed the Breadfruit tree, today called Artocarpus altilis. The wild version of this tree has fruits full of edible seeds, of limited food value. But in Tahiti they had a seedless form, highly nutritious and desirable. These trees produced amazing amounts of fruit, 150 to 200 per tree, and over 10 tons per acre.
When Banks returned to England with his plants from the Pacific, Australia and New Zealand, he was a hero, going on to be President of the Royal Society for 41 years, and turning the King’s botanic gardens at Kew into the world-leading institution it remains today. Full of energy and ambition, he had ideas to spare, and one was about Breadfruit. This was a period when Britain’s colonies in the West Indies (today’s Caribbean Islands) were enormous slave colonies, growing sugar for the sweet tooths’ of Britain, Europe and America. It was also used for the most popular drink of the time – rum. The slave masters wanted to feed their slaves so they could work, but cheaply, without taking up land more profitable for sugar. Banks suggested Breadfruit, and the idea of establishing it there become an obsession.
Bringing Breadfruit to the Caribbean
In those days, plants usually travelled around the world as seeds – the perfect package that needed no special care and took up almost no room on a boat. But breadfruit without seeds couldn’t be grown that way. It could only be grown from pieces of roots from good trees, and transporting live plants across the oceans on sailing ships was a very different matter. It wasn’t until 1833 that the portable miniature greenhouses called Wardian Cases were first tested, going on to be the method of choice. Back in the 18th century plants just had to sit on deck, exposed to salt, and needing constant watering from the ship’s precious supply of fresh water.
Carl Peter Thunberg
Banks was not the only botanist exploring in the Pacific, and England was not the only country with colonial interests there. The Dutch had been the dominant traders with China and Japan, and Indonesia, known as the Dutch East Indies, was an important and lucrative tropical colony – and a death sentence for Europeans who stayed long. Carl Peter Thunberg was an ambitious young botanist from Sweden, and a pupil of the founder of modern taxonomy (plant naming), Carl Linnaeus. A medical doctor too, Thunberg had obtained a job as a doctor in the only European settlement in Japan, run by the Dutch East Indies Company, on the tiny island of Deshima, in the port of Nagasaki. Tolerated by the Japanese as long as Europeans were useful for them, they ran the island like a prison, using interpreters as go-betweens, and preventing Europeans from leaving the island, except in the rarest of circumstances. Thunberg wanted to see Japanese plants, and he skillfully traded his medical knowledge for plants and privileges to travel a little. He is most famous today for his work in Japan, publishing the first books in the West on it’s plants.
Thunberg and Breadfruit
Banks was also not the only person fascinated with breadfruit. Thunberg had studied it extensively in Java, and brought live plants the relatively short distance to Ceylon (today’s Sri Lanka). A new theory, based on recently-discovered letters, proposed by the world’s leading scholar on Thunberg, Marie-Christine Skuncke, presents the following exciting idea.
Thunberg was ambitious, and finding Sweden small and his patrons there difficult to deal with, he turned his mind to England, which Banks was making the global pinnacle of botanical learning. Thunberg had met Banks on an earlier trip to Britain, and with his prospects uncertain in Sweden, wanted to secure a prestigious position in England. But how to attract Banks’ attention and favor? When Thunberg learned of Banks’ interest in breadfruit he saw the way. If he could be the first to bring live, seedless plants to England, he would be welcomed with fame, and his future would be assured.
He had already published a paper on breadfruit in 1775, and by 1777 he had managed to put together more than 100 living plants of both seedless and seeded forms in Ceylon. He loaded them on a Dutch ship, the “Loo” and traveled with them to keep them alive. In April 1778 he arrived at the Cape in South Africa, and there learned that despite his misgivings he had been granted a good position in Sweden. So he had a backup if his breadfruit scheme didn’t work out.
Black Swans, Chance and History
Looking back, Thunberg must have thought how lucky he was that the backup was there. The “Loo” was approaching Europe, entering the North Sea, and onboard Thunberg had more than 100 healthy plants. Then disaster struck. The ship was caught in a violent storm and all the plants were swept overboard. He learned later that Banks wanted to time the arrival of the precious breadfruits for summer, not winter when Thunberg was arriving, as Banks doubted that he could keep the plants healthy through the bleak English winters. His plan had been to bring them in summer, and immediately ship them on to the West Indies. So it is possible that Thunberg’s plants would have been of little value in the end, even if they had arrived in England successfully.
Despite losing his plants, Thunberg still had extensive knowledge to share on breadfruit, and published the first extensive paper on it in Sweden in 1779. Storms were frequently and cargos often lost, so perhaps ‘Black Swan Event’ is an exaggeration, but certainly history could have been very different if the “Loo” had missed that storm. It is not clear if Thunberg told Banks what had happened, or simply put it down to experience, and moved on.
Banks Falls Back on Captain Blight
With his extensive contacts and resources, Banks was still able to go all-out on bringing breadfruit. He had the Royal Navy purchase, in 1787, a ship, the “Bounty”, and convert the captain’s cabin into an onboard greenhouse able to hold 1,000 plants. He sent Captain Blight and his sailors to Tahiti, where he knew there were seedless breadfruit, to obtain those plants and carry them to the West Indies. After a difficult trip, the time spend in Tahiti growing the plants was paradise for the sailors. So much so that they sorely missed the life and the women, once they were back at sea. That, and seeing plants better treated than they were, was a major factor in triggering the Mutiny.
Of course, the breadfruit plants were lost too, with no room for them in the tiny boat Bligh and his remaining loyal sailors were set adrift in. They rowed for six weeks, travelling 3,500 nautical miles to the Dutch East Indies – an amazing feat of endurance and survival. After many misadventures and infighting, Fletcher Christian and some men, along with Tahitians, mostly women, settled on Pitcairn Island, eventually forming a viable community.
The “Bounty” was eventually captured by the British Navy, and the remaining sailors court-martialed. In 1793 Blight did eventually land in St Vincent with breadfruit, on another ship, the “Providence”. They were not accepted as food at first, although the plant has gone on to be an important Caribbean crop. Slavery was to continue on the British islands past 1807, when the trade in them was banned, and it was 1834 before slaves were freed on British Caribbean islands.
So this really is a ‘what if’ tale. If that storm had not destroyed Thunberg’s plants, and they had survived the English winter, then they could have been sent by Banks to the West Indies. The “Bounty” might never have sailed, the mutiny might never have happened – and Marlon Brando would have lost out on a role that helped rocket him to fame. Only from the present does the past look inevitable.
For those interested, I recommend Marie-Christine Skuncke’s book, ‘Carl Peter Thunberg, Botanist and Physician’, for many insights into the life of this over-looked collector. The book is also beautifully produced, with fascinating illustrations.