Notable blunders

22nd November 2002 at 00:00
Cook's breadfruit.

Captain Cook found many exotic plants when he landed on Tahiti in 1769. But a tree called the ulu was to prove somewhat troublesome for his countrymen.

This member of the mulberry family was important to the Pacific Basin economy. Its timber was prized, its inner bark could be made into cloth and its latex had a dozen uses. Then there was the fruit.

These fleshy spheres each weighed several kilograms, and were rich in starch and vitamins. Baked, boiled or fried, the flesh resembled potato or mango. Unripe, it was like bread - so they called it breadfruit.

Cook's botanists transported samples back to England and convinced the nobility that here was an excellent source of cheap food for the slaves working their Caribbean sugar plantations. So persuasive were they that George III himself ordered an expedition to transplant hundreds of the trees from Tahiti to Jamaica. In 1787, he sent a captain called William Bligh in a ship named The Bounty.

Arriving the following year, The Bounty's crew spent six months collecting and preparing 1,015 breadfruit suckers for shipment. But when the time came to leave, many of the men were reluctant to go, having married local women.

Their anger at being forced to abandon their wives and set sail was increased when Bligh insisted on giving a portion of their valuable drinking water to the ulu suckers to prevent them from drying out.

What happened next - the mutiny led by Fletcher Christian - has been well documented in books and films. But what of the breadfruit project? In fact, Bligh returned to Tahiti in August 1791 for a second crack at transplanting the trees, and this time he was successful. In February 1797, his new ship, HMS Providence, arrived in Jamaica with 347 viable breadfruit suckers on board.

But although the trees thrived, the project was a disaster. For while it proved possible to take breadfruit to the slaves, nothing on earth could induce them to eat it. Protesting that they didn't like the flavour, they refused to touch it, maintaining their aversion until long after slavery had been abolished.

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