Captain Bligh, HMS Bounty, and the Breadfruit Trees

In the late 18th century Sir Joseph Banks (1743–1820) was president of the Royal Society. For a time Banks had been the unofficial director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. He wielded considerable influence in political and scientific circles.

Britain was establishing colonies in many parts of the Tropics, and there was much interest among politicians and administrators in identifying potentially useful plants and transplanting them to places where they might be cultivated profitably. Breadfruit was one such plant. This is an unusual fruit in that its principal nutrient is starch—the fruit is about 25 percent carbohydrate and 70 percent water. It is most often eaten roasted, baked, boiled, or fried, but it can also be made into other dishes. The important point is that it is both nutritious and productive—under ideal growing conditions in southern India a tree can produce up to 200 fruits every year, although it is less productive elsewhere. The British saw it as an easily cultivable food for the slaves on their West Indian plantations. The illustration opposite shows two ripe breadfruits.

The breadfruit tree (Artocarpus altilis) grows to a height of about 66 feet (20 m). It is monoecious, the male flowers appearing first, and pollinated by fruit bats (Megachiroptera), but trees are also propagated by planting the suckers that grow naturally from the roots. The rough-skinned fruits are about the size of grapefruits. The tree occurs naturally in the Malay Peninsula and the islands of the South Pacific, where Polynesians spread it widely by carrying cuttings on long voyages and planting them when they reached their destinations.

Banks gave his support to a government scheme to gather breadfruit tree cuttings in Tahiti and transport them to the West Indies. The plan was agreed, the ship chosen for the task was the Bounty, and, on Banks's recommendation, the naval officer given command of the Bounty was Lieutenant William Bligh (1754–1817). Funding for the enterprise came from a prize awarded by the Royal Society of Arts. The Bounty was a collier that had been converted into an armed vessel by fitting 10 swivel guns—small cannon mounted on a stand so they could be turned—and four four-pounder (2-kg) cannons.

She had three masts and was fully rigged, but she was small, approximately 91 feet (27.7 m) long and 24 feet (7.3 m) wide. The ship carried a complement of 44 officers and men. There was a garden to supply fresh vegetables and pots secured along both sides for the tree seedlings. It is important for what followed that no marines sailed on the Bounty. Most warships carried marines, because the standard method for fighting at sea involved boarding the enemy vessel and overpowering its crew in hand-to-hand combat—a job for soldiers, not seamen.

The Bounty set sail on December 23, 1787, bound for Tahiti. The ship crossed the Atlantic, but after spending a month trying to round Cape Horn in adverse winds, she was forced to turn back. She passed round the Cape of Good Hope and sailed across the Indian Ocean into the Pacific. During the voyage Bligh—who was then 33 years old—demoted the ship's sailing master John Fryer (1753–1817), whom he found unsatisfactory, and promoted his protege Fletcher Christian (1764–93) to replace him, with the rank of acting lieutenant. Despite fictional portrayals of him, Bligh was not a harsh or abusive commander and when he awarded punishments they were more lenient than those that sailors could expect on most ships. Bligh made sure his men had time for exercise, ensured they ate wholesome food including lime juice and sauerkraut as reliable sources of vitamin C, and he demanded that his men bathe and wash their clothes regularly.

They reached Tahiti—then called Otaheite—on October 26, 1788, and spent five months there gathering and potting 1,015 breadfruit saplings they had grown from seed. During this time Bligh permitted his crew to live ashore, and Christian married a Tahitian woman, Maimiti. On April 4, 1789, the Bounty left Tahiti. The mutiny, led by Christian, broke out on April 28. The reasons are obscure, but Christian and his followers may have been motivated by a wish to return to the easy life they had enjoyed ashore. No one was injured in the mutiny, and had the ship carried marines loyal to the captain probably it would never have taken place. The majority of the crew took no part in the mutiny, but they did nothing to prevent the mutineers from binding Bligh and ordering him, together with 18 of his crew, into a 23-foot (7-m), long launch with four cutlasses, food and water, a sextant, and a pocket watch. The Bounty then sailed away from them.

Bligh and his companions sailed first to Tofua Island in the Tonga group to take on supplies, but they came under attack from hostile islanders and one member of Bligh's crew was killed. They sailed away, not daring to call at other possibly hostile islands, and Bligh navigated them to the island of Timor, off the tip of the Malay Peninsula, where there were European settlements, a distance of 3,618 nautical miles (6,700 km). The journey took them 47 days, and no other men were lost. It was a magnificent feat of seamanship. Bligh returned to London in March 1790. He was court-martialed for losing the Bounty, but acquitted, and from 1791 to 1793 he was master and commander of HMS Providence, which, accompanied by HMS Assistance, completed the task of transporting breadfruit trees from Tahiti to the West Indies. Bligh remained in the navy until 1805, when he was appointed governor of New South Wales, but he was deposed in 1808 when colonists rebelled against his attempts to stamp out corruption. The illustration opposite shows him at about the time of his appointment to the governorship. In 1814 Bligh was promoted to the rank of vice admiral.

William Bligh was born on September 9, 1754, in the village of St. Tudy, near Bodmin in Cornwall. Promotion in the Royal Navy depended on length of service, and so it was common for parents to “sign on” their sons at a young age. Bligh officially joined the navy at the age of seven. He died in London on December 7, 1817.