Globalizing the Routes of Breadfruit and Other Bounties
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Globalizing the Routes of Breadfruit and Other Bounties

The eighteenth-century British quest for Tahitian breadfruit and the subsequent mutiny on the Bounty have produced a remarkable narrative legacy of maritime romance and revolution in print, film and the popular imagination. William Bligh’s first attempt to transport the Tahitian breadfruit to the Caribbean slave colonies in 1789 resulted in a well-known mutiny orchestrated by his first mate Fletcher Christian, the pursuit, capture, and court martial of the mutineers who returned to Tahiti, and the flight of Christian and his colleagues to Pitcairn Island where they established a troubled society of Europeans and Tahitians. As a historical narrative rehearsed almost exclusively on the Pacific stage, the breadfruit transplantation has been segregated from its Caribbean roots. Despite the loss of officers, crew, and one thousand breadfruit seedlings, the British government decided to repeat the attempt and successfully transplanted the tree to their slave colonies four years later.1 Here I focus on the colonial mania for what was popularly conceived as an icon of liberty, the breadfruit, and the British determination to transplant over three thousand of these Tahitian food trees to the Caribbean plantations to “feed the slaves.”2 Tracing the routes of the breadfruit from the Pacific to the Caribbean, I read this historical event as a globalization of the island tropics, particularly evident in human and plant migration, creolization, and consumption. In examining plant transfer in an age of revolution, I interpret the provision of the breadfruit for slaves as an attempt to displace a growing abolitionist revolution with a scientific one derived from the new knowledges of tropical botany.

As an effort initiated, coordinated, and financially compensated by Caribbean slave owners, the breadfruit transfer has not been fully examined in this Atlantic nexus of power. In fact, the Tahitian romance and revolution narrative of the breadfruit transfer, a myopic focus on the tension between Bligh and Christian, has deflected examination of the nearly three decades worth of lobbying from the West Indian planters for this specific starchy fruit and Bligh’s subsequent journey. As I will explain, this expensive transplantation was a drastic act of these planters to avert a growing critique of slavery through a “benevolent” and “humanitarian” use of colonial science to improve the diet of their slaves in years of famine. As an effort that radically transformed the island landscapes of the Caribbean, Pacific, and Indian Oceans, the mission for the breadfruit tree and its successful transplantation (with many other cultivars) was a global ecological event. Bligh’s second and successful voyage on the HMS Providence from Tahiti to Timor, St Helena, St Vincent, Jamaica, Grand Caymans and eventually back to England’s Kew Botanical Gardens (1793) brought these diverse peoples and their local ecologies into a complex and often contested material and metaphysical exchange of roots, seeds, culture, and soil.3

Following the lead of scholars who seek to historicize the complex process of globalization, this paper engages in what Felicity Nussbaum terms “critical global studies” to explore the ways in which the eighteenth-century commodification of nature contributed to world modernity.4 While globalization studies tends to configure history through the geographic movement of human agents and capital, my intention here is to deepen the temporal focus and destabilize the presumed anthropocentric subject of history by turning to the migration of plants. This is not to substitute the lives of humans with their vegetal cohorts but to engage the two in relation and to pinpoint those moments when human transplantation and revolution were circumscribed and deflected by botanical metaphors and substitutes. This dual focus requires attentiveness to naturalizing discourses about the cultivation and ingestion of plant foods that deflect the social politics of the consumption of nature. While Fernando Ortiz and Sidney Mintz’s work on tobacco and sugar have provided exceptional models for sustained inquiry into the relation between nature, plantation agriculture, and modernity, it seems more difficult to locate the nexus of power and consumption when speaking of arboriculture. Trees tend to become recognized as political objects only when we are faced with their removal, eradication, or their displacement of a prior species.5 Generally speaking, trees...