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The Breadfruit Tree

The Breadfruit Tree... a tree with an illustrious past... Check it out.

In the 1700's, King Sugar was the biggest thing in the Caribbean. In the name of Sugar, Africans were captured and sold into slavery at various points alont the coast of Africa. Many a ship made their way from Europe, piled high with trade goods over to Africa where they took on their hapless human cargo. They carried them across the Atlantic and deposited them in the Americas, namely in the U.S., in the Caribbean, and in South America.

There the African slaves worked on sugar plantations, and on Cotton plantations and in whatever job that their masters felt would be better handled by slaves than by whitemen, namely in the most menial and monotonous forms of manual labour. So where did the breadfruit come in? Well the English always had their eyes on the bottomline. They figured that the pesky slaves were a good and necessary thing to have around, but its just was not good business sense to waste too much money on their care and feeding. They were eating into the profits, what! They set about trying to find cheaper foodstuffs to feed them.

Of course, the English were everywhere, and so word came to them of the Ulu tree (the Hawaiian name for the tree) of the Hawaiian and other Pacific Island . The tree grew in environmental conditions much like that of the Caribbean, and bore lots of breadfruit, a fruit which could be eaten in place of other starches. They felt that they could grow it on their plantations and in effect become more self-sufficient in producing food for the slaves which would be a lot cheaper than importing food for them. Just think how much money they would save.

In 1787, Captain Bligh set out in the good ship "The Bounty" for Tahiti, where they picked up more than 1200 Breadfruit tree suckers. The suckers underwent their own middle passage of sorts, although it seems they got better treatment than the slaves, who had to endure the real Middle Passage. The breadfruit suckers needed water in order to survive, and in no time they had consumed more than their fair share of the ship's water. As I mentioned earlier, the English respect wealth, and those plants stood to turn a tidy profit for Old Cap'n Bligh, so he decided to ration the water away from the crew in favour of the plants. This gave rise to some rather ill feelings and eventually resulted in the famous Mutiny on the Bounty, which gave rise to a two of movies of the same name. Old Cap'n Bligh and his loyalist were put overboard in a couple of dinghys. They surpassed the odds by surviving, and the crew who took part in the mutiny were punished by the authorities.

Eventually, Bligh made a second trip to get breadfruit and transport it to the Caribbean. This trip was successful, as the records show that Captain Bligh eventually arrived here with 347 breadfruit suckers on the HMS Providence in February of 1797. Theres persistence for you.

Unfortunately for the slave owners, the slaves wouldn't have anything to do with the foreign food. In fact, they never started to eat it until after the abolition of slavery. The slaves had a way of being "annoying" like that.

Here's a breadfruit.
I have had some amount of personal experience with the breadfruit trees in my garden and it the immediate area surrounding my childhood home. They were not necessarily my favourite trees, but I do have some fond memories of them. I first encountered them in Orange Grove, where I lived between the ages of nine and seventeen. We had a lot of breadfruit trees, and my parents used to roast the breadfruit from time to time for dinner. I wasn't fond of it prepared this way, as its rather dry and hard to swallow. Thats why they put butter on it, I guess. I much prefer it boiled or fried myself.

Apart from eating the fruit, I used to have a lot of fun climbing these trees. They were fairly easy to climb, as the lowest branches were usually within reach, and the limps were usually arranged within easy reach as you were climbing. The major problem with them as I recall was that the branches would sometimes be rotten, and a limb which looked as though it would easily take your weight would snap like a twig. If you weren't careful, you could be most unceremoniously deposited back upon Mother Earth. I quickly learned to test my weight on the branches, however, and so that problem didn't hold me up much.

I remember that they had a particularly tall breadfruit tree in the neighbour's yard. When you ascended to the top of that tree, you could look into most areas of the garden behind. Another kid lived there, a kid who I either used to play with or try to fight with, depending on what the state of the relations between us were at that particular point in time. We would spy upon the enemy (the kid) from on high, the better to know his movements. When at war, it is good to know the whereabouts and what your enemy was up to, after all. You don't have to read Sun Tsu's "The Art of War" for you to know that . You could see a lot of the happenings in my garden as well, and also the road in front of the neighbour's house. It was a particularly comfortable lookout point, way up there at the top of the tree, swinging gently in the soft breezes. We spent lots of time up there. It was great fun.

It is in that Breadfruit tree that I first kissed a girl, young Miranda Williams. She was the daughter of a couple of expatriates from England, a little girl with long blonde hair and blue eyes. One day we were high up in the tree and I leaned over and kissed her full on the lips, perhaps inspired by the rhyme we used to say as kids whenever we came across young couples kissing, to tease them:

"<insert boy's name here> and <insert girl's name here>, sitting in a tree,
First comes love, then comes marriage,
then comes <insert girl's name here> pushing a baby carriage".

She left the island with her parents shortly after that, (I don't know, maybe they saw us up in the Breadfruit tree and thought that the only way to protect their daughter was to get her away from me as quickly as possible, because I'm sure they knew the rhyme as well, and they knew how it ended, too), and so my trysting in the treetops came to a swift end.

Some time after that, a boy came to live with the lady who lived two houses up the road. He went to Ardenne High, one of the few places in Jamaica where they played basketball at that time. As a result, he was into basketball. We set up a hoop in my backyard by nailing a small bucket to the trunk of the breadfruit tree, then shooting a basketball through it. He got a lot more practice than I did, so he'd always kick my ass. C'est la vie. (As a matter of fact, Patrick Ewing of the New York Knicks went to Ardenne High. Thats where he learned the game.)

But yeah, breadfruit trees are all good. They certainly were better for a lot of reasons (i.e climbing, having fun in) than a lot of others, for instance the Avocado pear tree, or the lime trees which were also in the garden of the house I grew up in. Probably the only tree which could compare with it in my childhood experience was the O'Tahiti Apple tree which also was to be found in my garden. I spent lots of time up in that tree as well, and I could tell you about that too, but I guess that that is a tale for another time.