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The Mutiny on the Bounty

The mutiny on the Royal Navy vessel HMS Bounty in 1789 is of course known to most, thanks to numerous tellings in literature and film, as "The Mutiny on The Bounty". While the story made famous the names of William Bligh and Fletcher Christian, breadfruit is the leading star in this drama.

Bounty set sail from England in December of 1787, under the command of 33-year old lieutenant William Bligh. The destination was Tahiti, and the mission was to obtain saplings of the breadfruit tree, and to convey these safely to the British West Indies, where they would be propagated as a fast-growing inexpensive, food source.

There were difficulties and hardship from the beginning.

The ship's great cabin, normally the captain's quarters, was converted into a greenhouse for over a thousand potted breadfruit plants, with glazed windows, skylights, and a lead-covered deck and drainage system to prevent the waste of fresh water. The space required for this arrangements meant that the crew and officers would endure severe overcrowding for the duration of the long voyage.

On the voyage to Tahiti, they encountered furiously stormy weather, and were forced to take the long way around Africa's Cape of Good Hope. A further delay was waiting over five months for the breadfruit plants to mature sufficiently to be transported.

The Bounty finally departed Tahiti in April 1789 and sailed into history when Fletcher Christian and the mutineering crew, who wanted to remain in exotic Tahiti, took over the ship. After casting Bligh and his followers adrift in a small boat, Christian and his fellow mutineers threw the breadfruit plants into the sea and, along with the native Tahitian men and women who were with them, returned to Tahiti and ultimately the Pitcairn Islands. According to Bligh's diary, Fletcher Christian shouted at his former commander, "There goes the Bounty bastard, breadfruit Bligh!" and presumed Bligh would meet his end in open sea.

Bligh, however, persevered in his small craft with limited food and water and, after being adrift for a remarkable 47 days in the Pacific, covering 3,618 nautical miles with only a sextant to guide him and his men, he arrived at Timor. From there he returned to Britain, where he was court-martialed for the loss of the Bounty. After his exoneration Bligh was considered as hero in the Royal Navy and was promoted to Captain. From 1791 to 1793, as master and commander of HMS Providence he undertook again to transport breadfruit from Tahiti to the West Indies. 2126 breadfruit plants were carried from Tahiti, in pots and tubs stored both on deck and in the below-deck nursery. 678 of the plants survived the voyage to the West Indies, being delivered in 1793.