Have you ever taken a moment to consider the origins of some of our traditional foods? Take the ackee, for instance, Jamaica’s national fruit and one half of our unofficial national dish, ackee and saltfish: it was introduced to Jamaica.
And so was the breadfruit.
Both staples in the Jamaican diet have one thing in common as well: Captain William Bligh. I’ll get back to him in a little bit.
Where did the ackee come from?
Ackee came to Jamaica from West Africa. It was officially recorded as being introduced into the island in 1778, when some plants were purchased from the captain of a slave ship to provide a domestic source of food for the slave population when the regular food supplies were blocked during the American Revolution (Armstrong 1991).
However, there is another story about how ackee was introduced here. According to Olive Senior (2003, pg. 2) a man in West Africa was picking ackees when he was captured by slave traders. He had one of the fruits in his hand at the time, which he held onto tightly throughout the whole horrific sea journey from Africa to Jamaica that was the Middle Passage.
The ackee eventually became a very important part of the diet of the enslaved people. In fact, archaeological explorations of African-Jamaican slave culture by Douglas V. Armstrong, a professor of anthropology who has conducted extensive archaeological research on Jamaican slave culture via the former Drax Hall plantation in St Ann, revealed that: “The presence of ackee is a strong indicator of the location of abandoned slave village sites throughout Jamaica.” (Armstrong 1991, pg. 8).
And this has turned out to be true.
For instance, this is evident on the Mona campus of the University of the West Indies (UWI). The Mona campus comprises 653 acres of land formerly part of two large sugar estates: the Papine and Mona sugar plantations (UWI Mona). Ackee trees can be seen around the site of the old Papine slave village on the campus. The slave village now lies under an informal football field and running track on the northern edge of the campus (Digital Archaeological Archive of Comparative Slavery). The Papine slave village was once home to nearly 200 enslaved labourers in the 18th and 19th centuries.
And, as they say, the rest is history.
The ackee has come to assume great cultural significance for us as Jamaicans, as well as a part of our national identity. For instance, the folk song “Linstead Market,” laments the lack of sales for the ackees brought to the market. The following version was sung by Louise Bennett, accompanied by the Caribbean Serenaders and featuring Leslie Hutchinson on the trumpet, in 1951:
The words to “Linstead Market” can be found on Jamaicans.com.
What’s the breadfruit’s story? Where did it come from?
The breadfruit came to Jamaica from Tahiti in 1793. However, the story doesn’t start there.
Olive Senior notes (2003, pg. 72) that in 1775, the planters in Jamaica, seeking a cheap source of food for the enslaved population, offered to pay “all reasonable costs” to anyone who would supply them with plants of the tree that produced ‘bread’ all year round within the islands of the South Sea. They were of course talking about the breadfruit tree, the descriptions of which were written about by explorers within these islands, such as William Dampier, who encountered the fruit in Guam in 1688.
Unfortunately for the planters, no one took up their offer, and the project languished until the 1780s when famine hit the British West Indian colonies, caused by a series of unfortunate events. First, there was the cutting off of food imports from the North American colonies due to the American Revolutionary War between 1775 and 1783, in which the American colonists fought to gain their independence from England. Next, a series of hurricanes, impacting Jamaica between 1780 and 1786, annually, coupled with periods of drought, destroyed the provision grounds of the enslaved labourers. An estimated 15,000 enslaved persons died between 1780 and 1787 in Jamaica as a result of famine or malnutrition.
Faced with an economic crisis on their hands, the planters successfully petitioned the King of England to mount a special expedition to source the breadfruit. In 1787, Captain William Bligh was appointed commander of the HMS Bounty and charged with the task of finding the breadfruit.
He obtained the plants in Timor and Tahiti. However, on his return to the British West Indies, the crew mutinied, threw the plants overboard, and set Bligh and a few of his crew members adrift in an open boat.
Bligh survived this ordeal and, undaunted, returned to Tahiti and Timor to collect breadfruit trees for the British West Indian sugar interests, this time on the HMS Providence. He successfully brought the first breadfruit trees to Jamaica in 1793, along with several other plants.
The breadfruit immediately took to the Jamaican weather and soil and flourished. However, it was several years before the population attempted to eat it as they considered it a strange fruit. Today, the breadfruit is considered one of Jamaica’s favourite starchy foods, and a very tasty addition to ackee and saltfish (at least I think so!)!
Like the ackee, the breadfruit has left its mark on Jamaica’s dynamic culture. Jamaicans equate its longevity and the way it propagates itself by sending up suckers from its roots with perseverance, as captured in this Jamaican proverb: “Di more yuh chop breadfruit root, di more it spring.”
So what’s the link between the ackee, breadfruit and Captain Bligh?
Captain Bligh brought the breadfruit to Jamaica from Tahiti on the HMS Providence. On his return to England, he loaded the ship with several plants from the British West Indies, including 800 from Jamaica. These were destined for Kew Gardens in England.
One of these from Jamaica, the ackee, was given the botanical name, Blighia sapida, in his honour.
Until next time…
Armstrong, Douglas V. (1991). A First-Hand Look at Life on a Jamaican Plantation: An Archaeological Study of the Afro-Jamaican Community at Drax Hall, Jamaica Journal, Vol. 24 No. 1, pp. 3-8.
Jamaicans.com, Linstead Market
Senior, Olive (2003), Encyclopedia of Jamaican Heritage. St. Andrew: Twin Guinep Publishers, Ltd.
Wikipedia.com, William Bligh
Wikipedia.com, Mutiny on the Bounty