Bligh, the Bounty & the Breadfruit
The true story of the HMS Bounty and its mutinous crew is the stuff of legend and film -- and if you're renting videos, by the way, the Clark Gable/Charles Laughton 1930s version is far better than the 1984 Mel Gibson/Anthony Hopkins disappointment. But we digress.
Though a rich, fertile land, Jamaica in its early days did not grow enough food to support itself. Supplies were shipped down from what later became the United States, but vessels stopped sailing during the American Revolution, leading to starvation on the island. In London, Captain William Bligh was ordered to sail to Tahiti in command of the HMS Bounty, collect a hold of starchy, bland-tasting breadfruit, and then carry it onward to feed the Jamaicans.
The Bounty sailed from London in 1787, rounding Cape Horn. In Tahiti breadfruit plants were duly collected. On the way back, however, the crew -- led by Fletcher Christian -- mutinied in protest of Bligh's harsh command. Bligh and some of his most loyal men were set adrift in the middle of the Pacific, as Christian -- now the captain -- sailed for Ascension Island.
Somehow Bligh survived and returned to London. He was found not guilty of wrongdoing, was made captain of the HMS Providence, and set sail once again to fulfill his breadfruit mission. The Providence sailed from London in 1791; Bligh returned to Tahiti, securing more breadfruit plants, and finally did reach the island of Jamaica in February of 1793.
The plants were sent to a little spa at Bath with its botanical gardens, where they flourished and became an important food staple on the then-starving island. If there's a statue or memorial to Bligh's remarkable persistence, though, we haven't seen it.
The Green Gold of Port Antonio
The Spanish didn't do Jamaica much good, but they did leave a botanical legacy: the banana. From the Canary Islands, their colony off the western coast of Africa, they introduced the banana to Jamaica in 1520. It had nearly the same impact that introducing the tomato had on Italy: Banana trees took to Jamaican soil at once, even better than in their native land.
At first the Caucasian residents of Jamaica refused to eat the banana, considering it fit only for animals or slaves. Nonetheless, the banana saved many an impoverished family from starvation.
In 1873 Captain Lorenzo Dow Baker of Massachusetts loaded some bananas on his ship to take back to New England. They were an instant success there, and the future of the banana was secured, as orders came in for more and more of this tasty fruit. The Boston Fruit Company rushed to Port Antonio and began establishing banana plantations and hiring the descendants of slaves as its low-paid workers.
In time, bananas became known as "green gold." They could be picked green and would ripen in the ships carrying them back to New England.
By 1905 Captain Baker had erected the Titchfield Hotel, Jamaica's first bona-fide hotel, and began hauling in tourists. Some of the wealthiest people in America, including J. P. Morgan, came to visit at this Jamaican playground -- and it all began with the banana.
In the 1920s, however, a banana blight arrived from Central America, eventually destroying Port Antonio's banana crops. The local economy collapsed, and it has never really bounced back since, except for the tourism boom that hit -- briefly -- during the 1960s.