The breadfruit tree is magnificent when mature, tall and broad branched, with large glossy leaves. It provides shade and through its impressive spherical fruit, nutritious food.1


Like many plants, it has been moved great distances, far beyond its own propagation range through human agency determined to benefit from it. It began in the Pacific, and as Zerega et al. point out, it has been cultivated there for thousands of years.2 The Pacific is an enormous oceanic space (30 percent of the earth, 155 million sq. kilometers or 60 million sq. miles, and bigger than all the continents combined). Since the breadfruit became a staple food for islanders, it was taken by them when they travelled to establish new settlements.


Because it was spread through the Pacific Islands by human migration, its presence is part of the evidence for understanding patterns in those movements.3 Human selection for particular properties over a long time has resulted in variations in the tree’s being and behavior, including the predominance of seedless varieties and the loss of beneficial fungi.4 Zerega et al. call this “loss of fertility,” resulting from a condition called “triploidy.” This is caused by having three sets of chromosomes, but this loss is offset for humans by resulting in greater vigor, dark green leaves, and larger flowers or fruit.


As the previous video makes clear, the breadfruit still has a very important role in Pacific culture. Diane Ragone, who appears in the video, is a prominent researcher on the tree. She and Catherine G. Cavaletto tell us that breadfruit is “currently grown in 86 countries and 26 additional countries have ecological conditions suitable for its cultivation.”5 Breadfruit is especially popular in the Caribbean, which is why its complicated history there is particularly important. They go on:


Islanders have selected, named and grown hundreds of cultivars, distinguished by the following: the presence or absence of seeds; shape, size, skin, or flesh texture of the fruit; cooking or storage qualities; leaf shape; and fruiting season.

A cultivar is a plant variety produced through selective breeding, and breadfruit has been cultivated for so long, it is appropriate to think of breadfruit as diverse not only in location but in identity. Comparing the world distribution map for the breadfruit with the modern map of the Pacific shows how solidly established breadfruit is in that region. This map shows Tahiti, the island to which Captain Cook sailed on all three of his voyages to the Pacific (1772), greatly assisted by a new clock designed to measure longitude. The British were competing with the French to win naval advantage by being able to calculate longitude accurately.6


Breadfruit in the British Empire

White planters in the Caribbean had complained because trade after the American Revolution (1776 on) complicated their acquisition of cheap food for the enslaved. Richard Drayton reports that by the 1770s, there were plans to move “Asian plants” to the Caribbean:


In early 1772 Valentine Morris, Governor of St. Vincent, urged Banks that the introduction of the breadfruit tree would be ‘a great blessing and benefit’ to the West Indies. Finally in 1775 the planters of Jamaica…voted in their legislature to create two extensive botanic gardens and to place the cost of a full-time botanist on the charge of the colony.7

Sir Joseph Banks, referred to in this quotation, had accompanied Captain Cook on his first voyage to the Pacific (1768-1771). Gentleman botanist, he was keen on collecting useful plants: he would set up a botanical garden at Kew in 1772 with his monarch’s blessing and on his monarch’s land. Banks came up with the idea that breadfruit was a perfect food because it requires no work, therefore no expense: speaking of Pacific islanders, he writes: “Their chiefest sustenance Bread fruit is procurd with no more trouble than that of climbing a tree and pulling it down.”8


The representation of Pacific island societies as places of idyllic idleness and of the breadfruit as food requiring no labor or cost led to Captain Bligh being sent to Tahiti in 1789 to obtain cuttings. Bligh was thwarted in his first attempt to transport the breadfruit by the famous Mutiny on his ship, The Bounty (1789), but he returned to finish the job and delivered several hundred plants to St. Vincent in the Caribbean in 1793:


This day we took the plants on board, being 774 pots, all in a healthy state; for whenever any plant had an unfavourable appearance, it was replaced by another. The number of those rejected was 302….The natives reckon eight kinds of the breadfruit tree, each of which they distinguish with a different name. I. Patteah. 2. Eroroo. 3. Awanna. 4. MI-re. 5. Oree. 6. Powerro. 7. Appeere. 8. Rowdeeah. In the first, fourth and eighth class, the leaf differs from the rest…The difference of the fruit is principally in the first and eighth class.9

In fascinating research, Audi et al. have shown that two Caribbean cultivars can be directly connected to their Pacific ancestry through genetic data, after over two hundred years. They point out that “Outside of Oceania, the Caribbean is one of the largest growers of breadfruit.”10 Furthermore, Caribbean seedless cultivars are fairly uniform, lacking genetic diversity, because seedless varieties originate from a single introduction from Tahiti to St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Tahitian cultivar names, however, have been lost (288). Despite their significance in Caribbean diet and culture today, Laura B. Roberts-Nkrumah, a leading expert on breadfruit in the Caribbean, argues that breadfruit is still underutilized, “two and a quarter centuries after its introduction.”11


Understanding Breadfruit through Illustration

The breadfruit’s journeys across time and space can be traced through a number of careful botanical illustrations of the plant, often attaining the level of art and produced over a long period of time. There are striking images from many places, including Fiji and Puerto Rico, also one generically ascribed to Asia. These often show the male spike and the female flower as well as leaves. In 1796, three years after Bligh got the plant to the Caribbean, J. Pass did a colored etching that interprets the breadfruit a little oddly, despite getting it mostly right (the fruit is not golden like a mango when ripe).


All plants moved around the expanding British empire were collected at Kew Gardens. Greenhouses were to become a defining feature as tropical plants needed protection from a temperate zone. There is much to be learned from exploring botanical drawings of plants non-native to Britain, observed overseas, and brought to Kew. They were and are essential scientific evidence. Sometimes painterly interpretation occurred, and occasionally is of critical importance. The representation of a breadfruit tree with a person sitting beneath it by John Tyley, done for Alexander Anderson’s botanic garden in St. Vincent, breaks with scientific focus and offers a challenge to us (as it must have to its contemporary viewers) of how to interpret it. The British botanists sent to develop and nurture colonial collections of plants had to rely on local labor (which at the time of the arrival of the breadfruit in 1793 on St. Vincent, where Tyley worked, was likely to be forced—done by enslaved people.12 Tyley had been freed from enslavement, but was also given space to paint beyond botanical accuracy—and the painting was preserved so we can see it today.


The unusual nature of his painting may be understood by comparison with an 1800 drawing from India of the breadfruit done in “Company Style,” presumably the ruthless East India Company, where rules prevailed.13


Culturally specific landscape painting, without people usually, can also creep into illustrative composition as in British William Daniell’s 1809 colored aquatint—and actually the tree looks nothing like the breadfruit and might be the jackfruit (Artocarpus heterophyllus).


An anonymous illustration, again British, dated c. 1827, groups the breadfruit, again with yellow fruit, with mandrake (Mandragora officinarum) and cudweed (Gnaphalium species), the name on the drawing—perhaps to suggest the breadfruit belongs in Britain/Europe. Mandrake, a Mediterranean member of the nightshade family has a root that suggests the shape of humans and so was given magical qualities. Cudweed is described variously as a member of the daisy and sunflower family (which are the same family generally but of different genus). The British variant is believed to have been brought from mainland Europe in ancient times and almost became extinct. It is interesting (and quite colonial) that the breadfruit, in inaccurate representation, is thus claimed by British horticultural history at a time of colonial expansion.


Another British botanical illustration of 1828 is more accurate and detailed, published in Curtis’s Botanical Magazine. This one is a hand-colored engraving and the green used is reasonably faithful to the breadfruit’s color, which suggests a desire to be fair to the plant as opposed to framing it for people in the cultural locale which wanted the image made.


Images from Asia over time show a similar range from the strictly botanical interpreted by a gifted artist to the plant or fruit in social context. One from an “album” of watercolors of Asian fruits and flowers (dated 1798-1850) is very accurately observed and colored.


Early photography (1890-1910) delivers an image of a Fijian man carrying breadfruit tied to a stick over his shoulder: in this the fruit is part of a portrait of a person. The man is turned to the camera and looks levelly into it, conveying a strength and reserve that refuses the colonizing gaze—Fiji became a British Crown Colony in 1874.


Cook and Banks were both impressed by the importance of breadfruit in Pacific culture. A striking example of this is Cook’s careful observation of the disposition of a dead person’s body (who had been shot by Cook’s people). Items to nurture the spirit in the afterlife were placed close to the body, including “a few pieces of Bread fruit roasted ready for eating.”14 In 1920, Wilson Popenoe’s description shows the breadfruit as an interesting and important plant. Perhaps the two most important parts of his account for us here are his attention to the breadnut and his remark that in 1920 as he wrote this, there was very little scientific study of the breadfruit.15


The Cultural Significance of Breadfruit across the Caribbean

It should be clear by now that the breadfruit’s beginnings as a support to Pacific islanders was interrupted by the arrival of European colonists who usurped it for their own purposes and brought it to the Caribbean. There it had a difficult beginning as a tree foisted upon an enslaved population, one of whose very few rights and freedoms was their growing of food for themselves, (ground provisions) in small plots. These included yams, eddoes and other vegetables that carried an ancestral connection to Africa. The breadfruit was not only established without their interest or consent but when introduced to the Caribbean had no ancestral connection with the origin cultures of enslaved people.16


The Caribbean is accurately depicted in this early map (1736), showing it had been carefully traversed at that early stage, since Columbus arrived in the early 1490s. Winds off the West African coast blow straight across the Caribbean, which facilitated the slave ships’ and also Bligh’s breadfruit voyage in 1793. St. Vincent, his first port of call, lies less than a hundred miles to the West of Barbados. Jamaica, where reputedly Bligh delivered the healthiest breadfruit saplings, is a thousand miles from the Eastern Caribbean. As should be expected, an archipelago stretching over great distances would be marked by different cultures and language variants. Caribbean creoles have languages in their own right, fusing the metropolitan language of colonialism (English, French, Spanish, Portuguese) with languages brought by Indigenous Caribbean people and those from West Africa, India, and later China and the Middle East). So it should be expected that breadfruit, while being at first universally resisted by enslaved people, eventually acquired different meanings in the Caribbean region.


Mapping the breadfruit’s cultural identities across the region shows us how a plant seized from its place of origin and brought for purposes entirely indifferent to its own needs, survived and even thrived and became a deeply rooted part of Caribbean culture. Humans with the power to coerce both other people and the nonhuman have drastically altered the earth, which as we know is now at a dangerous tipping point. The story of the breadfruit’s biological changes but capacity to endure illuminates a culturally and historically complex domestication of a plant that is now thought to be resilient to climate change and likely therefore to be subject to even more human interference.17


Jill Casid’s book, Sowing Empire: Landscape and Colonization includes an account of the breadfruit’s arrival and role in Jamaica during slavery.18 She points out that prominent Jamaican planter and writer Edward Long has been called “the father of English racism” for his stated view that Europeans and people of African descent are two different species. Her apt term for the breadfruit is “the most infamous of colonial plant grafts,” the breadfruit, which slave-owner, promoter of the plantation system, and English M.P. Bryan Edwards placed at the frontispiece for the second edition of his History, Civil and Commercial, of the British Colonies in the West Indies, published at a time of growing support for ending slavery.19 This makes clear how intensely the breadfruit was dragged into the vision of the world that the increasingly entrenched racism wished to establish, in which plants, like subordinated people, had whatever meaning and function the powerful desired. The turning point for the breadfruit came after Emancipation when some Caribbean people, struggling to make a living as free people in territories still owned and dominated by white colonials, did indeed begin to find it helpful in hard times, though this would give it association over time with the poorest of a given society. Once a family had a little bit more money, they turned to rice or potatoes, neither of which is as nutritious as breadfruit.


The Breadfruit in Caribbean Literature

Caribbean literature from the twentieth century provides us with a sense of how the breadfruit has entered cultural and individual imagination in the region. Derek Walcott, Nobel laureate, born in St. Lucia in the Eastern Caribbean in 1930, makes the breadfruit a key element in “The Bounty,” his moving poetic elegy for his mother, Alix.


The poem plays with the idea of bounty as the plenty of natural harvest and as Bligh’s ship’s name. The breadfruit appears early: “the breadfruit opens its palms in praise of the bounty, /bois-pain, tree of bread, slave food….”20 Bois-pain is literally bread fruit: St Lucia had both French and English colonizers; everyone understands and speaks English, but the creole is French-based. This image of the breadfruit as having palms, hands with fingers, reflects the shape of the leaf. This comes back in section iii of the poem, “the breadfruit’s palms.”21


It is likely that Walcott saw a film about the Bounty mutiny. The story would have been popular in the years of his childhood (just as the Bounty bar, coconut-based, was sold along with other British confectionery). The mutiny inspired a number of films over the decades, each one reflecting the era of their making and social issues at the time which film-makers thought urgent. The one released in 1935 starred Clark Gable, as the mutinous Fletcher Christian, and Charles Laughton and focused on naval labor issues, with Laughton as an irascible, unjust Captain Bligh. In 1962, an epic remake, with much footage of Tahiti, had Marlon Brando as Christian and Trevor Howard as Bligh, once more focusing on Bligh as a poor captain and depicting Christian as deeply engaged with Tahitian life. In fact, after the mutiny, the mutineers escaped to Pitcairn Island with Tahitian wives. In the 1962 film, there is footage of the breadfruit plants being thrown overboard as a first declaration of control by the mutineers after Bligh is forced into a longboat with his loyal crew and made to leave the ship.22 Walcott depicts this in his poem, “the God-captain is cast adrift/by a mutinous Christian, in the wake of the turning Argo/ plants bob in the ocean’s furrows, their shoots dip and lift…”23 The Bounty is imaged as Jason’s ship Argo, sent in a Greek myth to retrieve the Golden Fleece. Bligh is sent to retrieve the breadfruit, which gives a certain mythological quality to Walcott’s reference to the sordid story. The poem embraces the breadfruit as a part of the bounty of nature of St. Lucia but also a link to a troubled colonial past that brought it there.

{#paragraph 24}

Barbadian Austin Clarke’s racy and absorbing culinary memoir, Pig Tails ‘n Breadfruit (1999) has a chapter on a very popular dish on the island, breadfruit cou-cou. Cou-cou, phonetically closely related to fufu, a Twi word meaning mash, is likely descended from West African food preparation practice, changed over time to become a Barbadian dish. Clarke deliberately (and amusingly) misleads by conflating Bligh with “people who sail from England to Africa, carrying nails and muskets and knives and top hats to trade with the Africans, for slaves.”24 He also, (and this reverberates with our survey of some of the many illustrations of plants that were important to British colonial botany), comically makes Bligh a sketcher of plants he finds in Africa. Clarke also mentions something that Banks noticed in his experience of breadfruit and that is also mentioned in a Trinidad calypso in the voice of the breadfruit: it produces intestinal gas.25 Clarke tells a story that is both funny and painful:

After you eat breadfruit, the gas is so distinctive, and is sensed so far and wide and long, that the slave-catcher and the Plantation manager used to love it and love slaves who eat breadfruit. The slaves could no longer hide! Not after a nice, heavy meal o’ breadfruit cou-cou. The gas they passed betrayed them. My own mother tell me this.26

This story reveals how deeply involved with slavery and issues of hunger and brutality the breadfruit has become in the Caribbean. But also Clarke sets out the recipe for this beloved local dish. Clarke declares that from a “bad, disreputable journey” of the breadfruit to the Caribbean, something good has “spring up,” “a green and large harvest of breadfruits.”27


This support of the breadfruit is borne out by the following demonstration online of its preparation.


There are many references to breadfruit in Caribbean literature, scribal and oral, and other aspects of culture, but not all are as positive as Clarke and Walcott’s. Jamaica Kincaid, born in Antigua, has made her writing career entirely in the U.S. She has written critically of Antigua in A Small Place, and not surprisingly, her take on the breadfruit there is not positive.28 In My Garden (Book), she makes her case in a chapter entitled “What Joseph Banks Wrought,” which directly references the breadfruit’s journey, since Banks became the major shaper of Kew Gardens and the dispatch of plants from one corner of the empire to another. She tells how he sent the breadfruit to the Caribbean but adds the detail “(Perhaps Antiguan children sense intuitively the part this food has played in the history of injustice and so they will not eat it.)”29


Kincaid goes on to say, after praising its fecundity and durability as a plant, “In a place like Antigua the breadfruit is not a plant, it is a weapon.”30 Earlier she says of the breadfruit that it “has been the cause of more disagreement between parents and children that anything I can think of. No West Indian that I know has ever liked it.”31


Clearly the breadfruit, through no fault of its own, could have been simply a metonym for suffering and thus only resented by descendants of the enslaved.


Nevertheless it has prospered, not just botanically, as we saw earlier, but also culturally in the Caribbean. St. Vincent, the first place Bligh dropped breadfruit plants, has an annual breadfruit festival and their national dish is roasted breadfruit with fried jack fish.


Breadfruit in Contemporary Culture and Cuisine

Breadfruit can be boiled, baked, turned into chips or snacks, or roasted, pretty much anything that can be done with potato. It is tricky to keep, because it has to be cooked at the right moment between unripe and ripe, which is not always possible to predict. Some say fully ripe, soft breadfruit is enjoyable as a sort of dessert. It is rich in complex carbohydrates and fiber, as well as calcium, potassium, magnesium, iron, thiamin, and niacin, also vitamins C and A. It has no gluten and a moderate glycemic index. Thus, it is a highly nutritious and healthy food.32


Not only St. Vincent but its close neighbor, Grenada, have national dishes based on breadfruit. But its popularity as a food can sometimes lead to complications. Roast breadfruit is very popular in Jamaica. A Jamaican psychiatrist used the term to describe psychological trauma caused by choosing to cope with being Black in Britain by over-adapting to white cultural mores, thus being metaphorically Black on the outside and white within.33


The fact that ordinary people have grown fond of it is revealed through popular culture, such as folk sayings, songs, and traditional medicine.


Richard Allsopp’s Dictionary of Caribbean English Usage lists a number of sayings about breadfruit, including that someone “has more guts than breadfruit” (it is a solid fruit, not soft, so this would signify being courageous), or that someone is a “breadfruit-swopper,” which signifies very low social status, because breadfruit is the only thing possessed in surplus, to be able to be given away or swopped.34 One of the ironies of the breadfruit’s history is that it maintained people who had little income, providing excellent nutrition. Had the more privileged realized that their preferred white rice and potatoes were not as beneficial, they might have denied the poor this important resource by making it valuable in monetary terms.


Breadfruit’s journey across the world has tangled it with traumatic human history, but through all of its experiences with humans, it has managed to thrive and to endure. It is a remarkable and resourceful tree, mostly no longer able to produce sexually, yet in no way diminished by its enforced adaptations to human proximity.35 It is to be hoped that its own needs as an enduring plant will not be overrun by those of humans as climate change intensifies pressure on food resources—if it proves true that the breadfruit, once more, has the capacity to endure. This time, whatever changes come from life on earth.


Note: the author wishes to thank Matthew Turetsky, quinoa scholar, who gave enormous assistance to this essay on the breadfruit through completing all the hypertexting.


  1. See, for a much longer and more detailed essay on the breadfruit: “A Good Thing Spring Up”: The Breadfruit Story in the Caribbean.” Ed. Lesley Wylie. Understories: Plants and Culture in the American Tropics. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press. 2023. 41-62. 

  2. “Complex Origins of Breadfruit (Artocarpus Altilis, Moraceae): Implications for Human Migrations in Oceania.” Nyree J. C. Zerega, Diane Ragone, and Timothy J. Motley. American Journal of Botany. 91 (5): 760-766. 2004. 760-766. 

  3. Zerega et al. discuss the variations in breadfruit cultivars as helpful in mapping directions of human settlement on island clusters in different Pacific regions. 

  4. For more detail see Savory, note 1. 

  5. Diane Ragone and Catherine C. Cavaletto. “Sensory Evaluation of Fruit Quality and Nutritional Composition of 20 Breadfruit (Artocarpus, Moraceae) Cultivar.” Economic Botany. 60 (4), 2006. 335-346. 

  6. Dava Sobel. Longitude. New York: Walker. 1995. 

  7. Richard Drayton. Nature’s Government: Science, Imperial Britain, and the ‘Improvement of the World.’ New Haven: Yale University Press. 2000. 79. 

  8. Sir Joseph Banks. The Endeavour Journal of Sir Joseph Banks. Oxford: Benediction Classics. 2008. 193. 

  9. William Bligh. A Voyage to the South Sea Undertaken By Command of His Majesty, For the Purpose of Conveying the Breadfruit Tree to the West Indies, in his Majesty’s Ship The Bounty, Commanded by Lieutenant William Bligh. Including An Account of the Mutiny on Board the Said Ship, and the Subsequent Voyage of Part of the Crew in the Ship’s Boat from Tofua, one of the Friendly Islands to Timor, a Dutch Settlement in the East Indies. London: Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty. MDCCXCII (1792). 108-109. 

  10. “Linking breadfruit cultivar names across the globe connects histories after 230 years of separation.” Current Biology. 33 (January 2023). 287-297. 

  11. The Breadfruit Germplasm Collection at the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine Campus. Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago: University of the West Indies Press. 2018. 21. 

  12. The following video is very helpful, though it is a pity the archivist misnames the countries of Grenada and St. Lucia. The painting itself would replay closer scrutiny to the way the figure is painted. That I have not been able to do myself now, but this would be an important avenue for further research. The Linnaeus 

  13. In 1800, the East India Company ruled one fifth of the world in in effect through corporate sovereignty. It had strict rules for operating within its sphere of influence. Alexander Anderson, who developed the St. Vincent botanic garden, appears to have had or at least operated with, less stringent rules, so that Tyley’s 

  14. James Cook. The Journals. London: Penguin 1999. 46. 

  15. For more on the breadnut and French introduction of it to the Caribbean, see Savory, note 1. 

  16. For those crops successful in America with African origins, see Judith A. Carney and Richard Nicholas Rosomoff. In the Shadow of Slavery: African’s Botanical Legacy in the Atlantic World. Berkeley: University of California Press. 2009. 

  17. For more detail on the plant’s botany and on future possibilities, see my article in Understories, note 1. 

  18. Jill Casid. Sowing Empire: Landscape and Colonization. Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press. 2005. 

  19. Casid, Sowing Empire, 23. 

  20. Derek Walcott, “The Bounty.” The Bounty. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 1997. 3. 

  21. Walcott, “The Bounty,” 7. 

  22. For more detail, see Savory, note 1. Both films are called “Mutiny on the Bounty.” 

  23. Walcott, “The Bounty,” 9. 

  24. Austin Clarke. Pig Tails ‘n Breadfruit: A Culinary Memoir. New York: The New Press. 1999. 113. 

  25. The calypso is “The Farmer and the Breadfruit Tree.” Mighty Growler. See Gordon Rohlehr. Calypso and Society in Pre-Independence Trinidad. Port of Spain, Trinidad: Gordon Rohlehr. 1990. 221. Also Savory, “A Good Thing Spring Up,” note 1. 

  26. Clark, 115. 

  27. Clark, 115. 

  28. Jamaica Kincaid. A Small Place. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 1988. 

  29. Jamaica Kincaid. My Garden (Book): New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 1999. 136-137. 

  30. Kincaid, My Garden (Book), 137. 

  31. Kincaid, My Garden (Book), 135. 

  32. Craig Elevitch, Diane Ragone, Ian Cole. Breadfruit Production Guide. 2nd Ed. Kalaheo, Kauai, Hawaii: Breadfruit Institute. 2014. 3. 

  33. Frederick W. Hickling and Gerald Hutchinson. “The Roast Breadfruit Psychosis: Disturbed Racial Identification in African Caribbeans,” Psychiatric Bulletin. 23.3 (1999) 132-134. For more on this, see Savory, “A Good Thing Spring Up. “ note 1. 

  34. Richard Allsopp. Dictionary of Caribbean English Usage. Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago: University of the West Indies Press. 1996. 114-115. 

  35. Elevitch et al. say it can be propagated by root shoot, root cutting, air layer, stem cutting, grafting, or tissue culture…rather than from seed.” Its cousin, the breadnut, “is always propagated from seed.” 37.