Bastard Breadfruit and other Cheap Provisions: Early Food Science for the Welfare of the Lower Orders


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  • 1 Department of History, Concordia University, Montreal


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Breadfruit is best known in connection with an infamously failed project: the 1789 mutiny against the Bounty, commanded by William Bligh. However, four years later, Bligh returned to the Pacific and fulfilled his commission, delivering breadfruit and other Pacific foods to Caribbean plantations. Placing these plant transfers in the emerging sciences of food and nutrition in the eighteenth century, this essay examines the broader political project of what would much later be called ‘the welfare state,’ which motivated British officials’ interest in experimenting with novel ingredients and recipes to cheaply nourish a range of dependent populations in institutional settings. Perhaps most strikingly, their nutritional recommendations borrowed directly from agricultural practices, particularly from new methods for feeding livestock in confinement.


  • 1

     Arthur Young, “Cause and Progress of the Dearness of Provisions, and Remedy Proposed,” Annals of Agriculture,29 (1797), 109–24 (horses and men, 115); Samuel Johnson, “Oats,” A Dictionary of the English Language, 2nd ed. (London, 1755–6), vol. 2, s.v.

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  • 3

     Richard Sheridan, “Captain Bligh, the Breadfruit, and the Botanic Gardens of Jamaica,” Journal of Caribbean History, 23, no. 1 (January 1989), 28–50, 30 (mortality estimate).

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  • 7

     Cullathur, The Hungry World, 12. On Malthus, see Robert J. Mayhew, Malthus: The Life and Legacies of an Untimely Profit (Cambridge, 2014); Fredrik Albritton Jonsson, Enlightenment’s Frontier: The Scottish Highlands and the Origins of Environmentalism (New Haven, 2013), 136, 190–5; Alison Bashford and Joyce E. Chaplin, The New Worlds of Thomas Robert Malthus (Princeton, 2016).

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  • 14

     Jeremy Bentham, “Pauper Systems Compared,” in The Collected Works of Jeremy Bentham: Writings on the Poor Laws, ed. Michael Quinn, vol. 1, 169–70 (Midas); Edmund Burke, Thoughts and Details on Scarcity (London, 1800 [1795]), vol. 1, 48; Albert O. Hirschman, The Rhetoric of Reaction: Perversity, Futility, Jeopardy (Cambridge, 1991), 12; Evans, Forging of the Modern State, 41–3; Michael B. Katz, Improving Poor People: The Welfare State, The ‘Underclass,’ and Urban Schools as History (Princeton, 1995), 3. For the French history of such policies in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, see Dana Simmons, Vital Minimum: Need, Science, and Politics in Modern France (Chicago, 2015).

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  • 15

     Burke, On Scarcity, 3–4, 39.

  • 17

     Count Rumford, “Of Food, and Particularly of Feeding the Poor, (1795),” in The Collected Works of Count Rumford, Vol. 5: Public Institutions, ed. Sanborn Brown (Cambridge, 1970), 169–78.

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  • 18

     Rumford, “Of Food,” 167–262. Salop (salep, saloop) was “1. a nutritive meal, starch, or jelly made from the dried tubers of various orchidaceous plants, chiefly those of the genus Orchis. […] 2a. A hot drink consisting of an infusion of powdered salep or (later) of sassafras, with milk and sugar, formerly sold in the streets of London in the night and early morning.” See: “salep, n.” OED Online (New York, 2015).

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  • 20

     Jeremy Bentham, “Situation and Relief of the Poor,” Annals of Agriculture, 24 (1797) 391–426; Quinn, “Editorial Introduction,” Collected Works, vol. 1, fns. 4 and 5, xv, fn. 3, xlii.

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  • 21

     [Mitchell], The Present State, 79–81; Benjamin Franklin, “On Maize,” (unpublished, ca. April 1785), Papers of Benjamin Franklin Digital Edition <http://franklinpapers.org/franklin//framedNames.jsp>; Arthur Young, The Autobiography of Arthur Young (London, 1808), 61–2; Gilbert Mathison, Notices Respecting Jamaica, 1808, 1809, 1810 (London, 1811), 32 (breadfruit primarily an ornamental, secondarily a fruit tree); Sheridan, “Captain Bligh, the Breadfruit,” 45–7 (quotation).

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  • 23

     Benjamin Franklin, “Homespun: Further Defense of Indian Corn,” The Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser, January 15, 1766; [Mitchell], Present State of Great Britain,35, 76, 79; Rumford, “Of Food,” 218–9; W. Mackie, “On the Corn Trade,” Annals of Agriculture, 29 (1797), 1–4, (4, beans); Philip D. Morgan, “Slaves and Livestock in Eighteenth-Century Jamaica: Vineyard Pen, 1750–1751,” William and Mary Quarterly, 52.1 (1995), 47–76; idem, Slave Counterpoint: Black Culture in the Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake and Low Country (Chapel Hill, Press, 1998), 134 (Carter); Trevor Burnard, “Slave Naming Patterns: Onomastics and the Taxonomy of Race in Eighteenth-Century Jamaica,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 31.3 (2001), 325–46.

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  • 24

     Hirschman, Rhetoric of Reaction, 21.

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