Captain Bligh’s Second Breadfruit Mission – August 1791-August 1793

by | Dec 9, 2018 | 1791, The Peace of 1784-1792 | 0 comments


It would be fair to say that William Bligh’s first mission to the Pacific Ocean had not been an unqualified success. Sailing in command of the Bounty in December 1787 with orders to collect breadfruit plants from Tahiti and transport them to the West Indies as a cheap food alternative for the slave labourers, his ship had been taken away from him by Fletcher Christian’s mutineers on 28 April 1789, and he had only reached home in March 1790 after a remarkable open boat voyage and the assistance of the Dutch authorities.

To many at home, not least King George III, Bligh resilience, skill, and undeserved misfortune marked him out as a hero, and having been posted captain it was announced in April 1791 that he would be given another vessel to re-attempt the breadfruit mission. Towards the end of the month the sloop Providence 10 was launched at Blackwall to be fitted out for Bligh’s command, and at the end of May she began taking on large wooden pots that would be used to transport the breadfruit plants. Following the Bounty mutiny and the wrecking of the Guardian in the southern Indian Ocean at the end of 1789, the Admiralty had instigated a new policy which stipulated that a single ship should not sail unaccompanied to the far oceans, and so a tender, the Assistant 4, was fitted out at Rotherhithe to join Bligh’s mission.

Captain Bligh, as portrayed in 1792

At four hundred and twenty tons, and with a crew of one hundred and thirty-four men, the Providence was somewhat larger than the Assistant, which was a vessel of one hundred and ten tons with a crew of just twenty-seven men. Command of the latter vessel was given to the vastly experienced Lieutenant Nathaniel Portlock, a veteran of Captain James Cook’s final voyage of exploration, and an excellent seaman who in the previous decade had led a private expedition to the largely unknown North American Pacific coast to establish a fur trade. A couple of botanists were also selected to join the mission by the eminent natural scientist, Sir Joseph Banks, in order to manage the horticultural aspect of the voyage, and to collect specimens of exotic plants for the royal gardens that he was rapidly expanding at Kew.

By the middle of June the Providence and Assistant were fully provisioned and had bent their sails at Deptford awaiting orders to proceed. A week later they dropped down to the Long Reach where they took on their armament of 4-pounder cannon and swivel guns, and where they also received on board a party of twenty marines. Having then worked their way through the Downs and around the south coast, the two ships departed their anchorage at Spithead on 3 August. Excitement and interest in their mission was detailed in the newspapers, no more so than in the West Indies, where it was reported that Captain Bligh had met with Sir Joseph Banks, and that if all went according to plan he would arrive in Jamaica by February 1793, almost two years hence, with the breadfruit plants.

On 28 August the Providence and Assistance dropped anchor at Tenerife after encountering contrary winds on the voyage south. Here they remained for the best part of a week whilst Bligh, who was struggling with a debilitating fever, temporarily handed command of his ship to Lieutenant Portlock. Thereafter progressing on their voyage, and with Bligh still in poor health, they barely paused to take on supplies at the sickly Porto Praya in the Cape Verde Islands on 12 September before crossing the equator three weeks later. Cooler weather in the southern hemisphere aided Bligh in his gradual recovery, and sailing on to the Cape they anchored in Table Bay on 6 November. During their ensuing seven week stay at the Dutch colony they helped bring to anchor the distressed Waakzaamheid, carrying Captain John Hunter and one hundred and twenty-five men, who had endured a horrendous voyage after leaving Sydney in March. Another British visitor during this period was the sloop Swan 14, Captain John Elphinstone, which had left Britain in September and was in passage for the East Indies.

Once they departed the Cape on 23 December, the Providence and Assistant headed across the southern Indian Ocean, and after battling storms throughout the first two weeks of 1792 they came in sight of Van Diemen’s Land, the modern-day Tasmania, on 8 February. Bligh knew the island well from his previous visits with both Captain Cook and the Bounty, and during the two weeks that they spent wooding and watering in Adventure Bay the interior was explored, and several friendly encounters with the native population were enjoyed. Sailing on again, Bligh steered his ships well to the southward of New Zealand in weather that was particularly cold and dank, before on 21 March he made the longitude of Tahiti and turned to the north.

When it had first been reported that Captain Bligh was to re-visit the Pacific Ocean there had been much speculation that he might run down his old tormentor, Fletcher Christian, and the other Bounty mutineers; indeed, such was this expectation that a false report would later be circulated in the City of London to the effect that Bligh had in fact caught the mutineers. In reality, although he was obviously desperate to bring the mutineers to justice, the search for them did not form part of his orders – that mission had already been given to Captain Edward Edwards of the Pandora 24, who had departed England in November 1790, but whose ship, unknown to Bligh, had been wrecked in the Torres Strait on the very day that the Providence and Assistant had dropped anchor at Tenerife. Yet as he turned his ship’s head to the north Bligh was in fact far closer to the mutineers than he might have expected, for had he instead chosen a track some fifteen hundred miles towards the north-east he might well have stumbled upon Pitcairn Island, where Christian and the remaining mutineers had landed just fourteen months previously.

On 10 April the Providence and Assistant reached Tahiti where Bligh was instantly recognised and warmly greeted by those natives he had befriended on his previous voyage with the Bounty. Here he learned of the subsequent visit to the island of the mutineers, and later of Captain Edwards in May 1791 and just three months earlier of Captain George Vancouver during his voyage of exploration to the North American coast. The two ships remained in Matavai Bay collecting the breadfruit plants and other specimens until 10 July, and in those three months Bligh spent a great deal of time studying and documenting the ways of the Tahitians.

After leaving Tahiti on their voyage to deliver the breadfruit plants to the West Indies, the two vessels eased their way south-westwards towards the Cook Islands, and then proceeding westwards they visited Tonga and Fiji at the beginning of August, which island group Bligh had first identified in the Bounty’s launch following the mutiny, and where he now spent several days exploring and trading items with the timid yet apparently friendly natives. On 11 August the mission set sail once more, heading for the New Hebrides, which are known in modern times as Vanuatu, and sighting the outlying Banks Group eight days later. The two ships worked their way through the islands in just over a day, and although a large group of natives were seen on a beach, no attempt was made to communicate with them as they appeared to be drawn up in a defensive mode.

What the fuss was all about – the breadfruit.

On 30 August the southern coast of New Guinea was sighted, and the two ships began the hazardous passage of the Torres Strait between New Guinea and New Holland, a passage strewn with rocks, coral reefs, keys, and shoals which required all of their considerable skills to navigate. It was here a week later, on 6 September, that they had their first violent interaction with the natives, for in the process of sounding a narrow channel the Providence’s cutter under the command of Lieutenant George Tobin was intercepted by a canoe carrying fifteen men who at first offered a coconut, but upon the offer being refused armed themselves with their bows and arrows. Fearful lest his boat was about to be attacked, Tobin opened fire with six musket shots which drove all the natives bar their chief into the bottom of the canoe. The coxswain then discharged his own piece at the chief who fell instantly, and the canoe, together with three others, fled on the appearance of the pinnace.

Despite this incident, other native craft still hovered around the Providence and the Assistant over the next few days as they continued their cautious way though the Torres Strait, and the natives were happy to trade, being particularly keen to receive iron. However, on 11 September the two ships were intercepted by another nine canoes whose occupants at first seemed to indicate that there was food and water ashore, but which then swarmed around the two ships and the cutter, provoking the fire of the Assistant and obliging Bligh to drive them off with grape and round shot from two quarterdeck cannon. During this skirmish three men aboard the Assistant were wounded, and although their passage thereafter was a peaceful one through less inhabited islands, it was with great sadness that Bligh learned of the death of one of the Assistant’s wounded men on 24 September.

Finally, after three weeks toil, the Torres Strait was cleared and on the evening of 2 October the two ships anchored in the roads at Timor where they were warmly received by the Dutch governor, and where they remained for the next week. Whilst here, and suffering from another fever, Bligh learnt of the Pandora’s loss in August 1791, and that her surviving crew, together with four men from the Bounty, had been received at Timor before being sent on to Europe.

The return voyage across the Indian Ocean now began and a good passage was made, so that by 17 December the two ships had reached St. Helena, having sailed around the Cape without touching on the Dutch colony. Ten days later they departed for the West Indies, passing Asuncion Island on New Year s Day 1793 to arrive at St. Vincent in the Leeward Islands on the evening of 23 January. The next day they began unloading the precious breadfruit plants, and by 30 January they were heading for Jamaica, which they reached on 6 February, and where Bligh went ashore to report to the local commander-in-chief, Commodore John Ford. One hundred and eighty breadfruit trees were deposited at St. Vincent and Jamaica, together with one of two natives from Tahiti who had joined the mission there, and who was left behind to help cultivate the plants.

Whilst Bligh’s ships were at Port Royal, news came in from home that Britain and France were at war, so not unwisely Commodore Ford decided to retain the Providence and the Assistant until he could receive reinforcements. In particular, the Assistant was sent out on convoy duty, and it was not until the second week of June that the two ships were released with orders to take in convoy eight ships for England. Heading past Cuba for the Florida coast, they made their passage across the Atlantic to eventually arrive off the coast of Ireland on 27 July. Shortly afterwards, they fell in with a convoy from the Windward Islands under the orders of Commodore Edmund Dod of the Charon 44, and after anchoring off Dungeness on 2 August they moored at Deptford five days later from where the plant specimens were promptly despatched to Kew Gardens. Sadly the remaining young Tahitian, who had been in poor health during the voyage across the Atlantic despite being inoculated at St Vincent against the small-pox, died at Deptford within a month of arriving in England.

In December 1793 Captain Bligh was awarded a gold medal by the Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufacturers and Commerce for his successful transportation of the breadfruit trees, yet despite his immense efforts to transport them across the world there was just one problem – the slaves and workers in the Caribbean simply refused to eat the breadfruit as by now they had become accustomed to a plantain diet which they far preferred.