Warning – this is a Caribbean centric post. References and music may be lost to those not familiar with the culture but history buffs may enjoy the read all the same.
The year is 2002 and Iwer George, a Trinidadian musician, has launched a musical attack that will go down in Soca history against comedienne Rachel Price. His song Gimme a Bligh is unprecedentedly popular and met with the favour of contemporary diss track Shether. Bligh is a word used regularly throughout the West Indian diaspora when begging for a break. For context, when I hear “I can’t get a Bligh” on my travels it is often lamented by a man hard on his luck looking for a break. One day it dawned on me that our affinity with the word Bligh is a testament to our English roots and our love of a particular starchy food, the breadfruit.
William Bligh was a British Royal Navy officer who is credited with introducing the Caribbean to the breadfruit, having landed in Jamaica with the precious cargo. How did Bligh’s name become synonymous with a term petitioning for an opportunity, a chance, a window of luck, often undeservedly, repeatedly? After all, wasn’t the breadfruit the real prize in this fella’s story?
Well, it turns out William was a pesky fellow always getting himself into trouble throughout his naval career. The first of those troubles began with his attempts to get the wonderful breadfruit-bearing tree to Jamaica. This was the basis for the well-known story retold in the film Mutiny on the Bounty. Captain Bligh’s passion for this endeavor and the breadfruit was cited as a reason for his mistreatment of the Bounty’s crew (The man obviously knew breadfruit cou-cou would be part of his legacy) and his subsequent expulsion from the Bounty. Still, why don’t we say give we a Bounty? Perhaps, bounty was already a word used for so many other great nautical adventures, like say those involving pirates?
I digress. Bligh instead of being punished for losing control of his vessel was acquitted honourably during a court marshal related to his focus on trees rather than staff. He didn’t get the breadfruit to Bim (nickname for Barbados) but I figure the acquittal was justified while he MAY have mistreated his crew, he had the bellies of generations to consider? The back-biting journey didn’t stop our captain though. The Royal Navy allowed him to make a second journey to Polynesia and got that precious cargo to Jam-down (nickname for Jamaica) paving the way for 100’s of delectable ways to enjoy the horticultural cousin of the jackfruit. How many of you have yammed it roasted, fried, mashed, pickled, in the aforementioned cou-cou, or even as a replacement for a taco shell?!
For this culinary contribution we still don’t remember Bligh for this. When I’m dining at my Aunty Judy’s I don’t say “Pass the Bligh”. Nope. The captain goes on to lead another crew on an adventure. This time he commanded another ill-fated voyage on the vessel Director which resulted in another mutiny and war injuries to the seamen on board. There was no court marshal but you have to question his ability to lead at this point? But William Bligh managed to gain a promotion of sorts and was made the Governor of New South Wales, Australia.
I’m not sure if he took the prized breadfruit to Australia but it might have gotten him out a pickle (like what I did there?) with the locals. The Rum Rebellion was the first and only successful takeover of the Australian government. Unfortunately, Bligh had previously disobeyed an order from Captain Short on the Porpoise ship prior to governance of the city – surely an offense worth of court marshal? So one can presume Bligh wasn’t winning friends or (positively) influencing people. The result of the Rum Rebellion was the mutinous of good old Governor Bligh and the court marshal of those that saw fit to unseat him. Bligh, however received a promotion to Rear Admiral.
Without the modern advantages of social media and reality television we can’t vouch for this man’s character but what is left of historical archives tells us that he got more Blighs than Uncle Ellis’s image has been meme’d.
Next time you ask for a Bligh from your neighbor, I hope you’re rewarded with a big breadfruit from her yard.
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