Tag Archives: Otaheite

Guinea Grass and Captain Bligh

Guinea Grass is now grown throughout the world

When the first English settlers arrived in Jamaica in 1655 they found large numbers of cattle roaming wild. They had been introduced by the Spanish who had found the herds multiplied and were profitable on native grasslands. The English soldiers of the Penn and Venables expedition, having largely trashed the existing settlements when they could not find treasure, then faced starvation – which you have to say rather served them right!

The ill-disciplined expedition nearly failed there and then especially as those who ventured outside Spanish Town were frequently picked off by escaped slaves and the remains of the local Taino Indian population. However the reservoir of cattle on the island provided a buffer against disease and starvation and gradually the toe-hold won by Penn and Venables became an British colony.

As agriculture became established the colonists began to grow some of their own food, although Jamaica would remain heavily dependent on imports throughout the eighteenth century. Initially the cattle were simply hunted and killed with their hides forming the basis of a profitable leather industry, but gradually the cattle too began to be farmed. The areas given over to raising stock and food crops were known as penns, and names of some survive today as in the town of May Pen, on land that once belonged to the Rector of Kingston William May.

On to the scene came Guinea grass.  In one of those little accidents of history it arrived from Guinea in Africa together with some exotic birds brought in 1744 to George Ellis Chief Justice of Jamaica by the captain of a slave ship. The seed was intended as bird food, but the birds died and the story goes that the seed was simply thrown out, whereupon it thrived and grew seven feet tall in the ideal conditions of tropical Jamaica.

It was discovered to be excellent for grazing, it made good hay and it grew on land that could not be used for sugar. Altogether it was in many ways as valuable as sugar, for to cultivate that crop large quantities of animals were needed – oxen and mules as draught animals and cattle to feed the local population (although slaves were mostly fed on salt fish). Slaves walking home from a day in the fields were expected to bring back a bundle of the grass with them to feed the animals. Guinea grass spread across the world for pasture, silage, hay and it is also used for mulching land in dry areas prior to establishing a crop and planted to stabilise land to help control soil erosion.

Human beings however could not live off grass, and the planters ever looking for cheaper ways of feeding their slaves heard that the breadfruit of Otaheite (now Tahiti) might provide the answer.


Enter the much maligned Captain Bligh. I say much maligned because he seems to have been considerably less  brutal than other naval captains of his day, a fact supported by the number of his crew who in 1789 opted to go with Bligh rather than join the mutineers.

Bligh attempted a landing on the small island of Tofua where one crewman was stoned to death by the islanders. Then by a feat of incredible seamanship and with only a quadrant, a pocket watch and a memory of charts he had seen, Bligh navigated the 23 foot open boat across 3,618 miles of the Pacific to Timor and did not lose a single man. It took them forty-seven days and they had been given only enough food for a week.

Four years later following a second attempt Bligh finally delivered another cargo of breadfruit plants to the Bath Botanical Gardens in Jamaica, where it became established as a staple food. The town of Bath, named for its English counterpart because of the spa and springs there, today holds an annual Jamaican Breadfruit Festival.

Guinea grass: Photograph from http://www.fao.org/ag

Breadfruit: Photograph from http://www.soniatasteshawaii.com/