Breadfruit: The Irreplaceable Resource

Hundreds of years ago, Enana, an area later known as Polynesia, saw a time of drought. The climate was hot and there was little-to-no rainfall. This lack of rain caused water to be sparse and food to be limited. There are stories during this time of a man and wife with twelve children. At night, in fear and despair, the man and woman would discuss how to feed their children despite the lack of food and water. They would cry with grief over the starvation and misery that surrounded the daily struggles of their children. After many of these restless nights, the woman came up with a solution. She said to her husband, “I can be a breadfruit tree.” The next morning, her husband woke up to find her in front of the house. She was standing straight up with her arms out to her sides, her body shaped as a cross. The woman was no longer living in a human sense, however, hanging from her arms were an abundance of breadfruits. The woman had sacrificed her life in order to save her children from hunger and starvation. From that moment on, during times of drought and lack of food, hanging from the limbs of the breadfruit tree would be salvation (Henry, 2013).

This breadfruit legend has been passed down from generation to generation and has spread throughout the Polynesian island cultures. Not only does it recognize a heroic act of sacrifice, but also it represents the importance of breadfruit to the island cultures and economies. Breadfruit trees are abundant and widely used throughout all of French Polynesia. The trees thrive in hot, dry climates, adapting to Polynesian landscapes with ease. Information gathered from David Porter’s Journal, the novel Breadfruit, and experiences on the islands themselves, make it clear to see the importance of breadfruit to the Polynesian islanders throughout time.

The novel Breadfruit captures the everyday life of a Tahitian woman in the early 2000s. The title of the book immediately suggests that there is a deeper significance behind breadfruit itself. Throughout the book, the author mentions breadfruit numerous times and in many different contexts. Materena, the main character, lives in the suburbs of Papeete, surrounded by her extensive family. The plot follows her through her daily routines, pleasures, family interactions, and personal struggles. While discussing financial hardships, Materena’s cousin, Tapeta, gives her advice on how to make it through the hard times. “You can always rely on the breadfruit tree when money is a bit low… I always tell the kids that when they buy a house, to check that there is a breadfruit tree in the garden first. And even if the kids are just going to rent – they should check that there’s a breadfruit tree in the garden first.” (Breadfruit 101) Following this conversation, Materena notes that every one of her family members in the village has a breadfruit tree in their garden. Many people, including Materena, depend on breadfruit to keep their head above water in hard economic times.

A little under 200 years prior to the setting of Breadfruit, David Porter explored the Marquesean islands. In his extended stay, he made observations of his experiences in his very detailed journal. The Journal, later published in 1815, shed light on the every day life of tribes on the island of Nuka Hiva. As in Breadfruit, the importance and prevalence of breadfruit in daily life is immediately recognized. Although Porter takes the reader back a few hundred years, the breadfruit traditions are still evident. In a few incredibly descriptive pages of his journal, Porter describes breadfruit flawlessly. He touches upon its appearance, usage, importance, and sacredness to the local people.

The life of a breadfruit tree begins when sprouting roots are gathered and nursed until they reach a plantable size. The breadfruit trees then take a few years to become mature enough to bear fruits. A fully grown breadfruit tree is described as being a large tree that grows to be about fifty to sixty feet in height with a trunk about six feet around. The branches stretch out far in every direction and the lowest branches on the tree are about twelve feet from the ground. The large extensive structure of the trees provides shade from the hot, Pacific sun. Breadfruits hang abundantly from all branches of the mature trees. The oval shaped fruits have a thin outer layer, followed by a spongy layer, the edible layer, and then an inner core. When they are ripe, natives use a long stick with a split end to grab the breadfruits individually and twist them off. Not letting any fruits drop to the ground, they use a small open-mouthed net to catch the breadfruits when they are plucked off.

Porter goes on to describe how the different parts of the breadfruit trees are used in the daily lives of the island natives. His passage shows how versatile the breadfruit tree is in terms of everyday usage. The bark is soft and often leaks a sappy substance used for catching birds and rats that infest the island. The inner sections of the bark are used for making cloth for clothing. The trunk of the tree is also found to be very useful and important to the natives. They use it to sculpt, construct canoes, and to construct their houses. Porter makes it very clear how valuable a resource breadfruit is.

Analyzing inter-tribal relations, Porter notes how breadfruit trees are seen as a symbol of wealth and prosperity. “The oldest man of the tribe, if he possess the most land, and is the owner of the most bread-fruit and cocoa-nut trees, is the most influential character among them. Wealth attaches respect and gives power; they have such thing as rank among them”(Porter, 34). Porter notices several times throughout his journeys that owning breadfruit is an indicator of prosperity. Earlier in his journal, he describes conflict between tribes as a war breaks out. “I perceived a large body of the Happahs, descending from the mountains into the valley among the bread-fruit trees, which they soon began to destroy” (Porter, 29). During this rampage, the neighboring tribe, called the Happahs, destroyed two hundred breadfruit trees in the valley of the Taeehs. On these islands, destroying the breadfruit trees of another tribe is seen as an act of war. The fact that breadfruit trees are targeted shows how valuable they are to a tribe. Mass destruction of breadfruit trees impacts the availability of the fruit as well as the other materials it produces used for every day necessities.

Porter exemplifies how the natives see breadfruit as irreplaceable by any other material good of the Western Hemisphere in the following passage. “Describe to one of the natives of Madison’s Island a country abounding in everything that we consider desirable, and after you are done he will ask you if it produces bread-fruit. A country is nothing to them without that blessing, and the season for breadfruit is a time of joy and festivity: the season commences in December, and lasts until September, when the greatest abundance reigns among them” (Porter 58). No other material or fruit is as useful to their every day needs and resources. Countless times throughout his journal, Porter mentions breadfruit being served or used in one way or another. It appears at every feast and celebration mentioned in the text. Porter makes it clear that breadfruit is a staple food for the islanders, always there to fall back on in times of food scarcity.

In present times, it is still very evident that breadfruit plays huge cultural and economic roles in the lives of people in Polynesia. With very few exceptions, breadfruit trees are still seen all over the island landscapes. Similar to Materena’s family in Breadfruit, almost every household has a breadfruit tree standing tall in its back yard. Many recipes and preparations seen from Porter’s Journal are still being used in French Polynesia today. There is an abundance of ways to prepare breadfruit but a few traditions have lived on throughout last 200 years to the present. “Breadfruit is the food of the ancestors. Before they had chicken, meat, and all of the other foods coming from the grocery stores – they ate bread fruit” (Henry, 2013). Not only eating the breadfruit, but preparing it also has ancient roots.

One of the most ancient traditions of preparation serves as a way of preservation for the fruit as well. During the most abundant season for breadfruit, many of the fruits are gathered, baked, wrapped in leaves, and then buried underground. This method lets the breadfruit last for several years and is seen as the most highly valued preparation of breadfruit. Another common preparation for breadfruit is to put it directly into a fire pit and let all of the skin become burnt ash. It is then removed from the fire, cooled, and then peeled. Once all of the ash is peeled off, the smoky, soft, breadfruit on the inside is exposed and ready to eat. Breadfruit can also be baked with cheese, fried, smoked, smashed into mush, or combined with many other mixtures and preparations. It is not uncommon for breadfruit to make an appearance at most if not all of the meals for some Polynesian islanders.

Apart from the fruit, the breadfruit tree itself still has a lot to offer the islanders today. The trunk of the tree is used for making canoes, boats, drums, plates, and many other everyday necessities. The bark of the tree is pounded with wood in water and made into tapa cloth. Taking the place of modern medicines, breadfruit juice is used to cleanse the system of women who have recently given birth. The skin of the fruit is used as bug spray and as well as many other medical remedies. To this day, breadfruit, in many of its preparations, is seen at every festival, feast, or celebration. Right next to fish, it is a consistent staple food for the Polynesian islanders, continuing to be the backbone of the ancestral food practices.

From the moment a mother of twelve sacrificed her body to feed her family with breadfruit, it has lived on throughout the lives of her people. Spanning over the times from Porter to Breadfruit to the present, breadfruit is an abundant and steady resource that Polynesians can depend on. The preparations, recipes, and other usages of the fruit and the tree have altered slightly over time but the ancient significance of the fruit lives on in the Polynesian culture. The breadfruit tree and the fruit itself continue to be an irreplaceable resource for the Polynesian people.

In Fakarava, a fruitful breadfruit tree stands tall in the backyard of a house. This is a common sight to see all around the islands of Polynesia. From the islands of Nuka Hiva and Tahiti, with towering hills and mountain peaks, to the atoll of Fakarava, a flat, narrow strip of land barely above sea level, breadfruit trees are consistently scattered around the landscapes. Upon arriving in Fakarava, we were immediately greeted with flowers and smiles by two women working in the tourist center. When I began asking them about breadfruit, known to them as uru, and its role in their daily life, they seemed to light up with excitement on the topic. Later in the day, after we had moved on to a class interview across town, one of the women from the tourist center appeared during the lecture. I was pleasantly shocked to see that out of pure generosity, she went out of her way to retrieve two of her own breadfruits to present to me as gifts. The next day on the island, I heard from a classmate that the same woman had been asking for me at the tourist center. When I arrived, she smiled brightly, telling me that she wanted to take me to see her cousin’s breadfruit tree. We walked together down the street, talking in hand gestures, smiles, and the few words that made it through our language barrier. Half a mile down the road, we stopped and admired the beautiful little house and backyard that stood before us. I couldn’t help but feel a sense of her pride as she smiled and showed me the breadfruit tree up close. Again, without taking no for an answer, she pulled off numerous fruits from the tree as gifts. We stood in the yard for a while, admiring the tree and gesturing about the many different uses, values, and preparations of the fruit. The small amount of time I spent with this woman molded my experiences in Fakarava. It was truly amazing to see the kindness and generosity these island people have towards complete strangers. Not only did this experience give me this beautiful photo and some delicious breadfruit back on the boat, but also it helped me form a deeper connection with the Fakaravan people through seeing how valued breadfruit is in their lives.

Jessica Reade, Roger Williams University 2013

Works Cited:
Vitae, Celestine. Breadfruit (New York: Hachette Book Group, 2006). Print.

Porter, David. Journal of a Cruise Made to the Pacific Ocean by Captain David Porter. (Philadephphia: Bradford and Inskeep, 1815).

Paul Mohoono Niva, Local Tahitian and Archaeologist, Personal Interview. 16 February 2013.

Henry, local Marquesan and store owner, Personal Interview. 18 February 2013.

How to cite this page:
Jessica Reade. “Breadfruit: The Irreplaceable Resource,” Atlas for Sustainability in Polynesian Island Cultures and Ecosystems, Sea Education Association, Woods Hole, MA. 2013. Web. [Date accessed]