Historical botanical illustration of the day

breadfruit, Tahiti, Sydney Parkinson, Mrs Morgan's Florilegium, Natalie Waddell, transit of Venus

Artocarpus altilis is a species of flowering tree in the mulberry family, Moraceae, growing throughout Southeast Asia and most Pacific Ocean islands.

It is more commonly known as breadfruit due to the texture of the cooked fruit, which has a potato-like flavour, similar to fresh-baked bread.

The above watercolour, from the National Library of Australia, is attributed to the artist Sydney Parkinson and is dated 1769. On April 25 of that year he was in Tahiti and indeed noted the popularity of the fruit there.

“The chief food of the natives is the bread-fruit and bananas, which they peel and scrape with a sharp shell; but they eat sparingly of flesh, and of fish in general; but of the latter, sometimes alive, or raw; and, as they have no salt, they dip their meat into salt water,” Parkinson wrote in his journal.

breadfruit, Tahiti, Sydney Parkinson, Joseph Banks, florilegium,The Natural History Museum in London also holds a finished drawing of Artocarpus altilis by Parkinson, seen here on the right.

In the same diary entry, the artist also noted the apparent presence of ‘Cupid’s itch’ among the Tahitians.

“The natives, it seems, are very subject to the itch and other cutaneous eruptions, which is the more to be wondered at as their diet consists principally of vegetables,” he wrote.

His patron, the naturalist Joseph Banks, meanwhile, was more concerned about the Tahitians’ propensity for stealing.

“I do not know by what accident I have so long omitted to mention how much these people are given to theiving. I will make up for my neglect however today by saying that great and small cheifs and common men all are firmly of opinion that if they can once get possession of any thing it immediately becomes their own,” he wrote in his own journal the same day.

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