Breadfruit in the Wake: Imagining Vegetal Mutiny in Derek Walcott's "The Bounty"
Hannah R Cole
Cornell University, US
Hannah Cole is a doctoral candidate in Comparative Literature at Cornell University. Her research examines representations of plant life in Anglophone, Hispanophone, and Francophone Caribbean literature.
I examine Derek Walcott’s portrayal of the journey of the breadfruit in “The Bounty,” which intertwines the history of the species’ transplantation with an elegy for the poet’s own mother. In its depiction of the mutiny on the Bounty, Walcott’s poem opens up a moment of Glissantian détour in the plants’ path from Tahiti to Jamaica when they are cast asea. I center the jettisoned plants rather than the crew or captain of the ship to explore how the interpretation of the event might change if we imagine the florae themselves to be the real mutineers. Invoking Christina Sharpe’s notion of “wake work,” I argue that the bobbing breadfruit specimens perform a wake for those who have perished in the waters of the Atlantic and the plantations of the West Indies as the plants wake up to the process of their commodification and absorption into the plantation system. For Walcott, the trajectory of the breadfruit also reflects the journey of his own mother after her death, so that its appearance in Saint Lucia implies not only that the plant has been successfully imported, but also that she has arrived at her ultimate destination in the afterlife. Feeding on the nutrients of her body, the breadfruit tree reincarnates the forms of its perished human and nonhuman predecessors, becoming a vegetal afterlife to the histories of colonial importation and plantation slavery.