Edible histories: bananas

Categories: History of food

From tropical Asian forests to vast Latin American plantations, via CIA-sponsored coups, massacres and devastating disease, Mark Riddaway tells the not always edifying story of the banana

The banana has two histories, not one—a tale for each hemisphere. Its eastern history is a long, slow story of cultural and botanical diversity. Its western history is short and hectic, pockmarked by violence, corruption and ecological disaster.

For such a quotidian fruit, not much about the banana is ordinary. A banana tree is not a tree, it’s a massive herb. Its trunk (a pseudostem) is made not from wood but from tightly packed leaf sheaths, which grow up from the corm, a swollen underground organ. After fruiting, the pseudostem dies off, but new ones push up from offshoots on the corm. Wild bananas can reproduce sexually, but cultivated bananas are sterile—those black specks are the barren vestiges of the hard seeds that rendered their ancestors inedible—so each variety consists of millions of genetically identical clones.

Dozens of species of wild banana can be found in the tropics of Asia, but almost all cultivated varieties are derived from just two: Musa acuminate, which grows on the Malay peninsula and the islands of southeast Asia, and Musa balbisiana, found across eastern India, northern southeast Asia and southern China. At Kuk Swamp, a patch of marshy land on Papua New Guinea whose revealed secrets did much to shift perceptions of the origins of agriculture, evidence has been found of Musa acuminate domestication dating to 5000BC.

The first banana farmers may have begun by transplanting the offshoots of plants that, through mutation, produced fewer shot-like seeds and more sweet pulp than usual. This domestication happened in Kuk Swamp, and it happened quite independently in other parts of Asia in the millennia that followed. Through selection, the sterility of cultivated bananas became increasingly embedded, and their appeal as a perennial provider of energy-rich food drove their gradual diffusion. At some stage, bananas derived from Musa acuminate arrived in the natural habitat of Musa balbisiana, while still sufficiently sexually viable for the two to hybridise. After millennia of diversification, there are now somewhere between 500 and 1,000 cultivars in existence, some of them incredibly localised. We in the west consume but a handful.

Ancient Sanskrit texts
Bananas, which featured in the most ancient of Indian Sanskrit texts, insinuated themselves into a variety of Hindu legends and religious ceremonies, as well as the subcontinent’s cuisine, in which the leaves play as important a role as the fruit. In China, they were being written about by the second century AD, but were probably cultivated in its southern regions long before that. Arab traders, whose continent-spanning exploits were so vital to the propagation of Asian foodstuffs, carried bananas westwards to the Levant, and it is from the Arabic ‘mauz’ that the scientific name for the banana genus, ‘Musa’, would be adapted.

Bananas arrived in Africa in the first millennium BC, and the continent became a secondary centre of diversification for two major subspecies. The African plantain established itself as a staple food in the wet, tropical zones of central and west Africa, where hundreds of distinct local cultivars were developed—a recent study identified 97 in the Democratic Republic of Congo alone. The east African highland banana crossed from Asia around 2,000 years ago and underwent a similar diversification in the Great Lakes region of east Africa, where it remains a vitally important food, upon which millions of lives depend.

Europeans, meanwhile, weren’t entirely ignorant of the existence of bananas, but they enjoyed neither the climate to grow the fruit nor the proximity to have them arrive intact. The ancient Greeks first came face to face with Indian bananas during the campaigns of Alexander the Great. Theophrastus, in his Enquiry into Plants (c.350BC-c.287BC), wrote of one large tree that “has wonderfully sweet and large fruit; it is used for food by the sages of India who wear no clothes”, and another “whose leaf is oblong in shape like the feathers of ostrich; this they fasten on to their helmets, and it is about two cubits long.” Either or both of these descriptions could refer to banana trees, as could a similar passage found in the Roman Pliny the Elder’s Natural History (77-79AD).

In the 16th century, when European maritime powers began exploring (and exploiting) Africa and Asia, bananas started to appear in the writings of western explorers and herbalists. It was also then that the word we use today entered the parlance, seemingly borrowed from Africa. In 1563, the Portuguese naturalist Garcia de Orta wrote that a type of fruit found in India, Malaysia and the Arab lands was also grown “in Guinea, where they call them bananas”. The Italian explorer Filippo Pigafetta, in 1591, used the same word in his guide to the Congo. In this era, as well as lifting the language, Europeans began transplanting African bananas to the Caribbean—but unlike sugar and coffee, which underwent a similar westward migration, they were taken not as a potential cash crop but as a source of sustenance for the African slaves who were forced to make the same transatlantic crossing.

Wonky illustration
It was from the Caribbean, on a boat from Bermuda, that a banana plant was sent to England in 1633—the first recorded appearance of the fruit on these islands. One of the recipients of the fruits it yielded was Thomas Johnson, a pioneering field botanist who substantially revised and enlarged John Gerard’s famous Herball. Gerard, who had compiled his book in 1597, had only ever seen a banana in a preserved state, “brought me from Aleppo in pickle”, and his wonky illustration, while matching the description he gave (“like a small cucumber, and of the same bignesse, covered with a thin rinde like that of the fig”), looked very much like the work of a man who was winging it.

Johnson’s revised version brought this chapter up to date. He wrote: “The fruit which I received was not ripe, but greene, each of them was about the bignesse of a large beane… if you turne the upper side downeward, they somewhat resemble a boat.” He hung the bananas in his shop until “the pulp or meat was very soft and tender, and it did eat somewhat like a muske melon”. He added to Gerard’s wonky drawing an “exacter figure of the plantaine fruit”—clearly the work of a man who had actually seen a banana.

More than 250 years would pass before bananas began appearing in Britain as anything other than a novelty, and it took the development of the steamship for this to happen. In 1884, Alfred Jones, the Liverpool-based shipping magnate, established a coaling depot on the Canary Islands, around six days’ journey from Britain in these powerful new craft. Jones also invested in building up the islands’ production of bananas, and his ships began bringing the fruit back to Liverpool, where he offered subsidies to local costermongers to enable them to sell at affordable prices—partly out of concern for the diet of the northern poor, partly to help build demand. In 1887, Edward Waffen Fyffe, a tea importer, visited the Canaries and was struck by seeing the banana plantations up close. His company, Fyffes, was the first to bring the fruit to London in commercial quantities. These two pioneers merged their businesses in 1901 after accepting an inducement from the British government to start the logistically challenging but politically attractive job of importing bananas from the British colonies in the Caribbean. Britain soon became not just an enthusiastic consumer of bananas, but also the hub from which the fruit would quickly find favour in the rest of Europe.

A gnarly Cape Cod seaman
The United States, where in 1876 the banana was of sufficient novelty to be an exhibit at the Centennial Exhibition, alongside such cutting-edge inventions as the telephone, was also being rapidly converted to the fruit’s charms. Lorenzo Dow Baker, a gnarly Cape Cod seaman, became the USA’s first successful banana importer, buying up land in Jamaica to supply his venture. In 1885, he partnered with a young Bostonian fruit wholesaler, Andrew Preston, to form Boston Fruit, which changed its name to United Fruit in 1900—a brand that would become a major player not just in the shops and kitchens of the USA, but in the politics of Central America.

As demand soared, US banana companies headed to Latin America in search of supplies. Honduras, Guatemala, Colombia, Nicaragua, Panama and Costa Rica, all of which proved ideal for banana growing, became increasingly dominated by foreign corporations with an insatiable hunger for labour and land—their model was to clear forests and drain marshland, drive their plantations as intensively as possible, then abandon them when yields fell or disease struck—and a preference for pliable governments unwilling to pursue land reform, workers’ rights or corporate taxation.

It would take much more than a paragraph to outline the eye-opening activities of United Fruit and its competitors in Central America’s banana republics—a term coined in 1904 by the writer O Henry—but a few examples should give a sense of their methods. In 1910, the American banana entrepreneur Samuel Zemurray led a successful plot to overthrow the Honduran government and install an exiled politician as his puppet, in exchange for land concessions. In 1929, United Fruit was deeply embroiled in the decision by the Colombian government to massacre more than 1,000 plantation workers, who were striking over pay and conditions. In 1954, Jacobo Arbenz, the leftist president of Guatemala, was ousted by a CIA-sponsored coup after seeking to redistribute to local peasants any unused large-scale farmland—United Fruit, which owned around 70 per cent of the country’s agricultural land, three-quarters of which was fallow, was up to its neck in the US government’s intervention.

Left-wing governments and striking workers would prove far easier to crush than a pathogen known as Panama disease. This blight, which appeared in Panama in 1903, attacks the roots of banana trees, choking them to death. Throughout the Americas, only one variety of banana—the gros michel—was grown for export, and this was highly susceptible to the disease. Because all were essentially clones, and because resistance couldn’t be bred into a sterile plant, no tree was safe. As their plantations died, growers abandoned their blighted lands at an ever-greater pace and wiped out even more of the region’s ecosystems in their hunt for virgin soil. In the 1950s, the industry at last alighted upon a more sustainable solution: the introduction of the smaller, more fragile, but seemingly resistant cavendish subgroup of bananas, which had never previously been grown for export in significant quantities. Over the next two decades, the gros michel completely disappeared; now, almost every banana consumed in the west is a cavendish.

Trade war
The industry’s next big fight would come in the form of a rumbling trade dispute. In 1993, in an effort to bolster the economies of former European colonies in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific, the EU implemented a system of tariffs and quotas designed to counter the competitive advantages enjoyed by the US banana giants. This resulted in a full-scale trade war, which has only recently been settled in favour of the Americans. The biggest challenge now facing producers is the increasing susceptibility of the cavendish banana to disease and the very real prospect that the same fate that befell the gros michel may await its successor.

For ethically-minded consumers, banana-eating remains something of a minefield. It has been a while since a banana company has been directly implicated in a massacre or a coup, but scandals around the widespread use of child labour, poverty wages and dangerous pesticides continue to bubble along.

In much of Asia and Africa, meanwhile, bananas continue to be what they always were: diverse, delicious, and almost entirely uncontroversial.