De Banana by Grant Allen

Story type: Essay

The title which heads this paper is intended to be Latin, and is modelled on the precedent of the De Amicitia, De Senectute, De Corona, and other time-honoured plagues of our innocent boyhood. It is meant to give dignity and authority to the subject with which it deals, as well as to rouse curiosity in the ingenuous breast of the candid reader, who may perhaps mistake it, at first sight, for negro-English, or for the name of a distinguished Norman family. In anticipation of the possible objection that the word ‘Banana’ is not strictly classical, I would humbly urge the precept and example of my old friend Horace–enemy I once thought him–who expresses his approbation of those happy innovations whereby Latium was gradually enriched with a copious vocabulary. I maintain that if Banana, bananae, etc., is not already a Latin noun of the first declension, why then it ought to be, and it shall be in future. Linnaeus indeed thought otherwise. He too assigned the plant and fruit to the first declension, but handed it over to none other than our earliest acquaintance in the Latin language, Musa. He called the banana Musa sapientum. What connection he could possibly conceive between that woolly fruit and the daughters of the aegis-bearing Zeus, or why he should consider it a proof of wisdom to eat a particularly indigestible and nightmare-begetting food-stuff, passes my humble comprehension. The muses, so far as I have personally noticed their habits, always greatly prefer the grape to the banana, and wise men shun the one at least as sedulously as they avoid the other.

Let it not for a moment be supposed, however, that I wish to treat the useful and ornamental banana with intentional disrespect. On the contrary, I cherish for it–at a distance–feelings of the highest esteem and admiration. We are so parochial in our views, taking us as a species, that I dare say very few English people really know how immensely useful a plant is the common banana. To most of us it envisages itself merely as a curious tropical fruit, largely imported at Covent Garden, and a capital thing to stick on one of the tall dessert-dishes when you give a dinner-party, because it looks delightfully foreign, and just serves to balance the pine-apple at the opposite end of the hospitable mahogany. Perhaps such innocent readers will be surprised to learn that bananas and plantains supply the principal food-stuff of a far larger fraction of the human race than that which is supported by wheaten bread. They form the veritable staff of life to the inhabitants of both eastern and western tropics. What the potato is to the degenerate descendant of Celtic kings; what the oat is to the kilted Highlandman; what rice is to the Bengalee, and Indian corn to the American negro, that is the muse of sages (I translate literally from the immortal Swede) to African savages and Brazilian slaves. Humboldt calculated that an acre of bananas would supply a greater quantity of solid food to hungry humanity than could possibly be extracted from the same extent of cultivated ground by any other known plant. So you see the question is no small one; to sing the praise of this Linnaean muse is a task well worthy of the Pierian muses.

Do you know the outer look and aspect of the banana plant? If not, then you have never voyaged to those delusive tropics. Tropical vegetation, as ordinarily understood by poets and painters, consists entirely of the coco-nut palm and the banana bush. Do you wish to paint a beautiful picture of a rich ambrosial tropical island, a la Tennyson–a summer isle of Eden lying in dark purple spheres of sea?–then you introduce a group of coco-nuts, whispering in odorous heights of even, in the very foreground of your pretty sketch, just to let your public understand at a glance that these are the delicious poetical tropics. Do you desire to create an ideal paradise, a la Bernardin de St. Pierre, where idyllic Virginies die of pure modesty rather than appear before the eyes of their beloved but unwedded Pauls in a lace-bedraped peignoir?–then you strike the keynote by sticking in the middle distance a hut or cottage, overshadowed by the broad and graceful foliage of the picturesque banana. (‘Hut’ is a poor and chilly word for these glowing descriptions, far inferior to the pretty and high-sounding original chaumiere.) That is how we do the tropics when we want to work upon the emotions of the reader. But it is all a delicate theatrical illusion; a trick of art meant to deceive and impose upon the unwary who have never been there, and would like to think it all genuine. In reality, nine times out of ten, you might cast your eyes casually around you in any tropical valley, and, if there didn’t happen to be a native cottage with a coco-nut grove and banana patch anywhere in the neighbourhood, you would see nothing in the way of vegetation which you mightn’t see at home any day in Europe. But what painter would ever venture to paint the tropics without the palm trees? He might just as well try to paint the desert without the camels, or to represent St. Sebastian without a sheaf of arrows sticking unperceived in the calm centre of his unruffled bosom, to mark and emphasise his Sebastianic personality.

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Still, I will frankly admit that the banana itself, with its practically almost identical relation, the plantain, is a real bit of tropical foliage. I confess to a settled prejudice against the tropics generally, but I allow the sunsets, the coco-nuts, and the bananas. The true stem creeps underground, and sends up each year an upright branch, thickly covered with majestic broad green leaves, somewhat like those of the canna cultivated in our gardens as ‘Indian shot,’ but far larger, nobler, and handsomer. They sometimes measure from six to ten feet in length, and their thick midrib and strongly marked diverging veins give them a very lordly and graceful appearance. But they are apt in practice to suffer much from the fury of the tropical storms. The wind rips the leaves up between the veins as far as the midrib in tangled tatters; so that after a good hurricane they look more like coco-nut palm leaves than like single broad masses of foliage as they ought properly to do. This, of course, is the effect of a gentle and balmy hurricane–a mere capful of wind that tears and tatters them. After a really bad storm (one of the sort when you tie ropes round your wooden house to prevent its falling bodily to pieces, I mean) the bananas are all actually blown down, and the crop for that season utterly destroyed. The apparent stem, being merely composed of the overlapping and sheathing leaf-stalks, has naturally very little stability; and the soft succulent trunk accordingly gives way forthwith at the slightest onslaught. This liability to be blown down in high winds forms the weak point of the plantain, viewed as a food-stuff crop. In the South Sea Islands, where there is little shelter, the poor Fijian, in cannibal days, often lost his one means of subsistence from this cause, and was compelled to satisfy the pangs of hunger on the plump persons of his immediate relatives. But since the introduction of Christianity, and of a dwarf stout wind-proof variety of banana, his condition in this respect, I am glad to say, has been greatly ameliorated.

By descent the banana bush is a developed tropical lily, not at all remotely allied to the common iris, only that its flowers and fruit are clustered together on a hanging spike, instead of growing solitary and separate as in the true irises. The blossoms, which, though pretty, are comparatively inconspicuous for the size of the plant, show the extraordinary persistence of the lily type; for almost all the vast number of species, more or less directly descended from the primitive lily, continue to the very end of the chapter to have six petals, six stamens, and three rows of seeds in their fruits or capsules. But practical man, with his eye always steadily fixed on the one important quality of edibility–the sum and substance to most people of all botanical research–has confined his attention almost entirely to the fruit of the banana. In all essentials (other than the systematically unimportant one just alluded to) the banana fruit in its original state exactly resembles the capsule of the iris–that pretty pod that divides in three when ripe, and shows the delicate orange-coated seeds lying in triple rows within–only, in the banana, the fruit does not open; in the sweet language of technical botany, it is an indehiscent capsule; and the seeds, instead of standing separate and distinct, as in the iris, are embedded in a soft and pulpy substance which forms the edible and practical part of the entire arrangement.

This is the proper appearance of the original and natural banana, before it has been taken in hand and cultivated by tropical man. When cut across the middle, it ought to show three rows of seeds, interspersed with pulp, and faintly preserving some dim memory of the dividing wall which once separated them. In practice, however, the banana differs widely from this theoretical ideal, as practice often will differ from theory; for it has been so long cultivated and selected by man–being probably one of the very oldest, if not actually quite the oldest, of domesticated plants–that it has all but lost the original habit of producing seeds. This is a common effect of cultivation on fruits, and it is of course deliberately aimed at by horticulturists, as the seeds are generally a nuisance, regarded from the point of view of the eater, and their absence improves the fruit, as long as one can manage to get along somehow without them. In the pretty little Tangierine oranges (so ingeniously corrupted by fruiterers into mandarins) the seeds have almost been cultivated out; in the best pine-apples, and in the small grapes known in the dried state as currants, they have quite disappeared; while in some varieties of pears they survive only in the form of shrivelled, barren, and useless pips. But the banana, more than any other plant we know of, has managed for many centuries to do without seeds altogether. The cultivated sort, especially in America, is quite seedless, and the plants are propagated entirely by suckers.

Still, you can never wholly circumvent nature. Expel her with a pitchfork, tamen usque recurrit. Now nature has settled that the right way to propagate plants is by means of seedlings. Strictly speaking, indeed, it is the only way; the other modes of growth from bulbs or cuttings are not really propagation, but mere reduplication by splitting, as when you chop a worm in two, and a couple of worms wriggle off contentedly forthwith in either direction. Just so when you divide a plant by cuttings, suckers, slips, or runners; the two apparent plants thus produced are in the last resort only separate parts of the same individual–one and indivisible, like the French Republic. Seedlings are absolutely distinct individuals; they are the product of the pollen of one plant and the ovules of another, and they start afresh in life with some chance of being fairly free from the hereditary taints or personal failings of either parent. But cuttings or suckers are only the same old plant over and over again in fresh circumstances, transplanted as it were, but not truly renovated or rejuvenescent. That is the real reason why our potatoes are now all going to–well, the same place as the army has been going ever since the earliest memories of the oldest officer in the whole service. We have gone on growing potatoes over and over again from the tubers alone, and hardly ever from seed, till the whole constitution of the potato kind has become permanently enfeebled by old age and dotage. The eyes (as farmers call them) are only buds or underground branches; and to plant potatoes as we usually do is nothing more than to multiply the apparent scions by fission. Odd as it may sound to say so, all the potato vines in a whole field are often, from the strict biological point of view, parts of a single much-divided individual. It is just as though one were to go on cutting up a single worm, time after time, as soon as he grew again, till at last the one original creature had multiplied into a whole colony of apparently distinct individuals. Yet, if the first worm happened to have the gout or the rheumatism (metaphorically speaking), all the other worms into which his compound personality had been divided would doubtless suffer from the same complaints throughout the whole of their joint lifetimes.

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The banana, however, has very long resisted the inevitable tendency to degeneration in plants thus artificially and unhealthily propagated. Potatoes have only been in cultivation for a few hundred years; and yet the potato constitution has become so far enfeebled by the practice of growing from the tuber that the plants now fall an easy prey to potato fungus, Colorado beetles, and a thousand other persistent enemies. It is just the same with the vine–propagated too long by layers or cuttings, its health has failed entirely, and it can no longer resist the ravages of the phylloxera or the slow attacks of the vine-disease fungus. But the banana, though of very ancient and positively immemorial antiquity as a cultivated plant, seems somehow gifted with an extraordinary power of holding its own in spite of long-continued unnatural propagation. For thousands of years it has been grown in Asia in the seedless condition, and yet it springs as heartily as ever still from the underground suckers. Nevertheless, there must in the end be some natural limit to this wonderful power of reproduction, or rather of longevity; for, in the strictest sense, the banana bushes that now grow in the negro gardens of Trinidad and Demerara are part and parcel of the very same plants which grew and bore fruit a thousand years ago in the native compounds of the Malay Archipelago.

In fact, I think there can be but little doubt that the banana is the very oldest product of human tillage. Man, we must remember, is essentially by origin a tropical animal, and wild tropical fruits must necessarily have formed his earliest food-stuffs. It was among them of course that his first experiments in primitive agriculture would be tried; the little insignificant seeds and berries of cold northern regions would only very slowly be added to his limited stock in husbandry, as circumstances pushed some few outlying colonies northward and ever northward toward the chillier unoccupied regions. Now, of all tropical fruits, the banana is certainly the one that best repays cultivation. It has been calculated that the same area which will produce thirty-three pounds of wheat or ninety-nine pounds of potatoes will produce 4,400 pounds of plantains or bananas. The cultivation of the various varieties in India, China, and the Malay Archipelago dates, says De Candolle, ‘from an epoch impossible to realise.’ Its diffusion, as that great but very oracular authority remarks, may go back to a period ‘contemporary with or even anterior to that of the human races.’ What this remarkably illogical sentence may mean I am at a loss to comprehend; perhaps M. de Candolle supposes that the banana was originally cultivated by pre-human gorillas; perhaps he merely intends to say that before men began to separate they sent special messengers on in front of them to diffuse the banana in the different countries they were about to visit. Even legend retains some trace of the extreme antiquity of the species as a cultivated fruit, for Adam and Eve are said to have reclined under the shadow of its branches, whence Linnaeus gave to the sort known as the plantain the Latin name of Musa paradisiaca. If a plant was cultivated in Eden by the grand old gardener and his wife, as Lord Tennyson democratically styled them (before his elevation to the peerage), we may fairly conclude that it possesses a very respectable antiquity indeed.

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The wild banana is a native of the Malay region, according to De Candolle, who has produced by far the most learned and unreadable work on the origin of domestic plants ever yet written. (Please don’t give me undue credit for having heroically read it through out of pure love of science: I was one of its unfortunate reviewers.) The wild form produces seed, and grows in Cochin China, the Philippines, Ceylon, and Khasia. Like most other large tropical fruits, it no doubt owes its original development to the selective action of monkeys, hornbills, parrots and other big fruit-eaters; and it shares with all fruits of similar origin one curious tropical peculiarity. Most northern berries, like the strawberry, the raspberry, the currant, and the blackberry, developed by the selective action of small northern birds, can be popped at once into the mouth and eaten whole; they have no tough outer rind or defensive covering of any sort. But big tropical fruits, which lay themselves out for the service of large birds or monkeys, have always hard outer coats, because they could only be injured by smaller animals, who would eat the pulp without helping in the dispersion of the useful seeds, the one object really held in view by the mother plant. Often, as in the case of the orange, the rind even contains a bitter, nauseous, or pungent juice, while at times, as in the pine-apple, the prickly pear, the sweet-sop, and the cherimoyer, the entire fruit is covered with sharp projections, stinging hairs, or knobby protuberances, on purpose to warn off the unauthorised depredator. It was this line of defence that gave the banana in the first instance its thick yellow skin; and, looking at the matter from the epicure’s point of view, one may say roughly that all tropical fruits have to be skinned before they can be eaten. They are all adapted for being cut up with a knife and fork, or dug out with a spoon, on a civilised dessert-plate. As for that most delicious of Indian fruits, the mango, it has been well said that the only proper way to eat it is over a tub of water, with a couple of towels hanging gracefully across the side.

The varieties of the banana are infinite in number, and, as in most other plants of ancient cultivation, they shade off into one another by infinitesimal gradations. Two principal sorts, however, are commonly recognised–the true banana of commerce, and the common plantain. The banana proper is eaten raw, as a fruit, and is allowed accordingly to ripen thoroughly before being picked for market; the plantain, which is the true food-stuff of all the equatorial region in both hemispheres, is gathered green and roasted as a vegetable, or, to use the more expressive West Indian negro phrase, as a bread-kind. Millions of human beings in Asia, Africa, America, and the islands of the Pacific Ocean live almost entirely on the mild and succulent but tasteless plantain. Some people like the fruit; to me personally it is more suggestive of a very flavourless over-ripe pear than of anything else in heaven or earth or the waters that are under the earth–the latter being the most probable place to look for it, as its taste and substance are decidedly watery. Baked dry in the green state ‘it resembles roasted chestnuts,’ or rather baked parsnip; pulped and boiled with water it makes ‘a very agreeable sweet soup,’ almost as nice as peasoup with brown sugar in it; and cut into slices, sweetened, and fried, it forms ‘an excellent substitute for fruit pudding,’ having a flavour much like that of potatoes a la maitre d’hotel served up in treacle.

Altogether a fruit to be sedulously avoided, the plantain, though millions of our spiritually destitute African brethren haven’t yet for a moment discovered that it isn’t every bit as good as wheaten bread and fresh butter. Missionary enterprise will no doubt before long enlighten them on this subject, and create a good market in time for American flour and Manchester piece-goods.

Though by origin a Malayan plant, there can be little doubt that the banana had already reached the mainland of America and the West India Islands long before the voyage of Columbus. When Pizarro disembarked upon the coast of Peru on his desolating expedition, the mild-eyed, melancholy, doomed Peruvians flocked down to the shore and offered him bananas in a lordly dish. Beds composed of banana leaves have been discovered in the tombs of the Incas, of date anterior, of course, to the Spanish conquest. How did they get there? Well, it is clearly an absurd mistake to suppose that Columbus discovered America; as Artemus Ward pertinently remarked, the noble Red Indian had obviously discovered it long before him. There had been intercourse of old, too, between Asia and the Western Continent; the elephant-headed god of Mexico, the debased traces of Buddhism in the Aztec religion, the singular coincidences between India and Peru, all seem to show that a stream of communication, however faint, once existed between the Asiatic and American worlds. Garcilaso himself, the half-Indian historian of Peru, says that the banana was well known in his native country before the conquest, and that the Indians say ‘its origin is Ethiopia.’ In some strange way or other, then, long before Columbus set foot upon the low sandbank of Cat’s Island, the banana had been transported from Africa or India to the Western hemisphere.

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If it were a plant propagated by seed, one would suppose that it was carried across by wind or waves, wafted on the feet of birds, or accidentally introduced in the crannies of drift timber. So the coco-nut made the tour of the world ages before either of the famous Cooks–the Captain or the excursion agent–had rendered the same feat easy and practicable; and so, too, a number of American plants have fixed their home in the tarns of the Hebrides or among the lonely bogs of Western Galway. But the banana must have been carried by man, because it is unknown in the wild state in the Western Continent; and, as it is practically seedless, it can only have been transported entire, in the form of a root or sucker. An exactly similar proof of ancient intercourse between the two worlds is afforded us by the sweet potato, a plant of undoubted American origin, which was nevertheless naturalised in China as early as the first centuries of the Christian era. Now that we all know how the Scandinavians of the eleventh century went to Massachusetts, which they called Vineland, and how the Mexican empire had some knowledge of Accadian astronomy, people are beginning to discover that Columbus himself was after all an egregious humbug.

In the old world the cultivation of the banana and the plantain goes back, no doubt, to a most immemorial antiquity. Our Aryan ancestor himself, Professor Max Mueller’s especial protege, had already invented several names for it, which duly survive in very classical Sanskrit. The Greeks of Alexander’s expedition saw it in India, where ‘sages reposed beneath its shade and ate of its fruit, whence the botanical name, Musa sapientum.’ As the sages in question were lazy Brahmans, always celebrated for their immense capacity for doing nothing, the report, as quoted by Pliny, is no doubt an accurate one. But the accepted derivation of the word Musa from an Arabic original seems to me highly uncertain; for Linnaeus, who first bestowed it on the genus, called several other allied genera by such cognate names as Urania and Heliconia. If, therefore, the father of botany knew that his own word was originally Arabic, we cannot acquit him of the high crime and misdemeanour of deliberate punning. Should the Royal Society get wind of this, something serious would doubtless happen; for it is well known that the possession of a sense of humour is absolutely fatal to the pretensions of a man of science.

Besides its main use as an article of food, the banana serves incidentally to supply a valuable fibre, obtained from the stem, and employed for weaving into textile fabrics and making paper. Several kinds of the plantain tribe are cultivated for this purpose exclusively, the best known among them being the so-called manilla hemp, a plant largely grown in the Philippine Islands. Many of the finest Indian shawls are woven from banana stems, and much of the rope that we use in our houses comes from the same singular origin. I know nothing more strikingly illustrative of the extreme complexity of our modern civilisation than the way in which we thus every day employ articles of exotic manufacture in our ordinary life without ever for a moment suspecting or inquiring into their true nature. What lady knows when she puts on her delicate wrapper, from Liberty’s or from Swan and Edgar’s, that the material from which it is woven is a Malayan plantain stalk? Who ever thinks that the glycerine for our chapped hands comes from Travancore coco-nuts, and that the pure butter supplied us from the farm in the country is coloured yellow with Jamaican annatto? We break a tooth, as Mr. Herbert Spencer has pointed out, because the grape-curers of Zante are not careful enough about excluding small stones from their stock of currants; and we suffer from indigestion because the Cape wine-grower has doctored his light Burgundies with Brazilian logwood and white rum, to make them taste like Portuguese port. Take merely this very question of dessert, and how intensely complicated it really is. The West Indian bananas keep company with sweet St. Michaels from the Azores, and with Spanish cobnuts from Barcelona. Dried fruits from Metz, figs from Smyrna, and dates from Tunis lie side by side on our table with Brazil nuts and guava jelly and damson cheese and almonds and raisins. We forget where everything comes from nowadays, in our general consciousness that they all come from the Queen Victoria Street Stores, and any real knowledge of common objects is rendered every day more and more impossible by the bewildering complexity and variety, every day increasing, of the common objects themselves, their substitutes, adulterates, and spurious imitations. Why, you probably never heard of manilla hemp before, until this very minute, and yet you have been familiarly using it all your lifetime, while 400,000 hundredweights of that useful article are annually imported into this country alone. It is an interesting study to take any day a list of market quotations, and ask oneself about every material quoted, what it is and what they do with it.

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For example, can you honestly pretend that you really understand the use and importance of that valuable object of everyday demand, fustic? I remember an ill-used telegraph clerk in a tropical colony once complaining to me that English cable operators were so disgracefully ignorant about this important staple as invariably to substitute for its name the word ‘justice’ in all telegrams which originally referred to it. Have you any clear and definite notions as to the prime origin and final destination of a thing called jute, in whose sole manufacture the whole great and flourishing town of Dundee lives and moves and has its being? What is turmeric? Whence do we obtain vanilla? How many commercial products are yielded by the orchids? How many totally distinct plants in different countries afford the totally distinct starches lumped together in grocers’ lists under the absurd name of arrowroot? When you ask for sago do you really see that you get it? and how many entirely different objects described as sago are known to commerce? Define the uses of partridge canes and cohune oil. What objects are generally manufactured from tucum? Would it surprise you to learn that English door-handles are commonly made out of coquilla nuts? that your wife’s buttons are turned from the indurated fruit of the Tagua palm? and that the knobs of umbrellas grew originally in the remote depths of Guatemalan forests? Are you aware that a plant called manioc supplies the starchy food of about one-half the population of tropical America? These are the sort of inquiries with which a new edition of ‘Mangnall’s Questions’ would have to be filled; and as to answering them–why, even the pupil-teachers in a London Board School (who represent, I suppose, the highest attainable level of human knowledge) would often find themselves completely nonplussed. The fact is, tropical trade has opened out so rapidly and so wonderfully that nobody knows much about the chief articles of tropical growth; we go on using them in an uninquiring spirit of childlike faith, much as the Jamaica negroes go on using articles of European manufacture about whose origin they are so ridiculously ignorant that one young woman once asked me whether it was really true that cotton handkerchiefs were dug up out of the ground over in England. Some dim confusion between coal or iron and Manchester piece-goods seemed to have taken firm possession of her infantile imagination.

That is why I have thought that a treatise De Banana might not, perhaps, be wholly without its usefulness to the modern English reading world. After all, a food-stuff which supports hundreds of millions among our beloved tropical fellow-creatures ought to be very dear to the heart of a nation which governs (and annually kills) more black people, taken in the mass, than all the other European powers put together. We have introduced the blessings of British rule–the good and well-paid missionary, the Remington rifle, the red-cotton pocket-handkerchief, and the use of ‘the liquor called rum’–into so many remote corners of the tropical world that it is high time we should begin in return to learn somewhat about fetiches and fustic, Jamaica and jaggery, bananas and Buddhism. We know too little still about our colonies and dependencies. ‘Cape Breton an island!’ cried King George’s Minister, the Duke of Newcastle, in the well-known story, ‘Cape Breton an island! Why, so it is! God bless my soul! I must go and tell the King that Cape Breton’s an island.’ That was a hundred years ago; but only the other day the Board of Trade placarded all our towns and villages with a flaming notice to the effect that the Colorado beetle had made its appearance at ‘a town in Canada called Ontario,’ and might soon be expected to arrive at Liverpool by Cunard steamer. The right honourables and other high mightinesses who put forth the notice in question were evidently unaware that Ontario is a province as big as England, including in its borders Toronto, Ottawa, Kingston, London, Hamilton, and other large and flourishing towns. Apparently, in spite of competitive examinations, the schoolmaster is still abroad in the Government offices.

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