Early Modern Times – bananalities

Early Modern Times - bananalities

Dear readers,

You may recall that I devoted an issue of Early Modern Times last month to the vainglorious Queen-Pine, on the occasion of a pineapple being grown in the Halifax Public Gardens. Global News Halifax has finally caught up to Early Modern Times, and reported Thursday on the ‘Tropical fruit on display in downtown Halifax’, including our local pink pineapple and green banana tree (pictured above, in a photograph I snapped in July). Indeed, the banana was as much an object of curiosity and wonder to early modern Europeans as was the pineapple; and though unlike Queen Pine the banana was never bequeathed a royal title, it was at one point associated with the corrupt origins of the human race–and then the subject of a torrid, tropically heated controversy over its origins, as discussed in a 1993 article by Robert Langdon on ‘The banana as a key to early American and Polynesian history.’

Langdon notes that when Columbus arrived in the Indies in 1492, Europeans had little knowledge of the banana, and did not even have a single word for it. In the 14th century, for example, the Bohemian Franciscan monk John de Marignolli regarded bananas growing in Sri Lanka as special ‘figs’, hence the Portuguese name figo da India. Remarkably, he posited that when sliced in half, each portion resembled a crucified man. This phenomenon might well be known as a fig-mata, representing Christ’s cruci-fig-xion.

This fruity monk also claimed that Adam and Eve covered themselves with banana-leaf girdles, not fig leaves as traditionally thought: this gave rise to the alternate name for the banana as figo de Adão (Adam’s fig)–only in the mid-sixteenth century would the word ‘banana’, derived from languages in the Gulf of Guinea, displace figo. If de Marignolli is right about the banana leaves in the Garden of Eden, then Adam and Eve covered themselves with the figo de Adão as they went from a prelapsarian to peel-apsarian state, having committed the original ‘skin’ on the slippery slope to vice. Its association with sin, guilt, and shame rendered the banana an inferior fruit in the Garden: certainly the Fall of Mangrove from the ‘Grape’ of God. The 20th-century political philosopher Hannah Arendt interrogated this interpretation of Genesis using her famous concept of ‘the bananality of evil.’

Columbus did not remark on bananas in the accounts of his voyages; the first European to mention bananas growing in the Americas was Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés, a former courtier in Madrid in the service of the Spanish governor of the colony of Darien, Panama. His 1526 treatise Sumario de la Natural Historia de las Indias mentions the plátano, a sweet, starchy fruit described as ‘refreshing’ and ‘smooth-tasting.’ Given his enthusiasm, if he had the benefit of the later name, Oviedo might have convinced the Spanish crown to rename the region Bananama.

Oviedo asserted that the American banana originated in Spain, which raised the eyebrows of the Italian theologian  Peter Martyr Vermigli as he turned the non-banana leaves of the Spaniard’s book. Vermigli raised several objections to this claim, which led Oviedo to clarify in a subsequent volume that a Dominican bishop named Tomás de Berlanga is said to have brought the banana from the Canary Islands to Hispaniola in 1516. At that time, bananas were known as Dominicos, given Tomás’s religious affiliation. According to this appeel-lation, the Dominican Republic could also be called a banana republic. Surely Tomás could not resist the temptation to cook the bananas in oil–a staple Malaysian snack–since he was a Friar.

There are many references to the plátanos in subsequent Spanish and Portuguese accounts, and it was also observed by Spanish and Dutch voyagers in the Pacific Ocean. The Swedish taxonomist Carl Linnaeus classified bananas in his 1753 Species Plantarum as Musa paradisiaca, referring to the species of large cooking bananas. Six years later, he identified the Musa sapientum, small and sweet eating bananas. Linnaeus’s followers would go on to discover other species, such as fried bananas sold at carnivals (Musa mentpark); elegant bananas shaped like flutes and oboes (Musa Calinstruments); and bananas juggled by RCMP riders performing tricks (Musa Calride).

In 1786, Georg Forster’s account of edible plants growing in the Pacific Islands described bananas as cultivated in all hot regions, but unknown in the Americas before the Spanish arrived. This was disputed by his erstwhile travelling companion, the great naturalist and thinker Alexander von Humboldt. Humboldt responded that only the Guinea banana (Musa sapientum) came from Africa, but that–as verified by first-hand observation–bananas were cultivated by indigenous tribes in South America before contact with Europeans. If Forster were sensible enough to take criticism, he would have been ‘Humboldt’ by this refutation.

This leaves the question: whence do the bananas of the Americas originate? Based on archaeological evidence in Ecuador since the 1960s, Langdon argues that these bananas came from Southeast Asia around 200 BCE. He further suggests that bananas ended up in Easter Island from South America, and thus the first settlers in Easter Island were from the Americas to the east rather than Polynesia to the west. If this theory is correct, then the banana is key to solving the question of the origins of this island’s first inhabitants, a veritable Easter egg hunt. But Langdon’s detractors regard this as a slippery explanation and bananathema to the scholarly consensus.

’til next week,

Simon Kow

Director, Early Modern Bananavel-gazing Studies Program


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