A plantain tree with fruit is pictured in the lower right hand corner of this scene of the harbor and city of Havana.

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Jose de Acosta on the plantain

Without a doubt, the plantain was a notable source of food for Europeans and natives of the New World. Fr. Jose de Acosta, a late 16th century Jesuit missionary who spent extensive time in Peru, chose to write of it first among the larger plants and trees in Volume 1 of his Natural & Moral History of the Indies. Spaniards called it the platano, linking it with the plane tree of their homeland, although the two shared little in common with the exception of the great size and coolness of their leaves.  This was similar to the way in which other fruit names such as the prune and cucumber had been used to label fruits native to the Indies without anything but a slight resemblance to the fruits of those names back in Europe.  While the plane of Spain was renowned for the shade it gave, but little known for its fruit, the plantain of the Indies was just the opposite. Fr. De Acosta wrote of its fruits' pleasing taste and smell, noting that on occasion up to three hundred fruits would grow on a single bough. The trees would grow up to twice the height of an estado, with leaves as large as a man and normally only a single bough of fruit. Plantains were available nearly nonstop throughout the entire year, fruit growing ripe on one tree followed by another. There was almost never a time when it was not accessible. These fruits have a similar appearance to bananas, although they are a bit longer and have thicker skin. They may be green, yellow or black, or even red according to Fr. De Acosta. He recounted that it was the fruit most used in the Indies, being eaten in many different fashions. Some ate it raw, while others served it as bread or made wine from it, while others roasted it and made different sorts of potages and conserves. Regardless of how they might have been eaten, plantains were certainly always quite tasty.

Fr. De Acosta recounted that no plantains grew in the kingdom of Peru, but were actually brought there from the Indies, Mexico, Cuernavaca, and other valleys.  In some places there were great stores of them, growing in very dense groves.  These statements indicated an extensive network of commerce and trade throughout the New World involving the plantain, revealing that it was definitely sought out by many around the region.  With its great versatility in the ways in which it could be cooked, its abundance and deliciousness, Europeans of the New World must have found it to be very useful.  Fr. De Acosta regarded the plantain as the most profitable plant in all the Indies.  It probably replaced whatever foods had made up the starch component of the European diet, acting as a nearly daily part of the cuisine in one fashion or another.  Fr. De Acosta also noted that the plantain tree required a great amount of moisture and a hot ground in order to grow properly, indicating its need for a tropical environment. Thus, the plant would not have been fit for the climate of Europe, making it truly exotic and increasing its value. Since the plantain had first come to the New World from the Canary Islands where it had traveled previously from the African mainland, Europeans probably would have regarded it as even more exotic and interesting. It would have been one more wonder among the many marvels that Europeans probably found so fascinating about this new land. 

In 1768, five years after the conclusion of the Seven Years' War, the Scenographia Americana: or, A Collection of Views of North America and the West Indies . . . From Drawings Taken on the Spot, by Several Officers of the British Army and Navy was published in London, containing 28 prints of landscape views of North America and the Carribean.  These highlighted different places throughout the British empire and notable locations of battle during the recent war.  One of the six landscapes depicting the city of Havana gives a distant perspective of the harbor and city, with the natural terrain and wildlife in the foreground.  Although Britain had given Havana back to Spain in 1763, this print and others like it expressed its satisfaction with the results of the Seven Years' War. [1]  A large plantain tree holds a reasonably prominent position in the bottom right hand corner of this print, standing 10 feet tall.  While it does serve to add aesthetic value to the work, the tree's appearance may also be representative of the plantain's economic value.  In the distance, the vast number of ships inform the viewer of Havana's commerce and trade. In fact, the British occupation had greatly stimulated trade due to reduced regulations which remained even after the Spanish regained power. [2] It is apparent that the plantain was a usual object in the natural landcape of the area, as it appears in an ordinary fashion as if it had always been native to the Carribean islands.  The image seems to offer a juxtaposition between the bustling life of the harbor and city in the distance with the calm and natural life of the foreground.  It holds a comparison between the rise of civilization and the natural state of the land.  This is notable as the plantain is clearly on the side of the natural, yet it did not make its first appearance in the New World until the early 16th century, arriving from the Canary Islands off the coast of Morocco. This points to the true integration of European life into the New World, penetrating far past the mere surface level of society.  

Today, plantains still hold an important position in the cuisine of the Hispanics of the Carribean, prepared in all sorts of different ways.  The unaware observer of Carribean culture might even assume that the plantain had fluorished in those lands for ages before the arrival of the Europeans. 



--by Brandon Miraz



[1] Crowley, John. "The Scenographia Americana (1768)." Common-place. Jan. 2006. Web. 4 December 2014.

[2] ibid.