banana leaves


Samuel de Champlain's Narrative of a Voyage to the West Indies and Mexico


Fruit-bearing trees, by Girolamo Benzoni

The banana plant (of the genus Musa, which encompasses varieties of bananas and plantains), originated in Southeast Asia, likely in the Kuk valley of Papua New Guinea around 8000 BCE[1].  It spread to the Philippines and Micronesia, then across Africa, possibly brought from Malaysia by Arab traders[2].  In 1516, the Portuguese brought the plant to Hispaniola from the Canary Islands, its first introduction to the Caribbean.  Bananas quickly spread through the Caribbean and South America.  However, the banana’s history is not simple.  To complicate the matter, conflicting evidence has suggested that bananas were already present in South America before Columbus’ arrival.[3]

Bananas were at first strange and exotic to the Europeans, who knew very little about them, since they were not really found in Europe.  Oviedo first wrote about the banana (or, as it was known to him, platano) within an account of exotic fruit, saying that although bananas were not native to the Indies, they were “abundant” and had “multiplied” greatly since their introduction.  (However, his later writing conflicts with his earlier accounts on the subject of the plant’s origins, saying that they had been there before the Portuguese explorers.  This reflects the general uncertainly about their origins.)  In the image within his account History of the New World, Girolamo Benzoni depicts the banana tree, among other fruit-bearing trees, as part of the exotic beauty of the landscape that he admires.  The trees in this image are drawn simply; this is not a drawing meant to have scientific accuracy.  While there were people going to the New World to record the exotic plant species through precise botanical drawings, this image is not meant for scientists.  This is Benzoni’s own impression of the tree, a mark of its presence in his survey of the exotic plants there.  Therefore, Benzoni’s inclusion of the banana tree also shows its exotic nature to the European observer. 

Due to the unfamiliarity of of the banana to early Europeans, a plethora of different names for the plant existed.  Many early chroniclers described bananas as extra large figs.  In fact, the Portuguese called the banana a “figo de India” or “figo de Adao” – fig of Adam[4].  Many early accounts also associate it with religious imagery – John de Marignolli, writing of bananas in Sri Lanka in the 14th century, said that when a banana is cut, one finds the image of a crucified man inside[5].  Jacob Roggeveen, landing on Easter Island in 1722, describes them as “Indian figs…when one peels this [the rind] off [the pulp] tastes like figs, or as sweet as honey... The leaf is from two to three feet broad and from six to eight feet in length, It is with these that our first parents should have covered themselves in Paradise after their unfortunate Fall, because it is almost the largest and strongest leaf which one meets with in Morning and Evening lands” [6]

Although bananas seemed strange and exotic at first, they soon became commonplace. Bananas spread rapidly through the area, thriving in the tropical environment. Samuel de Champlain, a French explorer who travelled to the West Indies and Mexico at the turn of the 17th century, was impressed with the fruit, saying it is “of very good taste”, and “wholesome”[7]  Yet, the banana plant had utility far beyond simply eating the banana fruit raw. William Dampier, an English explorer who described plantains and bananas in Tobago and the Philippines, writes that “as the fruit of this tree is of great use for food so is the body no less serviceable to make clothes”[9].  Not only could the fibers in the trunk be used for fabric, but the buds and flowers are edible, and the large, flexible leaves can be used for wrapping or as mats.  Interestingly, the banana fruit, before domestication, was inedible, containing many large black seeds.  So, it was likely that the plants were first cultivated for purposes other than eating the fruit.  In fact, the leaves, trunk, and flowers of the banana plant all have broad utility[10].

Champlain’s account in his Brief Discours shows a marked mercantile mindset, characteristic of this period of colonization and imperialism.  His account centers around economic utility.  He notes which plants are considered valuable commodities.  He remarks that St. Domingo is rich in “good merchandise”.  So, it is apparent that, be it conscious or subconscious, he is looking at these territories, and the vegetation and people in them, through an economic lens.  In Benzoni’s image as well, the banana tree is grouped among other fruit trees, so the emphasis is placed on its ability to produce fruit.  This is both a nod to the usefulness of the fruit, as well as its economic potential.

This economic potential was not lost on others.  According to Dampier, “This fruit is so much esteemed by all Europeans that settle in America that when they make a new plantation they commonly begin with a good plantain-walk, as they call it, or a field of plantains”[11].  Bananas were invaluable on plantations not only for their fruit, but their large leaves could also provide the necessary shelter for other plants.  They were also used as food for the plantations’ slaves.[12].  The Europeans realized the usefulness of the banana plant, as well as its economic value.  By the 20th century, bananas would become the staple of large-scale production in South America, with large American companies such as the United Fruit Company dominating the economy of Central and South American countries, therefore (to be known as) known as banana republics.  They monopolized the economies of these developing nations, seen as an act of neocolonialism[13].

The history of the banana provides a window on imperialism, in the way that Champlain (and many others) view them with an economic mindset.  This is not unique to bananas; it is a reflection of the way they viewed the New World as a whole.  In the case of bananas this mindset is manifest in the plantations that would later dominate the economies of these nations.  But for the people of the West Indies, bananas were a simple and versatile staple food of everyday life.

 --by Chiara Moslow


[1] “Bananas in World History." Early History of the Banana. University of California Santa Cruz Center for World History. Web. 6 Nov. 2014.

[2] "Bananas and Plantains." Cambridge World History of Food. 1 Jan. 2000. Web. 7 Nov. 2014.

[3] Robert, Langdon. "The Banana as a Key to Early American and Polynesian History." The Journal of Pacific History 28.1 (1993): 15-35. Web. 6 Nov 2014.

[4] ibid.

[5] ibid.

[6] Behrens, Carl Friedrich. "Another Narrative of Jacob Roggeveen’s Visit." The Voyage of Captain Don Felipe Gonzalez to Easter Island, 1770-1. Ed. Bolton Glanvill Corney. Cambridge: The Hakluyt Society, 1903. 135.

[7] De Champlain, Samuel, and Alice Wilmere. Narrative of a Voyage to the West Indies and Mexico. London: Hakluyt Society. Print.

[9] Dampier, William. A New Voyage Round the World. Argonaut, 1927. Project Gutenberg of Australia. Web. 5 Nov 2014.

[10] Brothwell, Don R., and Patricia Brothwell. Food in Antiquity: A Survey of the Diet of Early Peoples. London: Thames and Hudson, 1969. Print.

[11] Dampier, William. A New Voyage Round the World. Argonaut, 1927. Project Gutenberg of Australia. Web. 5 Nov 2014.

[12] "Bananas in World History." Early History of the Banana. University of California Santa Cruz Center for World History. Web. 6 Nov. 2014.

[13] "The Banana Republic: The Myth of the United Fruit Company." Myths of Latin America. University of Wisconsin - Madison. Web. 10 Nov. 2014.

banana leaves