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  • Writer's pictureBruce Boyce

Going Bananas

Updated: May 13, 2022

"A few years ago the banana was a luxury in many northern families. Although fairly common on the city markets, it was too expensive to be generally used by most families living in or near the small towns; but now so abundant and cheap as to be a common article of commerce in every corner grocery store, while in the cities it is frequently referred to as the poor man's fruit."

Scientific American, September 23, 1905

People attending the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia were amazed by a new invention demonstrated at the fair. Alexander Graham Bell had received a US patent for his telephone a few months before the exposition opened in May. He was scheduled to demonstrate his invention on June 25, and it almost didn't happen. At the end of a hot, sweltering day in Philadelphia, one of the judges, the Emperor of Brazil, Dom Pedro II, recognized Bell. Dom Pedro had sat in on one of Bell's classes in Boston upon a recent visit. Dom Pedro, interested in scientific matters, requested they proceed with the demonstration despite everyone insisting on leaving for the day. Bell successfully demonstrated how his invention worked, much to the wonder of the onlookers. Telecommunications would never be the same. The telephone would not be the only new fangled item on display at the exposition. It shared the limelight with an exotic tropical fruit plant housed at the Horticultural Building. Among the date palms, orange trees, fig-trees, and orchids was a banana plant. The plant was such a popular draw that a sentry needed to be posted so that visitors would not take parts of it home as souvenirs. In Philadelphia, a specialty grocer sold banana slices wrapped in tinfoil for 10 cents (an hour's wage for most).

Bananas were first cultivated in New Guinea over 6,000 years ago. Migrations allowed for the distribution of cultivars across Indonesia, Australia, Oceania, and Indochina. With the spread of Islam, bananas reached East Africa and the Middle East. By the 12th century, bananas were well known throughout the Muslim world. Portuguese explorers would discover bananas being cultivated by indigenous peoples of West Africa. The Spanish and Portuguese would disseminate banana cultivars to the New World, especially Central America and the Caribbean. The word "banana" is derived from West African languages. The banana plant is not a proper tree but a herbaceous plant, and it is classified under the genus Musa. Modern research has traced the genetic origins of all cultivated bananas to one of two wild species. Banana varieties are commonly viewed as plantains or bananas despite no botanical distinction. Plantains are more starchy, have tougher skins, and are used more in cooking rather than eaten raw. They may be yellow, dark green, or brown. Plantains are an important staple of African and Latin American cuisines, and these foodways were imported into the regional cuisines of the Gulf Coast regions of the United States. What we consider to be bananas are often referred to as dessert bananas. Their skin is primarily yellow and easy to peel, and they are sweeter when eaten raw.

In the 1830s, French planter Jean Pouyat identified the Gros Michel banana cultivar growing on the Caribbean island of Martinique. By the end of the 19th century, the Gros Michel was the most popular variety being exported as merchants prized its bruise-resistant peel, its growth in large bunches, and its ability to survive long shipping distances. At about the same time, the noted English horticulturist, Joseph Paxton, developed the Cavendish cultivar, named after his employer, William Cavendish, Earl of Devonshire. The Gros Michel remained the more popular of the two cultivars until the early 20th century. It then became susceptible to a group of parasitic fungi known collectively as the Panama Disease. The fungus decimated the Gros Michel groves until they became extinct in the 1950s. The Cavendish cultivar proved more resistant to the fungus and replaced the Gros Michel as the banana found today in most groceries. Today, there are concerns that the Cavendish is showing signs of falling victim to the fungus as the Gros Michel did.

For much of the 19th century, Americans had limited knowledge of bananas. People indulged in local varieties of fruits such as apples and berries. Imported fruits were uncommon, although pineapples (a symbol of hospitality) and coconuts had gained some popularity. Most Americans were suspicious of imported fruit which tended to be either unripe or half-rotten. Part of the problem lay in the transporting of fruits over great distances. In an age before preservation and refrigeration methods, fruit merchants risked spoilage of their produce. This was particularly true of the banana. Bananas and plantains were grown by indigenous farmers for local markets. When ripe, the fruit was harvested, making the banana more susceptible to bruising and spoilage. The rough handling of the fruit would cause a significant amount of bruising as well. This limited the range of how far bananas could be transported. Visiting merchants bought small bunches to bring back to long-distance markets. Plantains appeared in New York City in 1804 and were sold as a curiosity. Because of this, bananas and plantains remained a luxury and a novelty, restricted to port cities for much of this period. The Spanish had planted banana plants in Florida, but these were viewed chiefly as decorative plants. (There would be some attempts to grow bananas in Florida with little success commercially.)

At about noontime on June 3, 1870, Captain Lorenzo Dow Baker anchored his vessel the Telegraph in the harbor of Port Morant, Jamaica. The thirty-year-old native of Cape Cod was on his return voyage from Ciudad Bolivar at the mouth of the Orinoco River in Venezuela. The logbooks are silent as to the exact reason for the stopover. It is presumed, Baker was on the lookout for some cargo to bring back to Boston in the hopes of making a small profit on the return trip. He spent a week in port, and during this time, he did secure a cargo of bamboo. The layover offered the captain an opportunity to explore the island, get to know its people, and sample some local products. It is not unreasonable to think he might have gotten his first taste of a local Gros Michel banana. He must have gained an interest in the fruit because the following year, he made plans to sail to Port Antonio, Jamaica, specifically to obtain a cargo of coconuts and bananas to sell in Boston.

In the Spring of 1871, Baker once again made a trip to Jamaica. Storms and a leaky vessel punctuated the voyage. Once at Port Antonio in mid-April, the Telegraph was put in for repairs while Baker procured his cargo of bananas. The ship was ready for the return trip towards the end of May. Loaded with several hundred bunches of ripe bananas, the Telegraph headed back to Boston. Spurned on by the fear of continued leaking and the daily spoilage of the bananas, Baker used all his skill as a sea captain to hasten his trip back to his home port. He did arrive back with his cargo, but many of the bananas had to be tossed. It is uncertain what his profits were from this trip, but Baker seriously considered entering into the fruit trading business despite the obstacles. He sold the Telegraph for a new vessel in 1872. In the summer of 1873, he made a return trip to Port Antonio. This voyage ended up highly profitable. It proved to Baker that if he got the bananas to Boston in a suitable condition, then the potential for economic success was great. By the end of the 1870s, he moved his family and his operations to Jamaica with the intent of becoming a full-time fruit trader.

Much of Baker's initial operations in Jamaica were based on trial and error. He took advantage of a sagging sugar economy on the island, and he utilized procuring agents to obtain bananas from local growers. He mastered the timing of when the fruit needed to be picked based on how "thin" the skin was. This ensured that the unripe fruit would arrive in Boston and other port cities in suitable condition for sale. The growing business necessitated the need for capital, and Baker sought investors. He eventually partnered with Andrew Preston, who started as a clerk at the produce company purchasing Baker's bananas. Together they established the Boston Fruit Company and attracted enough investors. Preston predicted that bananas would become more popular than apples. Over the next decade, the popularity of bananas grew throughout the United States, and the Boston Fruit Company expanded. It cleared dedicated land to banana plantations in Jamaica and expanded into Cuba and Central America. The company vertically integrated the entire operation and developed ice-cooled warehouses, ships, and train cars to help get the delicate tropical fruit to market in perfect condition.

While Baker and Preston were emerging as the leading importer of bananas to the US, another American businessman was attempting to enter into what was now becoming a lucrative trade. Minor Cooper Keith wanted to exploit the untapped resources of Central America. He negotiated a deal with the Costa Rican government to build a railroad through the country. At the same time, Keith created the Tropical Trading and Transport Company. He began establishing banana plantations along the railroad route and shipped bananas out of the port of Limon, Costa Rica, to New Orleans. He also set up his own steamship company to bring tourists down from the United States. But all of this forced him to accrue a substantial amount of debt. Thus in 1899, he merged the Tropical Trading and Transport Company with the Boston Fruit Company. The new company would be called the United Fruit Company, and they would have a monopoly on the banana industry.

United Fruit Company would become an influential player in the social, economic, and political development of Central America in the early 20th century. The company held a great deal of power and influence in the different governments of the region, and it was able to obtain tax exemptions, land grants, and control of railroads and shipping. It used its influence to prop up many unpopular regimes and even persuaded the US government to overthrow a duly elected president in Guatemala in the 1950s. Today, the United Fruit Company is known as Chiquita Bananas, and it is still one of the leading producers of bananas in the world.


Further Reading

Bananas: An American History: Virginia Scott Jenkins

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