Marina Warner

The frond of the banana has straight seams, as a good pair of nylons used to have, so it’s easy to tear along them and make squares of bright luminous green, nature’s own shot silk. Which is what Adam and Eve probably did when they made shift with ‘aprons’ to hide their shame from God in the garden. In some countries where Spanish and Portuguese are spoken – which means parts of the Caribbean as well as Latin America – the word for fig is used of the banana, so this may be another example of those inspired clerical slips which result in widespread conventions. That the figleaf is hard to fix to the body every child confronted with a Renaissance statue has noticed. Banana leaves, on the other hand, can be draped and threaded – like cloth.

In the 17th century, when savants were as keen on gardening as on the Bible, the general opinion of herbalists and botanists and connoisseurs of simples was that the banana was the strongest candidate for the original tree of the knowledge of good and evil. (The palm was preferred for the Tree of Life.) Such books aren’t always reliable guides – the ‘Vegetable lamb’, which grew on a stalk in Scythia, also makes an appearance in them as part of God’s flora. Though nobody put themselves wholeheartedly behind the banana as the fruit where-of Adam did eat, Linnaeus believed in the story enough to give the tree the name Musa paradisica. The sister species, the plantain, he called Musa sapientum – on account of another legend, that those gymnosophists or Wise Men whom Alexander the Great encountered sat in the shade of such a tree and occasionally ate a banana.

But the link to the fruit of knowledge developed from those features which make people laugh aloud at the mere mention of the banana, the same bawdy that inspired the Sun to put a cut-out banana on its front page (‘Now they’ve really gone bananas’), in a fresh outcry against Euro-madness, when ‘Brussels’ issued specifications (at least 5½ inches long, no more than 1.1 inches thick).

In the Caribbean, where bananas are the staple crop of several islands, the fruit isn’t so funny and banana jokes are wry. In the Fifties, in the Dutch, French and British islands, the end of the imperial era was marked by a transition from large sugar plantations worked for a short season by labourers, to small-holdings growing bananas that fruited all year round and were harvested by the farmers who owned them. The harvest was then delivered to harbour and shipped by companies who paid the farmers cash on the dock: Fyffes and the formerly Dutch company of Geest, who used to sail from St Lucia to Dominica by schooner before loading the fruit onto steamships bound for Britain. The banana is a kind crop: a perennial with no need of cross-fertilisation, it produces abundantly a food rich in nutrients, and provides a continuous income. In this sense it made a change from the punishing ordeal of sugar. It’s the chief export of many Caribbean countries, and it has come under huge pressure. In 2003, the Lomé trade convention expires, and the protective economic shield it now guarantees will be removed. Lomé has made it possible for Jamaica and the Windward Islands, which include Dominica and St Lucia, to grow bananas and export them competitively, against the might of the multinationals operating in Central America. In Honduras, the daily wage is around $1.50 to $2 for a plantation worker; in Jamaica, not exactly one of the wealthiest countries in the world, expectations are nevertheless rather higher, the standard of living is a little better, and a farmer’s daily earnings are nearer $6. In Honduras, on huge estates of flat ground the yield per acre is held consistently at 22 tonnes; on a good small holding in Jamaica, assiduous cultivation would be lucky to produce 14 tonnes per acre.

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