When England went Bananas

April 1633

Hands pressed against the shop window, eyes wide in wonder, small legs stretching on tip toes for a better look. Thankfully, Anne had caught Charlie and his Mama on their way out this morning, calling to him from her bedroom window. Her excited, high-pitched voice had cut through the early morning hustle and bustle,
“Charlie! Charlie! Are you headed to the market?” She continued without pausing for breath, “Have a look in the window of that apothecary, you know, near the churchyard where we play. I’ve never seen the like of it before!” His mother was yanking him down the street by that point, “You’ll know what I mean when you see it!”

She was right. He’d managed to slip away from Mama at Smithfield and had followed his feet to the apothecary. Hanging in the window was the strangest food he’d ever seen. Slightly curved and bright yellow with the odd brown spot here and there – a stark contrast to the dull greenish-brown of the dried hanging herbs, the beige paper packages, and glass bottles which dominated the rest of the window. The colour, so bright and vibrant, like it had sucked in the sunlight, and it glued Charlie’s eyes to the window.

“Odd sight, isn’t it?”
Charlie jumped, unaware that he was being watched. A grown-up, tall and well-dressed, arms full of brown paper parcels, smiled at him. His greying moustache twitching slightly with amusement, the smile playing around the creases at his eyes as well. He balanced the packages precariously and managed to unlock the door to the apothecary.
“Help me with this door and you can have a closer look.”

Charlie darted forward to hold the door for Mr. Johnson – for it must have been Mr. Johnson, the gentleman who owned the apothecary on Snow Hill. Through the door, into the gloomy, wood-pannelled walls of the shop, Charlie was assaulted with the smell of herbs and spices. It was overpowering, but not entirely unpleasant, for it spoke of far-off lands and adventure. Mr. Johnson huffed as he deposited the pile of new goods on his counter. Charlie had his hands clasped in front of him, fingers white from the effort. His Mama had told him on countless occasions when they went shopping to “keep his grubby little fingers to himself”, and this time, Charlie was desperate to listen; he couldn’t do anything to aggravate Mr. Johnson, anything which might send him out of the shop with the door slamming sharply behind him. Mr. Johnson reached up to where the fruit was hanging from the ceiling. It was a big ol’ bunch so he laid it down on the counter and pulled a small step ladder up beside. Charlie scrambled up, getting as close to the alien object as he dared. His eyes had told him all they could, but there were other senses to explore as well. He took a tentative sniff,
“It hardly smells of anything!” He was almost disappointed – something with that much colour should have the scent to match! Like the most potent flowers, or maybe a citrus. Charlie had smelt a lemon once – it was just as yellow so why shouldn’t it smell the same?
“Maybe it does when you peel it.”
“You don’t eat the outside?!” This just kept getting ever stranger. He leaned in so close to the fruit that he accidentally bumped his nose against it. He looked up in alarm at Mr. Johnson: his hands were still imprisoned in front of him, but his nose had betrayed him! Mr. Johnson, however, seemed not to mind – he was on the other side of the counter, leafing through a number of papers, full of sketches and countless scrawlings. They rested on a large book covered in similar illustrations of exotic plants and flowers.

Charlie’s eyes flicked back to the yellow fruit. He decided to be more daring. One finger reached out and poked the yellow husk. It felt quite waxy, like rubber under his fingertip. Not like any other fruit his mother had ever brought back from the market. It was firm, but nothing like the crisp hardness of the apples which they got in the autumn; it still had some give to it. His mind span off in another direction: what kind of animal might eat such a thing? In his head there appeared the image of large, brown and gold dappled cat, which could easily scale the tallest of trees, much like his own Marlowe, but with an extra pair of arms which could wrestle the fruit from its nest.

The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes (© Wikimedia Commons)

“They were bright green when they first arrived, looked like giant beans,” Charlie was surprised. They were just so yellow. He couldn’t imagine them any other colour. Mr. Johnson looked up from his papers, pointing at a particular annotation, “although I sense they’ll be very different to beans on the inside. According to Mr. Gerard, a fellow botanist and author of my Generall Historie of Plantes here, the meat inside ‘is like that of the Pompion’.” Charlie raised his eyebrows. He was sure that Mr. Gerard knew what he was talking about, much better than little Charlie did, but there didn’t seem much in common between the round orange vegetable (delicious in a pie, as he very well remembered), and this… this…

“Sir, what’s it called?” Mr. Johnson laughed,
“Of course. It’s a plantane. From the distant shores of Bermuda. In the New World.”
“Oh!” The young Charlie had no concept of where the New World was. The world outside London was already vast enough for Charlie, the New World may as well have been beyond the gates of Heaven. He looked at the way the bunch of long, curved smiles were lying on the counter, imagining the great ships he’d seen in the river Thames, sails billowing as they conveyed their precious cargo to London, “I don’t know about beans, but if you look at them like this, they look like boats.” Mr. Johnson raised an eyebrow and the ever-present smile in his eyes returned to his mouth,
“Boats, yes. I like it,” and he made a note on his papers.

Charlie was still trying to fathom what was inside the smooth, yellow husk, when his Mama burst into the apothecary.
“There you are, Charlie! For goodness sake, you’ve got to stop chasing around Anne’s every fancy! I’m sorry, Mr. Johnson, he shouldn’t have been bothering you.”
“No bother at all, Mrs. Ashford. The plantane is fanciful enough to have dragged many an unsuspecting shopper into my apothecary.” Mama tried not to look too curiously at the fruit, but she couldn’t help herself,
“It certainly is a curious thing…” You could see the questions battling against her sense of grown-up responsibility (a tiresome war which Charlie never wanted to experience), but then she caught herself. Charlie watched a brand new affirmation form itself in her eyes: a plantane would never take precedence over her son. And though it was a decree which hadn’t existed only five seconds ago, Charlie knew that she would hold as firm to it as if it were the Lord’s Prayer. He sighed.

“Charlie, come now. It’s time to go. Thank you, Mr. Johnson,” Despite herself, her eyes flicked once more to the knot of long fruits, as she took hold of Charlie’s wrist and maneuvered him from the shop. He was less composed than Mama, head twisted round on his body, almost taking on the physical characteristics of an owl, staring at the plantane for as long as he was physically able, etching it onto his brain.
And his mind was still consumed with dreams of fanciful fruits, sea adventures, and magical creatures long after the tinkle of the apothecary door bell had fallen silent behind him.

***

Now, our little Charlie might not have existed in the early 17th century, but Mr. Thomas Johnson certainly did. He also really did own an apothecary on Snow Hill, and it was on this day (10th April) in that apothecary in 1633 that we had the earliest recorded sale of bananas in England.

I’ve learned a lot about bananas in the last 24 hours. They’re one of the oldest cultivated fruits in the world (possibly dating back to around 8000 – 5000 BC), and some botanists even argue that they were the very first fruit in the world!
A brief shout out to the bats as well. They’ve had quite a bit of bad press recently, as scientists have established that the Coronavirus probably originated in bats. Without getting into the politics and the science behind how the virus jumped from bats to humans, it’s safe to say that bats are still incredibly useful and important animals. According to the Bat Conservation Trust, a charity who support bat conservation in the UK, “over 500 plant species rely on bats to pollinate their flowers”, including species of banana. So thank you, bats – we still love you.

But back to bananas.
The general consensus is that they originated in South East Asia and then travelled across the world, through Africa and then to the Caribbean. They’ve been mentioned in ancient Sanskrit records dating back to 500 BC and Chinese texts from the 2nd century AD. It took a while for Europeans to catch up (as usual) and interest only ramped up in the 16th century, when they were taken by Spanish and Portuguese travellers to the New World and plantations started to cater to a European market. These were often inextricably linked with the slave trade and workers laboured in horrific conditions. In many places these conditions haven’t improved, and rights for the banana plantation workers across the world remain a pressing issue. There’s a reason why it’s one of the products we most closely associated with the Fairtrade charity.

The growing European interest in the banana also led to interesting theological discussions. In the 17th century, herbalists and botanists in the West argued that it was most likely a banana, not an apple, tree which was described in the Bible as the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Purely from the practical perspective that once Adam and Eve had eaten the fruit, the larger banana leaves would have been far more functional as clothing, with which to cover their shame, than apple or fig leaves.

It still took a while for these fruits to properly enter European culture. Many people still hadn’t seen a banana in England right through to the late 19th century when regular imports started from the Canary Islands. They were, however, being recorded and discussed in books. In England, in 1597, John Gerard published his Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes. He clearly isn’t that impressed with bananas (known back then generally as “plantanes”) because he documents that the “fruit hereof yeeldeth but little nourishment”. It is, however, “good for the heate of the breast, lungs and bladder”, but “hurteth the stomacke if too much of it be eaten” (I think Gerard was actually more keen on the banana than he was letting on if he was eating that much…). We have to give Gerard some credit though, because he actually only ever saw a banana in a preserved state, in a pickle, so it’s not really a fair assessment. No one wants pickled bananas…

It was only in 1633 that Thomas Johnson – herbalist, botanist, and merchant – updated and enlarged The Herball, and added to the banana entry using the very same fruits he had hanging in his shop. It’s also evident how quickly knowledge of botany was moving in Europe at the time because Johnson’s edition included over 800 new species from that intervening 36 years.

His bananas had probably come from Bermuda, which had been recently colonised by the British. Johnson records the bananas “being green”, with the “bignesse of a large beane”, and it’s still not clear to this day how they managed to survive the journey, pre-refrigeration, and arrive in London in a green, “not ripe” state. One theory is that they were actually plantains rather than bananas, seeing as the distinction between the two hadn’t really been made in the West yet. He also says that “if you turn them up, they look like a boat” (a little nod to our adventurous Charlie there). Somehow, they managed to last in the window of his apothecary until June when he then tried the fruit himself: “The husk is easily removed. The pulp is white, soft and tender and ate somewhat like a musk melon.” 

It seems extraordinary that such attention was being paid to the appearance and consumption of a banana, but next time you see a bunch of bananas in the supermarket or in your kitchen, imagine you’re seeing them for the very first time. You have to admit, it’s a bit of a strange looking fruit. (It’s also technically a herb. Yeah, exactly. Feeling a little bit of Charlie’s bewilderment there, aren’t we?)

Don’t get me wrong, it’s no pineapple! These were considered so exciting and luxurious that right into the 18th century you could actually rent a pineapple for the day just to show it off at your next dinner party. Seems a bit excessive? Well, you were more than welcome to own one outright (if you had a spare £5,000 in today’s money lying around).

Charles II Presented with a Pineapple ,c.1675-80 (Royal Collection Trust, © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II)

Johnson’s bananas probably weren’t the first in England. In fact, in 1999, an amazing discovery was made in Southwark near London Bridge.
Archaeologists discovered a rubbish dump. Hold your excitement, please.
It was a rubbish dump dating back to the 16th century. Again, compose yourself. People are looking.
In the rubbish, archaeologists found a rotten banana. You can scream now.

© BBC

I jest, but this really was a very exciting discovery. The fact that the dump had been undisturbed and the rubbish layered how it had originally been deposited meant that the banana was contemporary with the dump, around the 16th century, so older than Thompson’s bananas. The site near Tooley Street had been a fish farm, but when the land was sold in c.1560, the fish tanks were left behind and people started using them as a public rubbish dump. They gradually filled up, buildings were eventually constructed over the top, and the waterlogged soil from the site’s proximity to the Thames kept the artefacts in excellent nick. Fast forward to 1999 when a hotel development revealed the largest and most exciting collection of Tudor objects ever found in London. One man’s rubbish…
We’re talking a collection which spanned carpenters’ tools and padded armour to a piece of Chinese porcelain, more than 400 shoes, and… a bowling ball (+ the banana).
How the banana ended up in the rubbish, we’ll probably never know, but just because it was thrown out doesn’t mean bananas were considered any less bamboozling in the 16th century. Though there are no known references to bananas earlier than 1633, one theory is that maybe they were known by a different name. There are plenty of mentions of “exotic fruits” with nothing more specific than that. I imagine that the banana’s owners spent so long admiring their crazy yellow fruit and showing it off to their neighbours that it went bad in the meantime and they were forced to throw it away.
(Edit: Having subsequently emailed Simon Thurley, who was the Director of the Museum of London at the time, after the initial discovery there was a theory that the rubbish tip had been dug into in the 17th or 18th century, thus contaminating the layering. That makes slightly more sense when considering why people weren’t already raving about bananas in the 16th century.)

And bananas have still been considered extraordinary right into modern history. During the Second World War, you can imagine that bananas weren’t the easiest fruit to locate. They once again became an unobtainable luxury, a symbol of peace, plenty, and sunshine. In December 1945, the first winter after the end of the war, the ship Tilapa arrived from Kingston, Jamaica with 10 million bananas. Hundreds of children clustered at the portside – many of them had never seen a banana before in their lives. Just like Charlie. Except this was 1945, not 1633. So really, it’s a history which isn’t so far removed from England today.

We generally shouldn’t imagine ourselves at such lofty, enlightened heights. There are plenty of fruits and vegetables which we are clueless about in the West. Only in 2014, media headlines ran riot when M&S became the first retailer in the UK to sell Achacha – a round orange Bolivian fruit, now cultivated in Australia, which is similar in flavour to a melon. High in calcium and Vitamin C but low in sugar, it was labelled by the Telegraph as the next “superfruit fad” because we get just as excited about new fruits nowadays as we did in the 17th century. Tell me truthfully, if I handed you an Achacha right now, would you be any more clued up than Charlie about how to eat it?


2 thoughts on “When England went Bananas

  1. In answer to your question,no I wouldn’t have known how to eat it, as I had not heard of it before. I only know now because I just googled it.🙂

    Once again a fascinating artice .
    Any update when your book will be out,she says hopefully.

    Keep then coming

    1. Neither would I (and definitely not without looking a little ridiculous)!
      Haha, I don’t really have any excuse not to have a book – it’s not like I don’t have plenty of time…!

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