The Botany of Desire, by Michael Pollan, highlights the turbulent history of men and the plants they love. Apples represent the twin desires of sweetness and commercial cultivation. The tulip ruined the dutch economy. Marijuana may be the most infamous plant in the world. And potatoes are, well, potatoes.
Sweetness, beauty, intoxication, sustenance. Those are the four desires Pollan names. But I can name another. Conquest. And for that, we have to turn to the banana.
While bananas have been cultivated in Papua New Guinea and surrounding areas for more than seven thousand years, we’ll start our story no more than twenty-five hundred years ago. By this time the fruit had spread throughout southeast Asia, reaching southern China and India. This was just in time to meet the sweeping armies of Alexander the Great. The Macedonian general had spread his empire throughout the Greek and Arabian world and was, at the time, well into working his way to India. A record exists from 327 BC in which the conquering king happened upon one of our yellow friends. Apparently he was a fan, since Alexander himself is credited with bringing the fruit back with him to Asia Minor after the India campaign was done.
The next wave of conquerors spread the fruit spread south into Africa. Islamic warriors and slave traders, moving out from Arabia, would often trade the fruit for local goods or services. Everywhere they went the banana followed, eventually making its way east to Madagascar (where it underwent many mutations and changes) and west to Guinea.
Here the fruit stayed until the fifteen hundred, when it was spread was outwards to the new world by Portuguese traders, started specifically by the monk Tomas de Berlanga in 1502. As European influence spread, bananas would be grown in large plantations throughout South America and the Caribbean. A couple hundred years later, a number of American supercompanies like United Fruit, Chiquita, and Dole would use political attacks and subterfuge to control banana cultivation. The head of United Fruit even wormed his way into the government of Costa Rica by marrying the president’s daughter, allowing his company nearly monopolistic control of that country’s crops.
Finally, we arrive at the era of the banana republic. In the 1950’s the people of Guatemala elected a new president, Jacobo Arbenz Guzman, to office, one unfriendly towards the monopolistic American companies. In response the banana companies convinced the CIA that this left-leaning president was a dangerous communist threat, sparking an American backed coup that replaced the democratically elected leader with a right-wing dictator. One who was, of course, more than sympathetic to United Fruit’s goals. Unfortunately, a wave of terror and bloodshed followed the new dictator’s reign. This would be a dark spot in both Guatemalan and American politics.
The spread of bananas throughout the world has not been a peaceful one. While the fruit itself has been praised as delicious and versatile, its rise into a ubiquitous dessert fruit has been driven by the engines of war, greed, and conquest.
If we are what we eat…