Banana Interrupted: The History of The World’s Most Popular Fruit

nick musica
Published Sep 22, 2020. Read time: 6 mins

From prominence to plague to political strife, bananas have been through a lot of ups and downs in their more than 10,000 years at the hands of humans.

And while everyone’s favorite part of a complete breakfast may be the most commonly grown fruit in the world today, behind that familiar yellow façade lies a whole hidden history. Peel slowly and see. Here’s the strange, and sometimes sad, history of the banana.

Exotic Beginnings 

Bananas may be found in nearly every kitchen across the globe, but the ubiquitous fruit got its start in one of the most unlikely of places, with roots tracing back to the Australasian island of New Guinea, far from the lush tropics – and large populations – that would later support the banana’s rise to stardom.

Still, the fruit was a standout in its original home too, with natives noting how well the self-sealed banana traveled – and making sure to pack plenty with them on their seafaring journeys, which brought them over to the Asian continent and helped the fruit spread all the way to the Middle East. 

The strange yellow fruits were especially prized in the Biblical lands, where they were actually referred to as figs. In fact, some scholars believe that when the Bible brings up the fig leaves Adam and Eve used to cover themselves in the Garden of Eden, the authors were actually describing banana leaves. Others even posit that it was a banana, not an apple, that played the role of the book’s famous forbidden fruit.

But regardless of whether it was religious devotion or just good old taste buds, the Middle Eastern Moors were huge fans of bananas as well, taking them all the way to Europe as they conquered the Iberian Peninsula in the early 700s AD, and introducing them to England and France as they did battle in the medieval crusades.

But long after the bloodshed subsided, bananas remained, becoming the favorite snack of yet another group of sailors – the conquistadors who would go on to explore the Americas in the late 1400s, bringing plenty of the world’s best yellow traveling companions with them.

Banana Republics

Before Christopher Columbus and his crew set foot in what would become the United States, they landed on several Caribbean islands, leaving the shoots of banana trees behind them when they left.

And while they may have done it for posterity’s sake, they likely didn’t realize they were planting a gold mine for future generations.

A confluence of factors led to the rise of bananas in the Caribbean and Central America, including the increasing amount of traffic in the area from sailors, settlers and slave ships and the fruit’s increasing popularity – and hefty asking price – in both the fledgling United States and Europe.

But an even stranger mix of factors led to the rise of the United Fruit Company (the forerunner of Chiquita), which was founded in Costa Rica in 1882 when an American railroad executive there was gifted a huge swath of land by the government in exchange for negotiating on behalf of the nation in a railway deal.

Realizing his newfound land ran right along the rail route – which would deliver any goods straight to the port town of Limon, where ships from all over the Caribbean docked – the company’s founder, Minor Keith, used the opportunity to create the first commercially-grown banana plantation. The result would change the world.

United Fruit was a nearly instant sensation, raking in tens of millions of dollars and acquiring millions of acres in just a few decades. By the 1930s, the firm was the number one employer in Central America – and the largest land-owner in Guatemala – giving the company immense political sway over national governments in the area, a predicament that would lead to the coining of the term “banana republic.”

Still, all that power didn’t make them impervious to political strife, and throughout the late 1920s and early 1930s, United Fruit was embroiled in a number of labor disputes, including the Great Banana Strike of 1934, which led to the formation of trade unions in Costa Rica.

Meanwhile in Guatemala, a new set of government leaders were also fed up with their fruit bosses, deciding in the early 1950s to expropriate unused United Fruit land to homeless Guatemalan citizens.

It’s safe to say United Fruit was not pleased, and the company went about convincing the U.S. government that Guatemala was enacting communist policies by redistributing the land, successfully lobbying the C.I.A. to depose the democratically elected government there in 1954.

They installed instead a pro-business leader – who also happened to usher in a military dictatorship – proving, however sadly, the true power of a banana republic.

Yellow Fever

But it wasn’t just political storms bananas had to weather.

Around the same time that workers in Central America were organizing for greater rights, the bananas themselves seemed to go on strike, ceasing to grow in a number of areas.

The culprit was something called Panama Disease, and its deadly effectiveness against the fruits has roots in the very beginning of bananas – literally.

The first banana trees were actually the byproduct of a biological quirk, essentially sprouting by accident all the way back in New Guinea, when humans happened to plant the two bushes bearing banana’s forefather fruits near each other.

What resulted was the glorious piece of produce we know today – but bananas are actually a genetic mutant, a product of three sets of chromosomes, which makes them sterile, seedless and without pollen, unable to naturally reproduce.

It fell on humans then to keep the barren bush flowering. But in order to do so, banana trees had to be bred from the shoots of other trees. This made – and continues to make – each banana bush a “clone” of its parent – or, as it’s called in the scientific world, monocultural.

But just like in humans and animals, the lack of genetic diversity in fruits makes the entire population vulnerable to the same perils – which is exactly what happened to bananas in the 1920s.

Panama Disease ravaged the global banana community, which was then exclusively growing a cultivar called Gros Michel. From pesticides to wild cross-breeding, nearly everything was tried to save the crops, but the strangeness of the banana’s biological code made for many fruitless efforts.

Instead, companies like United Fruit began simply abandoning fields that were no longer flowering – the same land the Guatemalan government was attempting to redistribute to its citizens.

The only reason banana slices still sit on top of oatmeal and acai bowls today is because somewhere in the early 1950s, someone realized the Cavendish cultivar – which was similar to the Gros Michel in taste, texture and durability – could grow in the same soil affected by the deadly fungus.

The discovery kicked banana growth back into high gear, with Cavendish varietals leading the charge—and just ten years after they were first planted, the popular cultivar represented nearly 97 percent of the global banana market.

In Central America, things seemed to get better too, with a new wave of representatives in the 1980s and 1990s allowing smaller, local-run operations to use plantation land instead, and sell their crops to the larger corporations.

Still, it seems bananas aren’t quite done with the drama yet. Cavendish cultivars must still be grown in a monoculture, making them just as susceptible to disease as their Gros Michel forbearers. And in 2019, another one struck, with the deadly fungus wiping out a huge number of banana crops around the world, with no cure in sight.

With so much at stake as bananas face yet another precipice, we can only hope that in this case, history won’t repeat itself.


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