Bananas originate in the tropical jungles of today’s Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines in south-east Asia, where many rare varieties of the massive Musa genus still grow wild. The ideal food, packed with natural sugars, vitamins and beneficial minerals, requiring no cooking and coming handily wrapped in their own, easily-peeled protective skin, bananas were the first fruit to be eaten by humans on a large scale and were being traded globally as early as the 14th century. Imperial powers, chiefly Britain and Spain, spread their cultivation to all the planet’s hot, humid tropical zones in the 17th century and by the 18th century they were the most consumed and most traded fruit on the planet – a position maintained to this day.
Appropriately, given that the plant can only thrive in the equatorial girdle where temperatures average 27°C (80°F), Ecuador slap bang on the equator is now the world’s biggest banana exporter closely followed by other Central American…um…’banana republics’: Colombia, Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico. Here bananas are grown on large-scale monoculture plantations covering several hundred hectares each. Production is geared to deliver the highest possible yield at the lowest possible cost (by weight and volume, bananas are the world’s cheapest fruit) and thereby maximise profits for the entire supply chain from the corporate plantation owners through to the big supermarket chains of North America. To that end, forests are flattened, the plantations are drenched with growth chemicals and pesticides, labour conditions are atrocious, wages are insufficient to met basic needs, trade union and collective bargaining rights are denied and devastation is visited on vast tracts of the fabulous tropical environment along with its extraordinarily rich biodiversity.
Most African countries also grow huge quantities of bananas (and plantains, their less-sweet relative), but nearly all are for domestic consumption and only Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana export significant amounts – mainly to EU countries, and the UK. The slightly mitigating effects that EU regulations, rights and minimum standards impose on brute capitalism have meant that banana production in Africa, although still problematic, is far less exploitative and environmentally damaging than in Latin America. The UK’s reactionary and reckless departure from such ‘do-gooder’ restraints will doubtless ditch all that Fairtrade wokeness and soon bring the cheaper and inferior Latin American crop to the supermarket shelves.
In the Caribbean, bananas are a major resource, usually grown on small, family-owned farms using more sustainable horticultural methods than the agribusiness operations. Britain’s Caribbean island colonies were once the main source of the UK’s bananas, grown by slave labour on British-owned plantations. But, as is the repeated habit of this robber-baron rogue state, once the individual islands shook off their colonial shackles, achieved independence and took control of their own resources in the late 20th century, Britain abandoned the countries it had ruthlessly exploited for centuries and took its banana trade elsewhere, causing grievous harm to what was a crucial component of the entire Caribbean economy. Unable to compete with the economies of scale and race-to-the-bottom imperatives of the industrial-scale producers, now only two of the Windward Islands, the Dominican Republic and St Lucia, have any noteworthy export trade at all.
These days nearly all the UK’s bananas arrive by special refrigerated ships at Portsmouth on England’s south coast. In Pompey they are stored in enormous state-of-the-art facilities before being distributed in accordance with the ‘just-in-time’ prescriptions of the giant retailers. As a result, that hand of tempting, bright yellow bananas in the shop starts turning black within a couple of days of plonking it in the fruit bowl. When that happens, as it invariably does, there’s nothing else for it but…
120g (4oz) self-raising flour
1 tsp baking powder
60g (2oz) butter
60g caster sugar
2 ripe bananas
handful of raisins, sultanas or chopped dates, etc (optional)
Splash of milk
1) Put everything except the milk into a big bowl and stir/beat with a wooden spoon until thoroughly combined
2) Add a little milk if necessary to achieve a soft, dropping consistency
3) Transfer the mixture to a standard size loaf tin, greased and lined
4) Bake in a hot oven at 180°C until well risen (about 30 minutes)
Bananas? I loves them! And you know what, the fruit has a few rather special and intimate connections to my Wales – which is quite odd considering that the only heat-seeking plant grown widely in chilly Cymru is genetically-engineered skunk under artificial lights in broom cupboards. On that very topic, I come to the first connection. Welsh rock band Man transformed the 1930s jazz standard I Like to Eat Bananas into their own spaced-out mission statement Bananas in the 1970s. The best version, featuring guitar maestro Micky Jones (1946-2010) playing live at his absolute peak (I was there!), goes something like this (volume to max):
Here’s another connection. In 1957 20-year-old Shirley Bassey, the most famous Cardiffian of all time, had her very first hit record with The Banana Boat Song, which reached number 8 in the UK charts. Derived from a traditional Jamaican folk song from the perspective of dock workers loading the banana ships, Bassey’s effort it grieves me to say was not a patch on the definitive 1956 calypso version by magnificent American civil rights activist Harry Belafonte:
Our Shirl would have known all about the banana boats from her upbringing in a Tiger Bay full of Caribbean seamen who worked on merchant ships across the world. Perhaps that’s why she recorded the song. At any rate, Cardiff only ever imported bananas on a very small scale, being the archetypal exporting port of an extractive economy. Wales though did for a while have it’s own direct banana supply from the Caribbean at Barry, where the big cargo liners of the Geest company docked regularly between 1959 and 1989. Barry and bananas became synonymous, but that pleasing connection was ended by the UK government’s rotten trade deals and the decision to centralise imports at Portsmouth. Yes! We Have No Bananas! – as my grandfather used to sing in the car…
I’ve got one more personal connection, because banana plants can be found outdoors in Wales – although getting them to fruit is quite another matter. I’m spoilt: I only have to take my daily walk around Splott Park to enjoy the famed Hanging Gardens of Tremorfa on Muirton Road, where a resilient Canary Islands banana (Musa cavendishii) manages to survive year after year sheltered by palms and warmed by a protective south-facing wall.
Pictures: Clipart, YouTube (UA Music), YouTube (Sony Music), Dic Mortimer