And so it was during the Regency, to quote the old song. There are many species of bananas, including the soft, sweet yellow ones with which most of us are familiar today. Unfortunately for our Regency ancestors, though bananas were known in Britain at the time, it was only in pictures in books. The fruit itself was not available in early nineteenth-century Britain, and would not be until the last quarter of the century. Therefore, no one living in England during the Regency would have enjoyed a fresh banana, banana creme pie, banana pudding, banana bread or even the occasional banana split. However, bananas were not only known but eaten in other parts of the British Empire, though at the time, they were not considered an upscale food, nor were they particularly sweet.
Bananas in the Regency . . .
Bananas are a fruit, specifically, they are a berry, a very large berry, but a berry nonetheless. This berry originated in Southeast Asia, and was first domesticated many millenia ago in Papua New Guinea. Gradually, bananas began to spread around the world, though confined to the tropical latitudes, where they flourished under cultivation. The Arabs brought the banana into the Mediterranean basin and the Portuguese and the Spanish took the plant to the Caribbean when they conquered territory there.
The cultivation of bananas spread throughout the Caribbean and became an important foodstuff for use in feeding slaves on sugar cane plantations. The banana required very little labor to grow, and it produced fruit year round. The fruit was loaded with calories and was easy to digest, thus making it a cheap, readily accessible high energy food for those who performed the physically demanding labor which was needed to cultivate and harvest sugar cane. Banana trees, which grew tall very quickly, and produced many very broad leaves, were an ideal plant to provide necessary shade to other valuable crops, such as peppers, as well as coffee and cacao.
Both the Spanish and the British tried, at different times, to introduce the banana into North America, but each attempt failed. Bananas require a warm, moist climate in which to thrive. Even the moderate temperatures of the American South could not sustain a crop of bananas. A few bananas had made it to England in the sixteenth century, probably as novelty gifts for the reigning monarch. In 1999, while excavating in the Southwark area, Museum of London archaeologists discovered a blackened but well-preserved banana peel. They were able to date it to c. 1500, based on the level of the excavation in which it was found. Scholars surmise it was imported from West Africa. But that banana was not the first of a steady flow of this fruit to the British Isles. That would take another four hundred years.
Not only were bananas not imported, all attempts to cultivate bananas in the British Isles failed. In the eighteenth century, there were attempts to grow banana trees in glass forcing houses. However, surviving records show that though, in some cases, the trees did grow, if slowly, and even sprouted leaves, they never put on any fruit. Until the latter decades of the nineteenth century, pictures of bananas in books on botany were the usual sources by which most people got a look at a banana or the tree on which it grew.
The bananas which were grown to feed the slaves and protect crops on the Caribbean plantations were more usually called plantains. These were typically the red, brown and green varieties having very firm flesh which were not edible until they had been cooked. Plantains were most often fried, but they could also be baked or boiled to soften the flesh of the fruit so that they were palatable. Thought they were fruits, these Caribbean plantains were not very sweet and were served as a vegetable. For many generations, plantains became a staple food of the slaves and other plantation workers. However, despite the fact that plantains were a common dish on the tables of their workers, the wealthy owners of the plantations appear to have served plantain side dishes at their own tables from time to time. Therefore, many English plantation owners who traveled to the British West Indies to survey their properties probably also partook of plantain dishes during their visits.
However, even if they had taken a strong liking to plantains, none of those Englishmen who had traveled to the West Indies would have been able to take any home with them. No matter how they were packed, plantains could not survive the slow journey across the ocean in the hold of a sailing ship. By the time the ship docked, the fruit would have become a black, over-ripe mass of mush which would have fouled the area of the hold in which it was stored. Angry and put-upon would be the feelings of the sailors forced to muck out the rotting, stinking black goo.
In 1835, William Cavendish, the Sixth Duke of Devonshire (son of Georgiana), received a gift of some bananas from a chaplain to the Earl of Shrewsbury. Joseph Paxton, the Duke’s talented and determined gardener, was able to cultivate these bananas in the Duke’s vast forcing houses at Chatsworth. He was so successful that his banana trees actually bore fruit, something which had not been accomplished during the Regency. This new type of banana was very different from the brown and green plantains of the West Indies, and Paxton named them Musa cavendishii, for his noble patron. The Cavendish banana was larger than most plantains and had a bright yellow peel covering the flesh of a soft, sweet fruit which could be eaten without first being cooked. The Cavendish banana came to be known as a dessert banana, and was probably served during that course of the meal to special guests who dined at Chatsworth during the Victorian period.
Though Cavendish bananas were not cultivated on a commercial scale at Chatsworth, plants were sent to various tropical British holdings in the Pacific during the 1850s to be cultivated on a larger scale. Nevertheless, due to the inherent problems of shipping via slow sailing ships, the fruit of these banana trees were enjoyed locally and were not exported to Britain. It was not until 1884 that the first bananas were shipped from the Canary Islands to Great Britain. These bananas, probably of the Gros Michel variety, were picked up as deck cargo by steamships on the final leg of their journey, when they stopped in the islands to refuel. When carried on deck, for a short run, the bananas made the journey quite well, and became very popular in steamship ports such as Liverpool. They sold so well that produce merchants in other British cities were eager to stock them and by the end of the decade, with the advent of refrigerated cargo holds and the trick of picking the fruit while it was still slightly green, bananas became a viable commercial crop which could be shipped long distances successfully. Bananas were finally available all over Great Britain.
Because of how they are cultivated, all the plants of one variety of banana are clones, and therefore, with no genetic diversity, are very susceptible to disease. In the 1950s, the Gros Michel banana was nearly wiped out by a fungus known as Panama disease. The Cavendish banana, which Joseph Paxton and the Sixth Duke of Devonshire had cultivated and shared with many Pacific locations a century before, was found to be resistant to Panama disease. Therefore, from the middle of the twentieth century, the Cavendish banana saved the livelihoods of many banana growers. That variety became the most common banana shipped and eaten around the world. But this all happened long after the Regency came to a close.
The soft, sweet yellow-skinned banana with which we are so familiar today did not exist during the Regency. It was not developed until the mid-1830s, in the great glass forcing houses on the grounds of the Duke of Devonshire’s country estate, Chatsworth. In the early nineteenth century, bananas and plantains could only be grown in the warm, moist tropics. Since they did not ship well, they were a strictly local crop, primarily consumed by slaves and plantation workers. The only Englishmen who would have seen or tasted a plantain were sailors and plantation owners who traveled to the West Indies to look over their properties. Not a single banana would have been found on anyone’s table in the British Isles during the Regency.
So, Dear Regency Authors, no matter how much you like bananas, please remember that you cannot share them with any of the characters in your Regency novels. Certainly not if you wish your story to be historically accurate. A pity, really, that they must be deprived of bananas and all the tasty things which can be made from them, but so it is. Even banana flavoring was not available until the twentieth century. Perhaps if an author wished to take a bit of poetic/scientific license, they might allow just a few bananas to grow and bear fruit in a glass forcing house. But these bananas would be extremely rare and would certainly be cause for comment among the characters who were fortunate enough to taste them. In fact, such an exotic fruit might actually be frightening to some of the characters with a more traditional and "English" world view. There were some who considered bananas, rather than apples, the real forbidden fruit. What might an author do with that idea? Then again, a privateer or merchant ship spending time in a West Indian port would find plantains a cheap and plentiful source of the calories much needed by working men. In addition, plantains, unlike bananas, are an excellent source of both Vitamins A and C, as well as the Vitamin B complex, among others. They are also a good source of several essential minerals. Sailors suffering the effects of a long sea voyage would soon find their health and energy restored after a few servings of plantains. So, even if our Regency ancestors could not enjoy bananas in Britain during that time, they were not completely unknown in the world.