Bananas: From Local Food to Global Research

In the second Garden Broadcast at Het Nieuwe Instituut in Rotterdam, the designer Johanna Seelemann talked about the Banana Passport for a single fruit, a joint project with Björn Steinar Blumenstein (more here). While the banana has become an everyday food item, the fruit undergoes a complicated global journey from the tree to the supermarket shelves, and the passport illustrates this process mostly hidden from our perception.

Before, when I spoke about plants between Asia and Europe in the colonial context of the 17th and 18th centuries, moderator Tamar Shafrir had asked me about plants that underwent a transformation when transplanted from one garden into another one, from one socio-cultural context into another. The banana would be just that: Part of the kitchen gardens in the Moluccas, as observed by Rumphius in the Ambonese Herbal, but a rare species in a hothouse in the Netherlands.

When Rumphius and his workshop were assembling the manuscript of the Ambonese Herbal in the late 17th century, he placed five chapters on the domesticated banana plant in Book VIII that is focused on plants used for food and medicine. He remarked that the banana was so widespread and had so many sub-species different in size and taste that it is difficult to describe all of them, as it would be with apples and pears in Europe (chapter 1). The plants were cultivated in the mountain gardens of the Ambonese as well as around the houses, and banana mush was the first solid food given to babies (chapter 3).

In the 1730s, the Anglo-Dutch merchant and banker George Clifford made Carl Linnaeus the custodian of the plants in his collection at de Hartekamp estate in Heemstede. Linnaeus, turned botanist after the completion of his doctorate in medicine, worked together with the gardener Dietrich Nietzel on the best conditions for a banana plant in the hothouse. After a specific plant was able to flower and to fruit, it became the subject of a biography – in 1736 Linnaeus published a small book about the Musa Cliffortiana with two copperplate engravings, one of the potted plant and another detailed one of the flowers and fruits. The book is available in a digitized version on the website of the Linnean Collections, and the second image is available in the Picture Library of The Royal Society. Also, the book has been reprinted in 2007 with a translation from the Latin into English by Stephen Freer and an introduction by Staffan Müller-Wille.

A letter from The Linnean Correspondence shows that the Musa Cliffortiana not only lived on because of its transformation into print, but also as a growing organism. On 28 April 1746, the botanist Johann Philipp Breyne in Danzig wrote to Carl Linnaeus about his own Musa as “granddaughter” of the plant in de Hartekamp. The Letter L0679 has been summarized in English and reads as follows:

Most important, however, is the Musa, which has enriched him with flowers and fruits. In 1740 he received a young Musa from George Clifford, their common patron, together with an elegant Camphorifera tree. Breyne thinks his Musa is a granddaughter of the Musa Linnaeus celebrated in 1736, i.e. in the Musa Cliffortiana. It was flourishing in a small hothouse for a couple of years, but with no flowers and fruits. In September last year all of a sudden, it became eighteen feet high. It has a very robust stem with many flowers and fruits thanks to the newly built hothouse. Sixty tasty fruits ripened successively from the end of January until the end of March. This was the first time the Musa had flowers and fruits in these northern parts. Of course it attracted a lot of curious spectators.

Today, in the global North, the banana might be a houseplant still admired for the shape and color of its leaves, and the fruit is ubiquitous on breakfast tables. But some of the garden spaces in the South have turned into plantations and monocultures, with the cloned “Cavendish”, as Johanna mentioned, threatened by a fungus around the world.

Between Asia and Europe: Grappling with the Arts of the Contact Zone

Standing in front of an 18th century collector’s cabinet in a European museum today, the historical objects seem just a material turn away from my historian’s choreography in the exhibition space, trying to come as close to the source behind its glass encasing. By 2017, this is not only the preoccupation of quaint figures in the history of science. Questions of museology, anthropology and aesthetics have been combined in research about encounters with non-European objects in European collections. Within the field of art history, for example, a Max Planck Research Group at the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz makes use of the concept of the contact zone as it has evolved from Mary Louise Pratt’s research on literature in the 1990s. (See Eva-Maria Troelenberg. Objects in the Contact Zone. The Cross-Cultural Lives of Things. 2017. Via, visited 10 February 2017). Pratt had defined contact zones as “social spaces where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power, such as colonialism, slavery”. (M.L. Pratt. Arts of the Contact Zone. Ways of Reading. An Anthology for Writers. Eds. David Bartholomae and Anthony Petrosky. 8th ed. Boston: Bedford 2004, pp. 326–348.)

Researching Rumphius as a pars pro toto for a body of work that has been transported from Ambon to Amsterdam, the question of “who is in contact with the material?” can only be answered with an ambivalent “that depends”. On the one hand, I am working with the representations of botanical material in the texts, starting with the plants and following and analysing the actors connected to them. On the other hand, I handle the materials that carried information and constituted botanical knowledge themselves, profiling ensembles of objects in different social spaces. So there is a historical contact zone with asymmetrical relations of power described in the texts, and a historian’s contact zone experienced in libraries and archives. And there is a hybrid between the two, a historical human actor encountering the texts in the social space of an 18th century library, for example the editor of the Ambonese Herbal. Can this space be described as a colonial contact zone as well? Here’s a small case study on the representation of work with plants and botanical work:

It seems to me that the project of Rumphius, the natural historian, had to be justified in terms of economy for his superiors in the Dutch East India Company, and that is probably the reason why the sections on “use” within the entries in the Herbal contain many descriptions of work and workers in a specific locale, among them the plantation. Repeatedly, the author mentions slaves, and this corresponds with the common and also casual references to slaves in VOC sources such as the Plakkaaten and the Generale Missiven van de Gouverneurs-Generaal en Raden aan Heren XVII. (See J.A. van der Chijs. Nederlands-Indisch Plakkaatboek, 1602–1811. Batavia, ‘s Hage 1881ff. and the digitised versions of the Missiven at, visited 11 May 2017) These texts within the Herbal differ from Rumpf’s representation of knowledge production through his epistolary exchanges with other German-speaking natural historians, which were published in Frankfurt am Main in 1714.

In Rumpf’s letters the focus shifted almost completely from the manual labour to the intellectual efforts of communication as the main way of working for the natural historian himself. The German scholar Michael Bernhard Valentini included eight of these so-called missives in a compilation of texts on the natural history of East India, first published in 1704. (M.B. Valentini. Ost-Indianische Send-Schreiben. Frankfurt am Main 1714.) Valentini was a doctor (archiatrus) at the court in Darmstadt, professor at the university of Gießen, and member of the German Academia Naturae Curiosorum in Schweinfurt. He had access to the missives circulated by other members of the academy, such as Rumpf, and translated texts from the Dutch. Valentini’s book also included an early German version of Rumpf’s research on nutmeg and plantation work on Banda, and it is a passage on the harvest that might have alerted a European reader to the work of enslaved persons. In German it reads: “Zu diesem Werck sind die Sklaven also abgerichtet / daß es sehr behend damit zugehet.” (Valentini p. 84, my translation: “Hence the slaves are drilled for this work so that it proceeds very deftly.”) In the course of the missives, Rumpf mostly referred to locals in the Indian Ocean World by ethnicity and language, but not their occupation. He wrote to Andreas Cleyer on 18 August 1682 of his hope to recruit the inhabitants of Ambon as his informants, but mentioned their unwillingness, as they were not used to many foreigners. (p. 52) On 6 May 1684, Rumpf again referenced “the common man” of Ambon to Herbert de Jager in a neutral tone, but also the “babblers of Ternate” (p. 28f). Three years later, on 20 August 1687, he informed Wilhelm ten Rhyne that his research was slowed down by the lack of capable and efficient assistants. (p. 50)

These missives point to different movements and localisations than the passages on “use” in the Ambonese Herbal, and thus to differing contact zones in the texts: When situated on Ambon, as exemplified by the book’s “thick descriptions”, the collective use of force and bodily work to extract goods for the VOC comes to the foreground. When circulating between Asia and Germany, as in the letters, Rumphius accentuated his individual intellectual effort of gathering correct information and contributing to a body of knowledge. The entries in the Herbal belong to the colonial contact zone of the Moluccas, and the letters to the academic contact zone of libraries in the middle of Europe – and vice versa?

The content of the Herbal was produced in Asia, but the book as object was produced in the Netherlands. If the book is at least a hybrid, then a scholar who was working with the Latin version of the Herbal could be conceptualised as taking an active part in the colonial contact zone. On the other hand, the asymmetrical relation of power prevents contact – i.e. the scholar handling the book and with it the discourse about work and slavery, is not complemented by a counterpart that actively grapples with him, for example a person of colour from colonised lands in the position of academic colleague. The problem then hinges on the conceptualisation of the agency of objects in the contact zone – are these equal to human actors? – and needs to be further explored in that direction.