Monday, February 9, 2009

Pineapples and Cannibalism

This article, though interesting because of the unique development history of the pineapple and the insight it casts on the lack of natural sweetening in Europe in particular is interesting to our efforts because of the description of the Indian culture of Brazil. Whatever one may think of them, they were populous. It is also quite arguable that cannibalism was a convenient response to population pressure.

Prior to the contact, there is little evidence of pandemic plagues decimating the population. I make only an exception for a collapse in North America taking place several hundred years before first contact which smells like the impact of fresh European contact that was simply brief and unreported.

We have evidence of extensive Bronze Age contract but also little evidence of a plague pandemic history during this period in old world records. Perhaps that was a result of Palace cultures and minimal interaction at the ground level. That is hardly supported though by the history of the post contact population collapse which proceeded in waves to strip both continents.

Of course, a collapse may well have occurred during initial contact in the early Bronze Age and this was simply recovered from unlike the situation after first contact. It is worth noting that the Pacific Northwest avoided collapse until the nineteenth century because of geographic barriers. This gave us a first hand record of the indigenous collapse and also is showing us that once the disease is eliminated that human populations will smartly rebound.

I do not think that Pacific Northwest populations have fully rebounded and many historic villages will never be reestablished to our loss, but the end of the recovery is surely in sight. I also suspect that Cree populations of Northeast America are likely superior to pre contact populations. It is much harder to say that elsewhere.

This reference to the Brazil of 1492 shows a thriving population that conducted tribal warfare and never wasted the results. The story was exactly the same across the water in southern Africa. I once read a book recording the experiences of a English seaman caught by the Portuguese and sold into slavery in Angola, who ran with a Zulu like Impi and who lived their life. You could not make it up, yet the Zulus two hundred years later were confirmation.

Monday, 19 January 2009


Born in 1541 to a middle-class wool weaver and part-time cheese salesman, the great Genoan explorer Christopher Columbus has the legacy of one of the worlds greatest visionaries. Inspired by his beliefs, his journeys of incredible discovery caused an intellectual transformation that ushered in the modern age. Although he is now credited with history’s ‘most recent’ discovery of the Americas (the 11th century Icelandic explorer Leif Ericsson is currently the earliest documented European to set foot in mainland America) the fruits of his travels have also made him the accidental father of modern glasshouse production. A strange association indeed, but a feat that would never have been impossible were it not for his mis-calculation of the size of the Earth (in particular the Eurasian continent) and poor grasp of maritime navigation.

Inspired from works by Ptolemy, Pierre d’Ailly and the ‘Travels of Marco Polo’ Columbus wrongly concluded that Asia could be reached easier and far quicker by using a western route across the Atlantic. His conviction was soon to become an obsession and so he began to petition the various European Royal heads of state in order to finance his ’Enterprise of the Indies’. Beginning first with Portugal, then France and even England, he was refused time after time mainly on the grounds of the huge costs that an exhibition like this would encounter. Eventually, after already rejecting him once before, it was Queen Isabella of Spain who granted him the commission he required, making his dream of finding a western route to Asia a reality.

History was sealed on August 3rd 1492 when a small fleet comprising of the Santa Maria, the Pinta, and the Nina set sail for the first of four voyages of discovery exploring the New World. However it was during his second voyage to the South American mainland that he stumbled across the indigenous Tupi-Guarani Indians. This was the encounter that was to change the course of history, triggering a chain of events which for centuries captured imaginations across continental Europe. By doing so he set in motion a desire for massive investment and innovation, the like of which may never be seen again.

The Tupi-Guarani Indians were the dominant civilisation in the areas that Columbus visited, inhabiting the Brazilian coast from the mouth of the river Amazon, down to Cananéia, and including large sections of the Amazon basin. They enjoyed an advanced culture that practiced what we still regard as modern agricultural and horticultural techniques including the selective breeding of plants to increase flavour and yields. Unfortunately their culture also included a taste for human flesh, the dish of choice being captured prisoners of war.

Their whole culture and government was based on the act of cannibalism, and following a successful raid on a neighbouring tribe, prisoners would be brought back to the village to be fattened up. A few weeks later an elaborate party/ritual would be arranged, after which the prisoner is summarily executed by a blow to the back of the head. He was then skinned and cooked with seasonal fruits and vegetables. A small piece of flesh was then served to each member of the tribe so that they could gain the spiritual strength of the unfortunate victim.

Despite these rather gruesome eating habits the Tupi-Guarani Indians are also the first humans to encounter and domesticate the pineapple. This highly specialised fruit also has a unique characteristic, which in one way is quite poetic when you consider its ancestry. It has the only known source of bromelein, an enzyme that can digest protein. In other words the pineapple has quite literally flesh-eating properties. In fact over the years there have been numerous reports where eating pineapples has caused an itchy or burning sensation to the mouth. In extreme cases this has caused the lips and internal parts of the mouth to bleed.

Their first encounter with a pineapple occurred in November 1493 during the second voyage to the Caribbean region. After securing anchor off the volcanic island of Guadeloupe, Columbus led a small party ashore to study what appeared to be a deserted tribal village. Among wooden pillars spiralled with serpent carvings, his crew found large pots filled with human body parts, accompanied nearby by several piles of freshly foraged fruits and vegetables. Undaunted or perhaps just extremely hungry, the party helped themselves to the non-human aspect to the meal, enjoying in particular a curious new fruit which they had found. They described it as having ‘…an abrasive, segmented exterior like a pine cone and a firm interior pulp like an apple...’ Luckily they were able to return to their ship before the tribesmen returned.

During his fourth and final voyage to the West Indies in 1502 Columbus made his way down to the Isla de Pinos off of the coat of Honduras. Here that he met, along with his brother Bartolomeo, native traders travelling with a large canoe filled with merchandise. It was described at the time to be ‘… as long as a galley…’ It’s believed that this was the moment local tribesmen first traded fresh pineapples to Europeans eventually reaching mainland Europe for the first time in November of that year.

The Renaissance Europe to which Columbus returned to was a civilization largely bereft of common sweets. Sugar refined from cane was a rare commodity and at the time had to be imported at great cost from both the Middle East and the Orient. Without modern methods of refrigeration or transportation, fresh fruit was also scarce with orchard-grown produce only available in limited numbers during their harvest periods.

Once safely returned to Europe, Columbus’s succulently sweet pineapple became an instant hit.
Overnight it had become an item of both celebrity and curiosity for royal gourmets and professional horticulturist alike. Unfortunately combining its notoriously short shelf life with a 1-2 month sea journey made obtaining the fruit for Europe almost an impossibility. Its extreme rarity meant that the pineapple quickly became a symbol of wealth and luxury, but despite the best efforts of European gardeners it was nearly two centuries before they were able to mimic the perfect environment in which to grow and then bring to fruition a pineapple plant. It was during the 1600s, when the pineapple was still regarded as a rare and coveted commodity that King Charles II of England actually commissioned an official portrait by Hendrick Danckurts to immortalize him in an act of royal privilege. The theme naturally was to have the King receiving a pineapple as a gift from his head gardener John Rose.

The race was on across Europe to be the first to produce a home bred fruit, but the biggest obstacle that contemporary gardeners faced was that the pineapple could only fruit in a tropical climate. Temperature was the crucial factor as the mother plants are unable to survive frost and tended to go dormant when the soil temperatures dropped below about 70°F. At the same time they needed a minimum air temperatures of between 60-70°F, high light levels, humidity and a soil rich in nutrients. This was the challenge facing nursery men all over Europe, the main problem being able to maintain these high soil and air temperatures throughout the year. The key was to use the heat properties of maturing compost, but this had to be properly researched and refined as at the time they couldn’t get it warm enough. Eventually they realised that differing compositions affected the rate at which the waste matter broke down, and that this was directly responsible for the heat it generated.

Luckily the gardeners found that by using a 1:2 balance of green (leafy) and brown (woody) composts they could achieve temperatures of between 55 and 65 degrees Centigrade. Unfortunately not only was this still too cold for pineapple production it also did little for raising the humidity. Eventually they discovered a successful mix that was largely comprised of tan bark (Lithocarpus densiflorus). This was a North American evergreen tree related to the Beech family and greatly used in the leather industry due to its tannin rich bark. This produced the richer and far moister compost they required while maintaining a higher temperature compared to traditional composts. By achieving this they had overcome the first hurdle from which the industry could take its next leap forward.

The race was set, and the quest to grow this luxury fruit in Europe continued to be a major force for a series of technological developments in glasshouse design. Originally growers used what was available to them which were principally sixteenth and seventeenth centuries orangeries. Although perfectly suitable for over-wintering relatively undemanding citrus fruit, they had solid roofs, primitive heating, and windows not much larger than you would find in a normal house. It wasn’t long before these designs had proved completely inadequate for providing the year-round heat, humidity and higher light conditions required for pineapple fruit initiation and so we began to see the introduction of sunken tanbark hot beds were enclosed by large glass frames.

It was William Parker who in 1723 took tanbark pits technology to the next level by supplementing them with hot air flues. Housed in what was then the cutting edge technology of a ‘modern’ greenhouse, this was the first time that a specific environment had been created with the ability of being controlled throughout the year. This is generally thought to be the first true ‘pinery’ but it was Agnes Black, a Dutch woman, who grew the first European grown pineapple in 1687. The first British grown pineapple didn’t appear until 1721, grown by Henry Telende, gardener to the wealthy Dutchman Sir Matthew Decker. As this was prior to William Parker’s hot air system Henry had no choice other than to keep moving his plants from the pit into a conservatory causing him to loose months of precious growth every year.

From about 1760 it became standard practice to culture pineapples and grapevines together in ‘pinery-vineries’, which supposedly gave each species the mutual benefits of heat and shade. This practice must have been successful as it became standard practice for over 50 years; in fact there is an illustration by George Tod in 1810 shows a pinery-vinery of 1810, very similar in design to one built at Penpont eight years later. Other innovations, such as glazed sidewalls and front flues also appeared.

By the 1850s pineapples production had been perfected, growing on a three year cycle; After succeeding in getting the suckers or crowns to root in the first year they were transplanted into a ‘succession bed’ to be grown on for a second year. After that they would be transplanted into a ‘fruiting bed’ for the third. Pinery houses were often separated into two sections divided by a partition wall. This enabled each section to be individually heated allowing each environment could be controlled separately.

Pineries and the smaller pine pits continued to evolve in parallel; an excellent and sophisticated pine pit was discovered and has now been restored at Heligan, but the larger pineries have almost entirely disappeared, with only a few partial features around to show us their existence. In fact the National Trust is now involved in an ambitious plan at Tatton Park where they intend to use reconstructive archaeology to rebuild the pinery instead of their usual building conservation policy which would keep these remnants as they are in perpetuity.

Of course today pineapple growing is big business with over 15 million tons of produce being harvested by 80 countries every year. Each one sells for less than a couple of pounds, bought by people without a single thought as to the fascinating history of its origins. And why not, even on his death bed Columbus had no idea as to the value his pineapple brought to the world, but to be fair neither did he know what part of the world he had discovered it from.

No comments: