and the Botanical History of the Antilles
Can you tell the history of a place by its plants? St. Lucia's agricultural and natural botanical history helps explain an amazing history of the Caribbean.
"Tupac Shakur lives on the other side of Mount Gimie," Philippe said, referring to St. Lucia's remote, largest mountain. "Some people in America think he is dead," but he added, "we know he is up there."
Jane, Philippe and I were walking on a dirt road, above a layer of clouds, a place dripping with beads of water and humidity. Dripping off grass, and giant bromeliads and wild orchids.
We hired Philippe to sit in the back of our jeep and yelp cautions through the precariously rocky upper regions of St. Lucia's interior rainforest reserves. He resembled the other youth of the island in that he fancied himself of the urban lifestyle - rap and drugs and quick-talk. The trends of youth are always uncompelling and out-of-place in small islands.
He wanted to talk about marijuana. It was that familiar introduction to test me, to see if he could not only be our guide, but our supplier.
"It's good, you know, to smoke a little after a long day of work. I like it very much," he said in a grinning patois. He said he bought his marijuana at the top of Mount Gimie, where a solitary man grew his stock, and never left the mountain.
"He is totally self-sufficient. He is a hermit. He must be a hermit, because the police want to kill him. Some people go up there, but they never find him because he knows you are coming. And if you are not serious, if you are not hard, he does not come to you. But you go up there in camouflage, you go at night without a light, he will find you. He will point his shot gun at you and make a deal with you."
Philippe sells marijuana for extra income. It's easy income for somebody who was born with that enviable position of being able to sweet-talk foreigners. I hadn't quite made the connection that day. But while fishing fruit flies out of rum and ice, we started down that long road of breezy before-dinner conversation that you can't avoid in a place filled with hanging fruit and abandoned sugarcane fields.
How did Philippe's plant, for example, whose origin extends to Ancient China, become the most widely distributed plant in the world? How did it come to permeate Antillean culture?
"Those people out there wearing the Bob Marley clothes, those are not rastas," Philippe said, "it is a fake style. Being a rasta is a very hard life. There are very few left in St. Lucia. I only know one. They are vegetarian, but these people you see out on the streets with their bloodshot eyes, they are addicted to crack," Philippe said, referring to the recent Caribbean trend from casual marijuana use to hard drugs.
How does a plant - a plant like marijuana - evolve to become so desired by Earth's most successful biological mechanism for seed dispersal? Is our domestication of such a species an incidence of our domestication ability as a civilization; or does the plant in some way evolve into domestication for its own dispersal and success as a species?
"My children, you know, I can't make that choice for them. They either grow up to be hard-working like me, or they become dopers and sleep all day," he said to Jane, before turning to me to ask if he could have a swig of the rum.
Marijuana's drug evolved as a biological means of intoxicating would-be pests; its initial biological aim had nothing to do with man. Marijuana was at the heart of the Rastafarian movement, a movement that affected the cultural dynamic of the entire Caribbean. It is hard, even today, to find anywhere in the Caribbean that is not in some regard influenced by the style of rasta and reggae.
It's not just marijuana. Plants have held sway over every major development in the West Indies, from prehistory to today. It is not quite the history you may expect. But, it is one history that is certainly filled with rum and blood, death, sweat, romance and pirate ships. It is the history of plants in this part of the Caribbean - the Antilles. The long grocery chain of islands that swings in an arc from Cuba to the tip of Venezuela. It is a history that Jane and I stumbled on, driving up a coast on a small island at the far end of the Antilles.
Four hundred and thirty million years ago is to plants what Abraham is to Jews - it is the beginning; the time when algae first left the wilderness of the sea, and crept onto land. Not long after that, about 350 million years ago, some sort of primitive ferns planted their first roots. A hundred million years later, the same ferns that we know today developed.
By 225 million years ago, the giant single landmass we call Pangaea began to break apart. During all this splitting, plants made a giant leap. They developed fruit; the modern plant mechanism for distributing seeds. These plants, the angiosperms, were the ultimate step in ensuring the success of the plant on Earth. Moving about is a good way to disperse your offspring. Survival is a matter, as for all organisms, of spreading your seeds far from the tree. Since plants cannot move, the development of mechanisms to get their seeds traveling about the world meant their survival, even biological domination, on Earth. Citrus came about in the world probably somewhere in Indonesia. If the pleasure of their sweet taste and easy to eat packaging seems too coincidental, it isn't. They were made to be eaten. Initially, some botanists believe, to compel lizards.
That pulp of sugar exploits the sweet tooth - the animal gets sweets, the plant gets seed transportation, allowing the plant to expand its territory by the breadth of the animal's migration. Fruits hold off on sweetness until their seeds are ready for their mission; a fruit keeps itself camouflaged in green, and bitter and untasty until it's ready to go - when it is, it changes color - bright red, orange or yellow.
There is one fruit in particular, from one island in particular, far away from the Antilles. It's called the nutmeg fruit; a small but bright yellow little globe, that when split, yields a reasonable brown seed wrapped in a spidery bright red aril; a soft outer shell. The seed we call nutmeg, the aril we call mace. Although the plant grows on the other side of the world, its existence would transform the Antilles.
Today both sit in the darkest corners of the world's spice cabinets. But long ago, everybody in Europe wanted nutmeg. For one, pharmacists insisted various nutmeg potions were the cure to the Black Death. It also cured, they said, just about everything else, including flatulence.
Nobody in Europe knew the exact origin of nutmeg, only that it passed the hands of traders slowly along the silk route, from the unknown all the way to Venice, changing hands, its price rising along the way. But one thing was for sure - it was expensive, very expensive. More expensive than gold, and obviously so. It could cure death!
So when the wars of the crusades started to make that land route even less appealing, it was a natural question to ask - what if we could surpass that land route, what if we could actually sail to, and find the source? What if we could buy directly from the grower? This question would last hundreds of years - a quest for a random spice that became a bloody struggle that would change the modern history of the world, link the new world to the old, put India in Britain's control, and create the world's flagship metropolis - New York City. The race for the nutmeg, and perhaps black pepper, would spur the discovery of the West Indies. But while the discovery would transform these islands, the continuation of the spice race in the east would itself continue to influence the West Indies.
The Banda Islands, in today's Indonesia, were that source. The Spaniards found it, but so did the Portuguese. So did the Dutch. And the English. And they all hated each other. And, suffice it to say, they were willing to fight to the death to maintain or create some sort of monopoly over the little seed from Indonesia.
The battles ensued for hundreds of years. Battleships blasted, ships sank, men died. Many were tortured, executed, hung. In the end, the Dutch nearly had it all. A few scattered English merchants lived among the Dutch masters of the Banda Islands, doing their thing. And there were some Japanese guys too- who were originally hired by the Dutch to attack the English.
Anyways, the Dutch got around to being suspicious of the Japanese. They just had to be in cahoots with the English in a plot to overthrow the Dutch rule. A silly notion since the Japanese and Brits were just a few against a thousand. The Dutch called all the Englishmen and Japanese in for interrogation. This interrogation, of course, was done the time-honored way. The Englishmen were hung up on these stretchers in dark and ratty rooms. The Dutch would then fill their mouths with water, allowing them to breathe through their nose. This water filling went on for days, until the Englishmen were so bloated that the features of their faces and bodies were just like little cartoonish imprints on big balloonish figures.
All of the glory and death was creating universal interest in exploration, and expectations across Europe for a better life somewhere else. For the lowest, most desperate, that choice may have been to join a band of pirates. For the wealthy, it was a chance to create a personal empire of wealth. Since state- sponsored companies monopolized the East Indies, the West Indies - such an easy sail from England, France or Holland, was the natural choice for tempting fate. The Dutch made one mistake in the Banda Islands. They let two Englishmen live. Ultimately, when they returned to England to tell what happened, the fate of the Antilles would be sealed.
The English government used the political outcry of the Banda Islands torture to their advantage - they used it to convince the Dutch that they had ownership of one small Banda Island. An important claim, since they could now trade that island with the Dutch, in exchange for another small island, called Manhattan.While war was waging on the seas of the East Indies, empires were also colliding in the West Indies. The English began to fancy the Antilles in droves by the early seventeenth century. Stories and realities of wealth in the Indies were regular in London, and those willing to test fate set sail.
The problem with the West Indies for the English is that the Spanish regarded the territory as theirs, and any ship they deemed fit for a sinking was most certainly bound for a potential cannon battle. The Spanish, however, were stretched thin in the vast Caribbean, and the English, little by little, were able to carve niches into the island chains.
To survive in the islands, the English had to create an empire from one of two species that had already achieved domestication in other parts of the world. It was tobacco, sugarcane, or bust.
The Spanish, who had already put a foothold in the larger islands, knew, before Columbus even sailed, that they could exploit a labor force in Africa to build agrarian empires to the west. That's why Columbus - perceiving this empire, included in his shipload, a quantity of fine sugar cane cuttings.
This plant alone would begin the transformation of a region found by the quest for nutmeg. It is an ancient grass that probably evolved in New Guinea, but was grown in India as the main source of molasses, brown sugar and white sugar to the Central Asians and Europeans. Columbus reasoned that he could use the production of cane to build empires. When farmers in the Antilles would learn how to turn sugar cane into rum, they would figure out a way to corner the European alcohol market, fueling that other commodity - slaves - into the new world.
Jane and I had made a habit of walking through the gardens, picking mangos, and eating things off trees. "There is no way," she said, "that everybody can eat all those mangos.". They - the mangos, being everywhere. She pointed to an orchid plant. A long vine with pods that look like unripe chilis. A vanilla bean. I ate it. I developed a rash. My mouth hurt like hell. I had just unwittingly contracted vanillism.
See also: Itching eruption of the skin, nasal catarrh, headache and muscular pain.
We met the summer chef of St. Lucia's most distinguished restaurant. His name is Nigel, he is known, even in New York, for having risen through the ranks of St. Lucian obscurity, to become a master of Antillean cuisine. He offered me a cacao fruit, to look at it. I ate it. It tastes more like unripe rhubarb than chocolate.
See also: dog food.
"No, you have to roast it to make the chocolate" he said. He showed us how to cook a plantain. He explained how to distinguish it from a banana. He fed us breadfruit. Jane called this the worst food ever invented. She is not the first to say that. The fact that she is not the first to say that is significant. And the others too - the vanilla, the chocolate, the sugar cane, and the banana. To understand them, to understand how their evolution determined this vast region's fate, we need to hop on a plane.
We need to go to Puerto Rico.
The guy at the hotel - I swear, this guy is a trip. When I ask for directions, he says he's not from around here. He says he's from Vieques. You know, the place where people started revolting against the American navy, because they bomb it for practice.
The guy, the guy is really, really white. He's so white, that he has red hair. And I have trouble imagining him being from the island of Vieques. A guy this white should be from the Isle of Man.
"You guys have been in the news a bit too much lately," I say, while I'm looking for Jane.
"Yeah," he says. And, no dogging you, he draws a map of the small outlier to Puerto Rico on my hotel paperwork. He says, "This is where they bomb."
He circles the map, where they bomb.
He says, "This is all about real estate. The bombs don't affect a thing. You can't hear them. You can't see them. The bombing affects nothing in Vieques. It isn't even harmful to the environment!"
He whispers, because - you know - the other hotel clerks around him. "Vieques is the last real estate boom in America," he says, "They're protesting because they want to raise the value of the real estate. They want to develop that part of the island."
The red headed guy is telling me his life story, because I'm probably the first today willing to listen to him. So it's good, when I see Jane in the lounge raising a drink, that I have an excuse to leave the red headed man and his story.
We ditch the hotel . There is this movie about San Juan called Under Suspicion. Morgan Freeman plays the detective. Gene Hackman plays the rich lawyer. The five hundred year old walls of San Juan's promontory fortress play the landscape.
The taxi guy can't speak English. I am telling him to take us somewhere. You know, like where they filmed that Gene Hackman movie.
He is wearing this great yellow shirt, and a fedora hat. He is so old that he turns his blinker on the wrong way. Some cars honk when he slows to a crawl on the freeway. He asks if we like music. He smiles, playing salsa. Something with four or five guitars and plenty of drums. In English, "You like Puerto Rico, yes?"
San Juan is vibrant and industrial, filled with economy and color, and pleasant streets. Honolulu with dumpy billboards in Spanish. The restaurants in old San Juan - the smell of coffee and baked bread, roasted chicken and spice.
He drops us off at a taxi stand, where some other old guys in bright hats smile at us and say, "You like Puerto Rico, yes?"
We are walking in alleys painted orange and yellow and that Caribbean blue that is just a shade off turquoise and green. We are walking in Old San Juan, which is monuments and apartments, along a ridge lined by old turrets.
Old San Juan rests between two giant old fortresses. Construction began when the sugarcane was first planted. Dungeons and towers and dank tunnels.
Imagine a plant evolving to become so wanted that a giant sea fortress of four hundred cannon would be erected to protect its crop. Imagine a mad rush to protect a crop against the Carib Indians, who had a knack for destroying entire villages. Or the English and French, who had a knack for claiming them as their own. Imagine Puerto Rico as a kind of guardian to the Spanish Caribbean; its geography a stopgap to Cuba and Hispaniola. If you are sailing into the Spanish Caribbean, you have to pass San Juan.
The sugar industry was already swinging into full throttle in Puerto Rico just twenty-five years after Columbus' discovery. Puerto Rico and Cuba and Hispaniola and Jamaica. This was the Spanish Caribbean - the so-called Greater Antilles.
To Spain, the Antilles were a revenue source. And although European enthusiasm for nutmeg found the Caribbean, a new sweet tooth in Europe would fuel the development of the region. Entire islands would fell their forests for sugar. Barbados was bare. Tobago was skin. Antigua was bone.
Sugarcane demanded a labor force. The pope thought that if you could catholicize the Carib Indians, you could get them to stop eating each other, and become proper slaves. But none of the native populations were inclined, and Africa would quickly fill that bill. By choice or enslaved, the Antilles were brewing the makings of Americas. Sugarcane, in its humble pursuit of its own existence, was creating the West.
While sugarcane was beginning to bring massive payments into Spain's economy, the effect would go largely unnoticed for hundreds of years by the imperial crown. In 1728, King Philip V of Spain began looking into creative ways to shave more profit from the Antilles territories.
His answer was not gold or silver.
His answer was botanical science and agricultural monopoly. Britain and France were already sending scientific missions around the world. They were already collecting specimens in Africa and Asia. Spain, which had a reputation among the European empires for backwardness, was eager to dispel the notion through an aggressive science program.
Men would begin dabbling and collecting, surveying and testing.
Cheap labor required cheap fuel. Captain Cook thought he found the answer in Polynesia, in the form of a big fibrous ball of a fruit. His botanist, Sir Joseph Banks urged King George III to send somebody on a mission to collect and grow the fruit in the Antilles.
It came from New Guinea, it grew in the Malay Peninsula, it flourished in Micronesia. The Polynesians seeded it throughout the Pacific, the Hawaiians brought it to Samoa. It's called breadfruit, and it tastes like drywall.
And that's precisely where Captain Bligh comes in.
Captain Bligh was ordered to transport twelve hundred breadfruit tree seedlings into the Caribbean and create instant carbohydrates. Breadfruit was the key to cheap sugarcane, and Bligh's mission was to get them to the sugarcane plantations.
He had already been successful in bringing a shipload of the trees to Jamaica. Those in port had referred to his ship as a floating forest. Although this time, pissed off with the prospect of enduring a breadfruit mission from the Pacific to the Atlantic, his crew declined. And, rather than leave their Tahitian mistresses, sent him and the willing half of the crew off in a launch. They, enduring one of the most amazing navigation feats in history, journeyed 3,700 miles to Batavia, in Indonesia - the capital of the nutmeg trade.
Fortunately for the breadfruit, Bligh's original shipment had taken hold, and breadfruit would flourish throughout the islands.
Unfortunately for the slaves, the starchy fibers of this beautiful tree were disgusting. They wanted plantains. They wanted fried bananas. Eventually, they would get them, and the botanical future of the Antilles would again take a bizarre turn.
Sugarcane was being planted the way pretty much anything was being planted in the old world. Potatoes. Apple trees. Olive trees. You basically propagate it by taking cuttings from the stalks of the healthiest plants. You force a speedy evolution. You don't wait for the seeds. You hack at a bit of the giant grass and plant it.
You create - mistakenly - a monoculture of one species.
Now, with the entire Antilles using essentially the same crop as their one financial crop, one single disease could bring everything down. And, eventually, that would happen.
But sugarcane would suffer two more setbacks. The sweetness of sugar became synonymous with the foul word slavery, and much of Europe began refusing it in protest. And soon after that, man engineered a way to extract the same sugar from beet plants.
Beets grew in Europe. No overseas shipping. No slavery.
The Spanish Caribbean was in jeopardy, but the English were already in cahoots with the sugarcane on an entirely new venture.
The race for Caribbean revenue was becoming more and more a race to utilize an understanding of the botany and commercial value of more specific uses of plants. Monoculture's failure was bringing the Spanish botanists together, here in San Juan, to use science to exploit botany - to engineer new species from cross-pollinations of the world's hundreds of sugarcane variations.
We stop in some back alley restaurant, for fried bananas. For plantains, black beans and pork. This will be our meal, but it will also be the future of the Caribbean.
I wake up, because there is lightning outside. The thunder is booming across the peaks. All the birds, and a bat. They've found refuge in our flat. The thing about where we are staying is that there are no windows. We are staying in a flat in the rainforest, open to the air. And because one giant wall is missing, the moisture of the rain glides through like a mist.
I fix a coffee. It's four-thirty in the morning, and out of sheer excitement, I can't sleep. I rumble about. When the lightning strikes, I see my wife in the mosquito netting, who won't be awake for hours.
When the lightning strikes again, I catch a glimpse of the scrabble board. From last night: the empty glasses of rum. With the flies stuck on. I look at the scrabble board, with the pieces all messed up because of the wind.
I look at my leftover words, how I gave up.
How do you spell "cacao" anyway?
We are so far removed from the rest of St. Lucia that on a thunder-stricken morning in a landscape of rain and fog and the green of giant trees everywhere, it's easy to imagine a Caribbean without human life.
What would it be like here, if the world went bad? A world of poverty and disease, where the air is sooty and most of the animals are dead, where the tourists retreat from the Caribbean in the urgency of life's concerns, and all that is left are hopeless people shitting in plastic pails and salvaging the mahogany of old abandoned hotels.
Lightning strikes again and I see the twin Piton peaks, shrouded in fog. I see them arcing steep into the ocean.
One thing is sure, when the world retreats from the Antilles, only the plants will bear fruit; rooted against the otherwise lifeless rock of its cliff sides, hanging over an empty sea, the surf brushing gently against the rotting machines of the vast empty; yachts and steamers rooted upside down, the vines of sea grapes burrowing through the holes.
It's just an early morning vision of the future; but in a world where we say that the victor writes the history, who can you really say is the victor of the Caribbean? Fidel Castro and his empire of serfs? The Sandals Resort with their bad food? The sunburned yachties with their fish?
How do you spell "chlorophyll" anyway?
That was what St. Lucia's literary hero always warned of. That's what Derek Walcott was afraid might just happen. Islands dependent on external economies. On tourism.
The lightning strikes again and I can see the garbage filled with dead bugs. I had left the bathroom light on last night during dinner. It attracted a swarm of flying beetles, piping frogs, birds and lizards. It was an insect feast. It was a hundred dead beetles on our shower floor. It was one look in the bathroom and a six hundred bug legs dangling about upside down in the air. It was Jane with a broom and me with a, "Jane, I'm on the rum."
It had become comfortable, being here at Ladera, playing Scrabble, eating fish and callaloo soup. Jane naming the piping frogs each time they come into our flat and belch out a melody of squeaks. There was Freddie and Tiny and Betty.
But today we are to begin a multi-day tour of the island, on the back roads without a guide, a map or a clue. We will get lost, we will get stuck, we will find ourselves in some awkward situations. It turns out, along the way, we'll run into some rather interesting plants, and how they take on the English, the French, the Pirates, and another century of destruction and glory in the Caribbean.
As soon as the summer storms in St. Lucia's mountains arrive with all their thunder, they are gone, and with first light there is sun and there is green.
Everything on the summer road in southern St. Lucia is slow going. It's construction season, and that just makes things worse. The main road is for shit, what with all the construction trucks and mud and potholes.
It is by accident that we've diverted much of the main road. We're lost. St. Lucia is a small island. But with its small roads without names, it's a continent.
We are in an area up in the windward facing foothills, so that rather than being jungly, it is windswept and grassy, rolling hills under rainforests. A lady, standing on the road, thumbs for a lift. Her name is Emerald, she is sixty-two years old.
Her life, in this bisecting of strangers, appears completely ordinary. I am watching her through the rearview mirror while Jane is bent over the front seat, talking story. Emerald is a school teacher. She loves children. She laughs at things that are not funny. She blesses us.
Her accent - called a St. Lucian patois, is part French, part West African. Her eyes though, are thinner, and her skin more brown than your average West African in the Indies. I suspect she is not all black. Likely, she is part Caribe - part native. Like everything and everyone in St. Lucia, her origin and her dialect; everything about her ordinary schoolteacher self is a puzzlework of the history of this strange island whose fate rests on the plants brought and grown here.
By the time we drop her at a bus stop, we have circled and looped from the south of the island to the southwest, again deep in isolated rainforest. We came across a troupe of uniformed school boys walking home. They shout at us, "let me be your guide!" "You pay me, I take you!"
Some ran for our jeep, and one jumped on the back, grabbing the spare wheel, "I take you!" I pushed the gas pedal and the tires hit a rock, sending the boy in the air. Through the rearview mirror, I saw him standing up with an expression of having let the fish get away.
We stumbled our way to a fishing village for groceries. It's Sunday morning, the rain has started again, and the town church is echoing church songs. Two hundred singers belt through the village and a dozen more are eyeing for a quick buck from the Americans.
One was bold enough to approach us. I was conflicted by wanting to hear his story, and being disgusted by so many amateur attempts at cashing in on us.
He called himself Lucas, and he offered us two horrible-looking beaded necklaces. At first I declined, but he said they were a gift and closed them in my hands. The whiteness of his eyes against his black-on-sunburned face was not marijuana, but crack and cocaine and that burned cornea signature of Caribbean vagrants - glaucoma.
He wore torn clothes, worse than a sloppy hippie. He said that like us, he too was a traveler - unlikely in this poor town of Soufriere.
He had been to "Wales, London, Jamaica, Dominica, Puerto Rico."
"How do you get to all these places?" I asked.
"Not the usual way. I never pay for my ticket."
He took the Nedlloyd container vessels and the banana boats - illegally. When he was caught, "they make me go down and wash the dishes. They are mostly friendly, and let me work my way to Brazil or Honduras."
"But not the Americans. They are bad to me," he said. "They ship me back on the first plane to St. Lucia.I am like Bin Laden, nobody can find me. I always go against the imperialism. I can hide, and the people who like me," he sniffed the air, "they help me out."
How do you spell 'psychotic?'
A chicken crossed the road. Some people were looking out windows, watching our conversation. Lucas paused. He looked around.
I looked at Jane.
"Would you offer a small donation for the necklaces?" he said.
I was prepared for this, and prepared to decline his wish. Lucas was an addict in a small fishing village, three hours from the nearest large city. Lucas was an addict in a country that won't understand therapy for another thirty years. He should have been slapped, but, you know.
I gave him three Eastern Caribbean dollars and kept the necklaces. It was humiliating. I knew the people in the windows were laughing at me. All I wanted was to get the guy off our backs. Soufriere was filled with crack addicts and scavengers looking for any way to get a buck off an American.
We were here to fill up on groceries, a stash of food for our drive across the island. The pleasure of gathering food in small third world towns is that it reacquaints you with brands that have fallen out of favor in other parts of the world. An obscure flavor of Laughing Cow cheese. A brand of crackers I hadn't seen since the 1970's. Sunkist soda.
Soufriere is one of the most dramatic towns in the Caribbean, with its steep green mountains sliding into a round bay. It is also the site of St. Lucia's largest botanical collection.
The gardens contain possibly the world's finest collection of gingers and heliconias and birds of paradise - those brightly colored magnificent plants we associate with expensive tropical arrangements in dull office lobbies.
My first wild heliconia I spotted from a river launch in Belize. Its name, which means plant of the sun , is appropriate, because it thrives in moist, sunny jungle openings. Unlike many other species sold in flower arrangements, the modern heliconia is not the result of some plant collector's twisted years of variation and hybridization. A heliconia - in all its orange and red and purple spikes, is as brilliant in the wild as it is in the flower shops.
That its strange appearance resembles the more well known bird of paradise is not coincidental. That the colors of the ginger resemble both, or that the bright colors of each are not flowers at all, but the bracts that encapsulate and protect flowers - is not coincidental.
These are all families from the botanically bizarre taxonomic groups called the zingibers - one of the most unknown plant groups in the world. Because most groups have at least some woody ancestors, there are fossil records to track their origin. The zingibers are all herbaceous, and paleobotanists have only found their ancestors as far back as the Cretaceous. Where and when they evolved, nobody knows.
If you look at a heliconia or a bird of paradise a little bit cock-eyed, you can see that its shape loosely resembles a bunch of bananas. Again, no coincidence. Bananas are just tasty zingibers.
The bananas and plantains, once somewhat rare rainforest plants of Southeast Asia, were being cultivated in India by 1000 B.C. Arab traders found the fleshy carbohydrates to their liking, and planted them in the Middle East and Africa. Along with the fig and the pomegranate, some biblical archaeologists believe that the Garden of Eden's notorious fruit may have been the banana. The Qu'ran also possibly mentions the plant as 'the tree of paradise.'
By the age of Abraham, the fruit was common in the Middle East, and would soon be transported from Madagascar to the shores of western Africa. Portuguese sailors transplanted them in the Canary Islands, which just happened to be the last stop on missions to the new world.
This garden also contains the most memorable remains of the French army in the Lesser Antilles. A hot bath spa was ordered built by King Louis the XVI for his troops amusement.
Imagining several French military men dipping. womenless. in a hot tub reminded me that the French were never able to hold the island for very long. The French and English fought over these eastern Caribbean island scraps for hundreds of years. St. Lucia exchanged hands between the two fourteen times.
The English were settling St. Lucia by 1605, but Carib attacks kept them from creating a lasting settlement on the island. Soon, the French would begin actively pursuing their own empires in the Caribbean.
Their success would last longer in some islands, shorter in others. It was a game of chess between empires in islands populated by Africans and Caribs. In St. Lucia, like in other islands, the Africans had intermarried with the native Caribs. As the 1600's slipped into the 1700's, both the French and British would employ these Black Caribs as mercenaries, playing off their yearning for freedom to force them into battle.
By 1778, the British had secured a small peninsular stronghold at the north of the island. They sent German mercenaries into the deep mountain jungles to pick off stray Frenchmen. They launched naval assaults, and after five more years of war, the island was at last theirs.
Or so they thought. With their newfound freedom, the black Caribs feared for their future and formed freedom fighter bands across St. Lucia to engage their new enemy - the British. This loose-knit coalition, although at last it would disband in defeat, was not unique - slave rebellions were popping up across the islands. They burned the sugar cane plantations, ravaged the militaries, fought for their lives.
Rebellions broke out in St. Vincent, in Grenada, and Dominica. In Haiti, which had been under French control, the slave rebellion was so vicious that it left thousands dead, bloodied, or butchered half alive. The Haitian rebellion would leave the French military with a broken back and in sore need of funding. So broke by the slave uprisings, the French would be forced to sell off their mainland American holdings to feed their world empires elsewhere.
This sell-off, which the Americans would call the Louisiana Purchase, would transform America and help them build their own agricultural empire in the West Indies a century later.
We left Soufriere and rode the coastline north. On the steepest rocks below us grow thousands of organ pipe cactuses. This sight - the cactus in the moist tropics - is sometimes seen as odd. But the cactus is believed to actually have evolved around here somewhere.
There are two theories about where the cactus became a cactus. One place is pretty much right here in the Lesser Antilles. Another place, close by in Northern South America. Either way, it is believed that as the large super-continent called Gondwanaland was splitting apart, the Caribbean was a much drier place. The whole region was arid, like the island Aruba is today.
These plants' leaves turned to spines and their roots became swollen.
Their ultimate destiny as icons of the Mexican and Southwestern Deserts did not begin and end there. The cactus, although one plant group among several around the world that came to similar succulent means of surviving aridity, is in some ways considered the new world's most successful plant group. The tiny potbellied plant diversified itself from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego in over three thousand five hundred species.
The coastline road is unpopulated for much of the way, and eventually flattens out from mountainous to valley flats - banana farms. Men and women with machetes, roaming the orchards. St. Lucia is the largest banana exporter of all the windward islands. It is a part of Derek Walcott's vision of a Caribbean that can determine its fate with or without the cruise ships.
We drove in to Marigot Bay - the view from the ridge of this bay, they say, is a delight. We walked from the jeep out towards the ridge, and a man draped in threads of clothing with white on white eyes crawled out of a nearby shed and approached us quickly. He said, "You see this palm frond?" I said I wasn't interested and kept walking. We walked across the property of a small shop to see below. The man followed and said, "I make a special for you."
He was tearing at the palm frond and looping it through itself.
A woman, a big angry-looking woman, emerged from the shop. She had a giant wooden club, and thrust it on the man. "You worthless drug addict, get off my property!" she screamed, knocking him first on the head and then in the chest. "I told you never come on my property!" she yelled, banging at him until he limped away with his hands over his head.
We looked out over Marigot Bay in the rain, and hopped toward the jeep. The vagrant approached us again, asking if maybe we wanted a donation for what now appeared to be a palm frond fish. The woman again rushed after him, and so we slammed the doors and drove off. The beating once again in the rear view mirror.
In 1890, a document was written by U.S. political strategist Alfred T. Mahan. In his book called The Influence of Sea Power upon history, 1600-1783, which advocated the taking of the Philippines, Hawaii and the Caribbean as a step in part of his thesis on how to become a world empire. At the same time, Manila (as well as Cuba) was seeing independence movements spring up from the woodwork.
As the modern history of the West Indies would begin with events in Southeast Asian islands, so too would it end. The U.S. began pressuring Spain towards war, and soon enough, Manila Bay in the Philippines was conquered. Hawaii would be annexed days later, and Guam would also be captured.
The success in the Pacific motivated the U.S. towards Cuba. New York magazines and newspapers had already been painting the Cuban freedom fighter as handsome and bold, and the public was poised to free Cuba from the clutches of Spain.
Perhaps it is a coincidence that as America was about to go to war in Cuba, Americans had just been introduced to a new fruit. They were going ape shit over the banana. So much so, that their streets were being littered by the peels. There was so much optimism in the future of the banana that American businessmen started seeing the prospects of banana empires in the close-by Caribbean.
American fruit companies, among them the United Fruit Company and Standard Fruit, began massive investment in Central American and Caribbean countries, vying for land and labor. In some economies, the meddling was so strong that local government's became puppets of the U.S. banana companies. The term banana republic would eventually be coined in reference to countries ruled by United Fruit Company and Standard Fruit.
American investments in the Caribbean soon topped over a billion dollars in value. Bananas were everything, and this fact would at least partly explain American troops engaging in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Haiti and nearby Central American economies - protecting investments, protecting bananas.
Banana fever grew, but not only in America. Islands like St. Lucia would fill the newfound European demand.
We arrived at the capital city, Castries, with its bad traffic and worse roads. We parked and walked toward the town square, littered and unkempt. There was nothing happening here but a handful of vagrants sleeping under the trees. The center of town is a park with a giant Samaan tree, 400 years old and dedicated to Derek Walcott, the poet-playwright who constantly reminded St. Lucians that there was more to their island than coddling tourists.
This is the city port city where most of the bananas leave St. Lucia. Today, United Fruit Company and Standard Fruit are called Chiquita and Del Monte. Their actions, and these bananas, still create battles between the empires in the Caribbean. Although in a modern way. St. Lucia became one of the major banana producers for Britain. Britain did so, partly to encourage democracy, partly to help their old former colonies. The exports proved an amazing economic gain. In these islands, fruit export accounts for up to sixty percent of the economy. Britain, along with other European economies, gave preferential treatment to their colonial banana friends. But as the 1990's came about, and Europe slid toward reunification, the specifics of free trade rolled onto the world stage.
The United States reckoned all of this to be protectionism. Which it was - St. Lucia was propping its prices, and Europe, so familiar with that practice, obliged.
And taste in bananas was changing, too. People wanted their bananas like they wanted their coffee and burgers - they wanted uniform, perfect, industrial cloned super bananas. They wanted Starbucks bananas. This would make things hard on the five-acre Eastern Caribbean farmers, who watched over every bunch, bruised and greenish-brown though they may be.
Only the American-run banana producers could pull off the perfect banana, in their giant Chiquita and Del Monte facilities in Latin America, run by men in expensive suits. As the 1990's neared an end, the banana plantations in St. Lucia also appeared to be near their end. The logical crop alternative became marijuana.
But to stay legitimate, St. Lucia had to fight for the banana, and that meant industrialization. Starbucks bananas for Britain. By 1999, the United States claimed it won a giant battle with Europe. The World Trade Organization ruled that Europe's import restrictions were illegal. If Europe does not abide, America has the right to fight back with trade restrictions on European luxury goods. Bananas for crocodile-skin boots.
And that's how it ended. A small industry being replaced by drugs, a nation bent on supplanting bananas with tourism. More cruise tourists littering the island with their impatient need to relax.
A man and woman with their child were walking through the square. They didn't see us, and the man lifted his child into the air over the fence protecting Derek Walcott's giant Samaan tree. The child took a leak on the tree. And this is when I asked, if the victor writes the history, who wrote the history of these islands in the Caribbean?
Everybody has that desire to see small countries write their own history. Like that schoolteacher, Emerald, saying, "I treat my students like my children." But these countries - still being pulled and tugged by the Empires, it is good to know that in the end, maybe the plants had more of a role than outside forces. The French are gone, the British have lost their colonies, the Spanish are banished. The Caribs are all but vanquished. St. Lucia is independent now, but up until now, its history was decided by a simple botanical process of evolution - desires created in the form of sugarcane, bananas and marijuana.
We continued to wander and came upon a back alley. Looking up, we saw plants making hold on the aluminum siding panels, spilling green onto the gray.