Plantains arrived in Haiti from the West Coast of Africa in 1516 at the time of the importation of people as slaves to the island. Up until that time there had not been plaintains in the Americas while plantain farming was already well established all over Ginen, from the Kongo, through Dahomen all the way to Senegal. Throughout the West Coast of Africa, people were already cultivating many different types of plantains.
During its years of cultivation in Africa, plantains underwent a significant modification. The progenitors of the modern plantain had seeds like lemon seeds which could be planted. Africans altered the plantains through their preference for those with the smallest seeds. As a result, they selectively bred plantains and bananas so that they would have the smallest seeds possible. This selective breeding led to the development of the nearly seedless varieties of these plants. The small dark spots inside the common plantains are diminutive remnants of the seeds that were once fertile. Nowadays, cultivated plantains and bananas can no longer be grown from their diminutive seeds.
In the past, birds would feed on plantains and in the process swallow their seeds. These seeds would go through their intestines undigested and pass as part of their droppings and get dispersed throughout a region. Nowadays, the cultivated plantain is totally dependent on people to spread it as it only grows from its roots.
It was the seeded plantains that were first imported to Africa from South Asia, particularly from the regions around current day India. Before the African – South Asian trade, there were no plantains and bananas in Africa. About 3000 years ago, plantains were taken from South Asia by boat to East Africa in what is now termed the Monsoon Exchange. During this exchange, Africa received plantains, Tayo, and Manzonbèl. Asia received watermelon, beans and millet.
It appears that it is the people of Asia on the Papua Island who first cultivated the plantain 7000 years ago. From there, plantains were taken to the region of India and later, 3000 years ago, it was taken to East Africa. Nowadays in the Congo, there are 120 varieties of plantains and 60 varieties of bananas.
The people of Ginen have been planting plantains for so long that we, their descendants, are familiar with numerous ways of preparing it. We boil it. We fry it. We barbecue it. We use the milky discharge from the plant as a pro-coagulant to stop excessive bleeding. We use its leaf to wrap food products. We have learned that the trunk as well as the roots are eatable. However, those parts are usually eaten only during famines. In the absence of extreme needs, Africans only use those parts as animal feed. In the rest of the Caribbean, people prepare an alcoholic beverage by allowing a juice prepared from plantains to ferment. We do not know if this drink is also made in Haiti.
Due to cold weather, plantains do not grow in Europe. Europeans first became familiar with plantains and bananas when they visited Africa during the 15th century. These early European visitors were shocked by this novel tree and described it as a wood-less tree.
While plantains requires cooking before being consumed, bananas can be eaten raw. It is indeed because we cook plantains that we consider it to be a vegetable. We do not consider it to be a fruit since its seeds are so small that the plant can be considered to be seedless. Plaintains and bananas are classifies as belonging to the musa family of plants. That name musa is derived from the Arabic term for plantain.
In Haiti, plantains are known as bannann for plantains, as well as the word banàn (bananas). Both are derived from the Wolof language of the Nanchon Mede people. Bannann and banàn are derived from their word for finger. As bannann means finger, in Haiti we call a bundle of plantains a pat bannann meaning a hand or a paw of plantains. Inspired by the Nanchon Medes habit of calling plantains fingers, in 1521, the Italian, Antonio Pigarfeta, called bananas fig, a named derived from finger. That name became a popular name for the banana.
That Italian name fig, became popular in Haiti, however the Spanish continued to link bananas to the place where they first came in contact with it and called it guineo, meaning a fruit from Ginen. Today in Haiti, we often use both the Italian word and the Nanchon Mede word for bananas calling it, fig-bannann.
During the 20th century, the United States created banana plantations in Central America where it called the fruit bananas. This led to the substitution of the name banana for guineo among many Spanish speaking countries. To facilitate uniform packaging for export, the US planted only one variety of bananas. Later, this variety became infected with a disease that eradicated it. As a result, nowadays when one buys banana flavored candy, one can notice that the taste is not altogether like the taste of present day bananas. This occurs because the artificial banana flavoring that became popular was based on the now extinct banana variety.
Like Africans in the Americas, the banana has suffered its share of indignation. As colonialists held Africans in low esteem, they often treated other things from Africa, like bananas, with similar disdain. A failed state could be referred to as a “Banana Republic”. In Haiti, if one says to a person ¨ou bannann¨ for ¨you´re plantained¨, it means that you are doomed. In the United States, to say “he has gone bananas” is synonymous with saying, he has lost his mind.
Plantains played an important role in the Commerce of People as Slaves. Around 1460, the Portuguese visited Ginen, the West Coast of Africa, and began kidnapping its citizen and enslaving them on the Canary Islands to work the sugar cane plantations. To feed the enslaved population, they then imported foods from West Africa including plantains. These plantains were then cultivated by the enslaved population.
Enslaved Africans planted plantains in their personal gardens because all the produce from the larger plantation were exported to France. The enslaved people could not spend much time in their gardens because work on the plantation could consume 20 hours of their day. This situation made plantains an ideal crop for enslaved people to cultivate for themselves because it required little attention and it yields abundantly throughout the year. A plantain or banana garden can remain productive for over 30 years. The plant bears so much that one acre can yield 200,000 pounds of bananas annually. That means that an equivalent plot of land planted with plantains can yield 10 times more pounds of food than if planted with yams. It can yield 100 times more than if planted with potatoes. Plantains have a lot of calories and in general, plantains provide 30% more calories than bananas. The enslaved people also benefited from planting plantains because of the rich source of calories that it provides.
Since the Church supported slavery at the time, Church officials worked closely with the people involved in the Commerce of People as Slaves. The first shipment of bananas to arrive in Haiti was brought to the island in 1516 by the priest Thomas Berlanga. He brought over these bananas from the Canary Islands to serve the same purpose, to feed the enslaved population of Haiti, just like the fruit was used on the Canary Islands.
As 2016 draws to an end, let us not forget our Ginen Ancestors who manipulated nature to produce seedless plantains and bananas. Let us recall that among the African descendants of Haiti, the consumption of plantains is a 3000 year old tradition that we´ve had in Haiti for the past 500 years (1516-2016).