American republics of Guatemala, Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, Mexico, and Jamaica, are now the commercial banana centers of the world. But the real homeland of the crop is completely around the globe from these points, in Southern Asia, most likely in the hot wet valleys of India, where Alexander the Great encountered the crop during his conquests and described it as a crop whose seed was even then completely sterile. Having underwritten numerous dynasties and civilizations of Asia and the Orient, the non-American banana, carried to the New World in 1516 by a Spanish missionary priest, now contributes to the national economies of about a third of all American republics.
The name "banana" is neither Asiatic nor American. It is taken from a Negro dialect once current along the Guinea Coast of Africa where the plant was reputedly carried via dried-root trade from India. That lowland India was botanical home of the banana is borne out by sculptures and friezes to be seen on the walls of the Stupa of Barhut, a Buddhist monument of lower India presumably built about 175 B.C. This is probably the oldest-known representation of the fruit. But references to bananas appear frequently in Chinese writings of the Tang dynasty which were contemporary with the Early Christian Era. Chinese physicians brewed medicines from the roots of the plant; the fruit was considered a precious food and tonic, and stalk fibers were used for weaving mats.
It is probable that by the beginning of the Christian Era, banana roots were a well-established commerce of the Polynesians, having been carried by primitive ocean craft from Malayan coasts and Indonesia throughout the South Sea Islands and even to the mainlands of northeast Australia. Thus the banana circled the equator and became perhaps the nearest universal fruit of tropical man.
In 1698 Thomas Gage, soldier of fortune, commented in his report, A New Survey of the West Indies: ". . . our chief care . . . was to look to our bananas . . . The fruit pleased us all exceedingly, judging it to be as good or better as any fruit in Spain. It is not gathered ripe from the trees; but being gathered green, it is hung up some days, and so ripens and grows yellow and mellow, and every bit as sweet as honey . . ."
Writing from Cairo, Egypt, in 1831, to his sister Sarah in England, the ever-cautious Disraeli said, "...the most delicious thing in the world is a banana."
A few decades later the journals of Livingstone and Stanley tell how for almost two years Stanley and the white men of his expedition lived largely on banana flour cooked into thin gruel. For centuries there has been voluminous testimony of the banana's importance as food for tropical man and beast. It is one of the few crops to become a staff of life for man and beast alike. Fed green to livestock, the banana approximates the nutritive worth of grass and grain since starch and mineral content of the unripened pulp compare with those of grain, while the green skins are a valuable source of chlorophyll. Livestock economy of many tropical lands is considerably dependent on bananas.
But it was not until the middle of the nineteenth century that business minds began to realize the possibilities of bananas as a food for peoples of temperate zones. Now that these possibilities are at last being realized, the banana awakens to new and momentous social and political significances.
For today the banana is the greatest of all export fruits, a premier American business card in international trade and the one American export crop whose volume and consumption range is rapidly growing during a decade of embattled nationalism. This is another paradox with yellow skin.
Not content with exploding numerous gospels of botany, transportation, and foreign trade or the bizarre feat of hoisting a once lowly agriculture to an international post in shipping, government, and social institutions, the unique banana now begins to devise a distinctive trade arithmetic.