Popular Science Monthly/Volume 44/February 1894/Where Bananas Grow
|WHERE BANANAS GROW.|
IN spite of the fact that a bunch of bananas was a rare sight, and a single one a luxury, when we who are still young were children, they have become so common that we have ceased to ask the questions naturally prompted by unaccustomed sights; and this, not because those questions are no longer unanswered, but as the result of that familiarity which makes us forget our ignorance. We know that we owe this acceptable addition to our bill of fare to the tropics. We admire its texture and enjoy its flavor; but we rarely give it serious thought unless constrained to do so while yielding to the smooth invitation to tarry a while that its cast-off skin extends. We shudder at dreadful stories of venomous tarantulas and scorpions lurking in those compact clusters; and the horrors of a region that harbors such creatures outweigh all other thoughts. Concerning the facts of its climate, the growth of its products, the life of its people, we rarely inquire.
There is, perhaps, no other temperate country where the use of fruit is so widespread or so extensive as in the United States. Not only does our own unrivaled domain furnish varied soils and climates perfectly adapted to the temperate and subtropical fruits of the world, but our facilities for transporting and preserving them place the products of the most favored regions within reach of every one during prolonged seasons. The dweller in New York or Boston is thus able to supplement his home fruits by those of Delaware and New Jersey, of the Indian River, and of Los Angeles and San Bernardino in an uninterrupted and unfailing succession which has nearly banished the dried apple of our childhood.
But the influence of external conditions is as potent here as in other features of our life, and the nature of the food supply largely determines the character of our food. We owe our good fortune to the abundance and cheapness of the fruit brought to our gates even more than to our growing appreciation of the hygienic value of good fruit. Our neighbors of northern Europe are relatively so far removed from fruit-growing regions that their winter supply of fresh fruit seems likely to remain limited and costly, however great their willingness to buy.
The stores of fruit which have been instrumental in this happy development of a nation of fruit-eaters in the last generation have come, as has been said, chiefly from our own territory. But the banana, which has played as great a part as any one sort, is strictly tropical, sensitive to very moderate cold, and growing safely in our own country only in extreme southern Florida. But here is little good banana land, and the prospective grower of this fruit must look beyond, to the South, for the scene of his operations.
The banana is probably a native of southern Asia and the Malay Archipelago, but has been known and esteemed from very early times in tropical America. It is now extensively cultivated in the West Indies and Central America both for home consumption and for export. One may form some idea of the growth of our appreciation of bananas from the statement of one familiar with the trade for the past twenty-five years, that an importation of twenty-five hundred bunches into Boston in a summer week, twenty years ago, could with the greatest difficulty be disposed of. Yet the usual receipts for a corresponding period at present are over fifty thousand bunches, and double that number have found a market in a single week. We may try to realize something of the quantity of bananas we eat from the careful trade estimate of importations into the United States in 1892, which is as follows:
|Into New Orleans||4,483,351||bunches.|
|Into New York||3,715,625||"|
|Into minor Southern ports||343,000||"|
The total of 12,695,386 bunches represents an increase of 1,578,632 bunches over the previous year. It is true that when we talk of millions of bunches, which means hundreds of millions of bananas, the mind quite fails to grasp the hugeness of the fact. So we may add that this quantity represents about twenty bananas to each person in the whole United States, and a value of not less than five million dollars at the points of shipment before they are placed on board. Formerly our Northern ports received a large part of their supply from Central America and the Isthmus; but more recently the shorter distance and better fruit have given the advantage to the nearer islands; and now, while New Orleans still draws from the older source, Cuba and Jamaica supply the North almost exclusively; and of these two, Jamaica is the more fertile, yields better fruit, is the more healthful in climate, the more beautiful for scenery, the more agreeable for residence or travel. A visit to the "gem of the Antilles, then," may show us something of the growth and treatment of this fruit which has come to vie with our own apples as a staple article in our dietary.
Like the palms and the grains, the banana plant is one of the "endogenous" plants of the older botanists. Its nearest relatives familiar in our climate are the Cannas, of late much grown, which give to our summer lawns an air so distinguished and so tropical. While broad-leaved, like the Cannas, the banana plant has the treelike aspect of the palms, with a stout, erect, and rounded bole capped by the splendid cluster of spreading leaves. Yet, unlike the palms, it is not truly a tree; for, while the palms, like all trees, have solid, woody trunks, albeit constructed on a plan radically different from that of the woody plants of our own fields, the apparent trunk of the "banana tree" is made up only of the soft, sheathing bases of the leaves. These arise from the true stem, a rounded, fleshy mass at the surface of the ground, from which also the roots descend. The huge leaf-bases, several feet in length, tightly inclose each other and form a compact body as thick as a man's thigh, narrowing upward into short leafstalks, which bear the large though graceful oblong blades. Within this cylinder of leaf-bases is the growing-point, or bud, from which new leaves continue to be pushed forth until the plant is full grown. Each leaf emerges in its turn from the center of the crown of leaves, a beautiful, erect roll, pushing straight upward into the air. Gradually unrolling as it finds room, the blade at last flattens out and bends to one side, and another leaf is added to the crown. Few leaves are more attractive than these young banana leaves in their first freshness of delicate green, of perfect form and grace, and of spotless purity. But with increasing age the color deepens, and the first wind and rain tear the exquisite blade in numberless places between its parallel veins; so that an old leaf becomes finally but two rows of ribbons and tatters, dull or dry, fringing a battered leaf-stalk.
After the last leaf has pushed forth and the foliage crown is complete, there appears from its middle the bud for which all the previous activity of the plant has been but the preparation. It emerges as a lanceolate mass borne on a rapidly lengthening stalk. The compact bud may be seen to be composed of close-set purple bracts of fleshy, leaflike texture, tightly overlapping. After a time the outer bract is raised from the underlying ones and, separating more and more, at length falls away, leaving a scar to mark its place, and, just within the scar, a group of tubular, pale yellow flowers. Their petals soon wither and fall away, leaving the ovaries as a row of tiny bananas which will become one of the "hands" of the future bunch. Thus successive bracts fall away from the bud and successive rows of bananas appear. But after a time, though the bracts continue to fall and to uncover new flower clusters, these are found to be sterile, and young-fruits are no longer formed. A bud may, then, contain only two or three fertile bracts, or it may have as many as fifteen or more
—that is, the number of fruit clusters in the ripened bunch may vary between those extremes. The development of sterile flowers continues indefinitely. Each bract, as it falls, uncovers a fresh group to furnish pollen for the impregnation of the fertile flowers of a neighboring plant, as those of their own bunch, uncovered first, have already received the fructifying stimulus from a neighbor. Thus Nature provides for the cross-fertilization on which, as Mr. Darwin first showed us, she lays so much stress, sending the fecundating dust from plant to plant by those loveliest and swiftest of her messengers, the humming birds, and rewarding their industrious service with frequent draughts of nectar of her own inimitable brew.
While the flowers are thus developing and giving place to fruits, the stalk of the bunch is lengthening and carrying the clusters farther apart, making room for the growth of the fruits, which pretty well keeps pace with that of the stalk. Very early the stalk begins to bend over and, as soon as it has become long enough, turns completely on itself. Thus the bud, and finally the bunch of fruit, hang downward between the leaves. On the other hand, the young bananas turn upward in their growth, and come at last to point directly up. As the tip of the stalk still lengthens, when the bananas are full grown it often hangs a yard below them, tipped by the purple plummet of yet unfallen bracts. It is by this sterile stalk that we see the bunches hung in our shops; that is, in a position just the reverse of that in which they grow.
In the Eastern tropics, the number of varieties and species of bananas and banana-like plants is large; but in America those which are cultivated to any extent are very few. Indeed, of true bananas we need notice only two. The common yellow variety, which is almost exclusively that which our markets receive, is the only one raised in Jamaica, and the chief one everywhere. But in Cuba and Central America the stout, red-skinned variety is still somewhat cultivated and occasionally shipped. It produces smaller bunches, but larger fruits, as a rule, than the yellow one. Another plant, so like the banana in habit as to be practically indistinguishable, but with larger yellow fruits which are eaten only when cooked, is the plantain. Its fruit is a staple article of food with the natives of Jamaica; and, when sliced and fried in sweet cocoanut oil as a Creole cook can do it, is a dish to tickle the palate on which the flesh-pots of Egypt pall.
It is a matter of common observation that bananas contain no seeds. Cultivation through unnumbered generations has led to the atrophy of these organs through the substitution of a vegetative mode of propagation, much to the advantage of the eater of the fruit, at least. Only in one or two isolated regions of the Old World are the primitive seed-bearing bananas known. If we examine the rounded mass at the base of a well-grown plant, which is its true stem, there will be found one or more knob-like outgrowths which are plainly large buds. As the plant becomes older, these buds, or "eyes," as the banana grower calls them, develop upward, breaking through the soil and unfolding their first leaves. From the bases of their own stems, which are merely differentiated bits of the stem of the parent plant, roots are sent down; and thus the shoots become separated or capable of separation from the parent, and so, of independent life. At this stage the plantlets, now perhaps two feet long, are called "sets," and it is these which, taken from a vigorous plantation, are used for establishing a new one.
Although they will do fairly well in the climate of Jamaica in a great variety of soils, the best land for bananas is the deep, rich, and moist alluvium of the river valleys. Here plants and fruit reach their perfection, and the largest returns reward the least labor. In short, the very lands which were the basis of Jamaica's wealth in the old days of sugar and rum and slavery, and which, during the years of her decadence, have lain waste
and "in ruinate," are destined again to give her a substantial prosperity in the new days of the banana and the cocoanut and freedom. And we may hope that this prosperity will be more real and more permanent than the former, because founded on principles of personal liberty and righteous dealing, and without the accompaniment of the semi-barbarous luxury and the wholly barbarous license that cursed the former time.
It is but a few years since the crumbling evidences of the material prosperity of the rule of sugar and rum were to be seen on every hand. Magnificent estates, teeming with a tropical luxuriance of riotous vegetation, only awaiting the directing hand to turn their fertility to use, were everywhere. Old sugar works and stillhouses, monumentally built of stone, still contained the massive remains of machinery which even the corrosion of the tropics had not yet wholly destroyed. And on each estate the splendid "great house," still splendid in its desolation, enshrouded in creepers and climbers, in clinging mosses and "wild pines" and orchids, stood an eloquently mute witness to the external grandeur of the life of the sugar planter of an earlier part of the century. And all these things are still far too common. But already the change is evident. These old estates are being rapidly taken up and cleared. The great houses are being renovated or replaced by new if less pretentious homes. Life and activity are replacing death and decay. One hears of thrifty men who have bought fine estates, renovated and equipped them, and established fruit plantations hundreds of acres in extent, at an expense of thousands of pounds, and from the profits of the first five years have stood free of debt and independent. These are not isolated or exaggerated cases; but they will, of course, become less frequent as the fruit supply increases. The pioneer in growing and shipping fruit has been a Cape Cod sea captain, who, trading among the islands, had the foresight to seize the opportunity when it was his for the seizing, and faith that Americans would buy all the fruit he could offer them. In twenty years his real estate and shipping interests have grown too extensive for a single man, and are now in the hands of the Boston Fruit Company, of whose Jamaica interests he is still in charge. This company now owns or controls over thirty of the finest fruit estates. in the island, from Morant Bay around the eastern end as far as Buff Bay. Jamaicans cordially recognize their indebtedness to Captain L. D. Baker for the present hopeful outlook for their island.
One of the largest and perhaps the most successful of the fruit company's estates is that called "Golden Vale," eight miles south of Port Antonio, its headquarters in the island. Here some two hundred acres of genuine "banana land" are now under cultivation, and the area is being steadily increased. A visit to this plantation will give the best idea of the details of banana culture. The road takes us directly away from the coast through the hills that come down to the very shore almost everywhere in eastern Jamaica. The fine government roads make driving a pleasure, and the magnificent hill views and wonderful vegetation are an unfailing delight. So it is all too soon that we descend the hills into the valley of the Rio Grande, pass through the plantation and settlement of "Friendship," on the hither side, ford the river with wheels hub deep in water, and enter Golden Vale. Thanks. to a telephonic message that has preceded 11s, the superintendent awaits ns to show us everything of interest and, with unfailing courtesy, to answer the endless questions of a Yankee.
After the ground is cleared, holes about a foot and a half deep are dug fifteen feet apart each way. They are then filled with surface soil to a depth of six inches, leaving them a foot deep. In these holes the sets are then placed obliquely, so that their upper ends just project beyond the edges of the holes, and are covered closely. Many planters place the sets upright and cover only their bases; but, though they then make plants rather more quickly, the best growers believe the resulting plants are not so strong, and produce less and poorer fruit. A set covered as above may then "shoot," in technical parlance, either from an eye at the base of the set or by the continued growth of its principal bud within the sheathing leaves. This results in a new growth bursting through the old leaf-bases—"breaking the husk," the growers say—and is considered to give the best plants. Good sets will show vigorous growth in three or four, sometimes even in two, weeks after planting, and then grow rapidly, pushing out leaf after leaf, and finally the flower stalk. At length, eleven or twelve months after planting in good soil, each plant stands from twelve to fifteen feet high, and bears a bunch of fruit full grown. Since a plant bears only a single bunch of fruit, it is removed when the bunch is cut to make room for another. And by the time it is ready for cutting others are ready to take its place in the young plants which have come up all about it from the lateral sprouts of its stem. The best of these are selected to remain and the rest removed. In this selection of plants and the resulting thinning lie the secret of success with bananas. The first to grow from sets in a new plantation are called "plants," while succeeding growths from their shoots are "rattoons," first, second, third, and so on, in succeeding generations. This word rattoon is a corruption of the Spanish retoño, a new shoot, and originated in connection with the culture of sugar cane, which is propagated in the same way. An amusing example of the extent of its use may be seen in the Jamaican reference to a meal made off the remnants of a previous feast as "eating the rattoons."
By careful selection and thinning of the rattoons a good plantation comes in a couple of years to its full development. Then one finds, as nearly as may be, in each "hill," as we may call the group of plants standing where each original set was placed, four plants strong, vigorous, and in stages of development which present a regular succession from oldest to youngest. Placing the hills fifteen feet apart each way gives nearly two hundred to the acre, and a well-managed cultivation should yield two marketable bunches per hill a year. The plants and first rattoons give the best fruit, and there is a steady degeneration with succeeding rattoons. The limit of profitable yield for a plantation varies especially with the soil. But the maximum for deep and moist banana lands may be said to be about ten years. Then the ground must be cleared and a new culture begun with fresh sets. Very little is done in rotation of crops, and the soil has as yet received little fertilization except such as results from the decay of the old, plants.
It is not alone on the great estates, nor even chiefly on them, that our enormous supplies of fruit are being produced. Scattered
all over the hills are little clearings of a few acres, or even less than one acre, thickly set with banana plants. It is from these little patches that perhaps a majority of our fruit comes. For even the Boston Fruit Company, with all its estates, is compelled to buy largely to supply its trade, and most of the other shippers are wholly buyers. Thus the smaller and less available tracts are turned to account, which is a matter of the first importance in a country so irregular and so mountainous as Jamaica.
Whether for shipment or for home consumption the fruit is cut as soon as it is "full"—that is, when it has reached its adult form and size, but is still quite green. The plant is cut off by a single blow of a machete wielded by a powerful arm. As it falls the bunch is caught, lopped off, and laid aside, while the harvester goes on to the next bunch. It is a popular supposition that bananas "ripened on the tree" are incomparably superior to those cut green. But as a matter of fact one never eats them thus ripened in Jamaica. They are said to be not so good; at all events, one finds no better fruit in texture or flavor than the best of our own markets. But every lover of this fruit knows that its quality varies extraordinarily as it is offered to us. This is due partly to the different sources from which it comes. The best that is brought to us comes from Jamaica. It is also due still more to the condition of the fruit when cut. Bananas which are perfectly full will ripen mellow and delicious; but those cut when immature, as too many are, will turn yellow, yet never truly ripen, retaining always their hard texture and unripe taste. In Jamaica, as elsewhere, the competition of buyers leads the unscrupulous ones to accept fruit of any sort, even when totally unfit; and this sort of competition makes all the more unavailing the efforts of honest buyers to raise the standard and to teach the people to withhold their fruit until it is properly developed. Americans can give moral support to these efforts by accepting only such fruit as is mature at any price. A little pains will soon enable one to distinguish good from poor fruit, though it is difficult to give a general statement of the distinctive differences. But, as a rule, it will be found that bananas which are largest, deepest yellow, and least angular are the most mature and best.
The view over Golden Vale from the superintendent's house, which stands at a little distance on a slight elevation, recalls a grain field with its level surface of waving foliage. The drive along the roads within the plantation is beautiful. One may go on and on between the stretches of luxuriant plants, to the soft rustle of the leaves overhead, while below the forests of trunks reach away on either hand beyond the power of the eye to penetrate. But the experience never to be forgotten is a ride over the estate with the superintendent. On tough little Jamaica horses, docile and sure-footed, we leave at once the wagon road, plunge into the wilderness of plants, and soon lose sight of every landmark. Pushing on, sometimes along foot paths just distinguishable, oftenest where there are none; jumping ditches and prostrate trunks, surrounded only by banana plants in all stages of growth, yet so alike, so monotonous, that one might as easily find his way in midocean. Above us is an overarching roof of foliage supported by massive clustered columns. Beneath our feet is a dense carpet of some of the prized adornments of Northern greenhouses—the Tradescantia or "wandering Jew," beautifully contrasting the deep maroon of the lower faces of its leaves with the green and silvery stripes of their upper sides; the delicate pink-flowered Oxalis, and the dainty "sensitive plant," whose modest shrinking from the slightest touch has been uncharitably attributed to a bad conscience, both by the botanist who named it Mimosa pudica and by the darky boys who call it "shame." Emerging at last into the full blaze of the tropic sun, which seems all the more garish by contrast, we cross the open for a time and soon begin the ascent, by a slight bridle path, of one of the steep hills that inclose the valley. Slowly but surely the horse creeps upward, now stopping with all four feet together to poise for a leap over a gully, then pressing on over a track that nothing else but a mountain goat could climb, close past and under trees that almost brush one from the saddle. At length we come out upon open ground near the summit, to be a hundredfold repaid by one of the fairest sights the fancy can paint. At our feet lies the sea of bananas; beyond and on either side stretches the amphitheater of hills, plumed with cocoanut palms and fringed with feathery bamboos, and covered with verdure. Back to the house by a good path, we taste true Jamaican hospitality in a cup of tea and that most melting and luscious of Jamaica's fruits, a Ripley pine—no one says pineapple here.
After cutting, it is important to ship the bananas as promptly as possible and to handle them carefully, for the less they have ripened or been bruised before reaching their market the better prices they bring. So each bunch is carefully wrapped with "trash"—dried banana leaves—and taken at once to the nearest shipping port. From the great properties like Golden Vale they are transported in two-wheeled or four-wheeled mule carts, the former drawn by two mules, the latter by three abreast, carrying, respectively, about twenty and forty bunches. These carts are lined with trash to prevent bruising. The mule team consists of a large mule in the shafts and a small one harnessed to an outrigger on one side or on each side, as the case may be. From the smaller clearings and dooryard patches of the peasants come single bunches on the heads of their owners, or lots of two or four bunches packed in trash and slung pannier-fashion across the backs of donkeys.
As the bunches are received at the wharf they are unpacked, inspected, and checked off by a tallyman, and placed in trash-lined bins according to their size and quality. A glance shows an experienced eye how many groups or "hands" of bananas a bunch contains. A bunch of nine or more hands is a whole bunch, and brings the full-bunch price either at the port of shipment or in the Northern market. I am told that bunches of sixteen hands are occasionally met with, but have never seen one of more than thirteen. A bunch of eight hands is a three-quarter bunch, one of seven hands a half bunch, and a six-hand bunch sells for a quarter or a third of the full-bunch price. Bunches below this size are not ordinarily marketable. Since a hand may contain from a dozen to twenty fruits or "fingers" the number in a marketable bunch may vary from six to twenty dozen. The poorer bunches are sometimes reserved for the few schooners still in the
trade, chiefly with our Southern ports, while all the best go by steamers.
Originally the entire trade was carried on in sailing vessels, but their slowness and uncertainty have compelled them to give way to the present fleet of stanch and fast steamers, whose regular time of about five days to New York and six to Boston from Jamaica, or half a day less from Baracoa, Cuba's largest fruit port, gives them every advantage in the transportation of perishable freight, in spite of greater running expenses. Most of these steamers, while built especially for the fruit trade, are of the class called tramps, taking short charters wherever they can obtain them, and with no allegiance but to their owners. It is with a twinge of regret that an American sees ship after ship, as she enters port, break out at her taffrail the ensign of Britain or of Norway.
There are but five ports in the West Indies and Central America which boast wharves where ships may load or passengers may land. Two of these are chief centers of the fruit trade in Jamaica—Port Antonio and Port Morant—which owe their facilities to the enterprise of the Boston Fruit Company. Here the fruit is transferred to the ships, bunch by bunch, upon the shoulders of men. But at all the other ports, which lie scattered along the northern and eastern coasts at intervals of ten to thirty miles, from Morant Bay to Lucca, ships mast anchor an eighth to half a mile off shore, and receive their cargoes from large surfboats, manned each by three stout negroes, two rowing in the bow and the other standing in the stern, alternately sculling and steering. These boats bring out at each load from a hundred and fifty to two hundred bunches, which are passed on board ship by way of a staging let half way down her side. Each bunch, as it comes on board, whether from wharf or boat, is passed down a line of men reaching from the deck to that part of the hold which is being filled. The first man, as he receives the bunch, calls out its number in series, and, following him, the tallyman on deck keeps the score in his book. Often half a dozen men will join in the refrain:
"One—let 'er go.
Two—put 'em down.
This is shouted or chanted with a slow rhythmic swing, and is most frequently heard at night. At such a time—for when once the loading of a ship is begun it continues without interruption until she is ready to sail—the effect is particularly weird. The splash of the oars of boats emerging from the darkness, the shouts of the men, the scantily clothed dark forms dimly lighted by flaring lanterns, and, dominating all, this almost unintelligible chant, suggest some orgy of voodoo. In the hold the bunches are placed upright, resting on the thick ends of their stems, and as close together as possible.
So a steamer is loaded, in from twenty-four to forty-eight hours, with twelve to fifteen, or rarely twenty, thousand bunches. In the busy season, from April through July, the Boston Fruit Company alone loads five ships per week on an average, including two for Boston and two for Baltimore. Their supplies are drawn chiefly from the region between Morant Bay and St. Ann's Bay, and up the east coast as far as Annotto Bay they are the chief shippers. Their leading competitors are the Jamaica Fruit Company, at Port Antonio, which supplies its Jamaica fruit to the Philadelphia market, and J. E. Kerr & Co., the leading buyers between Annotto Bay and Lucca, who run steamers to New York. Besides these there are numerous smaller buyers. Unfortunately, it can not be said that all buyers deal fairly with the people, though they keep their trade by taking all fruit that offers, regardless of its quality or fitness. Many of them are dealers in general merchandise, and, by paying their ignorant clients in goods, not only make a double profit, but keep running accounts with them which are never closed and always show a balance on
the dealer's side. While this may not be carried as far as the infamous truck system, which holds the people of the Bahamas in practical slavery, the tendency is the same, and should be sharply checked before its logical conclusion is realized.
And now something as to the people who are engaged in the work of culture and shipment already described. With few exceptions they are native Jamaicans. Some of the most responsible positions in the Boston Fruit Company's offices at Port Antonio and Port Morant are filled by Americans, who with their families form a delightful colony at the former place. To them visiting Americans are indebted for many kindnesses. The clerks and tallymen at the ports, the superintendents and overseers, or "head bushers," on the cultivations are chiefly white, Creole, or mulatto Jamaicans. A parenthesis here about this word "Creole." Webster and others define a creole as a child of white parents born in the tropics; but this certainly is not the popular use of the term in Jamaica. There it is synonymous with the perhaps commoner expression "brown man," and is applied to a person with a small proportion of negro blood, which, while showing its presence slightly in complexion or hair, or both, still distinguishes its possessor but slightly from a white person. These people are far more numerous than the whites in Jamaica, and enjoy complete social equality with them. This is not only fortunate for all concerned, but is the inevitable result of the free intermarriage of persons of all shades of complexion and all degrees of blood mixture, as well as of the looser relations which were even recently very common, but which, happily, seem at present to be less condoned among people with claims to respectability. One always finds Jamaicans of the better class kindly, hospitable, polite, and unaffected, without the veneer of more elaborate civilization.
But the manual labor in any industry is largely performed by the negro peasantry, who constitute a very large and steadily increasing majority of the population of the island. In the culture and shipment of the banana both men and women were formerly employed, but at present men are almost exclusively engaged, receiving from one to two shillings per day, according to the work. There is much of interest about the Jamaica negro—some good points and many bad ones; but this is not the occasion for their detailed discussion. His life is a curious combination of almost primitive savagery, with some of the least attractive features of our so-called civilization. Living chiefly in wattled bamboo huts thatched with palm leaves, and upon the lavish products of the soil, dressing in the simplest manner, his wants are easily supplied. Very religious in theory and equally immoral in practice, a child in mind and an animal in spirit, he presents a practical problem worthy of any philanthropist's best efforts.
The short time in which, even at his small wages, he can provide for the needs of a week, his entire lack of ambition for more than a bare subsistence, and the seductions of that liquid fire called new rum, make the average negro an uncertain quantity in the labor problem. This has led to the importation into the British West Indies of a class of steadier and more reliable laborers, the low-caste Hindus, or coolies, from India. These slender-limbed and bronze-skinned Caucasians are, as a class, temperate, industrious, and frugal; quiet and peaceable when fairly treated. They make excellent laborers, and their picturesque and comfortable costumes are far better suited to the climate than the imported European one which the negro apes. Living by themselves in villages of bamboo huts, the coolies have little intercourse with the negroes, whom they regard as their inferiors; and rightly so, from a mental or moral standpoint. The negro, on the other hand, looks down on them, but has learned from experience that their reserved and quiet manners are no more the outward sign of timidity than his own bluster and braggadocio can replace real courage in an emergency.
The typical agricultural tool in Jamaica is the machete. These heavy, swordlike blades are made in Europe and have clumsy handles with grips of rough wood. For a good one the buyer pays a shilling, and then takes it to a smith. Here the wooden grips are removed and a large strip is cut out from the handle to make it narrower and more comfortable; the blade is ground to a keen edge, and its sharp tip is cut off as a safeguard against too serious accident should the tool be dropped upon some always naked foot. The owner now fits to the handle convenient grips, preferably of calabash wood, winds them evenly and tightly with stout cord, and his constant companion is ready at a total expense
of about two shillings. Whether for grubbing up weeds and clearing ground, for gathering grass for his donkey, for harvesting bananas, for cutting yam-poles, or for husking cocoanuts, this implement is indispensable. It is formidable in appearance, and would be so in fact were its owner disposed to use it with sanguinary intent. But, happily, he has rarely the courage that makes a dangerous man, and the blood of the cocoanut is the machete's most exciting draught.
To return to our bananas. When the responsibility of the Jamaica people ends with the sailing of the ship, its captain's responsibility begins. And this is no slight one. In warm weather the holds must be kept wide open but constantly protected from the sun by awnings, and the great ventilating funnels must always be turned to catch the full force of the wind and change the air below as often as possible. In cold weather it may be necessary to cover the hatches and close the ventilators to prevent the freezing of the delicate cargo as our shore is neared. And if the ship arrives during a cold snap she may have to lie several days before the weather will permit unloading. Either the closeness of the air beneath tightly battened hatches or the heat of midsummer weather causes the rapid ripening of the fruit, and it may be the case at either season that when the ship is unloaded there is found a mass of ripe and decayed fruit which will not pay the cost of its transportation. Thus the shipper's lot is likely to be by no means a happy one, and the success of a trip may depend largely on the skill and judgment of the shipmaster.
Fruit which arrives in good condition is transferred by wagons to cool and dark storehouses to ripen, or by rail to interior markets with the utmost dispatch. One may often see a fruiter just arrived at her pier in one of our large seaports, by whose side lies a huge scow bearing freight cars, into which the green bunches are being rapidly passed and stowed for transportation hundreds of miles inland.
And so, throughout the year, the work goes on, affording profitable occupation to people who need it and healthful variety to tables that welcome it. Surely the story of one of the choicest products of Nature's laboratory can not be without interest where that of every result of human ingenuity finds so large an audience.