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Bananas – a short history
The first bananas
Bananas are believed to have originated up to 10,000 years ago and some scientists believe they may have been the world’s first fruit.
The first bananas are thought to have grown in the region that includes the Malaya Peninsula, Indonesia, the Philippines and New Guinea.
From here, traders and travelers took them to India, Africa and Polynesia. There were references to bananas from 600 BC when Buddhist scriptures, know as the Pali Canon, noted Indian traders travelling through the Malaysian region had tasted the fruit and brought plants back with them. In 327 BC, when Alexander The Great and his army invaded India, he discovered banana crop in the Indian Valleys. After tasting this unusual fruit for the first time, he introduced this new discovery to the Western world.
By 200 AD bananas had spread to China. According to the Chinese historian Yang Fu, bananas only ever grew in the southern region of China. They were never really popular until the 20th Century as they were considered to be a strange and exotic alien fruit.
The bananas we enjoy today are far better than the original wild fruit which contained many large, hard seeds and not much tasty pulp.
Bananas as we know them began to be developed in Africa about 650 AD. There was a cross breeding of two varieties of wild bananas, the Musa Acuminata and the Musa Baalbisiana. From this process, some bananas became seedless and more like the bananas we eat today.
How they got their name
Most historians believe that the Arabian slave traders are the ones who gave the banana its popular name. The bananas that originated from Southeast Asia were not the size that we are familiar with today. They were small, about as long as an adult finger, hence the name “banan”, Arabic for finger. However, some believe the name may have come from a local language in West Africa.
Bananas are also known as plantains. Spaniards, who saw a similarity to their native plane tree, gave the fruit the name platano. This led to the name plantain – a word used to describe the banana genus as well as the banana variety, Plantain, which is typically used for cooking. The unripe Plantain, commonly steamed or boiled, resembles the taste of a potato. However, when ripe, they can be eaten raw like other banana varieties, and have a starchy but sweet flavour.
The first plantations
It is thought that traders from Arabia, Persia, India and Indonesia distributed banana suckers around coastal regions of the Indian Ocean (but not Australia) between the 5th and 15th centuries.
Portuguese sailors discovered bananas in West Africa and established banana plantations in the 15th century off the coast, in the Canary lslands.
Between the 16th and 19th centuries, suckers were traded in the Americas and plantations were established in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Banana plants first arrived in Australia in the 1800s.
The Cavendish banana
The variety of banana best known to us today is the Cavendish, named after Englishman William Spencer Cavendish, the 6th Duke of Devonshire.
It is thought the original Cavendish plants were brought from southern China in about 1826 and taken to Mauritius. From there some plants were taken to England and, several years later, derivatives from these plants were obtained by the Duke’s gardener, Joseph Paxton, in 1829. He propagated them in glasshouses.
A missionary named John Williams took suckers from these plants to Samoa in 1838 and, from there, bananas spread to Tonga and Fiji in the 1840s. It was believed plants were brought from the Pacific Islands to the east coast of Australia in the 1850s. One of the types of bananas in the Cavendish group was named Williams, after John Williams.
In the 1900s, Cavendish became one of the world’s most popular banana varieties and remains so today. The fruit is also very tasty and can be transported over long distances.
A healthy fruit
As well as being a popular fruit worldwide, bananas are also one of the most nutritious of all foods. Bananas are a source of energy-producing carbohydrates, potassium, vitamin B6 and B group vitams, vitamin C, dietary fibre and antioxidants. Bananas have no fat, cholesterol or salt.
Because they provide sustaining energy, bananas are a favourite food for active children and adults, including athletes and sports players.
In many nations, a special variety of bananas are a major staple food crop. Known as Plantains or Cooking Bananas, they are a starchier variety of banana cooked green in ways similar to potatoes.
Bananas in Australia
Our first bananas
Chinese migrant communities introduced the first bananas to Australia. Chinese migrants are thought to have brought the first banana plants with them to Australia in the 1800s – firstly in the early to mid 1800s to Carnarvon in Western Australia and then to north Queensland in the 1870s. Sugar cane cutters from Fiji also brought some banana plants to Queensland at around that time.
The first Australian banana plants were mainly grown as ornamental plants rather than in commercial plantations so the first banana fruits traded were not grown locally but imported from Fiji to Sydney.
However, before long, commercial plantations were established.
In north Queensland, Chinese workers from the goldfields established banana plantations in the 1880s around Cooktown, Port Douglas, Cairns, Innisfail and Tully.
In 1891, Herman Reich started plantations in Coffs Harbour and surrounding areas in New South Wales from the plants first brought to Queensland. Chinese merchants also established plantations in northern New South Wales, around Mullumbimby. They had established extensive plantations by 1919.
Bananas were also grown near Gympie in Queensland which was the biggest banana producing area in Australia between 1918 and the early 1930s.
Banana plant diseases reduced or stopped growing in some regions during the early to mid 1900s. The development of better farm management and biosecurity controls allowed the industry to thrive in the main growing regions of Queensland, northern New South Wales and Western Australia.
Our industry today
In Australia, bananas are grown in both tropical and subtropical regions. This ensures the industry is diverse in terms of the geographical location of banana farms, farming practices, the size and type of farms that grow bananas, the varieties of bananas grown and their flavour.
The tropical banana-growing regions of Queensland produce most of Australia’s bananas. These regions are in north Queensland – mainly in the Tully and Innisfail areas. Other tropical production areas are in the Northern Territory and the northern parts of Western Australia, at Kununurra.
Subtropical bananas are grown in northern New South Wales and southern Queensland – from south of Coffs Harbour in New South Wales north to Bundaberg in Queensland – and in Carnarvon in Western Australia.
All fresh bananas available in Australia are grown here – there are no imports due to the plant pest and disease threats these would pose to our local farms.
In north Queensland, Tully is the major banana-growing region – not only for the region but for all of Australia. Other major growing areas in north Queensland are Innisfail, Silkwood and Mourilyan, the Atherton Tablelands and Lakeland Downs.
The first banana plantations were started by the Chinese migrants working on the goldfields. In the Tully area, bananas were shipped to market via the Tully River.
The trade in north Queensland bananas stopped during World War I when there were restrictions on local shipping and outbreaks of plant disease.
The banana industry re-established at the end of World War II in 1945. Bananas were cut and packed in 40kg wooden boxes and transported to market by rail up until the 1960s when road transport was introduced. Today bananas are packed in cardboard cartons and transported by both road and rail in refrigerated containers.
The industry has grown substantially since that time and now accounts for 94% of Australian banana production.
The Northern Territory
The Territory is Australia’s northern most banana production area. However, the soil-borne fungal disease Panama TR4 has substantially reduced banana production there when it was identified in the 1990s.
Banana production figures from the Northern Territory Government’s Department of Primary Industry and Fisheries show banana production had declined from about 7,000 tonnes in 2000 to about 2,000 tonnes in 2007.
Banana freckle was detected in the Top End of the Northern Territory (NT) in 2013, with eradication officially completed in 2019.
While there are still some banana growers in the region, currently the NT and SEQ combined represent less than 1% of production.
The Territory is also home to some disease-resistance trials.
New South Wales
Northern New South Wales was the home of the first major commercial banana plantations in Australia and is still an important growing region.
The Coffs Harbour area and further north along the far north coast of NSW were the main growing regions for bananas in Australia through the 1900s, up until the late 1900s when north Queensland began to increase production.
In 1891, Herman Reich started plantations in Coffs Harbour and surrounding areas. Other pioneering growers included Chinese and Italian farmers in the far north and Indian Sikh families north of Coffs Harbour, around Woolgoolga. The Italian and Sikh communities continue to be actively involved in growing bananas across Australia.
Currently, the main growing regions are around Murwillumbah and the Tweed, near the Queensland border; west across to Lismore and south to Ballina. Further south, there are growing regions from Woolgoolga, north of Coffs Harbour, down to Stuart’s Point which is south of Nambucca Heads.
Fruit is sent to the major markets of Sydney and Melbourne and is also enjoyed locally.
NSW now accounts for about 4% of national production.
South East Queensland
The subtropical banana growing districts in south east Queensland provide fruit for local markets and shops with fruit also going to the Brisbane Markets at Rocklea.
In south east Queensland, the main banana growing areas are at Wamuran, which is in the Caboolture region north of Brisbane, on the Sunshine Coast and in Bundaberg.
Carnarvon is Western Australia’s largest banana growing area, with some fruit also grown in Kununurra. Carnarvon bananas are typically smaller and sweeter than bananas from eastern Australia. A number of growers in the Carnarvon region are now part of the Sweeter Banana Co-Operative, supplying WA markets.