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The Birth and Distribution of the Cavendish Banana 

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You have got to be someone special to appear on the front of a postage stamp, especially if you’re not native born. In this case, it wasn’t , as the saying goes, “the luck of the Irish”.

Belfast born, Charles Edward Telfair (1778 – 1833), qualified as a medical doctor in 1797, the same year that his boyhood hero, Rear Admiral Horatio Nelson was suffering the loss of his right arm in the Battle of Santa Cruz (Tenerife). After qualifying, Telfair immediately joined the Royal Navy and became a respected ship’s surgeon.

In 1810, during the Napoleonic Wars, he had taken part in the blockading of Mauritius and Réunion in the Indian Ocean. After these islands had been captured, Telfair served in various government posts in Réunion before this island was restored to France by the Congress of Vienna in 1815. The following year Telfair settled in Mauritius and became secretary to the 1st Governor, Robert Farquhar.

He also became a sugar planter by buying the Bel Ombre factory in 1816 which he modernised both in machinery and treatment of his workers. He set up a school for the workers’ children, which still exists, carrying his name, today.

However Telfair’s main interest was botany and he became a co-founder of the Natural History Society of Mauritius. From 1826 to 1829 he was made the honorary curator of the island’s Botanical Garden which enabled him to receive seeds and plant cuttings from all over the world. Not only did he develop these, he forwarded the plants on to his army of correspondents.

One of the most intriguing plants that Telfair received was a dwarf banana, a species that was thought to originate in Cochinchina (Vietnam). In 1829, he sent two of these plants to a contact in England telling him in the accompanying letter that – he had collected all the known species of “musa” – the banana – and considered that the one sent was the most valuable as it fruited profusely, and by only growing three feet high, would be a great acquisition to the hothouses of England.

The recipient of these two plants was Robert Barclay (1751-1830), of the banking family. He had been born in Philadelphia but brought over to England by David Barclay, to run the Anchor Brewery in Southwark, London which, during his time, became the largest brewery in the world. It was operated by Barclay, Perkins & Co from 1751 until 1955 when it merged with Courage.

In 1815, Barclay had bought nearly a thousand acres of the Bury Hill Estate in Dorking, Surrey. He was a keen gardener and botanist and created pleasure gardens with large ornamental lakes. His head gardener later designed the Birmingham Botanical Gardens. In 1828, Barclay had received some species of Alpinia from Telfair and so was on the mailing list. Unfortunately Barclay had no chance to see his dwarf bananas bear fruit as he died a year later in 1830.

After Barclay’s death his collection of exotic plants were sold and Messrs Young of Epsom, Nurserymen, bought the two banana plants.  One was sold on for £10 to Joseph Paxton, head gardener at Chatsworth House, on behalf of his employer, William Cavendish, 6th Duke of Devonshire. The other was exported to the continent.

Paxton had become interested in glass greenhouses which were then in their infancy. Consequently he bred the banana plant in the spacious new Chatsworth House greenhouse which had been built to his own design. Nevertheless, it still took 3 years for the plant to bear fruit.

During this time lapse, the Duke must have been quite anxious and excited as to the outcome as he had never seen a banana. This is borne out by a letter he sent to Dr. Daniel Rock, the Chaplain of Alton Towers just before Christmas in 1834 which was full of joy and wonderment. “My Dear Sir, A thousand thanks for the Banana, it arrived quite safe and I am delighted to have an opportunity of seeing that most beautiful and curious Fruit. It is the admiration of everybody and has been feasted upon at dinner today according to the directions.”

In November 1835 Paxton’s plant finally flowered and by the following May it was loaded with bananas, one of which won for Paxton the Knighton Silver Medal at that year’s Royal Horticultural Society’s Show. He named the plant Musa Cavendishii after his patron. This was accepted as a new variety by the Linnean Society.

After the great reception given to this remarkable banana, Paxton received an angry letter from Messrs. Young & Co, the Nurserymen stating that they should have charged £100 for the plant instead of £10. Their veiled plea fell on deaf ears.

From Chatsworth the Musa Cavendishii was distributed all over the world. In the right climate they spread rapidly, thus supplying the staple diet for thousands of natives.

The Missionaries

Here is a tale of the introduction of Cavendish bananas by John Williams (1796 -1839) who became the first missionary to visit Samoa and brought the Cavendish plants in two cases specially prepared for him at Chatsworth. When he arrived in Samoa there was only one plant that had survived the journey but it was to launch the banana industry in Samoa and other South Sea Islands

As with Robert Barclay, John Williams didn’t live to see the success of his plant, because in 1839, on a visit to Erromango, where he was unknown, he and fellow missionary, James Harris, were killed and eaten by the natives. There is a memorial to Williams in Apia, Samoa.

Some history books tell us that the Missionaries also introduced the Cavendish banana to the Canary Islands but this is not true.

Alfred Diston (1793 – 1861)

Alfred Diston had been sent to Tenerife in 1810 at the age of 17, by Archibald Little (1760-1845), head of the firm Pasley,Little & Co, wine merchants. His instructions were to, first, learn the business and then to liaise between the company and important clients including visitors to the island. Diston was also a talented artist who captured in detail the costumes of the Canarian people. Wherever he travelled on behalf of the company, he never forgot his sketch-book.

He had three collections of paintings printed in London by the firm of Smith, Elder and Company and dedicated the first collection in 1824, entitled “The Natural History of the Canary Islands” ,to “Sir Archibald Little from his grateful and obliged servant”. This was 14 years after his arrival, so Diston must have been content with his appointment. Archibald Little must also have been happy that he’d chosen the right man for the job.

In 1834, as the wine trade was in decline, Diston, although still representing Pasley & Little, was able to accept membership in of the Royal Economic Society of the Friends of the Island of Tenerife. The Society was established by wealthy royalists and was responsible for creating, in 1788, by Royal Decree, the Garden of Acclimatisation in the Port of Orotava, now known as the Botanical Garden. Almost immediately he was given the office of Inspector of the Garden. He ran this with a skeleton staff for 14 years and was responsible for introducing new specimens to test their suitability to the climate. He often used his own money to keep the Garden in order. One new plant he introduced, which was eventually to save the economy of the Canary Islands, was the Cavendish Banana. In fact, in 1846, he brought three Cavendish plants into Tenerife and we have to go back to 1853 to discover from where he obtained them.

Firstly from an article written in a paper called Eco del Comercio on the 12th November 1853 we have the following information:-

We don’t want to end this article without mentioning recent observations about a species of dwarf banana, originating in Cochinchina (Vietnam) which Sr.D.Alfred Diston introduced to these Islands seven years ago.

This rich fruit with an exquisite taste has spread into all the gardens in our Puerto and is now doing the same in the Capital. It is much preferred to the other types of banana.

This species has the scientific name of Musa Cavendishia. The plant flourishes in hot climates or, at least, warm ones but these three plants were from Scotland having been grown in the greenhouses of Sir Thomas Hepburer, and they have multiplied throughout our land.

From the writings of Don Manuel de Paz Sanchez we can confirm the profusion of Cavendish at this time from the following extract – Herman Schacht (1814-1864) who visited Madeira and the Canary Islands in the mid 1850s detected among other species, Musa Sapientum, Musa Paradisiaca and Musa Cavendish, which are smaller. He remarked that they thrived in low areas; that they rarely grew above 600-700 feet; and that in Tenerife they spread everywhere and formed “large plantations”.

So it seems quite clear that Diston introduced the Cavendish Banana to Tenerife and the Canary Islands and not missionaries.

Find Sir Thomas Hepburer and we have the corroborating evidence. There is no Clan Hepburer in Scotland but there is a Clan Hepburn and here we can find the provider of our Cavendish Banana.

Smeaton Hepburn

In, 1833 in East Lothian, Scotland, Sir Thomas Buch-an Hepburn (1804 – 1893) inherited from his father the title of the 3rd baronet of Sm-eaton-Hepbu-rn. The title came with a magnificent mansion with walled gardens built by his grandfather, the first baron, in 1793.

Sir Thomas, a keen horticulturalist, set about developing the estate; building greenhouses, creating a lake and a new arboretum. He was a constant visitor to horticultural events and till the end of his life was a member of the Edinburgh Botanical Society. Either through direct contact with the Duke of Devonshire in the Houses of Parliament or by meeting up with Joseph Paxton at a Horticultural Show, Buchan-Hepburn most certainly planted Musa Cavendishii in his greenhouses at Smeaton Hepburn.

But where is the connection between Buchan-Hepburn and Alfred Diston? Well, In 1835 Sir Thomas Buchan-Hepburn married Helen Little, the second and youngest daughter of Archibald Little of Shabden Hall and Tenerife, the friend and employer of Alfred Diston.

Alfred Diston was not a missionary, but a man with a mission. Like his mentor Archibald Little he was well respected on the island and always strived to earn this respect.

As with other members of this chain, Diston didn’t live to see the full fruits of his endeavour. From 1888 onwards Cavendish Bananas were harvested by Thomas Fyffe and later the Yeoward Brothers and despatched in their refrigerated steam-ships to Britain. Today, the Musa Cavendishii is the primary agricultural activity that contributes the most to the GDP of the Canary Islands.