Brought to Jamaica from the Canary Islands in 1520, the banana remarkably only became popular in 1871, when captain Lorenzo Dow Baker took a shipload of the foodstuff formerly deemed unpalatable from Port Antonio to Boston. His gamble paid off handsomely – the entire stock was sold for a healthy profit and mass demand ensued, earning him and others colossal fortunes. By the second half of the nineteenth century, sugar was already declining, and farmers rushed to plant the new “green gold”. With high rainfall and fertile soil Portland was perfectly placed, and armies of planters and pickers arrived to earn pitiful wages, living in wretched conditions while production output hit thirty million stems per year.
The arrival of banana ships at the wharves was signalled by blasts on a conch shell, followed by frenetic activity as the labourers cut stems and carried the fresh fruit off the estates and onto waiting trucks. At the dock, the banana stems were taken to the checkers, who ensured that each had the nine hands required to count as a bunch – hence, in the banana-boat song, Day O, “six hands, seven hands, eight hands, bunch!”. Once aboard the ship, the tallyman gave the carrier a tally to redeem for payment, and workers made their weary way back to the plantation or to the bar.
Sadly for Portland, the boom didn’t last – by the 1920s, Panama disease and hurricane damage had decimated the crop, and World War II compounded the problems. Today, the end of long-standing preferential trade terms with Europe has caused many farmers to abandon bananas (being unable to compete with huge US operations) and the days of the banana as an important export crop certainly look numbered.