By: Amma Thomas
Edited by: Richelle Kota
The cluster of ridged scales branching into the plume of trough shaped leaves is recognizable in gold, marble, mid-century portraits and every other surface the rich enshrined the fruit on. Most of us don’t look twice at the ‘2 for $6 ’pineapple at the local grocer. But this fruit hasn’t always been what we know it as now. From the 15th- 18th centuries, the pineapple was one of the most luxurious crops in Europe and its colonies. Sought after by the likes of nobles such as Catherine the Great and King Ferdinand of Spain, the pineapple is a fruit with a rich colonial history. It was once a symbol of wealth, power, and conquest as they primarily cultivated it in the gardens of the wealthy or on plantations in tropical environments. Only the wealthiest could afford to enjoy the pineapple. They often displayed it proudly on the tables and in the general architecture of the wealthy. Pineapple was such a prominent signifier of gluttony, that author Adeline Opie trope likened it to the apple that tempted Eve. In her novel, a young woman attempts to buy her lover a pineapple to fulfill his dying wish. She collects all her meager savings to fulfill this wish. On her way a Jamaican woman in distress interrupts her. Her husband is in debtors' prison. The young woman uses her savings to free the husband, returning home without her lover's pineapple. This analogy is one of the many cultural symbols at the time that highlighted how this common tropical fruit became the symbol of luxury.
Karukera meaning the 'Island of Beautiful Waters', later known as Santa María de Guadalupe de Extremadura and now Guadalupe is where Europeans first set their eyes on the fruiting bromeliad known as pineapple. Christopher Columbus, one of history's most infamous colonizers, was the first to recognize the fruit as he made his way to the Caribbean (Hernandez, Carter). From there, the fruit was spread to other parts of the world as a result of the Spanish and Portuguese colonization of various countries, attracting the attention of royals across oceans. It displayed the few fruits that could survive across the treacherous sea journey only in the halls of kings and royalty amongst England. Like many new world crops it quickly took the pineapple from a valued resource my Indigenous communities in the Americans and Caribbean to a mono-crop farmed by enslaved Africans on the land the fruit is indigenous to. A fruit that was not known to much of the world, the pineapple became emblazoned on the 18th century Barbados penny and the Jamaican coat of arms (Levitt). A visual signifier of the mass resource extraction that took place during this colonial period.
With ample uses in food, clothing fiber, medicine, and even in archery, pineapple existed as a staple across indigenous communities in pre-colonial Americas and the Caribbean. Referred to as the na’na or "excellent fruit” by the Tupi-Guarani and Carib peoples the pineapple was a staple crop in their community (Hernandez, Carter). They harvested pineapple from fields they farmed with diverse forms of agriculture, and forged it from the lands around them. This plant was used for all its parts in different ways. A plant that was a part of the life of many indigenous communities like the Aztec and Tupi-Guarani (Coimbra).
This bromeliad is one of the many plants that find itself entwined with a brutal colonial history that spans continents. It is is one of the many plants that finds itself inextricably bound up in a long and painful colonial history that has had a devastating effect on many nations across the globe. This plant, along with many other species, was taken from its native land, forcibly transplanted to the colonies of the colonizers and used for the purpose of economic and political gain. The ruthless exploitation of natural resources, of which this bromeliad is one example, has left lasting scars and continues to be felt by many people to this day. This botanical history not only tells us how the environment we have today has been shaped by humans.
Coimbra, Carlos E. A., and James R. Welch. “Pineapple Among the Indigenous Nambikwara: Early Twentieth Century Photographic Documentation from Central Brazil.” Ethnobiology Letters, vol. 11, no. 1, 2020, pp. 67–75.
Hernández, Francisco, and John Carter. “Nova plantarum, animalium et mineralium Mexicanorum historia.” Biodiversity Heritage Library
HOWARD, CAROL. “‘THE STORY OF THE PINEAPPLE’: SENTIMENTAL ABOLITIONISM AND MORAL MOTHERHOOD IN AMELIA OPIE’S ‘ADELINE MOWBRAY.’” Studies in the Novel, vol. 30, no. 3, 1998, pp. 355–76.LEVITT, RUTH. “‘A NOBLE PRESENT OF FRUIT’: A TRANSATLANTIC HISTORY OF PINEAPPLE CULTIVATION.” Garden History, vol. 42, no. 1, 2014, pp. 106–19.