E1886 – preserved plantain (votive offering)

The Discovering Worlds project brought to light an item that was described in the early museum documents as a ‘preserved banana‘, and it was said to have originated from Rarotonga, Cook Islands.  The accession number given for this item is E1886.  The donor was listed ‘Captain Hauston RN‘. The object is oval-shaped, straight and bound in plant-fibre rope (possibly plantain), there is what appears to be visible plantain leaves at the ends but until recently RAMM has been unable to view its interior.  Its dimensions are L.330mm x W.98mm (measured at its widest point).

E1886 preserved plantain (votive offering)

Fig. 1 Preserved plantain, Rarotonga. E1886. Length = 330mm.

Going through various index cards one modern undated entry contained the following text;

Rear Admiral Wallace Houstoun (presented by F.W.L. Ross).  Bananas preserved in plaited leaves brought home by above…”

Francis William Locke Ross served briefly in the Royal Navy (HMS Tagus 1813) but due to illness didn’t continue his naval career. Ross lived in Topsham, Devon and adjacent to his house built his own museum filling it with specimens from the natural and human worlds. He was known for his great passion in ornithology.  He died on Christmas day 1860, and his widow gifted the bulk of his collection to the newly founded Albert Memorial Museum in 1865. This material was transferred to the museum depot on Upper Paul Street on the 9th, 18th and 19th October 1865.

The ethnographic content of Ross’s collection was not listed item by item (we have this for other donors) but instead is described simply as “miscellaneous curiosities“. Ross’s collection includes 115 ethnographic items, for example, a wooden war club (u’u), a pair of carved stilt steps (Marquesas Islands),  fine bowls made from the horns of mountain sheep from Washington State (USA), and a carved wooden flute (New Zealand).  However, through Ross’s donation there is a set of 12 gambling sticks from the Haida of the Northwest Coast (Canada) that were acquired by a Rear Admiral Wallace Houstoun in 1853.

Fig. 2 Set of gambling sticks, Haida, NW Coast, Canada. Accession number E780. Length = 125mm.

Wallace Houstoun served in the Royal Navy.  He was captain of the HMS Trincomalee on its second commission.  The ship played a key role as part of the Pacific Squadron protecting British interests there.  In the years 1852-4, Houston patrolled the west coast USA and the islands of Tahiti and Hawaii.  It is likely that he acquired his ‘preserved bananas‘ at this time.  He and his wife also lived briefly in Topsham to settle the sale of family-related property.  Ross and Houstoun knew one another.

Museum documentation includes a bound card index (produced by Moore’s Modern Methods Limited (now Moores of London) from 1931) lists Ross (not ‘Hauston‘ or ‘Houstoun‘) as donor, it states

“ROSS, F.W.L. (beq)

1886 Hervey. Preserved bananas.”

[Hervey is an old name for the Cook Islands.  Hervey’s Isle was named after a Lord of the Admiralty by Captain Cook who visited in 1773 and 1777.]

Within a volume entitled ‘Albert Memorial Museum. Catalogue of Specimens illustrative of Economic Botany and Structure of Plants‘, under the section heading Musaceae one entry reads

Musa Paradisiaca. Preserved fruits. Roratonga, Hervey Is. Ex coll. F.W.L. Ross Esq. Screen I Ethnology. Lat.18.S. Long. 160 W. presented to FWL Ross by Rear Admiral Wallace Houstoun.’











Fig. 3 Entries from the ‘Catalogue of Specimens illustrative of Economic Botany and Structure of Plants.’













The documentation confirms who originally acquired it. There were apparently a number of preserved bananas obtained by Houstoun, but today there is only one known example at RAMM.

In the Pacific, and according to personal correspondence with Fergus Clunie (1) the plantain was used in religious first fruit ceremonies which would be prepared and presented to shrines as votive offerings.  The tight wrapping of the fruit in plant-fibre rope suggests that this item is something more in keeping with Pacific ceremonial beliefs than the preservation of fruit for transportation; this is an example of cultural knowledge that perhaps has come close to becoming lost.

In 2015, this preserved plantain was scanned using state-of-the-art equipment. This was made possible through RAMM’s Melanesian over-modelled skull project with the valuable assistance of Dr. Kristen Leith, Dr. Catriona McKenzie, Dr. Iain Watt and Professor Alan Outram at the department of archaeology, University of Exeter and Roisin Dobbin Stacy and Professor Iain Lyburn, Cobalt Dianostic Imaging in Cheltenham.

Fig. 4 A scan slice of the preserved plantain (courtesy of Cobalt Diagnostic Imaging)

(1) Pers comm Fergus Clunie to Tony Eccles 27/01/2016

“The wrappings are highly reminiscent, obviously, of  Eastern Polynesian toko/to’o ‘staff-god’ embodiments – Cook Islands eastward. Do you know what the cordage fibre is?

…was collected by Houston in early 1850s. By which time it would have been a pre-Christian relic, and as such probably easier to acquire. Whatever, you’re clearly going to have to home in on the Trincomalee’s movements to find out exactly where she was and when, as that might well define the most likely locality.

Plantain associations with gods generally?
Insofar as I’m aware they were most directly demonstrated or at least best recorded in Tahiti/Society Ids. But the things seem to have been spiritually affiliated everywhere – from Fiji & W. Polynesia eastward. Which, I think, has to suggest a fundamental Tangaloan plantain association/affiliation with gods. Which in turn tends to carry us right back to AD450-500 and the arrival of Tangaloan immigrants in hitherto Melanesian Fiji and W. Polynesia from what’s looking more and more to me like Buru in the Moluccas via S. Micronesia.

[I’m on to all this sacred banana/plantain stuff as have had to delve deeply into it in researching my tapua article and my just submitted JPS article on Fijian/West Polynesian voyaging-canoe evolution, which has interesting implications as to the spawning of ancestral Polynesian culture in S Fiji & W Polynesia between about AD 450-1000, and the wholesale migration eastward (and westward, and northward!) to escape from there in 11th C, driven by Saveasi’uleo’s sweeping invasion and conquest of Tonga-Samoa from Pulotu (south central Fiji) by his Tangaloan faction, who had settled there soon after initial Tangaloan settlement of Samoa & Tonga. (The parallels between Samoan, Tongan and Kiribati traditions in this regard are quite remarkable). Hence the occurrence of tapua plantain cultivars from Fiji right across and up to Hawaii (kapua there, of course)]. 

Anyway, apart from the plantain-related stuff I discuss in the tapua article, I keep tripping across indications that insofar as first-fruit offerings are concerned plantains were once the big thing throughout Polynesia. According to Tongan traditions plantains were only comparatively recently upstaged by kahokaho yams, most likely subsequent to the Fatafehi/Tui Tonga invasion of Fiji in 16th C, which last is covered in passing detail in my canoe article. Handy also understood plantains were  quite recently upstaged by breadfruit in the Marquesas. His The Hawaiian Planter, as I recall, also contains interesting implications about their religious aspects (not all cultivars, of course – particular ones). The extraordinary number of historic plantain cultivars from Fiji eastward is also indicative of antiquity.

The foregoing is all in striking contrast to what I can gather about plantains in Melanesia, and with yam-oriented autochthonous Fijian/W. Polynesian culture, which was essentially Melanesian [In that respect, the whole proto-Polynesian, Lapita-derived construct has recently been exploded by the recognition of the much later Tangaloan movement into W. Polynesia and Fiji.]  This contrast, I believe, again points to a Tangaloan genesis of the godly plantain/symbolic crescent, and harks back to Indonesia  and the fact that cultivated plantains and bananas are no longer thought of as belonging to species but regarded as all being cultivars of a hybrid complex originating somewhere in the Indo-Malaya region. [Whistler (Plants of the Canoe People, &c) is worth looking at in this plantain vs banana respect.]

It would obviously be nice to know more about ancient plantain-related culture in Indonesia. Meanwhile, there’s an interesting linguistic difference between the Fiji/W. Polynesia region and E. Polynesia in that plantain/banana cultivars are lumped together in the former as vudi (Fiji) or fusi/futi, but generally known in Cooks & E. Polynesia  as meika/mei’a or, in Hawaii mai’a. Because some cultivar names – tapua for instance – span right across Polynesia, this suggests to me that the Western fusi/futi term is secondary, influenced by Pulotu/Fiji vudi. Comparison with Indo-Malayan terminology – poring compulsively through Polynesian and Melanesian dictionaries should resolve that little conundrum.

…Essentially, I suspect this wretched enwrapped plantain of yours, like the tapua/tabua of Tonga-Fiji, is the tip of a godly iceberg, and might eventually prove to be an embodiment of a god responsible for crop fertility and so the ultimate deity to whom first-fruits were offered, it now being certain that Samoan S’iuleo, Tongan Hikule’o, and Fijian Degei, all of whom were ultimately responsible for crop fertility, share the same godly origin, and there being strong indications that Tuna and Rongo/Lono not only exercise the same fertility and weather control preogative, but stem from the same Tangaloan root as them, the core difference between East and West  being that, thanks to Saveasi’uleo’s lethal depredations during the invasion of W. Polynesia from Pulotu in Fiji, the Western trio also exercised control over life and death, and ruled the Pulotu/Burotu/Bulu paradises to which the souls of chiefs and their henchmen repaired to be deified.

Be very interested to hear where this damned thing takes you, and to see scans and hopefully the beast itself in due course. Happy to discuss issues concerning it at any time, their being a hell of a lot more to plantains than meets the  eye, and palate.