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Plantains

Fe'i banana
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Plantains and bananas are the common names of plants of the genus Musa of the family Musaceae, a member of the botanical order Scitamineae.

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Various species of the genus Musa are to be found throughout the Pacific. Historically, the most important have been species of the Australimusa, which in the Society Islands were called Fe'i.

Fe'i bananas - or plaintains, as they are commonly called in voyaging and early missionary journals - appear to have originated in eastern Indonesia or New Guinea and were planted in the course of human pre-historic migrations westwards.

Varieties of Fe'i were an especially important staple food in Fiji, the Society Islands and the Marquesas.

In the Society Islands, Fe'i grows in clearings on well-drained sides of hills below altitudes of 800 metres. Bunches of the fruit can weigh over 60 kilograms, and can be obtained from January through to August.

Modern botanists have recorded thirteen distinct forms of Fe'i on Tahiti (Macdaniels, 1947; Stover and Simmonds, 1987). However, in the early 1840s, John Muggridge Orsmond, the Tahitian missionary, recorded that Maohi distinguished eighteen varieties of Fe'i, on the basis of the shape of its fruit, or the size of the plant (Henry, 1928: 34). Banks and Solander encountered five kinds of banana that the people of Matavai Bay called Fe'i.

In the Society Islands prior to the colonial era, Fe'i bananas were traditionally eaten roasted because of the astringency of the raw fruit. However, boiling gradually became the more common mode of preparation.

The trunk of the Fe'i varieties contains a dark-purple sap, which was used in the decoration of mats, hats and tapa cloth.

The peoples of the Society Islands also exploited numerous other types of plaintains with tougher, more fibrous fruits that grow in lower altitudes. Banks and Solander recorded twenty-three different kinds of plantain growing in the vicinity of Matavai Bay. Orsmond found that Maohi distinguished around thirty-four varieties of lowland plantains, or Mei'a, as they collectively called them.

What is most distinctive about the fruit of the Fe'i is that they grow in an erect bunch, while the Mei'a of lower altitudes have pendent fruits like most bananas now grown commercially. Teura Henry writes that according to one legend, this difference came about because 'the two tribes went to war with each other and the mei'a were beaten by their more vigorous cousins (Henry, 1928: 35).’

Besides providing thatch for houses and fibre for ropes, the leaves of plantains were used by Maohi for various ceremonial and ritual purposes, most notably to signal peaceful intentions during encounters between people of different districts, and in affirming Tayo or formal friendship. Perhaps the best known illustration of the ceremonial use of plantain leaves is the engraving depicting the meeting between Samuel Wallis and Purea on 22 July 1767 that appears as plate xxii in volume one of John Hawkesworth’s Account of the Voyages…to the Southern Hemisphere. This engraving was copied by several artists for inclusion in subsequent collections of voyaging accounts or for sale as loose sheets.

 
Related Entries for Plantains
People: Wallis, Samuel (1728 - 1795) | Purea
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Online Sources Published Sources
  • Hawkesworth, John, An account of the voyages undertaken by the order of His present Majesty, for making discoveries in the southern hemisphere, and successively performed by Commodore Byron, Captain Wallis, Captain Carteret, and Captain Cook, in the Dolphin, the Swallow, and the Endeavour : drawn up from the journals which were kept by the several commanders and from the papers of Joseph Banks, Esq. Derived from the 1773 London edition, printed for W. Strahan and T. Cadell. National Library of Australian call number: FERG 7243., South Seas, 2004, http://southseas.nla.gov.au/index_voyaging.html. [ Details ]

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Prepared by: Paul Turnbull
Created: 5 May 2004

Published by South Seas, 1 February 2004
Comments, questions, corrections and additions: Paul.Turnbull@jcu.edu.au
Prepared by: Paul Turnbull
Updated: 28 June 2004
To cite this page use: http://nla.gov.au/nla.cs-ss-biogs-P000418

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