Gary Y. Okihiro

 

On his book Pineapple Culture: A History of the Tropical and Temperate Zones

Cover Interview of August 12, 2009

A close-up

Tropical products, including sugar and fruits, were systematically planted in the tropics and harvested and conveyed to the temperate zone, along with Indian and later African and Asian specimens and workers, in the course of empire.  Anchoring the world-system of labor and goods were tropical plantations, commercial outposts of the empire of plants, which included prominently the pineapple.

Unintended but nonetheless isolated and conquered, like their native carriers, were the diseases and infirmities of the tropics that invaded ill-suited white bodies in the colonies and in the temperate homeland.  Those residues of empire posed perils to “the blood” and race, but they were the necessary risks of enormous profits and national and transnational identities, prestige, and powers.  Accordingly, tropical medicine arose as a science and eugenics and anti-immigrant fervor blossomed during this period of European and American imperialism.

Other disciplines flourished during this age of empire.  These accompanied and advanced Europe’s global spread by collecting, naming, describing, and then altering the world as they found it.  European natural and social sciences created order out of an assumed condition of chaos, and they took on the burden of uplifting “savage,” backward races to a state of enlightenment and civilization.  Instead, they underwrote a colonial project of expropriation and exploitation, and were a flexing of coercive powers and an exhibit of contempt for cultures and knowledge systems at variance with theirs.

The princess of fruits and a sign of conspicuous consumption and wealth, the pineapple spread from America’s interior to its coasts and north to the islands of the Caribbean and European continent with its gardens and hothouses, and finally back to plantations in the tropical band.  The Cayenne variety, which became the industry’s standard, was raised by American Indians, taken and bred in France, sold to England, conveyed to Australia, Florida, and Jamaica, and from those outposts transported to Hawai`i, from whence it migrated to Haiti, Taiwan, the Philippines, Kenya, Fiji, Mexico, and Cuba.  Those movements across the earth’s girth occurred over the course of a hundred years, breathtaking in terms of the pineapple’s probable origins as a cultivated crop over 4,000 years ago.