Plucked from tropical America, the pineapple was brought to European tables and hothouses before it was conveyed back to the tropics, where it came to dominate U.S. and world markets. Pineapple Culture is a history of the world’s tropical and temperate zones told through the pineapple’s illustrative career. Following the author’s Island World, Pineapple Culture continues to upend conventional ideas about history, space, and time with its vision.
Bred by American Indians near the border of present-day Brazil and Argentina, the pineapple migrated, along with its handlers, to the Amazon basin, up the eastern coast of America to the Caribbean islands where Callinago Indians introduced the fruit to Christopher Columbus in 1493. A captive, like other natives (peoples and plants) of the tropics, the pineapple was taken by the Admiral to his sponsor, Spain’s king, who pronounced the fruit a delicious gift of the “New World.”
In exile in the temperate zone and grown in hothouses, which mimicked its tropical home, the pineapple became a symbol of privilege, possession, and power, displayed in manicured gardens and on tables of excess. Moreover, the fruit’s value was as a commodity, produced on tropical plantations tended mainly by migrant, “colored” labor and canned in modern, exacting factories for the temperate core of a world-system flowing with capital, labor, goods, and culture.
At the center of this story is the thoroughly modern tale of Dole’s “Hawaiian” pineapple, which, from its island periphery, infiltrated the white, middle-class homes of the continental United States. That generic branding—“Hawaiian”—capitalized on the islands’ tourist image of tropical paradise, leisure, and sport in contrast to the realities of the kingdom’s forcible dispossession by the U.S. and the exploitation of Hawaiian and then imported workers. The modern American housewife, “Hawaiian” pineapple commercials contended, needed, indeed longed for, the convenience, versatility, and nutritional value of canned pineapples.
In brief, then, the transit of the pineapple illustrates the history and geography of empires—their creations and accumulations; the circuits of the knowledge, capital, labor, goods, and cultures that characterize them; and their assumed power to name, classify, and rule over alien lands, peoples, and resources.
“The transit of the pineapple illustrates the history and geography of empires—their creations and accumulations; the circuits of the knowledge, capital, labor, goods, and cultures that characterize them; and their assumed power to name, classify, and rule over alien lands, peoples, and resources.”
Places are human geographies of space. They name and attribute natures to spaces, marking them and frequently ranking them as self or other, desirable or undesirable, masculine or feminine. “Home” and “nation” are examples of places, as are “islands” and “continents,” the “tropics” and the “temperate zone.” In our everyday lives, we often assume and forget that places are human inventions, and we treat them as if they were real, which in turn gives them materiality and substance. Places are thereby made real.
The “tropics” was created by some in the temperate zone who named the band and described its lush vegetation, soft and fleshy peoples, and recumbent societies as having been shaped by the moisture and heat. They composed a tropical hermeneutics of place. Climate, the ancient Greeks contended, shaped the bodies and natures of peoples. Accordingly, they maintained, the tropics bred slavish and womanly races while the temperate zones conditioned hard, lean, masculine races. Geographical determinism, which connects places (climates) with races (bodily constitutions) and which ranks them as superior and inferior, remains a key fallacy of our age.
The pineapple’s migrations reveal the falsity of those distinctions of lands and peoples. The fruit, as a trophy and object of empire, appears in its natural state, sized and boxed for the traditionalist and in its clipped, dissected, and sweetened state for the modernist. The fruit reaches both markets and tastes year-round in disregard of seasons and places and advances a global, material culture and signification that qualifies and diminishes the contrived distances between the polarities of West and East, continents and islands, temperate and tropical zones.
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 Hawaii, 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.
“Geographical determinism, which connects places (climates) with races (bodily constitutions) and which ranks them as superior and inferior, remains a key fallacy of our age.”
Recognizing ideas and material objects of desire as human creations, for good or ill, enables us to reject the destructive and celebrate the collective good.
Gary Y. Okihiro is a historian and professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University. He is the author of ten books, and is currently completing a trilogy on space/time, which besides Pineapple Culture includes Island World: A History of Hawaii and the United States (University of California Press, 2008) and the forthcoming “Disciplining Subjects: Self and History.”