Project Canterbury

A Bishop amongst Bananas

By the Right Rev. Herbert Bury, D.D.
Lately Bishop of British Honduras and Central America

London: Wells Gardner, Darton & Co., Ltd., [1911]

Chapter V. Amongst the Bananas

THE coat-of-arms of the Diocese shows four banana leaves, one in each corner, and an open Bible in the centre; and the motto underneath is, "Hoy, no Mañana," which translated from Spanish to English is, "To-day, not to-morrow."

I do not know who is responsible for it, curious heraldry as it seems to be, but it is certainly very appropriate and to the point, if we come to examine it in detail.

The curse of Spain, and of every Spanish colony, is represented by that one word in the motto, "Mañana." It is always "To-morrow" when you want to get a thing done, and you get exasperatingly tired of hearing the word. The native idea of ordinary duties is "Never do today what can be put off till to-morrow," and so the motto just reverses this and says, "To-day, not to-morrow."

The open Bible does certainly, in the next place, seem to stand not only for the Gospel of our LORD, but for that moral law of GOD, the plain acceptance of which is the great need in every part of the jurisdiction.

And then there are the banana leaves, not very well drawn, typifying the life's work of the great majority of those who were formerly my people. Hence the heading of the chapter and the title of this book, for my work and experience have indeed been "amongst the bananas."

It is hardly too much to say that the banana has brought about a real revolution in the world of labour in Jamaica and Central America in the present generation. I myself can quite well remember the time when it was hardly ever seen in our own country, except when brought there by travellers coming from abroad, who could, I was told, thirty-five years ago get sixpence apiece for them. I never saw, or tasted, the fruit until I arrived at the Cape de Verde Islands on my first sea voyage, in 1875.

What a difference since then! On February 4, this year, when leaving Jamaica for New York, I saw that a whole bunch, containing from 200 to 250 bananas, was selling at from 6d. to 9d.; and when one reflects that this would, even at that price, with planter's profit included, realize, if sold wholesale in the States or the British Isles, from 4/- to 5/-, or retail as much as 10/-, one can see that there is still "a fortune in bananas." Some would not even hesitate to say "a gold mine."

The banana is grown from a sucker which, when planted in the ground, produces a full-orown bunch in about nine months, and so entirely differs from either rubber or the cocoa-nut, which require from five to six years before they begin to yield to a profit.

On paper, worked out according to the most careful calculations, there is a fortune in cocoanut growing just now, when the demand for cocoa-nut oil so far exceeds the supply; but the tree can only be grown well near the sea, and is usually very much exposed to the terrible cyclones of the tropics, and there could hardly be a more disheartening experience for young planters than to have their whole cocoanut walk utterly destroyed, just when it had begun to bear, and know that they have to begin all over again and wait another five years. It is for this reason that I speak of the profits of cocoanut growing "on paper."

But to return to our bananas. "The romance of wheat," it has been said, is commonplace beside this as an industry in its larger sense. This one is more recent than steel, and its growth more rapid." [Palmer in Central America and its Problems, 63] (He might have added oil as well.) "Twenty years ago the United States ate 5,000,000 bunches in a year, ten years ago? 15,000,000, but in 1909 the quantity had risen to 60,000,000! . . . The Caribbean Islands share the bounty. Jamaica, her sugar plantations in ruins, was saved from economic despair by the banana trade. England has trebled her consumption in the last five years. Germany and France are beginning to receive importations in quantity."

The banana trade, however, could never have had this tremendous expansion if enterprising minds had not recognized their opportunity and determined to launch out into big schemes and have special vessels built to carry the fruit. A bunch of bananas is cut down with a great piece of the stem running through it, full of sap, and therefore goes on ripening if the fruit is still green. It is never left to ripen on the tree, even if not intended for export, but will be hung up on the verandah, or some other convenient place, the fruit being broken off as required.

The vessels for the export trade are fitted up with refrigerating plants which keep the temperature down to 48 degrees Fahrenheit, and which bring their 45,000 bunches, or more, into Bristol or Manchester, after a sixteen or seventeen days' trip, with sometimes less than 5000 ripe, and all the rest still green.

On passing the Fastnet Rock, to the south of Ireland, the number of bunches "ripe or turning" is telegraphed, and, long before the vessel is in dock, these are sold off first to the merchants, as being ready for immediate consumption. The United States, with the ports of New York, Boston, and New Orleans, provide markets easily reached from Jamaica and Central America in about four or five days.

"But isn't it very unhealthy," I am sometimes asked, "in that climate in the lowlands, with malarial fever and other ailments so common?" But in reply one has to answer at once that by taking precautions against mosquitoes, and avoiding the use of alcohol as much as possible, one would find the banana plantations as healthy as one could desire. I judge from the experiences of my clergy, who have worked on year after year without a holiday, and kept in good health.

Screening the whole house--that is, filling every window and door space and the verandah with fine copper netting--is effectual for keeping out the mosquito, and renders the net unnecessary for the beds. It gives one a sense of being shut in, but still one eats, reads, dresses, etc., in comfort, and escapes fever. But I believe the use of stimulants to be especially bad in the tropics, though I know many people will disagree with me. I avoided them entirely myself, and my son also, and we never had an attack of fever. Sometimes a kind host would be especially pressing, and say, "Whatever you do elsewhere, you must take a little whiskey here in the Tropics if you want to keep well, and you are sure to get fever if you don't."

As a set-off to this, I may mention that in Nicaragua we had the representative of the Standard Oil Trust travelling with us for a little time, and in the course of conversation and comparing notes together, he told me that he had travelled in those Central American Republics for the last eighteen years, as a life-long teetotaller, and been in very unhealthy places where food, etc., were of the worst, and had never once had fever. Also, that he had usually had a man with him to help him with his luggage, etc., and had never had one who was not a whiskey drinker, and never had one who was not often down with fever.

It is not wise, of course, to attach too much importance to such experiences, but I should say the tropics are the worst of places for the habitual use of stimulants. There is always a reaction afterwards, I suppose, and germs and infected water or bites would always find their best opportunities at such a time. Everyone who has lived in those parts knows also what the effect of alcohol is in exciting the passions and impairing the moral sense. It is almost a truism, by this time, to say that there would practically be no one in the prisons if it were not for drink. The same is true of many of the hospital wards, and of the "bad lots" one has to encounter from time to time. Drink is the invariable explanation, and especially, I repeat, in the Tropics.

And now for a little about one's work among the bananas. Naturally the reader will find a good deal about Confirmation in this book, for it is the joy of a missionary bishop's life in the earlier years of his episcopate, as giving him entirely new experiences in the spiritual and ministerial life, and giving him entirely new relations with his fellow men of all classes.

With a mystical being like the negro no one will be surprised to read that my Confirmations nave been most moving experiences. There have been times when I can only say that the great timber church, with its huge window spaces open to the night air, filled with an eager and attentive congregation, as many outside as in, ready to respond to any spiritual appeal, has seemed just to be the place where one might hope to hear the sound as of a "rushing mighty wind," and feel that the HOLY SPIRIT had filled the whole place where we were met together!

I remember once going into a little timber structure--very dilapidated and tumble-down it was--where we had had a most moving and impressive Confirmation, only an hour or two before, and sitting down to think it all over. It was empty now; the rough seats were in disorder, with a few hymn-books lying about; there were the strips of white and red cotton, which had adorned the rough wooden stand from which I had spoken, texts of cut paper, faded flowers here and there--all seemed so piteously poor and unworthy now--and yet in that place so short a time before we had all been lifted up by faith and devotion into Communion with the Great Eternal, in the most moving and affecting way.

"Truly," I said to myself as I looked about after the first flat feeling had been got over, "it does not require much in the way of material things to enable a devout soul to feel 'This is none other but the House of GOD, and this is the Gate of Heaven.'"

Confirmation and Communion are very real experiences to the negro. As far as I am able to judge they will not come to those services as a mere matter of form, or because it is expected of them; and especially, one is thankful to think, is this the case when there is anything very seriously wrong.

One day, for instance, in a little church in Costa Rica, I confirmed a mother and her son together. She was a most refined, well-bred woman, with particularly good manners, and later in the day when I happened to meet her, I asked, rather thoughtlessly I am afraid, for I ought to have guessed:

"How is it that you haven't been confirmed before, Mrs. D------, for you have always been a Churchwoman, I believe?"

She hesitated a little, and then said rather wistfully--

"Well, you see, Bishop, I was only married last year." And her son was fifteen.

At another place in Guatemala, after a very early Celebration, where they had not had one for at least a year, as I stood at the entrance saying "Good-bye" to the people as they came out, for I had to make an early start, a woman who had been very reverent and attentive, but had not communicated, came out, and so I questioned--

"You didn't receive with us?"

"No," she answered, "I'm not married to my man, and have not been confirmed, but I'm going to be now and as soon as I can, and if GOD spares us you shall lay hands on me, Bishop, the next time you come."

The Sacraments of the Church mean much to people like these, who are determined to make their lives correspond when they venture to approach them. I could fill my chapter with the most touching and instructive incidents of this character, if space would permit, to the great credit of the candidates, young, middle-aged and old, whom it has been my privilege to know and to confirm.

There are two serious charges which one hears continually brought against the negro. He is said to be lazy, and a thief. I would like to deal with these two serious accusations in turn, speaking, it must always be kindly remembered, only from my own experience, and giving the opinions I have formed in consequence.

"Your negro is born tired, isn't he?" I was once asked by a man whose own profession didn't call for any particular exertions, or at any rate did not produce them. He had a remarkably easy life himself, and yet he didn't scruple to ask that slighting question.

"Born tired!" I said indignantly. "Do you know what life on a banana plantation is like, and loading up at the quay? "

He listened as I told him at length.

"And," I added, "the United Fruit Company is a sound business concern, and one of the most successful, and when I tell you that they pay their ordinary labourers in most of our plantations £6 a month, with other privileges, you may conclude that the men who are paid those wages have to 'step lively ' and earn them."

"Born tired," indeed! I don't know any class of labourers in the world who could bear the burden and heat of the day as the negro does in Central America, a life all bed and work, often losing his Sabbath altogether when the vessel has to be ready to clear the landing-place on the Monday. And as I think of them as I have seen them, cutting and loading, planting and clearing, carrying their loads along the wharf in all weathers, "wet or shine," but especially as I recall them in those breakdowns on the line, and such emergencies as I have described in the chapter on "Slides, Floods, and Washouts," working to clear the line, carrying heavy loads, nearly up to their middles in the mud as they struggle across the slide, putting forth every fraction of their great strength, drenched with rain, but always smiling, cheerful, jocular and happy, I feel that I can hardly repudiate sufficiently forcibly enough that flippant expression of being "born tired."

Then with respect to his dishonesty. If I were to deal with this charge properly and fully, I should have to write a book on "Mysticism and Morality." As it is, I can hardly hope to convince my own countrymen, for I shall have to be brief and I shall have to make admissions. The negro does very readily help himself to certain things that are not his own. How shall I persuade my reader that this is not stealing, or that taking and thieving are not the same things? There is a difference to the negro mind. In Jamaica just now, for instance, there is a very popular post card showing a young negro on his way to church on Sunday morning, dressed in his best, prayer book in hand, but, as he passes a bunch of bananas hanging temptingly by the wayside, he is saying to it, "I tief you to-night, please GOD." I am sure that could easily happen, but that he would have said "take," not "tief" or thieve. Fowls, fruit, eggs and the like are GOD'S gifts for all; if, therefore, he is hungry and needs them, he takes them. I'm not defending the point of view, but explaining it.

An old negro I knew carried off a prayer book after a service, and yet it was marked on the back "Not to be taken away." When remonstrated with for stealing it, he indignantly answered, "Stealing! I'm no thief! It was marked outside that it was not to be taken away, I saw, but it is a good book, and GOD'S book, and so I took it."

Perhaps the following will even more astonish the ordinary Western reader who feels that there can be no distinction possible for right-minded people between taking and thieving. A West Indian woman, not in my Diocese, who had taken a duck on the Saturday morning, was visited by her Rector the same evening and told that he had heard of the theft, and had come to forbid her to go to Communion next day, as he knew she meant to do.

Her indignation was extreme. She called in the neighbours, whose intelligent sympathy she knew she could rely upon, and told her story.

"A duck!" she repeated with fine sarcasm. "A duck! Think of his coming and talking to me about taking a duck, when my mind was full of my Communion! What's a duck to come between me and my Maker, at a time like that!"

I can hardly hope that an ordinary reader will think her anything but an old humbug; but the discerning ones will look a little deeper beneath the surface, I think, and see that there is something very solid to build upon in a nature that wants touch with the spiritual at all, and feel also that the distinction between taking and thieving marks a stage on the upward course of progress.

I can truly say that all through my journeyings, when my baggage consisted always of at least ten pieces, I never once locked up a bag or a box. I left things about continually, of a particularly tempting and attractive character to the dark race; I never slept in a room of which the doors and windows were not wide open, and I never had one single article of any kind stolen.

I do not consider that the negro is as dishonest--taking food excepted--as some other races I have known, and when he is dishonest there is a real sting in his proverbial remark, "Negro man steal a quatty (about i^d.), buckra man (white) steal a hundred pounds." This proverb is sometimes varied by "Buckra man steal the whole estate."

Our people amongst the bananas live very simply as to food and lodging, for in my Diocese they used to save and send home large sums for their families and relations in Jamaica. Their little homes of timber and corrugated iron contained, as a rule, a box for clothing, a table, a chair or two, a bed, a shelf for china, knives and forks, etc., and a few texts and pictures, without frames, upon the walls, and nothing more in those with which I myself am most familiar.

Very little food and of the simplest is the rule. Yams, rice, plantains, bananas, bread, very little fish or meat, fill up their bill of fare. A banquet at a wedding, when great efforts to be profuse are made, only provides apples and oranges as extras, cakes and jelly, and possibly ice-cream. Extravagance in food is a thing unknown in my experience.

But they simply love to be well and smartly dressed, and show excellent taste. White muslins and laces, and ribbons of the paler shades, and large hats with bright flowers are affected by the one sex; well-cut black clothes with white waistcoats, bright ties, and even silk hats and brown boots can be produced by the other on great occasions, though, with their remarkably good figures, they always look best in a complete suit of white drill, with hat and boots to match.

All the members of a church are expected to contribute regularly to its support and towards the stipend of their priest or catechist, and according to definite rules laid down in the canons of the Diocese, quite apart from collections at the services. It is best always for people to have to make real efforts and sacrifices for their church, and nothing can be worse than relying upon the grants of some Home Societies.

At one place--Cahuita in Costa Rica--after the Confirmation and other services were over, I was asked to preside over a meeting in the church, summoned to discuss what means should be taken for its repair, of which I must say it stood badly in need.

"Let's do it ourselves," someone said as soon as I had opened the proceedings. "I'll give so much timber."

"And I'll give the same," said another.

"And I'll give so many yards of corrugated iron for roofing," said another.

"And I so many pounds of nails."

"I can't give anything at all," came from a sturdy-looking man in a corner, "but I'll put in some work."

"And I'll give a dollar or two," said a girl beside him. And so it went on. There was no difficulty. The work of repair was soon assured, and I could not help thinking of a similar scene in old Jewish history, when the "king rejoiced because the people offered willingly." And Cahuita has no grant from any Society!

Religion is very real to the negro. He likes his little home, when he has one for the first time, to be blessed; the mothers bring their little ones to church, when the Bishop comes, that he too "may lay his hands upon them and bless them."

They do greatly need, as I have tried to make it clear, more backbone, fibre and grit in character, those people of ours amongst the bananas; but they have loyal hearts and devout and affectionate temperaments, and though a great deal more is needed for what we have learnt to prize as high character than love and reverence, yet they are a very good foundation upon which to work, and I greatly doubt if anything worth calling high character can ever be reached without love and reverence as its foundation.

There are many questions already suggesting themselves at the end of this chapter to the minds of some of my readers, I feel sure, if, even so far in the book, they have begun to read a little between the lines of what I have written. If so, I would suggest that they pursue their inquiry, and read Booker Washington's Story of the Negro, Du Bois' Soul of the Black People, Sir Harry Johnston's last book; but especially would I recommend the Archbishop of the West Indies' article in Mankind and the Church, edited by Bishop Montgomery, and containing a series of short papers by a number of Bishops of our Church on the contributions made by different races to our common Christianity.

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