Although he is now credited with history’s ‘most recent’ discovery of the Americas (the 11th century Icelandic explorer Leif Ericsson is currently the earliest documented European to set foot in mainland America) the fruits of his travels have also made him the accidental father of modern glasshouse production. A strange association indeed, but a feat that would never have been impossible were it not for his mis-calculation of the size of the Earth (in particular the Eurasian continent) and poor grasp of maritime navigation.
Inspired from works by Ptolemy, Pierre d’Ailly and the ‘Travels of Marco Polo’ Columbus wrongly concluded that Asia could be reached easier and far quicker by using a western route across the Atlantic.
His conviction was soon to become an obsession and so he began to petition the various European Royal heads of state in order to finance his ’Enterprise of the Indies’. Beginning first with Portugal, then France and even England, he was refused time after time mainly on the grounds of the huge costs that an exhibition like this would encounter. Eventually, after already rejecting him once before, it was Queen Isabella of Spain who granted him the commission he required, making his dream of finding a western route to Asia a reality.
History was sealed on August 3rd 1492 when a small fleet comprising of the Santa Maria, the Pinta, and the Nina set sail for the first of four voyages of discovery exploring the New World. However it was during his second voyage to the South American mainland that he stumbled across the indigenous Tupi-Guarani Indians.
This was the encounter that was to change the course of history, triggering a chain of events which for centuries captured imaginations across continental Europe. By doing so he set in motion a desire for massive investment and innovation, the like of which may never be seen again.
The Tupi-Guarani Indians were the dominant civilisation in the areas that Columbus visited, inhabiting the Brazilian coast from the mouth of the river Amazon, down to Cananéia, and including large sections of the Amazon basin. They enjoyed an advanced culture that practiced what we still regard as modern agricultural and horticultural techniques including the selective breeding of plants to increase flavour and yields. Unfortunately their culture also included a taste for human flesh, the dish of choice being captured prisoners of war.
Their whole culture and government was based on the act of cannibalism, and following a successful raid on a neighbouring tribe, prisoners would be brought back to the village to be fattened up. A few weeks later an elaborate party/ritual would be arranged, after which the prisoner is summarily executed by a blow to the back of the head. He was then skinned and cooked with seasonal fruits and vegetables. A small piece of flesh was then served to each member of the tribe so that they could gain the spiritual strength of the unfortunate victim.
Despite these rather gruesome eating habits the Tupi-Guarani Indians are also the first humans to encounter and domesticate the pineapple. This highly specialised fruit also has a unique characteristic, which in one way is quite poetic when you consider its ancestry. It has the only known source of bromelein, an enzyme that can digest protein. In other words the pineapple has quite literally flesh-eating properties. In fact over the years there have been numerous reports where eating pineapples has caused an itchy or burning sensation to the mouth. In extreme cases this has caused the lips and internal parts of the mouth to bleed.
Columbus led a small party ashore to study what appeared to be a deserted tribal village. Among wooden pillars spiralled with serpent carvings, his crew found large pots filled with human body parts, accompanied nearby by several piles of freshly foraged fruits and vegetables. Undaunted or perhaps just extremely hungry, the party helped themselves to the non-human aspect to the meal, enjoying in particular a curious new fruit which they had found. They described it as having ‘…an abrasive, segmented exterior like a pine cone and a firm interior pulp like an apple...’ Luckily they were able to return to their ship before the tribesmen returned.
The Renaissance Europe to which Columbus returned to was a civilization largely bereft of common sweets. Sugar refined from cane was a rare commodity and at the time had to be imported at great cost from both the Middle East and the Orient. Without modern methods of refrigeration or transportation, fresh fruit was also scarce with orchard-grown produce only available in limited numbers during their harvest periods.
Once safely returned to Europe, Columbus’s succulently sweet pineapple became an instant hit. Overnight it had become an item of both celebrity and curiosity for royal gourmets and professional horticulturist alike.
Its extreme rarity meant that the pineapple quickly became a symbol of wealth and luxury, but despite the best efforts of European gardeners it was nearly two centuries before they were able to mimic the perfect environment in which to grow and then bring to fruition a pineapple plant.
It was during the 1600s, when the pineapple was still regarded as a rare and coveted commodity that King Charles II of England actually commissioned an official portrait by Hendrick Danckerts to immortalize him in an act of royal privilege.
The theme naturally was to have the King receiving a pineapple as a gift from his head gardener John Rose.
Each one sells for less than a couple of pounds, bought by people without a single thought as to the fascinating history of its origins.
And why not, even on his death bed Columbus had no idea as to the value his pineapple brought to the world, but to be fair neither did he know what part of the world he had discovered it from.
HOW TO GROW A PINEAPPLE FROM SEED