September 11th, 2012


Southwell goes South, Part I: Shelling the Banana

Well, that was so much fun!

I've just returned from a couple of days in the Manuscript Room at the British Library, where I finally started researching some family papers I've long known were held there but never got around to viewing before.

Basically, I've been looking at the papers of Daniel Southwell, who was the nephew of my great*4 grandfather, Weeden Butler (his sister Jane's son). Weeden's grandson Thomas (my great-great-grandfather), who worked for the British Museum, presented the papers to the library in 1846, and I'm glad that he did as I very much doubt they would have survived otherwise.

The interest (to people other than family) of the papers is that Daniel was a midshipman (later mate) on HMS Sirius, part of the First Fleet that set off to Australia in 1787, with an initial batch of convicts and a plan to found a colony. I've blogged about him before, but then I was taking material from the web (Australian historians have naturally had a good look at these papers before me). This time I got to see the papers in his hand. And of course, there were plenty of things there to interest me that were of no concern to the Australian historians.

There's a lot of material. His log books, and many lengthy letters to his mother and his uncle Weeden, as well as some from Weeden back to him, and various other bits and pieces - including descriptions of the landscape, inhabitants, animals, etc. I read at most a third of it over the two days, and no doubt missed a good deal. But I went through everything involving the voyage itself, and the landfall in Australia, as well as some of the later letters, and very fascinating it was. It also gave me quite a bit of extra family information, and created one big new puzzle (which will have to wait till a later entry).

The journey to Australia was made in four stages, with stops at Santa Cruz in Tenerife, Rio de Janeiro and the Cape of Good Hope. Daniel gives his impressions of all these places, but for now, seeing as I'm tired and the huntsmen are up in America (as it were), I will just share something from his stopover in Santa Cruz that I found quite charming. In 1787 Southwell was about 23 years old, and this was his first time in Tenerife. While he was there, he saw many things that were strange to him, including some peculiar fruit called "bananas" and "plantains". This is his attempt to describe them to his mother (4th June 1787):

The two former species of fruit [i.e. bananas and plantain] are extremely alike, but, I am told, are essentially different in some respects, and chiefly in that the banana is the most luscious. The shape of both, externally, very nearly resembles a Windsor bean, but within, the case or pod is entirely filled with fruitage of a very agreeable taste, which when not too ripe, looks dry and pithy upon the outside shell’s being peeled off; and still retains the original form as it exactly supplies the cavity of the pod. It is not so flat as the bean, but in other respects very like it to look at. The plantain only differs from the banana in not being so mellow. It is rather pithy and inferior in flavour, yet is the taste sufficiently similar to make us conclude it to be of the same family. The plantain, however, has one most excellent quality, for, though not so agreeable as a fruit, yet when green it affords a capital succedaneum for bread. This I have not as yet tried myself, but have it on good authority that upon being roasted and eaten with butter it has much the flavour of bread newly-baked.

In case you don't know (and I didn't) the Windsor bean is a broad bean - the comparison is to the pod, presumably. I'm definitely going to try cooking plantain that way, to see if I too can find a resemblance to new-baked bread. The whole description reminded me of Gombrich's notion of schemata in Art and Illusion, and the way that people see the world in terms of the categories with which they are already familiar. Is a banana very like a broad bean to look at? Can we squeeze our minds into a shape where we can see a banana skin as a "case or pod", or even a "shell"? It's not easy - but this is something Southwell will have to grapple with repeatedly as he ventures into unknown regions. Even here on Tenerife he comes up against a similar problem when he sees the Teide volcano, which again he has to parse by reference to familiar objects:

As yet I have not fed my curiosity with a sight of the famous Pick or Pike or Peak of Teneriffe, for since our arrival that stupendous object has been constantly enveloped in the clouds. And, by the way, this puts me in mind of the humble print that used to hang over the parlour mantle piece, and by us most decisively termed “The Peak”, though I must think erroneously, as I believe the print in question was really meant as the representation of an Egyptian pyramid.

In 1787, as chilperic mentioned to me last night (he and fjm very kindly put me up), Britain was going through one of its rare phases of not being at war with anyone, and the visit to Santa Cruz was a friendly one. Ten years later, Southwell would return with Lord Nelson to try to take the city, only to die of the wounds he received there, which lends his happy account of his first visit a melancholy retrospective cast. But all that's a long way off as yet. And so, for now, goodnight.