- Milton's Banana:Paradise Lost and Colonial Botany
Eden is known for its plants. The precise meaning, location, and natural history of its landscape has been a matter of debate for centuries as the ecology of Eden has been glossed, parsed, debated, translated between languages, adapted into literary works, and transformed into images. Of all the plants in paradise, two have, understandably, received the most attention: the tree of knowledge and the tree that the fallen couple used to make themselves "aprons" (KJV, Gen. 3.7). Was knowledge of good and evil contained within forbidden apples, pomegranates, or even figs? Was the tree that provided Adam and Eve with rudimentary garments a fig tree, a banyan tree, or, as I will explore in this article, a banana tree? This article gives primacy to John Milton's representation of the tree from which Adam and Eve constructed their first clothes because of its unique afterlife in the Americas.
As England built its empire, authors of natural histories sought Eden in the Caribbean and catalogued God's creation in luxury folios. Likewise, English poets imagined these distant frontiers in literary works. In book 9 of Paradise Lost, Milton describes the sartorially useful Edenic tree as a "Malabar or Decan" fig, a tree more commonly called the banyan and distinguished by its [End Page 49] multiple trunks and its shade, rather than its fruit.1 With its distinct poetic rendering of Eden, Milton's Paradise Lost became part of the debate about biblical ecology, on the one hand, and colonial botany, on the other, with scholars adding footnotes to the epic, readers writing notes in individual copies, and natural philosophers quoting Milton in their treatises.2 In this essay I analyze the debate around Milton's representation of the banyan tree in Eden to show how Paradise Lost became part of the citational knowledge network of colonial endeavor. The banyan tree has long been of interest to scholars studying the imperial ambition of Paradise Lost. However, early interpretations of this plant as a banyan, fig, or banana tree in a variety of texts exceed mere metaphor and have yet to supplement postcolonial readings of Milton's epic. In the Americas, as elsewhere, Milton's epic became a source of information and analogy for authors of natural histories, and this led readers to engage with Milton's poem anew.3
Since David Quint's Epic and Empire connected the epic genre with imperial worldviews and J. Martin Evans's Milton's Imperial Epic linked Milton's descriptions of Eden's bounty to discourses of New World exploration, scholars have read Paradise Lost as a work informed by transatlantic exchange and steeped in colonial language.4 As Evans suggests, "Milton's epic … interacts continuously not with any dominant set of assumptions or principles but with an agglomeration of deeply ambivalent cultural responses to the colonization of the New World."5 If Evans argues that Paradise Lost maps poetic inspiration onto colonial discourse, however mixed and ambivalent, what are we to do when colonial discourse cites Milton?6 Can our understanding of Milton and empire and Milton in the Americas account for later, imperial engagements with Paradise Lost? Considering these questions, I focus my attention on Griffith Hughes's Natural History of Barbados (1750), a work that frequently quotes Paradise Lost in its descriptions of the Caribbean island and that Horace Walpole read alongside Milton's epic. Natural histories like Hughes's forged the imperial legacy of Paradise Lost by collating the plants in Eden with plantation documents. In the hands of Hughes and Walpole, Milton's [End Page 50] Paradise Lost is not simply an imperial epic; instead, its complex rendering of Eden serves as a guide for understanding colonial places and plants.
In book 9, fallen Adam suggests that he and Eve search for "Some tree whose broad smooth leaves together sewed, / And girded on our loins, may cover round / Those middle parts" (PL 9.1095–97). They survey the garden with a new sense of their decreased dominion—neither seeking "supper fruits" (PL 4.331) nor pleasure in shaded bowers.
there soon they choseThe fig-tree, not that kind for...