Was Captain Cook Afraid of Red Bananas?

Was Captain Cook Afraid of Red Bananas?

What might a popular story about Cook’s visit to Niue have to tell us about narratives of colonization?

A few months ago, with the sky lanes around New Zealand finally opening up again, I decided to book a trip to Niue. In preparation for my visit, I started to look around online for information about the remote Polynesian island, including its history.

One of the stories I kept seeing was that Captain Cook had given the island the name ‘Savage Island’ because he had seen some natives with a red substance on their teeth and assumed that it was blood (and probably human blood). In fact, it was a local variety of red banana (often referred to as the hulahula or fe’i banana).

Cook’s account

When I tried to chase the story up in the relevant section of Cook’s journals, though, I couldn’t find it. What I found instead in the entry in Cook’s entry for Thursday, June 16th, 1774, was an account of two attempts to land on the island. (Cook’s party also surveyed the island from a cliff in between the two main landing attempts.) Cook’s account of the first landing attempts is as follows:

We landed with ease in a small creek, and took post on a high rock to prevent surprise. Here we displayed our colours, and Mr. Forster and his party began to collect plants, &c. The coast was so overrun with woods, bushes, plants, stones, &c. that we could not see forty yards round us. I took two men, and with them entered a kind of chasm, which opened a way into the woods. We had not gone far before we heard the natives approaching; upon which I called to Mr. Forster to retire to the party, as I did likewise. We had no soon joined, than the islanders appeared at the entrance of a chasm not a stone’s-throw from us. We began to speak, and make all the friendly signs we could think of, to them, which they answered by menaces; and one of two men, who were advanced before the rest, threw a stone, which struck Mr. Spearman on the arm. Upon this two musquets were fired, without order, which made then all retire under cover of the woods; and we saw them no more.

‘After waiting some little time,’ Cook decided to carry on along the shore ‘in hopes of meeting with better success in another place.’ Eventually he and his party ‘came before a small beach, on which lay four canoes,’ where they landed ‘with a view,’ Cook says, ‘of just looking at the canoes, and to leave some medals, nails, &c., in them; for not a soul was to be seen.’ Things soon changed, however. Cook’s account continues:

We had been there but a few minutes, before the natives, I cannot say how many, rushed down the chasm out of the wood upon us. The endeavours we used to bring them to a parley, were to no purpose; for they came with the ferocity of wild boars, and threw their darts. Two or three musquets, discharged in the air, did not hinder one of them from advancing still further, and throwing another dart, or rather a spear, which passed close over my shoulder. His courage would have cost him his life, had not my musquet missed fire; for I was not five paces from him, when he threw his spear, and had resolved to shoot him to save myself. I was glad afterwards that it happened as it did. At this instant, our men on the rock began to fire at others who appeared on the heights, which abated the ardour of the party we were engaged with, and gave us time to join our people, when I caused the firing to cease. The last discharge sent all the islanders to the woods, from when they did not return so long as we remained. We did not know that any were hurt.

In Cook’s telling, then, he and his party made two attempts to land on Niue. On both occasions they had peaceable intentions, something they tried to make clear on the first landing attempt by ‘making all the friendly signs we could think of.’ On both occasions they were attacked; on the second attempt Cook himself narrowly avoided being hit by a spear. Finally, on both occasions the British fired their muskets, though Cook stresses that he didn’t order anyone to fire during the first attempt; that he ordered his men to stop firing at a certain point during the second attempt; and that he was happy, in retrospect, that his own musket had failed to fire.

For our purposes, though, the most interesting aspect of Cook’s account is he explicitly tells us, soon after the end of the last passage above, that it was ‘the conduct and aspect of these islanders’ on the two landing-attempts he describes that ‘occasioned my naming it Savage Island.’ By ‘conduct,’ he seems to mean their attacks on him and his men; and his mention to their ‘aspect’ apparently refers to their fierceness during these attacks, though later he says that the Niueans ‘seemed to be stout well made men, were naked, except round the waists, and some of them had their faces, breast, and thighs painted black.’ Nowhere is there any reference to red teeth, mouths smeared with blood, or any inferences about the Niueans being cannibals.

     The site of Cook’s second landing at Opaahi, Niue. Source: niuepocketguide.com

The origins of the banana story

The lack of any mention of red teeth in Cook’s journals raises an obvious question: where does the story about the red bananas come from? The Wikipedia entry on Niue states that Cook ‘named the island “Savage Island” because, as legend has it, the natives who “greeted” him were painted in what appeared to be blood. The substance on their teeth was hulahula, a native red fe’i banana.’

The caveat that this is ‘as legend has it’ is appropriate

The caveat that this is ‘as legend has it’ is appropriate, though bloggers are not always scrupulous in reproducing it. But Wikipedia also adds a reference at the end of this sentence that can help us get closer to the bottom of the story about red bananas.

The reference is to Tony Horowitz’s Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before, a 2002 book in which the US journalist re-traces some of Cook’s journeys while reading and reflecting on his journals. In the relevant section of Horowitz’s book, he stumbles upon the name ‘Savage Island’ on an old map, and turns to ‘the index of Cook’s journal’ for an explanation. After a very brief summary of Cook’s account, Horowitz adds: ‘A footnote said that the warriors’ mouths were smeared red, as if with blood.’

Did Cook’s journals have an index and footnotes? I didn’t think so, but when I consulted the standard edition of Cook’s journals by J.C. Beaglehole in the library at Victoria University (where Beaglehole once taught), things started to make more sense. Beaglehole as editor added a number of footnotes to this passage, the most relevant of which begins as follows:

The modern Niueans, a cheerful industrious people, give a rather pained consideration to the name which Cook bestowed upon their island, and explain the whole matter as one of mistaken intentions.

Beaglehole then reports a local claim that the Niueans that Cook says attacked his men ‘were simply going through the ritual of the “challenge,” an essential though alarming part of any ceremony of welcome’ (a ritual Beaglehole compares to the Māori haka). Beaglehole adds that the modern Niueans also held that ‘the challengers had adorned their lips with a scarlet dye, the juice of the hulahula banana, and Cook flew to the conclusion that they were cannibals, dripping with the blood of their victims.’

Beaglehole himself thinks this story is ‘rather too obviously made-up,’ and that the tale of the red banana-juice, in particular, ‘is of course a bit of native mythology, “rationalization,” to make the story more persuasive.’ It’s also fair to note that that the local story does nothing to explain Cook’s report (supported, as Beaglehole notes, by the accounts of some of his crew) that his party had various missiles thrown at them.

Cook did not give Niue the name ‘Savage Island’ because he inferred that its people were cannibals from a red substance in their teeth.

One thing, in any case, should now be clear. The story about the red bananas is a local tradition that seems to have grown up in Niue in the generations after Cook’s visit. But Cook did not give Niue the name ‘Savage Island’ because he inferred that its people were cannibals from a red substance in their teeth. He gave the island the name ‘Savage Island,’ as he himself indicates, because its natives attacked him and his men in an energetic manner on both of the occasions that he tried to establish a foothold on the island.

Final thoughts

Given how clear Cook is about his reasons for calling Niue ‘Savage Island,’ and how easily his journals can now be checked online, what explains the continuing circulation of the story about the red bananas?

One important factor is clearly the story’s presence on Wikipedia, one of the most-viewed websites in the world and almost certainly the first port of call for travel bloggers keen to write up that short post on Niue. Tony Horowitz’s referencing slip in his book (mistaking Beaglehole’s note for one written by Cook) has also played a key role in the survival of the tale.

We might also wonder, though, why so many writers have apparently been so happy to pass on this particular story about Cook without putting in the tiny amount of work that would be required to check it.

If Beaglehole is right, the story about the red bananas emerged from modern, Christianized Niueans’ embarrassment at the idea that they would have attacked Cook’s crew so violently, even as they tried to make clear that they meant the natives no harm. From a broad anthropological perspective, that the Niueans attacked these strange-looking newcomers shouldn’t really come as that much of a shock. Whether traditional tribes have a tendency to attack any outsiders who stray into their territory as a default policy is the subject of some controversy; but violent attacks on newcomers certainly aren’t unknown, as the recent case of the American missionary who was killed after attempting to land on North Sentinel Island in the Indian Ocean reminds us. Even so, most people nowadays, including both residents of Niue and visitors to the island, would probably prefer to believe a less violent story than the one Cook records in his journal.

But would they – would we – also prefer to believe a story that shows Cook in a more negative light? The banana story has Cook leaping to the conclusion that the Niueans were cannibals based on what seems like a rather basic misunderstanding of local conditions (or, at least, of native plant species). It also gives an origin story for the name ‘Savage Island’ that makes Cook’s choice of this pejorative label very hard to justify. All the Niueans did is eat some local bananas, the story tells us – and this celebrated European voyager and scientist decided this meant they were cannibals and savages!

Of course, nobody would now argue that Cook was right to give the island this frankly insulting name, whatever his reception. At the same time, the full account in his journals at least makes his choice of that name a bit more understandable. Cook might well have been killed had that spear passed slightly lower, and that will surely have had an impact on his state of mind when he wrote up the episode in his journal.

That episode is only one of the many fascinating episodes of first contact between Europeans and Polynesians that took place during the 17th and 18th centuries. The whole set of these episodes make up a complex tapestry of interaction, one that includes both positive aspects (the beginnings of trade and other forms of collaboration, not excluding genuine love affairs) and negative ones (colonization, dispossession, and the introduction of novel pathogens).

It’s certainly not the burden of this short piece to argue that European colonialists never leapt to racist and incorrect conclusions about natives, nor even that Cook never did this himself (even if works like Gananath Obeyesekere’s 2005 Cannibal Talk surely go too far in seeing cannibalism as more or less entirely a product of Western discourses). What the truth about the story about the red bananas may remind us of, though – besides the perennial benefits of checking sources – is that the history of European attitudes to the Pacific isn’t always quite as unrelievedly dark as it might now seem. 

Postscript: How red are red bananas?

Niue Tourism board at Opaahi featuring a version of the banana story

The picture at the head of this article was taken in the village of Mutalau on Niue. A local guide told me that this was the type of banana that had been smeared on the natives’ teeth when Cook spotted them (according to the story). As you can see from the photograph, the outer peel of these bananas has a reddish tinge.

But is the fruit of red bananas really red? Though I’m no banana specialist, the more I’ve looked into this question, the more my doubts have grown. The fruit of the fe’i banana (which is usually said to be what the Niueans had been eating in 1774) seems to be yellow. This obviously makes the version of the story in which the natives had just been eating a local banana variety even harder to credit.

Sharp-eyed readers may have noticed that Beaglehole in his note speaks of ‘the juice’ of the banana. This may refer to the juice of the chewed-up fruit, or it may be consistent with another variation on the story (present on the official tourist information board pictured above) in which the islanders deliberately smeared their teeth with red sap from the banana tree in order to scare Cook and his men off. And the fe’i banana does seem to have a vermilion sap.

This story makes a little more sense, but is still completely at odds with the accounts of Cook and his men in a way that would need to be explained. In any case, it still seems clear that Cook did not call Niue ‘Savage Island’ because he had seen anyone with red (or vermilion) teeth. Readers with more experience of red banana species are welcome to get in touch – especially if that experience is more than skin-deep.

Cover photo: Author’s photo of some bananas with a reddish tinge to their peels, taken in Mutalau, Niue


  • James Kierstead

    James Kierstead is Senior Lecurer in Classics at Victoria University and a Research Fellow at the New Zealand Initiative. Together with Michael Johnston he co-hosts Free Kiwis!, a podcast dedicated to issues to do with freedom and free speech in a New Zealand context. He tweets @Kleisthenes2

James Kierstead

James Kierstead

James Kierstead is Senior Lecurer in Classics at Victoria University and a Research Fellow at the New Zealand Initiative. Together with Michael Johnston he co-hosts Free Kiwis!, a podcast dedicated to issues to do with freedom and free speech in a New Zealand context. He tweets @Kleisthenes2