When we want to assure ourselves, by means of taste, about any unknown object—say a lump of some white stuff, which may be crystal, or glass, or alum, or borax, or quartz, or rock-salt—we put the tip of the tongue against it gingerly. If it begins to burn us, we draw it away more or less rapidly with an accompaniment in language strictly dependent upon our personal habits and manners. The test we thus occasionally apply, even in the civilised adult state, to unknown bodies is one that is being applied every day and all day long by children and savages. Unsophisticated humanity is constantly putting everything it sees up to its mouth in a frank spirit of experimental inquiry as to its gustatory properties. In civilised life we find everything ready labelled and assorted for us; we comparatively seldom require to roll the contents of a suspicious bottle (in very small quantities) doubtfully upon the tongue in order to discover whether it is pale sherry or Chili vinegar, Dublin stout or mushroom ketchup. But in the savage state, from which, geologically and biologically speaking, we have only just emerged, bottles and labels do not exist. Primitive man, therefore, in his sweet simplicity, has only two modes open before him for deciding whether the things he finds are or are not strictly edible. The first thing he does is to sniff at them; and smell, being, as Mr. Herbert Spencer has well put it, an anticipatory taste, generally gives him some idea of what the thing is likely to prove. The second thing he does is to pop it into his mouth, and proceed practically to examine its further characteristics.
Strictly speaking, with the tip of the tongue one can't really taste at all. If you put a small drop of honey or of oil of bitter almonds on that part of the mouth, you will find (no doubt to your great surprise) that it produces no effect of any sort; you only taste it when it begins slowly to diffuse itself, and reaches the true tasting region in the middle distance. But if you put a little cayenne or mustard on the same part, you will find that it bites you immediately—the experiment should be tried sparingly—while if you put it lower down in the mouth you will swallow it almost without noticing the pungency of the stimulant. The reason is, that the tip of the tongue is supplied only with nerves which are really nerves of touch, not nerves of taste proper; they belong to a totally different main branch, and they go to a different centre in the brain, together with the very similar threads which supply the nerves of smell for mustard and pepper. That is why the smell and taste of these pungent substances are so much alike, as everybody must have noticed, a good sniff at a mustard-pot producing almost the same irritating effects as an incautious mouthful. As a rule we don't accurately distinguish, it is true, between these different regions of taste in the mouth in ordinary life; but that is because we usually roll our food about instinctively, without paying much attention to the particular part affected by it. Indeed, when one is trying deliberate experiments in the subject, in order to test the varying sensitiveness of the different parts to different substances, it is necessary to keep the tongue quite dry, in order to isolate the thing you are experimenting with, and prevent its spreading to all parts of the mouth together. In actual practice this result is obtained in a rather ludicrous manner—by blowing upon the tongue, between each experiment, with a pair of bellows. To such undignified expedients does the pursuit of science lead the ardent modern psychologist. Those domestic rivals of Dr. Forbes Winslow, the servants, who behold the enthusiastic investigator alternately drying his tongue in this ridiculous fashion, as if he were a blacksmith's fire, and then squeezing out a single drop of essence of pepper, vinegar, or beef-tea from a glass syringe upon the dry surface, not unnaturally arrive at the conclusion that master has gone stark mad, and that, in their private opinion, it's the microscope and the skeleton as has done it.
Above all things, we don't want to be flayed alive. So the kinds of tastes discriminated by the tip of the tongue are the pungent, like pepper, cayenne and mustard; the astringent, like borax and alum; the alkaline, like soda and potash; the acid, like vinegar and green fruit; and the saline, like salt and ammonia. Almost all the bodies likely to give rise to such tastes (or, more correctly, sensations of touch in the tongue) are obviously unwholesome and destructive in their character, at least when taken in large quantities. Nobody wishes to drink nitric acid by the quart. The first business of this part of the tongue is, therefore, to warn us emphatically against caustic substances and corrosive acids, against vitriol and kerosene, spirits of wine and ether, capsicums and burning leaves or roots, such as those of the common English lords-and-ladies. Things of this sort are immediately destructive to the very tissues of the tongue and palate; if taken incautiously in too large doses, they burn the skin off the roof of the mouth; and when swallowed they play havoc, of course, with our internal arrangements. It is highly advisable, therefore, to have an immediate warning of these extremely dangerous substances, at the very outset of our feeding apparatus.
This kind of taste hardly differs from touch or burning. The sensibility of the tip of the tongue is only a very slight modification of the sensibility possessed by the skin generally, and especially by the inner folds over all delicate parts of the body. We all know that common caustic burns us wherever it touches; and it burns the tongue only in a somewhat more marked manner. Nitric or sulphuric acid attacks the fingers each after its own kind. A mustard plaster makes us tingle almost immediately; and the action of mustard on the tongue hardly differs, except in being more instantaneous and more discriminative. Cantharides work in just the same way. If you cut a red pepper in two and rub it on your neck, it will sting just as it does when put into soup (this experiment, however, is best tried upon one's younger brother; if made personally, it hardly repays the trouble and annoyance). Even vinegar and other acids, rubbed into the skin, are followed by a slight tingling; while the effect of brandy, applied, say, to the arms, is gently stimulating and pleasurable, somewhat in the same way as when normally swallowed in conjunction with the habitual seltzer. In short, most things which give rise to distinct tastes when applied to the tip of the tongue give rise to fainter sensations when applied to the skin generally. And one hardly needs to be reminded that pepper or vinegar placed (accidentally as a rule) on the inner surface of the eyelids produces a very distinct and unpleasant smart.
The fact is, the liability to be chemically affected by pungent or acid bodies is common to every part of the skin; but it is least felt where the tough outer skin is thickest, and most felt where that skin is thinnest, and the nerves are most plentifully distributed near the surface. A mustard plaster would probably fail to draw at all on one's heel or the palm of one's hand; while it is decidedly painful on one's neck or chest; and a mere speck of mustard inside the eyelid gives one positive torture for hours together. Now, the tip of the tongue is just a part of one's body specially set aside for this very object, provided with an extremely thin skin, and supplied with an immense number of nerves, on purpose so as to be easily affected by all such pungent, alkaline, or spirituous substances. Sir Wilfrid Lawson would probably conclude that it was deliberately designed by Providence to warn us against a wicked indulgence in the brandy and seltzer aforesaid.
At first sight it might seem as though there were hardly enough of such pungent and fiery things in existence to make it worth while for us to be provided with a special mechanism for guarding against them. That is true enough, no doubt, as regards our modern civilised life; though, even now, it is perhaps just as well that our children should have an internal monitor (other than conscience) to dissuade them immediately from indiscriminate indulgence in photographic chemicals, the contents of stray medicine bottles, and the best dried West India chilies. But in an earlier period of progress, and especially in tropical countries (where the Darwinians have now decided the human race made its first debut upon this or any other stage), things were very different indeed. Pungent and poisonous plants and fruits abounded on every side. We have all of us in our youth been taken in by some too cruelly waggish companion, who insisted upon making us eat the bright, glossy leaves of the common English arum, which without look pretty and juicy enough, but within are full of the concentrated essence of pungency and profanity. Well, there are hundreds of such plants, even in cold climates, to tempt the eyes and poison the veins of unsuspecting cattle or childish humanity. There is buttercup, so horribly acrid that cows carefully avoid it in their closest cropped pastures; and yet your cow is not usually a too dainty animal. There is aconite, the deadly poison with which Dr. Lamson removed his troublesome relatives. There is baneberry, whose very name sufficiently describes its dangerous nature. There are horse-radish, and stinging rocket, and biting wall-pepper, and still smarter water-pepper, and worm-wood, and nightshade, and spurge, and hemlock, and half a dozen other equally unpleasant weeds. All of these have acquired their pungent and poisonous properties, just as nettles have acquired their sting, and thistles their thorns, in order to prevent animals from browsing upon them and destroying them. And the animals in turn have acquired a very delicate sense of pungency on purpose to warn them beforehand of the existence of such dangerous and undesirable qualities in the plants which they might otherwise be tempted incautiously to swallow.
In tropical woods, where our 'hairy quadrumanous ancestor' (Darwinian for the primaeval monkey, from whom we are presumably descended) used playfully to disport himself, as yet unconscious of his glorious destiny as the remote progenitor of Shakespeare, Milton, and the late Mr. Peace—in tropical woods, such acrid or pungent fruits and plants are particularly common, and correspondingly annoying. The fact is, our primitive forefather and all the other monkeys are, or were, confirmed fruit-eaters. But to guard against their depredations a vast number of tropical fruits and nuts have acquired disagreeable or fiery rinds and shells, which suffice to deter the bold aggressor. It may not be nice to get your tongue burnt with a root or fruit, but it is at least a great deal better than getting poisoned; and, roughly speaking, pungency in external nature exactly answers to the rough gaudy labels which some chemists paste on bottles containing poisons. It means to say, 'This fruit or leaf, if you eat it in any quantities, will kill you.' That is the true explanation of capsicums, pimento, colocynth, croton oil, the upas tree, and the vast majority of bitter, acrid, or fiery fruits and leaves. If we had to pick up our own livelihood, as our naked ancestors had to do, from roots, seeds, and berries, we should far more readily appreciate this simple truth. We should know that a great many more plants than we now suspect are bitter or pungent, and therefore poisonous. Even in England we are familiar enough with such defences as those possessed by the outer rind of the walnut; but the tropical cashew-nut has a rind so intensely acrid that it blisters the lips and fingers instantaneously, in the same way as cantharides would do. I believe that on the whole, taking nature throughout, more fruits and nuts are poisonous, or intensely bitter, or very fiery, than are sweet, luscious, and edible.
'But,' says that fidgety person, the hypothetical objector (whom one always sets up for the express purpose of promptly knocking him down again), 'if it be the business of the fore part of the tongue to warn us against pungent and acrid substances, how comes it that we purposely use such things as mustard, pepper, curry-powder, and vinegar?' Well, in themselves all these things are, strictly speaking, bad for us; but in small quantities they act as agreeable stimulants; and we take care in preparing most of them to get rid of the most objectionable properties. Moreover, we use them, not as foods, but merely as condiments. One drop of oil of capsicums is enough to kill a man, if taken undiluted; but in actual practice we buy it in such a very diluted form that comparatively little harm arises from using it. Still, very young children dislike all these violent stimulants, even in small quantities; they won't touch mustard, pepper, or vinegar, and they recoil at once from wine or spirits. It is only by slow degrees that we learn these unnatural tastes, as our nerves get blunted and our palates jaded; and we all know that the old Indian who can eat nothing but dry curries, devilled biscuits, anchovy paste, pepper-pot, mulligatawny soup, Worcestershire sauce, preserved ginger, hot pickles, fiery sherry, and neat cognac, is also a person with no digestion, a fragmentary liver, and very little chance of getting himself accepted by any safe and solvent insurance office. Throughout, the warning in itself is a useful one; it is we who foolishly and persistently disregard it. Alcohol, for example, tells us at once that it is bad for us; yet we manage so to dress it up with flavouring matters and dilute it with water that we overlook the fiery character of the spirit itself. But that alcohol is in itself a bad thing (when freely indulged in) has been so abundantly demonstrated in the history of mankind that it hardly needs any further proof.
The middle region of the tongue is the part with which we experience sensations of taste proper—that is to say, of sweetness and bitterness. In a healthy, natural state all sweet things are pleasant to us, and all bitters (even if combined with sherry) unpleasant. The reason for this is easy enough to understand. It carries us back at once into those primaeval tropical forests, where our 'hairy ancestor' used to diet himself upon the fruits of the earth in due season. Now, almost all edible fruits, roots, and tubers contain sugar; and therefore the presence of sugar is, in the wild condition, as good a rough test of whether anything is good to eat as one could easily find. In fact, the argument cuts both ways: edible fruits are sweet because they are intended for man and other animals to eat; and man and other animals have a tongue pleasurably affected by sugar because sugary things in nature are for them in the highest degree edible. Our early progenitors formed their taste upon oranges, mangoes, bananas, and grapes; upon sweet potatoes, sugar-cane, dates, and wild honey. There is scarcely anything fitted for human food in the vegetable world (and our earliest ancestors were most undoubted vegetarians) which does not contain sugar in considerable quantities. In temperate climates (where man is but a recent intruder), we have taken, it is true, to regarding wheaten bread as the staff of life; but in our native tropics enormous populations still live almost exclusively upon plantains, bananas, bread-fruit, yams, sweet potatoes, dates, cocoanuts, melons, cassava, pine-apples, and figs. Our nerves have been adapted to the circumstances of our early life as a race in tropical forests; and we still retain a marked liking for sweets of every sort. Not content with our strawberries, raspberries, gooseberries, currants, apples, pears, cherries, plums and other northern fruits, we ransack the world for dates, figs, raisins, and oranges. Indeed, in spite of our acquired meat-eating propensities, it may be fairly said that fruits and seeds (including wheat, rice, peas, beans, and other grains and pulse) still form by far the most important element in the food-stuffs of human populations generally.
But besides the natural sweets, we have also taken to producing artificial ones. Has any housewife ever realised the alarming condition of cookery in the benighted generations before the invention of sugar? It is really almost too appalling to think about. So many things that we now look upon as all but necessaries—cakes, puddings, made dishes, confectionery, preserves, sweet biscuits, jellies, cooked fruits, tarts, and so forth—were then practically quite impossible. Fancy attempting nowadays to live a single day without sugar; no tea, no coffee, no jam, no pudding, no cake, no sweets, no hot toddy before one goes to bed; the bare idea of it is too terrible. And yet that was really the abject condition of all the civilised world up to the middle of the middle ages. Horace's punch was sugarless and lemonless; the gentle Virgil never tasted the congenial cup of afternoon tea; and Socrates went from his cradle to his grave without ever knowing the flavour of peppermint bull's eyes. How the children managed to spend their Saturday as, or their weekly obolus, is a profound mystery. To be sure, people had honey; but honey is rare, dear, and scanty; it can never have filled one quarter the place that sugar fills in our modern affections. Try for a moment to realise drinking honey with one's whisky-and-water, or doing the year's preserving with a pot of best Narbonne, and you get at once a common measure of the difference between the two as practical sweeteners. Nowadays, we get sugar from cane and beet-root in abundance, while sugar-maples and palm-trees of various sorts afford a considerable supply to remoter countries. But the childhood of the little Greeks and Romans must have been absolutely unlighted by a single ray of joy from chocolate creams or Everton toffee.
The consequence of this excessive production of sweets in modern times is, of course, that we have begun to distrust the indications afforded us by the sense of taste in this particular as to the wholesomeness of various objects. We can mix sugar with anything we like, whether it had sugar in it to begin with or otherwise; and by sweetening and flavouring we can give a false palatableness to even the worst and most indigestible rubbish, such as plaster-of-Paris, largely sold under the name of sugared almonds to the ingenuous youth of two hemispheres. But in untouched nature the test rarely or never fails. As long as fruits are unripe and unfit for human food, they are green and sour; as soon as they ripen they become soft and sweet, and usually acquire some bright colour as a sort of advertisement of their edibility. In the main, bar the accidents of civilisation, whatever is sweet is good to eat—nay more, is meant to be eaten; it is only our own perverse folly that makes us sometimes think all nice things bad for us, and all wholesome things nasty. In a state of nature, the exact opposite is really the case. One may observe, too, that children, who are literally young savages in more senses than one, stand nearer to the primitive feeling in this respect than grown-up people. They unaffectedly like sweets; adults, who have grown more accustomed to the artificial meat diet, don't, as a rule, care much for puddings, cakes, and made dishes. (May I venture parenthetically to add, any appearance to the contrary notwithstanding, that I am not a vegetarian, and that I am far from desiring to bring down upon my devoted head the imprecation pronounced against the rash person who would rob a poor man of his beer. It is quite possible to believe that vegetarianism was the starting point of the race, without wishing to consider it also as the goal; just as it is quite possible to regard clothes as purely artificial products of civilisation, without desiring personally to return to the charming simplicity of the Garden of Eden.)
Bitter things in nature at large, on the contrary, are almost invariably poisonous. Strychnia, for example, is intensely bitter, and it is well known that life cannot be supported on strychnia alone for more than a few hours. Again, colocynth and aloes are far from being wholesome food stuffs, for a continuance; and the bitter end of cucumber does not conduce to the highest standard of good living. The bitter matter in decaying apples is highly injurious when swallowed, which it isn't likely to be by anybody who ever tastes it. Wormwood and walnut-shells contain other bitter and poisonous principles; absinthe, which is made from one of them, is a favourite slow poison with the fashionable young men of Paris, who wish to escape prematurely from 'Le monde ou l'on s'ennuie.' But prussic acid is the commonest component in all natural bitters, being found in bitter almonds, apple pips, the kernels of mangosteens, and many other seeds and fruits. Indeed, one may say roughly that the object of nature generally is to prevent the actual seeds of edible fruits from being eaten and digested; and for this purpose, while she stores the pulp with sweet juices, she encloses the seed itself in hard stony coverings, and makes it nasty with bitter essences. Eat an orange-pip, and you will promptly observe how effectual is this arrangement. As a rule, the outer rind of nuts is bitter, and the inner kernel of edible fruits. The tongue thus warns us immediately against bitter things, as being poisonous, and prevents us automatically from swallowing them.
'But how is it,' asks our objector again, 'that so many poisons are tasteless, or even, like sugar of lead, pleasant to the palate?' The answer is (you see, we knock him down again, as usual) because these poisons are themselves for the most part artificial products; they do not occur in a state of nature, at least in man's ordinary surroundings. Almost every poisonous thing that we are really liable to meet with in the wild state we are warned against at once by the sense of taste; but of course it would be absurd to suppose that natural selection could have produced a mode of warning us against poisons which have never before occurred in human experience. One might just as well expect that it should have rendered us dynamite-proof, or have given us a skin like the hide of a rhinoceros to protect us against the future contingency of the invention of rifles.
Sweets and bitters are really almost the only tastes proper, almost the only ones discriminated by this central and truly gustatory region of the tongue and palate. Most so-called flavourings will be found on strict examination to be nothing more than mixtures with these of certain smells, or else of pungent, salty, or alkaline matters, distinguished as such by the tip of the tongue. For instance, paradoxical as it sounds to say so, cinnamon has really no taste at all, but only a smell. Nobody will ever believe this on first hearing, but nothing on earth is easier than to put it to the test. Take a small piece of cinnamon, hold your nose tightly, rather high up, between the thumb and finger, and begin chewing it. You will find that it is absolutely tasteless; you are merely chewing a perfectly insipid bit of bark. Then let go your nose, and you will find immediately that it 'tastes' strongly, though in reality it is only the perfume from it that you now permit to rise into the smelling-chamber in the nose. So, again, cloves have only a pungent taste and a peculiar smell, and the same is the case more or less with almost all distinctive flavourings. When you come to find of what they are made up, they consist generally of sweets or bitters, intermixed with certain ethereal perfumes, or with pungent or acid tastes, or with both or several such together. In this way, a comparatively small number of original elements, variously combined, suffice to make up the whole enormous mass of recognisably different tastes and flavours.
The third and lowest part of the tongue and throat is the seat of those peculiar tastes to which Professor Bain, the great authority upon this important philosophical subject, has given the names of relishes and disgusts. It is here, chiefly, that we taste animal food, fats, butters, oils, and the richer class of vegetables and made dishes. If we like them, we experience a sensation which may be called a relish, and which induces one to keep rolling the morsel farther down the throat, till it passes at last beyond the region of our voluntary control. If we don't like them, we get the sensation which may be called a disgust, and which is very different from the mere unpleasantness of excessively pungent or bitter things. It is far less of an intellectual and far more of a physical and emotional feeling. We say, and say rightly, of such things that we find it hard to swallow them; a something within us (of a very tangible nature) seems to rise up bodily and protest against them. As a very good example of this experience, take one's first attempt to swallow cod-liver oil. Other things may be unpleasant or unpalatable, but things of this class are in the strictest sense nasty and disgusting.
The fact is, the lower part of the tongue is supplied with nerves in close sympathy with the digestion. If the food which has been passed by the two previous examiners is found here to be simple and digestible, it is permitted to go on unchallenged; if it is found to be too rich, too bilious, or too indigestible, a protest is promptly entered against it, and if we are wise we will immediately desist from eating any more of it. It is here that the impartial tribunal of nature pronounces definitely against roast goose, mince pies, pate de foie gras, sally lunn, muffins and crumpets, and creamy puddings. It is here, too, that the slightest taint in meat, milk, or butter is immediately detected; that rancid pastry from the pastrycook's is ruthlessly exposed; and that the wiles of the fishmonger are set at naught by the judicious palate. It is the special duty, in fact, of this last examiner to discover, not whether food is positively destructive, not whether it is poisonous or deleterious in nature, but merely whether it is then and there digestible or undesirable.
As our state of health varies greatly from time to time, however, so do the warnings of this last sympathetic adviser change and flicker. Sweet things are always sweet, and bitter things always bitter; vinegar is always sour, and ginger always hot in the mouth, too, whatever our state of health or feeling. But our taste for roast loin of mutton, high game, salmon cutlets, and Gorgonzola cheese varies immensely from time to time, with the passing condition of our health and digestion. In illness, and especially in sea-sickness, one gets the distaste carried to the extreme: you may eat grapes or suck an orange in the chops of the Channel, but you do not feel warmly attached to the steward who offers you a basin of greasy ox-tail, or consoles you with promises of ham sandwiches in half a minute. Under those two painful conditions it is the very light, fresh, and stimulating things that one can most easily swallow—champagne, soda-water, strawberries, peaches; not lobster salad, sardines on toast, green Chartreuse, or hot brandy-and-water. On the other hand, in robust health, and when hungry with exercise, you can eat fat pork with relish on a Scotch hillside, or dine off fresh salmon three days running without inconvenience. Even a Spanish stew, with plenty of garlic in it, and floating in olive oil, tastes positively delicious after a day's mountaineering in the Pyrenees.
The healthy popular belief, still surviving in spite of cookery, that our likes and dislikes are the best guide to what is good for us, finds its justification in this fact, that whatever is relished will prove on the average wholesome, and whatever rouses disgust will prove on the whole indigestible. Nothing can be more wrong, for example, than to make children eat fat when they don't want it. A healthy child likes fat, and eats as much of it as he can get. If a child shows signs of disgust at fat, that proves that it is of a bilious temperament, and it ought never to be forced into eating it against its will. Most of us are bilious in after-life just because we were compelled to eat rich food in childhood, which we felt instinctively was unsuitable for us. We might still be indulging with impunity in thick turtle, canvas-back ducks, devilled whitebait, meringues, and Nesselrode puddings, if we hadn't been so persistently overdosed in our earlier years with things that we didn't want and knew were indigestible.
Of course, in our existing modern cookery, very few simple and uncompounded tastes are still left to us; everything is so mixed up together that only by an effort of deliberate experiment can one discover what are the special effects of special tastes upon the tongue and palate. Salt is mixed with almost everything we eat—sal sapit omnia—and pepper or cayenne is nearly equally common. Butter is put into the peas, which have been previously adulterated by being boiled with mint; and cucumber is unknown except in conjunction with oil and vinegar. This makes it comparatively difficult for us to realise the distinctness of the elements which go to make up most tastes as we actually experience them. Moreover, a great many eatable objects have hardly any taste of their own, properly speaking, but only a feeling of softness, or hardness, or glutinousness in the mouth, mainly observed in the act of chewing them. For example, plain boiled rice is almost wholly insipid; but even in its plainest form salt has usually been boiled with it, and in practice we generally eat it with sugar, preserves, curry, or some other strongly flavoured condiment. Again, plain boiled tapioca and sago (in water) are as nearly tasteless as anything can be; they merely yield a feeling of gumminess; but milk, in which they are oftenest cooked, gives them a relish (in the sense here restricted), and sugar, eggs, cinnamon, or nutmeg are usually added by way of flavouring. Even turbot has hardly any taste proper, except in the glutinous skin, which has a faint relish; the epicure values it rather because of its softness, its delicacy, and its light flesh. Gelatine by itself is merely very swallowable; we must mix sugar, wine, lemon-juice, and other flavourings in order to make it into good jelly. Salt, spices, essences, vanilla, vinegar, pickles, capers, ketchups, sauces, chutneys, lime-juice, curry, and all the rest, are just our civilised expedients for adding the pleasure of pungency and acidity to naturally insipid foods, by stimulating the nerves of touch in the tongue, just as sugar is our tribute to the pure gustatory sense, and oil, butter, bacon, lard, and the various fats used in frying to the sense of relish which forms the last element in our compound taste. A boiled sole is all very well when one is just convalescent, but in robust health we demand the delights of egg and bread-crumb, which are after all only the vehicle for the appetising grease. Plain boiled macaroni may pass muster in the unsophisticated nursery, but in the pampered dining-room it requires the aid of toasted parmesan. Good modern cookery is the practical result of centuries of experience in this direction; the final flower of ages of evolution, devoted to the equalisation of flavours in all human food. Think of the generations of fruitless experiment that must have passed before mankind discovered that mint sauce (itself a cunning compound of vinegar and sugar) ought to be eaten with leg of lamb, that roast goose required a corrective in the shape of apple, and that while a pre-established harmony existed between salmon and lobster, oysters were ordained beforehand by nature as the proper accompaniment of boiled cod. Whenever I reflect upon such things, I become at once a good Positivist, and offer up praise in my own private chapel to the Spirit of Humanity which has slowly perfected these profound rules of good living.
The title which heads this paper is intended to be Latin, and is modelled on the precedent of the De Amicitia, De Senectute, De Corona, and other time-honoured plagues of our innocent boyhood. It is meant to give dignity and authority to the subject with which it deals, as well as to rouse curiosity in the ingenuous breast of the candid reader, who may perhaps mistake it, at first sight, for negro-English, or for the name of a distinguished Norman family. In anticipation of the possible objection that the word 'Banana' is not strictly classical, I would humbly urge the precept and example of my old friend Horace—enemy I once thought him—who expresses his approbation of those happy innovations whereby Latium was gradually enriched with a copious vocabulary. I maintain that if Banana, bananae, &c., is not already a Latin noun of the first declension, why then it ought to be, and it shall be in future. Linnaeus indeed thought otherwise. He too assigned the plant and fruit to the first declension, but handed it over to none other than our earliest acquaintance in the Latin language, Musa. He called the banana Musa sapientum. What connection he could possibly conceive between that woolly fruit and the daughters of the aegis-bearing Zeus, or why he should consider it a proof of wisdom to eat a particularly indigestible and nightmare-begetting food-stuff, passes my humble comprehension. The muses, so far as I have personally noticed their habits, always greatly prefer the grape to the banana, and wise men shun the one at least as sedulously as they avoid the other.
Let it not for a moment be supposed, however, that I wish to treat the useful and ornamental banana with intentional disrespect. On the contrary, I cherish for it—at a distance—feelings of the highest esteem and admiration. We are so parochial in our views, taking us as a species, that I dare say very few English people really know how immensely useful a plant is the common banana. To most of us it envisages itself merely as a curious tropical fruit, largely imported at Covent Garden, and a capital thing to stick on one of the tall dessert-dishes when you give a dinner-party, because it looks delightfully foreign, and just serves to balance the pine-apple at the opposite end of the hospitable mahogany. Perhaps such innocent readers will be surprised to learn that bananas and plantains supply the principal food-stuff of a far larger fraction of the human race than that which is supported by wheaten bread. They form the veritable staff of life to the inhabitants of both eastern and western tropics. What the potato is to the degenerate descendant of Celtic kings; what the oat is to the kilted Highlandman; what rice is to the Bengalee, and Indian corn to the American negro, that is the muse of sages (I translate literally from the immortal Swede) to African savages and Brazilian slaves. Humboldt calculated that an acre of bananas would supply a greater quantity of solid food to hungry humanity than could possibly be extracted from the same extent of cultivated ground by any other known plant. So you see the question is no small one; to sing the praise of this Linnaean muse is a task well worthy of the Pierian muses.
Do you know the outer look and aspect of the banana plant? If not, then you have never voyaged to those delusive tropics. Tropical vegetation, as ordinarily understood by poets and painters, consists entirely of the coco-nut palm and the banana bush. Do you wish to paint a beautiful picture of a rich ambrosial tropical island, a la Tennyson—a summer isle of Eden lying in dark purple spheres of sea?—then you introduce a group of coco-nuts, whispering in odorous heights of even, in the very foreground of your pretty sketch, just to let your public understand at a glance that these are the delicious poetical tropics. Do you desire to create an ideal paradise, a la Bernardin de St. Pierre, where idyllic Virginies die of pure modesty rather than appear before the eyes of their beloved but unwedded Pauls in a lace-bedraped peignoir?—then you strike the keynote by sticking in the middle distance a hut or cottage, overshadowed by the broad and graceful foliage of the picturesque banana. ('Hut' is a poor and chilly word for these glowing descriptions, far inferior to the pretty and high-sounding original chaumiere.) That is how we do the tropics when we want to work upon the emotions of the reader. But it is all a delicate theatrical illusion; a trick of art meant to deceive and impose upon the unwary who have never been there, and would like to think it all genuine. In reality, nine times out of ten, you might cast your eyes casually around you in any tropical valley, and, if there didn't happen to be a native cottage with a coco-nut grove and banana patch anywhere in the neighbourhood, you would see nothing in the way of vegetation which you mightn't see at home any day in Europe. But what painter would ever venture to paint the tropics without the palm trees? He might just as well try to paint the desert without the camels, or to represent St. Sebastian without a sheaf of arrows sticking unperceived in the calm centre of his unruffled bosom, to mark and emphasise his Sebastianic personality.
Still, I will frankly admit that the banana itself, with its practically almost identical relation, the plantain, is a real bit of tropical foliage. I confess to a settled prejudice against the tropics generally, but I allow the sunsets, the coco-nuts, and the bananas. The true stem creeps underground, and sends up each year an upright branch, thickly covered with majestic broad green leaves, somewhat like those of the canna cultivated in our gardens as 'Indian shot,' but far larger, nobler, and handsomer. They sometimes measure from six to ten feet in length, and their thick midrib and strongly marked diverging veins give them a very lordly and graceful appearance. But they are apt in practice to suffer much from the fury of the tropical storms. The wind rips the leaves up between the veins as far as the midrib in tangled tatters; so that after a good hurricane they look more like coco-nut palm leaves than like single broad masses of foliage as they ought properly to do. This, of course, is the effect of a gentle and balmy hurricane—a mere capful of wind that tears and tatters them. After a really bad storm (one of the sort when you tie ropes round your wooden house to prevent its falling bodily to pieces, I mean) the bananas are all actually blown down, and the crop for that season utterly destroyed. The apparent stem, being merely composed of the overlapping and sheathing leaf-stalks, has naturally very little stability; and the soft succulent trunk accordingly gives way forthwith at the slightest onslaught. This liability to be blown down in high winds forms the weak point of the plantain, viewed as a food-stuff crop. In the South Sea Islands, where there is little shelter, the poor Fijian, in cannibal days, often lost his one means of subsistence from this cause, and was compelled to satisfy the pangs of hunger on the plump persons of his immediate relatives. But since the introduction of Christianity, and of a dwarf stout wind-proof variety of banana, his condition in this respect, I am glad to say, has been greatly ameliorated.
By descent the banana bush is a developed tropical lily, not at all remotely allied to the common iris, only that its flowers and fruit are clustered together on a hanging spike, instead of growing solitary and separate as in the true irises. The blossoms, which, though pretty, are comparatively inconspicuous for the size of the plant, show the extraordinary persistence of the lily type; for almost all the vast number of species, more or less directly descended from the primitive lily, continue to the very end of the chapter to have six petals, six stamens, and three rows of seeds in their fruits or capsules. But practical man, with his eye always steadily fixed on the one important quality of edibility—the sum and substance to most people of all botanical research—has confined his attention almost entirely to the fruit of the banana. In all essentials (other than the systematically unimportant one just alluded to) the banana fruit in its original state exactly resembles the capsule of the iris—that pretty pod that divides in three when ripe, and shows the delicate orange-coated seeds lying in triple rows within—only, in the banana, the fruit does not open; in the sweet language of technical botany, it is an indehiscent capsule; and the seeds, instead of standing separate and distinct, as in the iris, are embedded in a soft and pulpy substance which forms the edible and practical part of the entire arrangement.
This is the proper appearance of the original and natural banana, before it has been taken in hand and cultivated by tropical man. When cut across the middle, it ought to show three rows of seeds, interspersed with pulp, and faintly preserving some dim memory of the dividing wall which once separated them. In practice, however, the banana differs widely from this theoretical ideal, as practice often will differ from theory; for it has been so long cultivated and selected by man—being probably one of the very oldest, if not actually quite the oldest, of domesticated plants—that it has all but lost the original habit of producing seeds. This is a common effect of cultivation on fruits, and it is of course deliberately aimed at by horticulturists, as the seeds are generally a nuisance, regarded from the point of view of the eater, and their absence improves the fruit, as long as one can manage to get along somehow without them. In the pretty little Tangierine oranges (so ingeniously corrupted by fruiterers into mandarins) the seeds have almost been cultivated out; in the best pine-apples, and in the small grapes known in the dried state as currants, they have quite disappeared; while in some varieties of pears they survive only in the form of shrivelled, barren, and useless pips. But the banana, more than any other plant we know of, has managed for many centuries to do without seeds altogether. The cultivated sort, especially in America, is quite seedless, and the plants are propagated entirely by suckers.
Still, you can never wholly circumvent nature. Expel her with a pitchfork, tamen usque recurrit. Now nature has settled that the right way to propagate plants is by means of seedlings. Strictly speaking, indeed, it is the only way; the other modes of growth from bulbs or cuttings are not really propagation, but mere reduplication by splitting, as when you chop a worm in two, and a couple of worms wriggle off contentedly forthwith in either direction. Just so when you divide a plant by cuttings, suckers, slips, or runners; the two apparent plants thus produced are in the last resort only separate parts of the same individual—one and indivisible, like the French Republic. Seedlings are absolutely distinct individuals; they are the product of the pollen of one plant and the ovules of another, and they start afresh in life with some chance of being fairly free from the hereditary taints or personal failings of either parent. But cuttings or suckers are only the same old plant over and over again in fresh circumstances, transplanted as it were, but not truly renovated or rejuvenescent. That is the real reason why our potatoes are now all going to—well, the same place as the army has been going ever since the earliest memories of the oldest officer in the whole service. We have gone on growing potatoes over and over again from the tubers alone, and hardly ever from seed, till the whole constitution of the potato kind has become permanently enfeebled by old age and dotage. The eyes (as farmers call them) are only buds or underground branches; and to plant potatoes as we usually do is nothing more than to multiply the apparent scions by fission. Odd as it may sound to say so, all the potato vines in a whole field are often, from the strict biological point of view, parts of a single much-divided individual. It is just as though one were to go on cutting up a single worm, time after time, as soon as he grew again, till at last the one original creature had multiplied into a whole colony of apparently distinct individuals. Yet, if the first worm happened to have the gout or the rheumatism (metaphorically speaking), all the other worms into which his compound personality had been divided would doubtless suffer from the same complaints throughout the whole of their joint lifetimes.
The banana, however, has very long resisted the inevitable tendency to degeneration in plants thus artificially and unhealthily propagated. Potatoes have only been in cultivation for a few hundred years; and yet the potato constitution has become so far enfeebled by the practice of growing from the tuber that the plants now fall an easy prey to potato fungus, Colorado beetles, and a thousand other persistent enemies. It is just the same with the vine—propagated too long by layers or cuttings, its health has failed entirely, and it can no longer resist the ravages of the phylloxera or the slow attacks of the vine-disease fungus. But the banana, though of very ancient and positively immemorial antiquity as a cultivated plant, seems somehow gifted with an extraordinary power of holding its own in spite of long-continued unnatural propagation. For thousands of years it has been grown in Asia in the seedless condition, and yet it springs as heartily as ever still from the underground suckers. Nevertheless, there must in the end be some natural limit to this wonderful power of reproduction, or rather of longevity; for, in the strictest sense, the banana bushes that now grow in the negro gardens of Trinidad and Demerara are part and parcel of the very same plants which grew and bore fruit a thousand years ago in the native compounds of the Malay Archipelago.
In fact, I think there can be but little doubt that the banana is the very oldest product of human tillage. Man, we must remember, is essentially by origin a tropical animal, and wild tropical fruits must necessarily have formed his earliest food-stuffs. It was among them of course that his first experiments in primitive agriculture would be tried; the little insignificant seeds and berries of cold northern regions would only very slowly be added to his limited stock in husbandry, as circumstances pushed some few outlying colonies northward and ever northward toward the chillier unoccupied regions. Now, of all tropical fruits, the banana is certainly the one that best repays cultivation. It has been calculated that the same area which will produce thirty-three pounds of wheat or ninety-nine pounds of potatoes will produce 4,400 pounds of plantains or bananas. The cultivation of the various varieties in India, China, and the Malay Archipelago dates, says De Candolle, 'from an epoch impossible to realise.' Its diffusion, as that great but very oracular authority remarks, may go back to a period 'contemporary with or even anterior to that of the human races.' What this remarkably illogical sentence may mean I am at a loss to comprehend; perhaps M. de Candolle supposes that the banana was originally cultivated by pre-human gorillas; perhaps he merely intends to say that before men began to separate they sent special messengers on in front of them to diffuse the banana in the different countries they were about to visit. Even legend retains some trace of the extreme antiquity of the species as a cultivated fruit, for Adam and Eve are said to have reclined under the shadow of its branches, whence Linnaeus gave to the sort known as the plantain the Latin name of Musa paradisiaca. If a plant was cultivated in Eden by the grand old gardener and his wife, as Lord Tennyson democratically styled them (before his elevation to the peerage), we may fairly conclude that it possesses a very respectable antiquity indeed.
The wild banana is a native of the Malay region, according to De Candolle, who has produced by far the most learned and unreadable work on the origin of domestic plants ever yet written. (Please don't give me undue credit for having heroically read it through out of pure love of science: I was one of its unfortunate reviewers.) The wild form produces seed, and grows in Cochin China, the Philippines, Ceylon, and Khasia. Like most other large tropical fruits, it no doubt owes its original development to the selective action of monkeys, hornbills, parrots and other big fruit-eaters; and it shares with all fruits of similar origin one curious tropical peculiarity. Most northern berries, like the strawberry, the raspberry, the currant, and the blackberry, developed by the selective action of small northern birds, can be popped at once into the mouth and eaten whole; they have no tough outer rind or defensive covering of any sort. But big tropical fruits, which lay themselves out for the service of large birds or monkeys, have always hard outer coats, because they could only be injured by smaller animals, who would eat the pulp without helping in the dispersion of the useful seeds, the one object really held in view by the mother plant. Often, as in the case of the orange, the rind even contains a bitter, nauseous, or pungent juice, while at times, as in the pine-apple, the prickly pear, the sweet-sop, and the cherimoyer, the entire fruit is covered with sharp projections, stinging hairs, or knobby protuberances, on purpose to warn off the unauthorised depredator. It was this line of defence that gave the banana in the first instance its thick yellow skin; and, looking at the matter from the epicure's point of view, one may say roughly that all tropical fruits have to be skinned before they can be eaten. They are all adapted for being cut up with a knife and fork, or dug out with a spoon, on a civilised dessert-plate. As for that most delicious of Indian fruits, the mango, it has been well said that the only proper way to eat it is over a tub of water, with a couple of towels hanging gracefully across the side.
The varieties of the banana are infinite in number, and, as in most other plants of ancient cultivation, they shade off into one another by infinitesimal gradations. Two principal sorts, however, are commonly recognised—the true banana of commerce, and the common plantain. The banana proper is eaten raw, as a fruit, and is allowed accordingly to ripen thoroughly before being picked for market; the plantain, which is the true food-stuff of all the equatorial region in both hemispheres, is gathered green and roasted as a vegetable, or, to use the more expressive West Indian negro phrase, as a bread-kind. Millions of human beings in Asia, Africa, America, and the islands of the Pacific Ocean live almost entirely on the mild and succulent but tasteless plantain. Some people like the fruit; to me personally it is more suggestive of a very flavourless over-ripe pear than of anything else in heaven or earth or the waters that are under the earth—the latter being the most probable place to look for it, as its taste and substance are decidedly watery. Baked dry in the green state 'it resembles roasted chestnuts,' or rather baked parsnip; pulped and boiled with water it makes 'a very agreeable sweet soup,' almost as nice as peasoup with brown sugar in it; and cut into slices, sweetened, and fried, it forms 'an excellent substitute for fruit pudding,' having a flavour much like that of potatoes a la maitre d'hotel served up in treacle.
Altogether a fruit to be sedulously avoided, the plantain, though millions of our spiritually destitute African brethren haven't yet for a moment discovered that it isn't every bit as good as wheaten bread and fresh butter. Missionary enterprise will no doubt before long enlighten them on this subject, and create a good market in time for American flour and Manchester piece-goods.
Though by origin a Malayan plant, there can be little doubt that the banana had already reached the mainland of America and the West India Islands long before the voyage of Columbus. When Pizarro disembarked upon the coast of Peru on his desolating expedition, the mild-eyed, melancholy, doomed Peruvians flocked down to the shore and offered him bananas in a lordly dish. Beds composed of banana leaves have been discovered in the tombs of the Incas, of date anterior, of course, to the Spanish conquest. How did they get there? Well, it is clearly an absurd mistake to suppose that Columbus discovered America; as Artemus Ward pertinently remarked, the noble Red Indian had obviously discovered it long before him. There had been intercourse of old, too, between Asia and the Western Continent; the elephant-headed god of Mexico, the debased traces of Buddhism in the Aztec religion, the singular coincidences between India and Peru, all seem to show that a stream of communication, however faint, once existed between the Asiatic and American worlds. Garcilaso himself, the half-Indian historian of Peru, says that the banana was well known in his native country before the conquest, and that the Indians say 'its origin is Ethiopia.' In some strange way or other, then, long before Columbus set foot upon the low sandbank of Cat's Island, the banana had been transported from Africa or India to the Western hemisphere.
If it were a plant propagated by seed, one would suppose that it was carried across by wind or waves, wafted on the feet of birds, or accidentally introduced in the crannies of drift timber. So the coco-nut made the tour of the world ages before either of the famous Cooks—the Captain or the excursion agent—had rendered the same feat easy and practicable; and so, too, a number of American plants have fixed their home in the tarns of the Hebrides or among the lonely bogs of Western Galway. But the banana must have been carried by man, because it is unknown in the wild state in the Western Continent; and, as it is practically seedless, it can only have been transported entire, in the form of a root or sucker. An exactly similar proof of ancient intercourse between the two worlds is afforded us by the sweet potato, a plant of undoubted American origin, which was nevertheless naturalised in China as early as the first centuries of the Christian era. Now that we all know how the Scandinavians of the eleventh century went to Massachusetts, which they called Vineland, and how the Mexican empire had some knowledge of Accadian astronomy, people are beginning to discover that Columbus himself was after all an egregious humbug.
In the old world the cultivation of the banana and the plantain goes back, no doubt, to a most immemorial antiquity. Our Aryan ancestor himself, Professor Max Mueller's especial protege, had already invented several names for it, which duly survive in very classical Sanskrit. The Greeks of Alexander's expedition saw it in India, where 'sages reposed beneath its shade and ate of its fruit, whence the botanical name, Musa sapientum.' As the sages in question were lazy Brahmans, always celebrated for their immense capacity for doing nothing, the report, as quoted by Pliny, is no doubt an accurate one. But the accepted derivation of the word Musa from an Arabic original seems to me highly uncertain; for Linnaeus, who first bestowed it on the genus, called several other allied genera by such cognate names as Urania and Heliconia. If, therefore, the father of botany knew that his own word was originally Arabic, we cannot acquit him of the high crime and misdemeanour of deliberate punning. Should the Royal Society get wind of this, something serious would doubtless happen; for it is well known that the possession of a sense of humour is absolutely fatal to the pretensions of a man of science.
Besides its main use as an article of food, the banana serves incidentally to supply a valuable fibre, obtained from the stem, and employed for weaving into textile fabrics and making paper. Several kinds of the plantain tribe are cultivated for this purpose exclusively, the best known among them being the so-called manilla hemp, a plant largely grown in the Philippine Islands. Many of the finest Indian shawls are woven from banana stems, and much of the rope that we use in our houses comes from the same singular origin. I know nothing more strikingly illustrative of the extreme complexity of our modern civilisation than the way in which we thus every day employ articles of exotic manufacture in our ordinary life without ever for a moment suspecting or inquiring into their true nature. What lady knows when she puts on her delicate wrapper, from Liberty's or from Swan and Edgar's, that the material from which it is woven is a Malayan plantain stalk? Who ever thinks that the glycerine for our chapped hands comes from Travancore coco-nuts, and that the pure butter supplied us from the farm in the country is coloured yellow with Jamaican annatto? We break a tooth, as Mr. Herbert Spencer has pointed out, because the grape-curers of Zante are not careful enough about excluding small stones from their stock of currants; and we suffer from indigestion because the Cape wine-grower has doctored his light Burgundies with Brazilian logwood and white rum, to make them taste like Portuguese port. Take merely this very question of dessert, and how intensely complicated it really is. The West Indian bananas keep company with sweet St. Michaels from the Azores, and with Spanish cobnuts from Barcelona. Dried fruits from Metz, figs from Smyrna, and dates from Tunis lie side by side on our table with Brazil nuts and guava jelly and damson cheese and almonds and raisins. We forget where everything comes from nowadays, in our general consciousness that they all come from the Queen Victoria Street Stores, and any real knowledge of common objects is rendered every day more and more impossible by the bewildering complexity and variety, every day increasing, of the common objects themselves, their substitutes, adulterates, and spurious imitations. Why, you probably never heard of manilla hemp before, until this very minute, and yet you have been familiarly using it all your lifetime, while 400,000 hundredweights of that useful article are annually imported into this country alone. It is an interesting study to take any day a list of market quotations, and ask oneself about every material quoted, what it is and what they do with it.
For example, can you honestly pretend that you really understand the use and importance of that valuable object of everyday demand, fustic? I remember an ill-used telegraph clerk in a tropical colony once complaining to me that English cable operators were so disgracefully ignorant about this important staple as invariably to substitute for its name the word 'justice' in all telegrams which originally referred to it. Have you any clear and definite notions as to the prime origin and final destination of a thing called jute, in whose sole manufacture the whole great and flourishing town of Dundee lives and moves and has its being? What is turmeric? Whence do we obtain vanilla? How many commercial products are yielded by the orchids? How many totally distinct plants in different countries afford the totally distinct starches lumped together in grocers' lists under the absurd name of arrowroot? When you ask for sago do you really see that you get it? and how many entirely different objects described as sago are known to commerce? Define the uses of partridge canes and cohune oil. What objects are generally manufactured from tucum? Would it surprise you to learn that English door-handles are commonly made out of coquilla nuts? that your wife's buttons are turned from the indurated fruit of the Tagua palm? and that the knobs of umbrellas grew originally in the remote depths of Guatemalan forests? Are you aware that a plant called manioc supplies the starchy food of about one-half the population of tropical America? These are the sort of inquiries with which a new edition of 'Mangnall's Questions' would have to be filled; and as to answering them—why, even the pupil-teachers in a London Board School (who represent, I suppose, the highest attainable level of human knowledge) would often find themselves completely nonplussed. The fact is, tropical trade has opened out so rapidly and so wonderfully that nobody knows much about the chief articles of tropical growth; we go on using them in an uninquiring spirit of childlike faith, much as the Jamaica negroes go on using articles of European manufacture about whose origin they are so ridiculously ignorant that one young woman once asked me whether it was really true that cotton handkerchiefs were dug up out of the ground over in England. Some dim confusion between coal or iron and Manchester piece-goods seemed to have taken firm possession of her infantile imagination.
That is why I have thought that a treatise De Banana might not, perhaps, be wholly without its usefulness to the modern English reading world. After all, a food-stuff which supports hundreds of millions among our beloved tropical fellow-creatures ought to be very dear to the heart of a nation which governs (and annually kills) more black people, taken in the mass, than all the other European powers put together. We have introduced the blessings of British rule—the good and well-paid missionary, the Remington rifle, the red-cotton pocket-handkerchief, and the use of 'the liquor called rum'—into so many remote corners of the tropical world that it is high time we should begin in return to learn somewhat about fetiches and fustic, Jamaica and jaggery, bananas and Buddhism. We know too little still about our colonies and dependencies. 'Cape Breton an island!' cried King George's Minister, the Duke of Newcastle, in the well-known story, 'Cape Breton an island! Why, so it is! God bless my soul! I must go and tell the King that Cape Breton's an island.' That was a hundred years ago; but only the other day the Board of Trade placarded all our towns and villages with a flaming notice to the effect that the Colorado beetle had made its appearance at 'a town in Canada called Ontario,' and might soon be expected to arrive at Liverpool by Cunard steamer. The right honourables and other high mightinesses who put forth the notice in question were evidently unaware that Ontario is a province as big as England, including in its borders Toronto, Ottawa, Kingston, London, Hamilton, and other large and flourishing towns. Apparently, in spite of competitive examinations, the schoolmaster is still abroad in the Government offices.
GO TO THE ANT
In the market-place at Santa Fe, in Mexico, peasant women from the neighbouring villages bring in for sale trayfuls of living ants, each about as big and round as a large white currant, and each entirely filled with honey or grape sugar, much appreciated by the ingenuous Mexican youth as an excellent substitute for Everton toffee. The method of eating them would hardly command the approbation of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. It is simple and primitive, but decidedly not humane. Ingenuous youth holds the ant by its head and shoulders, sucks out the honey with which the back part is absurdly distended, and throws away the empty body as a thing with which it has now no further sympathy. Maturer age buys the ants by the quart, presses out the honey through a muslin strainer, and manufactures it into a very sweet intoxicating drink, something like shandygaff, as I am credibly informed by bold persons who have ventured to experiment upon it, taken internally.
The curious insect which thus serves as an animated sweetmeat for the Mexican children is the honey-ant of the Garden of the Gods; and it affords a beautiful example of Mandeville's charming paradox that personal vices are public benefits—vitia privata humana commoda. The honey-ant is a greedy individual who has nevertheless nobly devoted himself for the good of the community by converting himself into a living honey-jar, from which all the other ants in his own nest may help themselves freely from time to time, as occasion demands. The tribe to which he belongs lives underground, in a dome-roofed vault, and only one particular caste among the workers, known as rotunds from their expansive girth, is told off for this special duty of storing honey within their own bodies. Clinging to the top of their nest, with their round, transparent abdomens hanging down loosely, mere globules of skin enclosing the pale amber-coloured honey, these Daniel Lamberts of the insect race look for all the world like clusters of the little American Delaware grapes, with an ant's legs and head stuck awkwardly on to the end instead of a stalk. They have, in fact, realised in everyday life the awful fate of Mr. Gilbert's discontented sugar-broker, who laid on flesh and 'adipose deposit' until he became converted at last into a perfect rolling ball of globular humanity.
The manners of the honey-ant race are very simple. Most of the members of each community are active and roving in their dispositions, and show no tendency to undue distension of the nether extremities. They go out at night and collect nectar or honey-dew from the gall-insects on oak-trees; for the gall-insect, like love in the old Latin saw, is fruitful both in sweets and bitters, melle et felle. This nectar they then carry home, and give it to the rotunds or honey-bearers, who swallow it and store it in their round abdomen until they can hold no more, having stretched their skins literally to the very point of bursting. They pass their time, like the Fat Boy in 'Pickwick,' chiefly in sleeping, but they cling upside down meanwhile to the roof of their residence. When the workers in turn require a meal, they go up to the nearest honey-bearer and stroke her gently with their antennae. The honey-bearer thereupon throws up her head and regurgitates a large drop of the amber liquid. ('Regurgitates' is a good word which I borrow from Dr. McCook, of Philadelphia, the great authority upon honey-ants; and it saves an immense deal of trouble in looking about for a respectable periphrasis.) The workers feed upon the drops thus exuded, two or three at once often standing around the living honey-jar, and lapping nectar together from the lips of their devoted comrade. This may seem at first sight rather an unpleasant practice on the part of the ants; but after all, how does it really differ from our own habit of eating honey which has been treated in very much the same unsophisticated manner by the domestic bee?
Worse things than these, however, Dr. McCook records to the discredit of the Colorado honey-ant. When he was opening some nests in the Garden of the Gods, he happened accidentally to knock down some of the rotunds, which straightway burst asunder in the middle, and scattered their store of honey on the floor of the nest. At once the other ants, tempted away from their instinctive task of carrying off the cocoons and young grubs, clustered around their unfortunate companion, like street boys around a broken molasses barrel, and, instead of forming themselves forthwith into a volunteer ambulance company, proceeded immediately to lap up the honey from their dying brother. On the other hand it must be said, to the credit of the race, that (unlike the members of Arctic expeditions) they never desecrate the remains of the dead. When a honey-bearer dies at his post, a victim to his zeal for the common good, the workers carefully remove his cold corpse from the roof where it still clings, clip off the head and shoulders from the distended abdomen, and convey their deceased brother piecemeal, in two detachments, to the formican cemetery, undisturbed. If they chose, they might only bury the front half of their late relation, while they retained his remaining moiety as an available honey-bag: but from this cannibal proceeding ant-etiquette recoils in decent horror; and the amber globes are 'pulled up galleries, rolled along rooms, and bowled into the graveyard, along with the juiceless heads, legs, and other members.' Such fraternal conduct would be very creditable to the worker honey-ants, were it not for a horrid doubt insinuated by Dr. McCook that perhaps the insects don't know they could get at the honey by breaking up the body of their lamented relative. If so, their apparent disregard of utilitarian considerations may really be due not to their sentimentality but to their hopeless stupidity.
The reason why the ants have taken thus to storing honey in the living bodies of their own fellows is easy enough to understand. They want to lay up for the future like prudent insects that they are; but they can't make wax, as the bees do, and they have not yet evolved the purely human art of pottery. Consequently—happy thought—why not tell off some of our number to act as jars on behalf of the others? Some of the community work by going out and gathering honey; they also serve who only stand and wait—who receive it from the workers, and keep it stored up in their own capacious indiarubber maws till further notice. So obvious is this plan for converting ants into animated honey-jars, that several different kinds of ants in different parts of the world, belonging to the most widely distinct families, have independently hit upon the very self-same device. Besides the Mexican species, there is a totally different Australian honey-ant, and another equally separate in Borneo and Singapore. This last kind does not store the honey in the hind part of the body technically known as the abdomen, but in the middle division which naturalists call the thorax, where it forms a transparent bladder-like swelling, and makes the creature look as though it were suffering with an acute attack of dropsy. In any case, the life of a honey-bearer must be singularly uneventful, not to say dull and monotonous; but no doubt any small inconvenience in this respect must be more than compensated for by the glorious consciousness that one is sacrificing one's own personal comfort for the common good of universal anthood. Perhaps, however, the ants have not yet reached the Positivist stage, and may be totally ignorant of the enthusiasm of formicity.
Equally curious are the habits and manners of the harvesting ants, the species which Solomon seems to have had specially in view when he advised his hearers to go to the ant—a piece of advice which I have also adopted as the title of the present article, though I by no means intend thereby to insinuate that the readers of this volume ought properly to be classed as sluggards. These industrious little creatures abound in India: they are so small that it takes eight or ten of them to carry a single grain of wheat or barley; and yet they will patiently drag along their big burden for five hundred or a thousand yards to the door of their formicary. To prevent the grain from germinating, they bite off the embryo root—a piece of animal intelligence outdone by another species of ant, which actually allows the process of budding to begin, so as to produce sugar, as in malting. After the last thunderstorms of the monsoon the little proprietors bring up all the grain from their granaries to dry in the tropical sunshine. The quantity of grain stored up by the harvesting ants is often so large that the hair-splitting Jewish casuists of the Mishna have seriously discussed the question whether it belongs to the landowner or may lawfully be appropriated by the gleaners. 'They do not appear,' says Sir John Lubbock, 'to have considered the rights of the ants.' Indeed our duty towards insects is a question which seems hitherto to have escaped the notice of all moral philosophers. Even Mr. Herbert Spencer, the prophet of individualism, has never taken exception to our gross disregard of the proprietary rights of bees in their honey, or of silkworms in their cocoons. There are signs, however, that the obtuse human conscience is awakening in this respect; for when Dr. Loew suggested to bee-keepers the desirability of testing the commercial value of honey-ants, as rivals to the bee, Dr. McCook replied that 'the sentiment against the use of honey thus taken from living insects, which is worthy of all respect, would not be easily overcome.'
There are no harvesting ants in Northern Europe, though they extend as far as Syria, Italy, and the Riviera, in which latter station I have often observed them busily working. What most careless observers take for grain in the nests of English ants are of course really the cocoons of the pupae. For many years, therefore, entomologists were under the impression that Solomon had fallen into this popular error, and that when he described the ant as 'gathering her food in the harvest' and 'preparing her meat in the summer,' he was speaking rather as a poet than as a strict naturalist. Later observations, however, have vindicated the general accuracy of the much-married king by showing that true harvesting ants do actually occur in Syria, and that they lay by stores for the winter in the very way stated by that early entomologist, whose knowledge of 'creeping things' is specially enumerated in the long list of his universal accomplishments.
Dr. Lincecum of Texan fame has even improved upon Solomon by his discovery of those still more interesting and curious creatures, the agricultural ants of Texas. America is essentially a farming country, and the agricultural ants are born farmers. They make regular clearings around their nests, and on these clearings they allow nothing to grow except a particular kind of grain, known as ant-rice. Dr. Lincecum maintains that the tiny farmers actually sow and cultivate the ant-rice. Dr. McCook, on the other hand, is of opinion that the rice sows itself, and that the insects' part is limited to preventing any other plants or weeds from encroaching on the appropriated area. In any case, be they squatters or planters, it is certain that the rice, when ripe, is duly harvested, and that it is, to say the least, encouraged by the ants, to the exclusion of all other competitors. 'After the maturing and harvesting of the seed,' says Dr. Lincecum, 'the dry stubble is cut away and removed from the pavement, which is thus left fallow until the ensuing autumn, when the same species of grass, and in the same circle, appears again, and receives the same agricultural care as did the previous crop.' Sir John Lubbock, indeed, goes so far as to say that the three stages of human progress—the hunter, the herdsman, and the agriculturist—are all to be found among various species of existing ants.
The Saueba ants of tropical America carry their agricultural operations a step further. Dwelling in underground nests, they sally forth upon the trees, and cut out of the leaves large round pieces, about as big as a shilling. These pieces they drop upon the ground, where another detachment is in waiting to convey them to the galleries of the nest. There they store enormous quantities of these round pieces, which they allow to decay in the dark, so as to form a sort of miniature mushroom bed. On the mouldering vegetable heap they have thus piled up, they induce a fungus to grow, and with this fungus they feed their young grubs during their helpless infancy. Mr. Belt, the 'Naturalist in Nicaragua,' found that native trees suffered far less from their depredations than imported ones. The ants hardly touched the local forests, but they stripped young plantations of orange, coffee, and mango trees stark naked. He ingeniously accounts for this curious fact by supposing that an internecine struggle has long been going on in the countries inhabited by the Sauebas between the ants and the forest trees. Those trees that best resisted the ants, owing either to some unpleasant taste or to hardness of foliage, have in the long run survived destruction; but those which were suited for the purpose of the ants have been reduced to nonentity, while the ants in turn were getting slowly adapted to attack other trees. In this way almost all the native trees have at last acquired some special means of protection against the ravages of the leaf-cutters; so that they immediately fall upon all imported and unprotected kinds as their natural prey. This ingenious and wholly satisfactory explanation must of course go far to console the Brazilian planters for the frequent loss of their orange and coffee crops.
Mr. Alfred Russel Wallace, the co-discoverer of the Darwinian theory (whose honours he waived with rare generosity in favour of the older and more distinguished naturalist), tells a curious story about the predatory habits of these same Sauebas. On one occasion, when he was wandering about in search of specimens on the Rio Negro, he bought a peck of rice, which was tied up, Indian fashion, in the local bandanna of the happy plantation slave. At night he left his rice incautiously on the bench of the hut where he was sleeping; and next morning the Sauebas had riddled the handkerchief like a sieve, and carried away a gallon of the grain for their own felonious purposes. The underground galleries which they dig can often be traced for hundreds of yards; and Mr. Hamlet Clarke even asserts that in one case they have tunnelled under the bed of a river where it is a quarter of a mile wide. This beats Brunel on his own ground into the proverbial cocked hat, both for depth and distance.
Within doors, in the tropics, ants are apt to put themselves obtrusively forward in a manner little gratifying to any except the enthusiastically entomological mind. The winged females, after their marriage flight, have a disagreeable habit of flying in at the open doors and windows at lunch time, settling upon the table like the Harpies in the AEneid, and then quietly shuffling off their wings one at a time, by holding them down against the table-cloth with one leg, and running away vigorously with the five others. As soon as they have thus disembarrassed themselves of their superfluous members, they proceed to run about over the lunch as if the house belonged to them, and to make a series of experiments upon the edible qualities of the different dishes. One doesn't so much mind their philosophical inquiries into the nature of the bread or even the meat; but when they come to drowning themselves by dozens, in the pursuit of knowledge, in the soup and sherry, one feels bound to protest energetically against the spirit of martyrdom by which they are too profoundly animated. That is one of the slight drawbacks of the realms of perpetual summer; in the poets you see only one side of the picture—the palms, the orchids, the humming-birds, the great trailing lianas: in practical life you see the reverse side—the thermometer at 98 deg., the tepid drinking-water, the prickly heat, the perpetual languor, the endless shoals of aggressive insects. A lady of my acquaintance, indeed, made a valuable entomological collection in her own dining-room, by the simple process of consigning to pill-boxes all the moths and flies and beetles that settled upon the mangoes and star-apples in the course of dessert.
Another objectionable habit of the tropical ants, viewed practically, is their total disregard of vested interests in the case of house property. Like Mr. George and his communistic friends, they disbelieve entirely in the principle of private rights in real estate. They will eat their way through the beams of your house till there is only a slender core of solid wood left to support the entire burden. I have taken down a rafter in my own house in Jamaica, originally 18 inches thick each way, with a sound circular centre of no more than 6 inches in diameter, upon which all the weight necessarily fell. With the material extracted from the wooden beams they proceed to add insult to injury by building long covered galleries right across the ceiling of your drawing-room. As may be easily imagined, these galleries do not tend to improve the appearance of the ceiling; and it becomes necessary to form a Liberty and Property Defence League for the protection of one's personal interests against the insect enemy. I have no objection to ants building galleries on their own freehold, or even to their nationalising the land in their native forests; but I do object strongly to their unwarrantable intrusion upon the domain of private life. Expostulation and active warfare, however, are equally useless. The carpenter-ant has no moral sense, and is not amenable either to kindness or blows. On one occasion, when a body of these intrusive creatures had constructed an absurdly conspicuous brown gallery straight across the ceiling of my drawing-room, I determined to declare open war against them, and, getting my black servant to bring in the steps and a mop, I proceeded to demolish the entire gallery just after breakfast. It was about 20 feet long, as well as I can remember, and perhaps an inch in diameter. At one o'clock I returned to lunch. My black servant pointed, with a broad grin on his intelligent features, to the wooden ceiling. I looked up; in those three hours the carpenter-ants had reconstructed the entire gallery, and were doubtless mocking me at their ease, with their uplifted antennae, under that safe shelter. I retired at once from the unequal contest. It was clearly impossible to go on knocking down a fresh gallery every three hours of the day or night throughout a whole lifetime.
Ants, says Mr. Wallace, without one touch of satire, 'force themselves upon the attention of everyone who visits the tropics.' They do, indeed, and that most pungently; if by no other method, at least by the simple and effectual one of stinging. The majority of ants in every nest are of course neuters, or workers, that is to say, strictly speaking, undeveloped females, incapable of laying eggs. But they still retain the ovipositor, which is converted into a sting, and supplied with a poisonous liquid to eject afterwards into the wound. So admirably adapted to its purpose is this beautiful provision of nature, that some tropical ants can sting with such violence as to make your leg swell and confine you for some days to your room; while cases have even been known in which the person attacked has fainted with pain, or had a serious attack of fever in consequence. It is not every kind of ant, however, that can sting; a great many can only bite with their little hard horny jaws, and then eject a drop of formic poison afterwards into the hole caused by the bite. The distinction is a delicate physiological one, not much appreciated by the victims of either mode of attack. The perfect females can also sting, but not, of course, the males, who are poor, wretched, useless creatures, only good as husbands for the community, and dying off as soon as they have performed their part in the world—another beautiful provision, which saves the workers the trouble of killing them off, as bees do with drones after the marriage flight of the queen bee.
The blind driver-ants of West Africa are among the very few species that render any service to man, and that, of course, only incidentally. Unlike most other members of their class, the driver-ants have no settled place of residence; they are vagabonds and wanderers upon the face of the earth, formican tramps, blind beggars, who lead a gipsy existence, and keep perpetually upon the move, smelling their way cautiously from one camping-place to another. They march by night, or on cloudy days, like wise tropical strategists, and never expose themselves to the heat of the day in broad sunshine, as though they were no better than the mere numbered British Tommy Atkins at Coomassie or in the Soudan. They move in vast armies across country, driving everything before them as they go; for they belong to the stinging division, and are very voracious in their personal habits. Not only do they eat up the insects in their line of march, but they fall even upon larger creatures and upon big snakes, which they attack first in the eyes, the most vulnerable portion. When they reach a negro village the inhabitants turn out en masse, and run away, exactly as if the visitors were English explorers or brave Marines, bent upon retaliating for the theft of a knife by nobly burning down King Tom's town or King Jumbo's capital. Then the negroes wait in the jungle till the little black army has passed on, after clearing out the huts by the way of everything eatable. When they return they find their calabashes and saucepans licked clean, but they also find every rat, mouse, lizard, cockroach, gecko, and beetle completely cleared out from the whole village. Most of them have cut and run at the first approach of the drivers; of the remainder, a few blanched and neatly-picked skeletons alone remain to tell the tale.
As I wish to be considered a veracious historian, I will not retail the further strange stories that still find their way into books of natural history about the manners and habits of these blind marauders. They cross rivers, the West African gossips declare, by a number of devoted individuals flinging themselves first into the water as a living bridge, like so many six-legged Marcus Curtiuses, while over their drowning bodies the heedless remainder march in safety to the other side. If the story is not true, it is at least well invented; for the ant-commonwealth everywhere carries to the extremest pitch the old Roman doctrine of the absolute subjection of the individual to the State. So exactly is this the case that in some species there are a few large, overgrown, lazy ants in each nest, which do no work themselves, but accompany the workers on their expeditions; and the sole use of these idle mouths seems to be to attract the attention of birds and other enemies, and so distract it from the useful workers, the mainstay of the entire community. It is almost as though an army, marching against a tribe of cannibals, were to place itself in the centre of a hollow square formed of all the fattest people in the country, whose fine condition and fitness for killing might immediately engross the attention of the hungry enemy. Ants, in fact, have, for the most part, already reached the goal set before us as a delightful one by most current schools of socialist philosophers, in which the individual is absolutely sacrificed in every way to the needs of the community.
The most absurdly human, however, among all the tricks and habits of ants are their well known cattle-farming and slaveholding instincts. Everybody has heard, of course, how they keep the common rose-blight as milch cows, and suck from them the sweet honey-dew. But everybody, probably, does not yet know the large number of insects which they herd in one form or another as domesticated animals. Man has, at most, some twenty or thirty such, including cows, sheep, horses, donkeys, camels, llamas, alpacas, reindeer, dogs, cats, canaries, pigs, fowl, ducks, geese, turkeys, and silkworms. But ants have hundreds and hundreds, some of them kept obviously for purposes of food; others apparently as pets; and yet others again, as has been plausibly suggested, by reason of superstition or as objects of worship. There is a curious blind beetle which inhabits ants' nests, and is so absolutely dependent upon its hosts for support that it has even lost the power of feeding itself. It never quits the nest, but the ants bring it in food and supply it by putting the nourishment actually into its mouth. But the beetle, in return, seems to secrete a sweet liquid (or it may even be a stimulant like beer, or a narcotic like tobacco) in a tuft of hairs near the bottom of the hard wing-cases, and the ants often lick this tuft with every appearance of satisfaction and enjoyment. In this case, and in many others, there can be no doubt that the insects are kept for the sake of food or some other advantage yielded by them.
But there are other instances of insects which haunt ants' nests, which it is far harder to account for on any hypothesis save that of superstitious veneration. There is a little weevil that runs about by hundreds in the galleries of English ants, in and out among the free citizens, making itself quite at home in their streets and public places, but as little noticed by the ants themselves as dogs are in our own cities. Then, again, there is a white woodlouse, something like the common little armadillo, but blind from having lived so long underground, which walks up and down the lanes and alleys of antdom, without ever holding any communication of any sort with its hosts and neighbours. In neither case has Sir John Lubbock ever seen an ant take the slightest notice of the presence of these strange fellow-lodgers. 'One might almost imagine,' he says, 'that they had the cap of invisibility.' Yet it is quite clear that the ants deliberately sanction the residence of the weevils and woodlice in their nests, for any unauthorised intruder would immediately be set upon and massacred outright.