Shaped like a giant pinecone with a voluminous crown, the pineapple immediately commands attention. Coveted for centuries by kings for its scarcity and stately appearance, the pineapple became a worldwide obsession at the beginning of the 16th Century. Europe’s royal houses paid thousands in today’s money for just one fruit to put on display as the centrepiece at their tables. It was the ultimate symbol of wealth and was christened the “King of Fruit”.
Beyond its exalted status, mathematicians discovered the pineapple’s prickly skin is a natural Fibonacci sequence, a series of numbers in which each consecutive number is found by adding the two previous numbers together. This fact only seemed to enhance the fruit’s genuine allure. But it also became a shameless emblem of the financial and social inequality between the classes throughout Europe at the height of the tropical fruit’s obsession. A fledgling nation would help bring the pineapple back down to earth and soften its image to that of warm welcomes, celebration and hospitality.
The pineapple is thought to have originated in the heart of the Amazon rainforest. The fruit was worshiped by the Tupinamba people, who had settled in the region approximately 3000 years ago. Pineapples were an integral part of daily life for the Tupi people. The Tupi not only ate the indigenous pineapple, but also used its meat to make wine and medicines, and even crafted poison arrows from its leaves and skins. It was considered a powerful symbol of fertility and prosperity.
The first documented European encounter came in 1493 when Christopher Columbus is said to have discovered pineapples growing in clusters in a deserted Caribbean village, possibly on the island of Guadeloupe. Intrigued by this unusual, pod-like fruit, he cut a few pineapples from their stalks to bring back to Spain to present to his sponsor, King Ferdinand. Little did he know that this golden gift, nestled among the tame parrots, tomatoes, tobacco, and pumpkins, would be the crowning glory of his cargo.
The purposeful pursuit of pineapples in Europe had begun.
By the 1550’s, pineapples were being shipped regularly from the Caribbean to Europe. The fruit was costly cargo and often rotted in the bowels of ships during the long journey north. This made the pineapple a rare luxury few, other than heads of state, could afford to procure. One pineapple could cost as much at £5000 in today’s money. Indeed, King Charles II of England commissioned a portrait of himself receiving a pineapple as a gift. It was the ultimate display of royal superiority over his subjects.
Demand by Europe’s elite for pineapples greatly outweighed supplies which meant that finding methods to preserve the precious fruit during the long, hot journey across the ocean were imperative. Eventually, merchant sea captains discovered that the pineapples could be either candied or packed in sugar, itself an equally costly luxury, to preserve them. With the preservation problem solved, pineapples became the must-have centrepieces for extravagant banquets as they showcased the immense wealth and power of the host. Guests were to feel slightly intimidated by these ostentatious displays, yet, honoured that no expense was spared for their enjoyment. For those who could not afford to purchase the fruit, shops and merchants would rent pineapples for the day as a cost and face-saving measure.
By the beginning of the 18th Century, the image of the pineapple could be found painted on fine China, carved into columns or sculpted and placed on pillars at the entrances to palaces, churches and grand homes throughout England and France. Pineapple wallpaper and stencil work covered the walls of the most fashionable manor houses.
There are theories as to why the pineapple became an architectural feature outside and throughout the home. Some historians believe this custom was first introduced in Europe by wealthy travellers returning from the New World, who found pineapples hung outside the entrances to Caribbean villages. They were greeted warmly by the native people and believed the pineapple to be a sign of welcome. Others claim a pineapple was placed outside the homes of sea captains to alert townsfolk of their safe return from the tropics. It served as an invitation by the family to stop by for refreshments and hear tales of the captain’s time at sea.
Whilst once representing unreachable wealth, the pineapple now represents warm welcome, celebration and unconditional hospitality.
And what of it?
You have patiently read to this point as I have talked of pineapples and wolves. I promise I am not losing my marbles, so let’s go back to those first images. I talked to the pupils a little while ago about the wolf being an apex predator and the biodiversity that flourished with the wolves in Yellowstone (please do watch this clip – it is brilliant). I also asked them to consider what the apex behavioural trait would be that would allow our community to flourish. In fact, all communities. Kindness and welcome came to the fore. Our +1.
For many years we have called our iconic, Southerly facing LWC gates, the Acorn Gates. We have walked through them a thousand times. We started and finished the Beckwith through them. But I wonder…Are they actually acorns atop these pillars, or are they pineapples, standing like sentinels of welcome and kindness from the Caribbean as those first pupils (and thousands beyond) joined the school, or are they the acorns of a mighty oak standing proudly and resiliently as Britain’s most eminent and powerful tree? Your challenge is to have a look, to discuss and to decide, as you head off for one of Mr Hedley’s terrific match teas…. I guarantee, you’ll start noticing pineapples or acorns all over the south-east of the UK once you start looking…