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Monday, 19 August 2013

Sitting beneath a banyan

Small banyan tree, Tanna, Vanuatu.
The name of James Cook, commonly known as 'Captain Cook', will forever be associated with the use of vitamin C foods against scurvy, in part because another James Cook published the notes on scurvy of John Hall, the physician son-in-law of William Shakespeare, in 1657.

I say in part, because the noted seafarer did also play a part in the story of the battle against scurvy, which he describes in his journal for April 13, 1769, just after he arrived at Tahiti:
At this time we had but a very few men upon the Sick list and thes[e] had but slite complaints, the Ships compney had in general been very healthy owing in a great measure to the Sour Krout, Portable Soup and Malt; the first two were serve'd to the People, the one on Beef Days and the other on Banyan Days, Wort was made of the Malt and at the discrition of the Surgeon given to every man that had the least symptoms of Scurvy upon him . . .
Two banyan fruits, sliced open to show that they are in fact from
a tree in the fig family. The scale is from my compass, and it is in
millimetres, so the shot is of material just over one inch across.
It is curious that such a large tree comes from one of those tiny
To people (as opposed to "the People", who are the ship's crew) unused to naval language, this may be a little puzzling, for a banyan is a tree of the fig genus, either Ficus religiosa, or Ficus indica.

Since the Banyan Days appear to be meat-free days, could it be that a Banyan diet is based on the leaves or fruit of these trees? I played with this for a bit, but then decided that I needed to learn more.

While my guess offers an attractive derivation, it would be a wrong one. The word 'banyan' (or 'banian' as some sources prefer) word is Portuguese, from the Arabic, from the Gujerati vaniyo, from the Sanskrit vanij, meaning "merchant" — among other things.

The banyan tree gets its name from a specimen near Gombroon on the Persian Gulf, beneath which Banian settlers had erected a pagoda, which became known as "the Banian tree".

The Banyan tree sends out branches which drop roots, which become trunks, which send out branches, and so it goes. Big banyans occupy five acres (2 hectares) or more, and you will sometimes encounter claims that the largest living thing in the world is a banyan tree, though some fungi are close to the same mark, and if you regard colonies of animals like corals and ant nests as organisms, the banyan tree may have some serious competition to face.

Some of the roots of a rather large banyan, Tanna, Vanuatu.
A Banyan, says the Oxford English Dictionary, which persists with the Banian spelling, is one of four things: a Hindu, a native broker in an Indian firm, a loose flannel shirt, jacket or gown, or lastly, a tree, but that is all — the OED has missed Cook's usage altogether.

Still, if anybody gives you figs in your Banyan diet, you needn't be too fussy — and considering the other Banyans that might appear there, the figs might even prove to be a welcome offering, though that was not how Cook's crew saw the Sour Krout he wanted to dose them with.

Luckily for their good health, the wily Whitby sailor was ready for them, as he explained in the same entry in his journal:
The Sour Krout the Men at first would not eate untill I put in practice a Method I never once knew to fail with seamen, and this was to have some of it dress'd every Day for the Cabbin Table, and permitted all of the Officers without exception to make use of it and left it to the option of the Men either to take as much as they pleased or none at all; but this practice was not continued above a week before I found it necessary to put every one on board to an Allowance, for such are the tempers and dispossissions of Seamen in general that . . . the Moment the see their Superiors set a Value upon it, it becomes the finest stuff in the World, and the inventer a damn'd honest fellow.
Here's a wide angle shot of that same banyan on Tanna:

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This blog covers quite a few different things, so I tag each post. I also blog about history, and I am currently writing a series of books called Not your usual... and the first two have been accepted by Five Mile Press, The offcuts appear here with the tag Not Your Usual... . For a taste of Australian tall tales, try the tags Speewah or Crooked Mick.   For a miscellany of oddities, try the tag temporary obsessions. And language us covered under the tags Descants and Curiosities, while stuff about small life is under Wee beasties.

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