In the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, tucked in one corner of Case 143a sits a box containing four mahogany coloured beans (1926.23.60). Despite their seeming anonymity they may have an enchanting connection with one of our most enduring fairy tales. They were collected by Admiral Monro of HMS Penguin from the Solomon Islands, Polynesia, in 1895. Two are finely engraved with frigate birds and fish.
These beans are variously known as sea beans, Mackay beans, sword-beans, nicker beans, and Queensland beans. They are in fact the seeds of the leguminous plant Entada scandens which grows on tropical shores from Polynesia to India. These flat burgundy brown beans are eaten in Sumatra, central and southern Africa, and Jamaica. This tropical forest giant grows in the East Indies, the Malay Peninsula, Burma, North East India, West Africa, Central America, and the Caribbean.
These beans have the ability to float in fresh and sea water – hence sea bean – their principal means of propagation. In their natural warm environments these beans can quickly grow up a tree, reach the upper branches so thirty to fifty feet up, and spread horizontally until they strangle their supporting foster host. Eventually, standing independently, their trunks can achieve a circumference of several feet, their dense canopy ensuring an ideal environment for arboreal animals e.g., gibbons. This leads to speculation that the rots of the Jack and the Beanstalk tale may be in a tropical jungle. Was the story of Jack born in India?
The English folktale is about magic beans that grow into a tree reaching from earth to heaven. Essentially it originates in a primitive tale explaining the relationship between the world above and the world below. There is a Dyak version and a similar Melanesisn tale. A Fijian story, a Samoan, and Australian, tell of a magic tree. Similarly for the Maori and the Malay. All share stories of the ‘stormers of the sky’. These widely distributed tales relate similar incidents that include ascent to the upper world via a tree, and the obtaining of some possessions either by gift or theft – remember Jack and the goose that laid the golden eggs?
European variations of the folktale Jack and the Beanstalk have a commonality with Dyak, Australian, Samoan, Maori, and Arawak stories where the upper world is the home of supernatural beings, giants and gods. Thus Jack and the Beanstalk is an example of how myth or saga cane become a folktale or a fairy story. The Indian connection? In the jungles of the region, home to these giant legumes, with gibbons up among the lofty boughs, the indigenous population did believe that up above was the land of faints and demons. Considering British historical and colonial connections with India could not the tale have arrived from there and been modified over time? Just as the beans have floated to these shores why not the tale?
Dedicated to the memory of Brian Wingfield (d. May, 2013) who first pointed out these beans to me when we worked in the Pitt Rivers Museum
First printed in the Newsletter of the Friends of the Pitt Rivers Museum, October, 2008.