It's high summer and our neighbour's mangoes are falling on our back yard, spreading clouds of fruit flies and that sweet, boozy smell of decay. The fruits are regarded as a useless nuisance and left to rot, which is often the case for "stringy" or "common" mangoes. This seems a shame, and doesn't make sense as they must have been planted for food at some point. Mature fruit trees are a part of our suburban heritage so I thought I'd look into the history of this backyard classic.
Mangoes have been cultivated in Asia for thousands years and over time the "king of fruit" spread south via trade routes as far as Indonesia. But the fruit made its first appearance in Australia with the white colonial settlers, or specifically with a Captain Curry of the British Royal Navy who brought the first plants to the Sydney Botanic Gardens in 1823. Captain Curry's donation was followed by other imports but although the trees were reported to thrive and flower the fruit failed to ripen in the temperate climate*1.
The introduction of the fruit to Queensland has been attributed to various people, but let's begin with the very first establishment of the the Moreton Bay Penal Colony in 1824. The vessel Amity arrived in in September 1824, carrying 29 prisoners, the Commandant and a dozen military personnel and their families. Also aboard the ship was a selection of seeds, fruit trees and plants under the care of a convict gardener from the colonial botanical gardens in Sydney*2. The chosen settlement site was in the vicinity of Humpybong creek at Redcliffe, and the colonists set about constructing shelters and preparing the grounds for gardens. John Cunningham recorded:
"An extensive selection of valuable exotics formed by Mr Fraser the Colonial
Botanical Gardener, had been also forwarded by the brig, for the future use of the
settlement. It consisted of young plants of tropical fruits, viz pineapples, mangoes,
some of the annotae, gromachamo, oranges, lemons, loquats, bananas, plantains,
guavas etc. These had been unpacked and had been committed to the soil which had
been previously prepared for their reception, with every hope that under a little
care, these plants would soon become naturalized to a part of the coast, whose mean
temperature of climate appears fully adapted to secure their existence and promote
But Redcliffe proved to be a sub-optimal site and the colony soon moved to a more sheltered position along North Quay on the Brisbane River. We can assume that the plants were also relocated, as the Colonial Botanist Charles Fraser noted two mangoes growing in the botanical gardens when he visited Brisbane a few years later*2. Whether the trees ever reached maturity and produced fruit is not known.
The Wardian Case: first-class accommodation for young seedlings travelling to Queensland
Some sources claim that John Bidwill was the first Queensland grower. John was appointed the Commissioner or Lands in Wide Bay in the late 1840's and had previously been in charge of the Sydney gardens. He was a keen horticulturalist and established an orchard in what is now a suburb of Maryborough, on a plot of land at the junction of Tinana Creek and the Mary River, which included mango trees*1. A few years later he became lost and was fatally injured while surveying a road to Moreton Bay, and though his garden was subsequently relocated to Sydney at least some of the mangoes stayed in Queensland - including four trees planted around his grave at Tinana Creek. At least one of these trees was reported to still be alive in the 1940s*4. I've scoured my sources for a portrait of J. C. Bidwell so that I could pay proper tribute to the man, to no avail, but I did find this mango lover's homage in a 1907 text*5:
"Many centuries passed, and Cook discovered Australia; and when the
pioneers pushed their way into Queensland, it was found that without the
mango the country could never be worth living in, and ... one J. C. Bidwill ...
sent an unheroic request or a formal order to India, and received a few plants
(in a wardian case probably), and that is how one of the best gifts of profuse
Providence to grateful Queenslanders came to be introduced. Mr. Bidwill was
neither threatened with the stake, nor was any description of miracle practiced
upon him; neither is his name venerated, nor even generally remembered.
Are we very sacrilegious, or our mouths too full of the mango and its praises
to remember the name of the good and wise man who first made it available?"
"Wardian Cases", or sealed glass containers, were used to transport seedlings on long sea voyages from the mid-19th century and they revolutionized the import of new plant species to Australia.
In the 1850's Queensland transformed to a booming young colony. The subtropical climate opened prospects for the cultivation of a whole new range of crops and to capitalise on these opportunities the Governor G. F. Bowen founded the Queensland Acclimatization Society in 1862, to import, test and introduce exotic plants for economic and ornamental purposes. The society experimented with a wide range of crops at a reserve located at the current Exhibition Grounds and Bowen Park in Brisbane*6.
In 1864 the Acclimatization Society nominated the Mango as a priority import*8. The initiative would involve a range of varieties and the search for cultivars began with a letter to Governor Bowen, suggesting that he request specimens from his friend Sir William Dennison, the governor of Madras*9. The plants arrived in June that year, packed in wardian cases, and were planted in hot beds in the gardens*10.
Later that year another request was sent to the colonial administrator of Bombay to provide more varieties *11. It also appears that R. B Sheridan, an official of Maryborough, donated mango seeds in early 1865*12, probably the progeny of John Bidwell's introduction a few decades earlier. Another donation from the governor of Mauritius arrived in late 1865*13. By 1867 a total of six varieties were reported to grow in the gardens*14 and that same year a selection of plants were dispatched to the Northern towns of Bowen and MacKay for local trials*15.
The Acclimatization Society's grounds in the 1880's
In December 1868 the first mangos were fruiting in Bowen park. It was the Mauritian trees that achieved this milestone, but the other varieties planted throughout the park were also reported to be "healthy and vigorous"*10. The introduction of the fruit was a success and Queensland's status as the home of the Australian mango was secured.
Throughout the mid 1860's Queensland newspapers had frequent advertisements for imported "Indian condiments" including mango chutneys, and there was clearly a local market for the produce. This puts some context to the intense public interest in the Acclimatization Society's efforts. What may seem like trivial gardening experiments today were of critical importance to the burgeoning colony and its future self-sufficiency.
In summary we can conclude that the official birthplace of the Queensland Mango was either the banks of the Humpybong Creek at Redcliffe, a plot of land at the junction of Tinana Creek and Mary river, or the small but pretty Bowen Park that now cowers under the shadow of the Royal Women's Hospital. Official efforts aside, we know that mango trees had been imported privately to Brisbane and other Queensland towns throughout the 1840s and 50s *1*17.
What is particularly striking about the early mango cultivation is the sheer range of varieties available. An 1885 inventory of Bowen Park and Botanical Gardens lists seven varieties, including the wonderfully named "Malda", "Bindabonnee" and "Chuckchapea"*18.
1885 inventory of Mango varieties in Bowen Park
The Australian Fruit Culturist of 1893 mentions the "Bengale", "Dohdohl", "Gratissima", "Gumphor", "Sangier" and "Strawberry" varieties; all of which of different shape and color, flesh and uses*19. Pugh's Almanac recommended the "Degieng" and "Goa" for Queensland gardeners*20. In 1886 Hocking's Nursery in Brisbane offered half a dozen varieties for sale, including the "Calcutta", "Gooseberry", "Pineapple", "Dauphine", and "Rose". The nursery stocked hundreds of mango plants and Mr Hocking reported a greater demand for them than he could supply*21.
But - I haven't come across any records of import, or sale, of a "Common" or generic cultivar. One source identifies"Strawberry" as a substitute name for the "Kensington" or "Bowen" mango*22, and I'd bet a buck that this early version of the "Kensington" is what is now referred to as the "Common". The "Strawberry" was very popular garden variety and recommended by many sources in the early 1900s.
As for most crops one of the drawbacks of industrialized production was a loss of variety. Today, the majority of mangoes sold are either Kensington Pride (a variety of the Bowen Mango, 70% of sales), Calypso (8%) and R2E2 (who on earth came up with this name? 6% of sales), with Honey Gold and a smattering of seasonal varieties making up the remaining 6% of the Australian supply*23. On the upside, they are generally of fabulous quality, texture, aroma and taste; and travel well to domestic and overseas markets.
Mango trees can grow up to a couple of hundred years old and many of the "common" trees in our Brisbane neighborhoods will be one of the old varieties, particularly in colonial-era gardens. But mangoes need TLC just like any other crop, to bring out their full color, plumpness and fragrance. With some gentle pruning, mulch, fertilizer and water who knows what that "stringy" old mango in granny's back yard could produce. Wouldn't you love to sink your teeth into a genuine "Gratissima", "Biondabonnee" or "Alphonso? I would.
Indian "Alphonso" mangoes
1 - Introduction of the Mango to Australia, G. I Johnson, Proceedings of the Royal Society of QLD, 1999
2 - Brisbane Town in Convict Days, 1824-1842, JG Steele, 1975
3 - Australian Dictionary of Biography, accessed 29 January 2013
4 - Early days of Maryborough, F. McKinnon, Historical Society of Queensland, 1947
5 - Within the Barrier, A Tourist's Guide to North Queensland, E. J. Banfield, 1907
6 - Queensland Historical Atlas, accessed 29 Jan 2013
7 - The Brisbane Courier, 16 April 1864
8 - The Brisbane Courier, 16 April 1864
9 - The Brisbane Courier, 15 April 1864
10 - The Brisbane Courier, 29 June 1864
11 - The Brisbane Courier, 27 July 1864
12 - The Brisbane Courier, 28 March 1865
13 - The Brisbane Courier 27 Sept 1865
14 - The Brisbane Courier 18 May 1867
15 - The Courier Mail 14 Aug 1867
16 - The Courier Mail, 1 December 1868
17 - Multiple references can be found for mango treess in Queensland before the 1860's, for example sales by Hocking's Nursery advertised in the 1859 Pugh Almanac and mentions in the book "Queensland the Field for British Labour and Enterprise" 1862,
18 - Catalogue of Plants in Brisbane Botanic Garden and Bowen Parks, F. M. Bailey, 1885
19 - The Australian Fruit Culturist, D. A. Crichton, 1893
20 - Pugh's Almanac, 1882
21 - The Queenslander, 27 February 1886
22 - Fruits of Warm Climates, J. Morton, 1987
23 - Australia Mangoes