“The very pineapple of politeness!”

John Murray, 4th Earl of Dunmore, died at Mount Albion House, Ramsgate, on 25th February, 1809. A Scots peer, and colonial Governor in the American colonies and the Bahamas, he had been the last Royal Governor of Virginia, from 1771-75.

The roof of the Shirley Plantation, Virginia, established in 1613, sports a geometric pineapple finial. The first recorded encounter between a European and a pineapple dates from November 1493, on the second voyage to the Caribbean region by Christopher Columbus. In colonial times, only the speediest ships travelling from the Caribbean to the colonies could deliver ripe yet wholesome pineapples to Boston, Philadelphia, Annapolis or Williamsburg.

According to legend, when a New England sea captain returned home from a voyage, he would spear a pineapple on a fence post outside his house, letting friends know that he was safely returned and his house was open to them. Colonial innkeepers began to use the pineapple motif in their advertising. Architects, artisans and craftsmen adopted the shape as a symbol of friendship and hospitality.

Lord Dunmore was obliged to flee Williamsburg in disarray in 1775. On his return to Scotland, he elected to build a 40 ft steam heated stone pineapple at his ancestral home in Airth. It was a flamboyant folly, apparently intended to cock a snook at the world.

Dr Karen Wilkes of Birmingham City University brings us up to date in her 2016 book, Whiteness, Weddings, and Tourism in the Caribbean: Paradise for Sale. She writes:

“The connotations derived from the pineapple stem from the meanings that are deeply embedded in Western culture. The pineapple has come to denote the tropics, paradise, or, in a Western context, Otherness. Sheller (2003) notes that the pineapple “entered European iconography as a symbol of welcome and hospitality”, while the use of the pineapple as a colonial symbol of fertility is noted in de Almeida’s (2015) discussion of the 1807 satirical print titled “Patent Family Bedstead”. Round Hill Hotel and Villas, Jamaica, appropriates this symbol of the tropics…”.

I’m in Southampton, which boasts four dedicated cruise terminals. Ocean Dock was opened in 1912 as White Star Dock; at Berth 44, the original bollards to which the Titanic was moored are painted orange to highlight them.

The Royal Mail Steamer Titanic was at rest in Southampton for six days before the start of her doomed maiden voyage to New York. On 5th April 1912, Titanic was briefly opened for viewing by the paying public, two days after arriving from the Belfast shipyard. The ship was “dressed overall” with flags and pennants hung from the rigging in a salute to the people of the city. More than five hundred households in the city would lose a family member as a result of the ship’s catastrophic collision with an iceberg on the night of 14th – 15th April.

On 11th April 1912, the day after the Titanic‘s departure from Southampton, the Manchester Guardian’s editorial carried a piece laden with conscious and unconscious irony:

“Still, to do them justice, the designers of the Titanic, preoccupied though they were with the tastes of cosmopolitan millionaires, have made at least one small concession to those of us who regard the sea as something better than a dreary slum surrounding a Grand Babylon Hotel. We learn from one enthusiastic description that on the upper promenade deck one can look through the windows, and, safely sheltered from contact with the outer air, obtain “a full view of the sea, so much appreciated by passengers.” Let us be grateful for that kindly provision.”

I pause for lunch at “Gatehouse 1833”, on the first floor of what remains of the Royal Pier, opened on 8th July, 1833 by Princess Victoria. My window table looks out over the River Test. The gatehouse bears its own architectural pineapple.

In 2014, Southampton community worker Corene Forbes helped a group of schoolchildren to celebrate Black History Month by working on a pineapple project, hunting for representations of the fruit around the city while learning about their cultural influence.

Until World War II, All Saints’ Church stood in the middle of Southampton. Its architect was Willey Reveley, a pupil of Sir William Chambers. Jane Austen was an attender at the church when she lived in Southampton for a period in her ninth year, and again at the age of eighteen. The building was distinguished by a giant concrete pineapple atop the cupola at the roof’s east end. Although the church was destroyed as a result of the Blitz, the pineapple survived, and is exhibited on special occasions.

On that second voyage to the Caribbean by Columbus, he happened on a small island which lies between Nevis and Montserrat. He named it Santa Maria de la Redonda, perceiving the island’s shape as rounded. In 1865, a trader by the name of Matthew Dowdy Shiell arrived at the island and appointed himself its King. He passed the title to his son Matthew, a writer of fantasy and adventure fiction. On the younger Matthew’s death in 1947, his friend, the poet John Gawsworth, was nominated as next King. After this, honours and titles to the uninhabited island were bestowed generously to friends and literary celebrities. King Juan was succeeded by King Leo. In 2007, Bob Beech, landlord of the Wellington Arms pub in Southampton, received a Redondan knighthood, and the pub was granted status as a consulate of Redonda by King Leo.

The line which gives this post its title is spoken by Mrs Malaprop in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s play of 1775, The Rivals…In Georgian culture, the phrase “a pineapple of the finest flavour” was a metaphor for “the most splendid of things”.

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