Produce Provenance

The World’s Obsession with a Tropical Fruit

Mangoes, one of the most consumed fruits today, are believed to have originated over 5,000 years ago in India and Southeast Asia.

By John Paap

The people of Fulin, a small township in China’s Sichuan Province, lined the streets in excitement. There was to be a special visit to their town, a gift from Chairman Mao himself. As people waited in anticipation, the sounds of drums and cymbals rang through the streets. Finally, a truck arrived with a military guard. The head of the township stepped forward to receive the gift—perched on a red cloth and presented on a tray. Waiting in line to see the gift was the respected village dentist, Dr. Han. It was a hot summer’s day in 1968 but like many in his town, and throughout China, the doctor waited patiently, curious to see this special gift. When, finally, Dr. Han’s turn had come, he stepped forward and came face to face with the gift—a mango. 

Disappointed in what he saw, the dentist remarked that it didn’t seem anything special. In fact, to him, it looked like nothing more than a sweet potato. These words proved to be the beginning of the end for Dr. Han. Revolutionaries heard his remarks and considered them blasphemous. Dr. Han was arrested, quickly tried, and found guilty of counterrevolutionary sentiment. The dentist was paraded through the streets on the back of a truck as an example to those who would disrespect the revolutionary spirit. The truck eventually reached the edge of town, where Dr. Han was escorted off the vehicle and executed with a single shot to the head. 

 The mango craze during China’s Cultural Revolution was yet another example of how this tropical fruit, in its centuries-old history, dramatically influenced a culture and movement. But where did this fruit come from and how did it help influence the world we know today? The story begins more than 5,000 years ago in India and Southeast Asia, where the mango is believed to have originated, according to a paper published by staff at the Banaras Hindu University in India. For India, in particular, the mango became an intrinsic part of the region’s culture, embedded in its religions, artwork, food and song.

 Siddhartha Gautama, more commonly known as the Buddha, was one of many South Asians who would have been exposed to and enjoyed mangoes in the early years of the fruit. In fact, it is believed that Buddha meditated and performed miracles under mango trees. As such, the mango is considered a sacred fruit to Buddhists. Perhaps equally unsurprising is the fact that Buddhist monks have been attributed to being among the first people to cultivate the mango. With seeds in hand, Buddhist monks traveled eastward towards the Middle East and East Africa to spread Buddhism, as well as the mango.

 At this point in Indian history, the mango’s story has only begun. During the Mughal Empire (founded in 1526 AD), the mango reached fever pitch and it started with Humayun, the second emperor and son of the empire’s founder, Babur. After being soundly defeated by Sher Shah, founder of the rival Suri empire in India, Humayun spent fifteen years on the run trying to avoid capture, but that did not stop him from getting his regular delivery of mangoes. During his exile, Humayun developed a sophisticated system that allowed him to receive mangoes in secret wherever he was hiding, according to an article by Alia Yunis published on AramcoWorld. In fact, the Humayun Pasand mango was named for him. But it would be the emperor’s son, Jalal al-Din Muhammad Akbar, who shared a similar affection for the fruit that would go on to change the course of mango history more than anyone else.

 When Akbar (more commonly known as Akbar the Great) came to power in the Mughal Empire in 1556, the Portuguese had a significant presence and control of major ports in western India, including Goa. The Portuguese had landed in Goa in 1510 under the leadership of Afonso de Albuquerque. In addition to traders, the Portuguese had also sent Jesuit missionaries on their voyages to convert the local populace along the coastal Indian villages. Inevitably, the missionaries in Goa encountered the mango and they fell in love with the fruit. Having learned about grafting techniques from the Arabs while they ruled the Iberian Peninsula, the Jesuits began grafting mango trees to create more of these delicious fruits. It is believed that India’s most famous variety today, the Alphonso, is named after Jesuit Nicolau Afonso, a horticulturist who grafted it around 1550. Impressed with their achievements, Akbar invited the Jesuits to his court in Agra to share their expertise in mango-tree grafting. Following this, Akbar initiated the creation of the 100,000-tree Lakhi Bagh orchards which resulted in the cultivation of hundreds of new mango varieties, according to a paper by Dr. Indu Mehta at India’s Kumaun University.

 With varieties exploding in number, the Mughals became even more infatuated with the fruit to the point where they kept records of who gave them mangoes and commented about the fruits. In fact, mangoes became a form of flattery and even diplomacy. In the mid-17th century, Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb’s son, Prince Azam, wanted to please his father and so he sent him two baskets of mango varieties that had no names so his father could have the honor of naming them. Aurangzeb was exuberant in receiving this gift and named the mangoes Sudhara and Rasnavilas. However, for as flattering as it could be to receive these delicious fruits, it could easily have had the opposite effect. When Aurangzeb was young, he had tried the same act on his father, Shah Jahan (the emperor who built the Taj Mahal for Aurangzeb’s mother, Mumtaz Mahal). Unfortunately for Aurangzeb, the quality of the basket of mangoes he had given his father was poor and left his father furious with how his son could show such disrespect. In Aurangzeb’s defense, he did argue that it was the courier’s poor handling that led to the poor condition of his gift.

 As the mango continued to thrive on the Indian subcontinent, the Western Hemisphere was about to get its first introduction to mangoes in 1700, when the Portuguese successfully planted a tree in Brazil, and then in the West Indies in 1740. Around the same time, pirates in the Caribbean Sea would carry the mango seeds with them into Florida. However, it wouldn’t be until 1862 when a Dr. Fletcher successfully planted Turpentine mango trees along the Miami River. A few decades later, in 1889, food explorer Dr. David Fairchild successfully introduced the first grafted Indian varieties to the United States. The only variety to make it was the Mulgoba mango. The Turpentine and Mulgoba would join in the Floridian backyard of Mrs. Florence Haden in 1910 to produce the Haden mango—an eye-catching blend of reds, yellows and greens with excellent flavor, according to an article by Fairchild Garden, a botanical garden in Florida.

 The Haden mango became a hit early on and was the most popular commercially-grown mango variety until World War II. As other varieties came to market that were better for export and disease resistance, the Haden became less popular on a commercial scale. Varieties like Kent, Keitt and Tommy Atkins, all from the seeds of Haden, would become the popular commercial varieties we still see today. In fact, Florida is where most of the world’s commercial mango varieties were developed. That said, Florida’s glory mango days are long gone. Today less than 1,000 acres remain in production and most of this fruit goes to local farmers and specialty markets. We can attribute the Florida mango decline to extreme weather events, urbanization, and foreign competition.

 But perhaps the mango’s most dramatic scene in recent decades was during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Mao Zedong had launched the Cultural Revolution in an effort to repair his credibility which had been damaged by his Great Leap Forward plan that left millions of Chinese dead because of famine. When factions of his revolutionary guards (known as the Red Guards) erupted into full-blown war at Tsinghua University in spring 1968, Mao sent 30,000 factory workers to stop the conflict. After a few days, the conflict came to an end, with Mao disbanding the Red Guards and recognizing the workers as the leaders of his cultural revolution.

 Days later, on August 5, 1968, Pakistan’s foreign minister visited Mao and gifted him a box of mangoes. Mao did not like fruit and so re-gifted the box of mangoes to the workers who occupied Tsinghua University. A mango was sent to each factory where it could be viewed by all workers. Mangoes were unfamiliar in China, so for the general populace this gift was revered as a great sacrifice by Mao. The mango gift was announced for weeks in newspapers and was used in propaganda posters. In fact, during China’s National Day Parade in 1968, a giant float shaped like a basket of mangoes was on display. The mangoes were trucked to various towns across the country where attendance at “viewing events” was often mandatory. As we saw with our unfortunate dentist at the beginning of this article, absence or unkind remarks about the mango would be interpreted as a sign of disrespect towards Mao and the revolution.

 By late 1968, the mango craze was in full gear across China. Mango-themed products were in high demand from bed sheets, to mugs, to soaps, and even to mango-flavored cigarettes. People could not get enough mango. However, just as quickly as the craze began, it ended. Just over a year later, the enthusiasm for mangoes began to decline as replicas became cheaper and more available. Once Mao died in 1976, the mango craze was officially over. Today, mangoes are common in China and seen as a common consumer good. In fact, today China is the second largest producer of mangoes in the world.

 With the mango being one of the most consumed fruits today, there is surely more history left to be written. The question is what role will the mango play next?  

  • John Paap is the Sustainability and Brand Marketing Manager at Jac. Vandenberg, Inc. and co-host of the “History of Fresh Produce” series on The Produce Industry Podcast.