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From: Sally Rolls Pavia <>
Subject: [GENEALOGYBITSANDPIECES] What Did Slaves Eat???
Date: Tue, 4 Dec 2007 19:47:15 -0800 (PST)


SLAVE SUBSISTENCE
Much of what we know about slave foodways comes from archeological evidence, primary accounts (journals, letters, travel notes), and literature. Many traditional foods and recipes were brought from West Africa. People cook what they know. Additional foods and cooking methods were adopted from European and Native American cuisines. The amount and type of foods consumed by slaves depended upon many factors. Master's practices, age, job, ingenuity, and season all played vital roles.

What did the slaves eat on board ships heading for the New World?
"Slave ship cargoes brought crops directly from Africa to North America for enslaved Africans to consume during their passage to the New World under the transatlantic slave trade. These crops included several basic starches central to the African diet, for instance rice, okra, tania, black-eyed peas, cassava, yams, and kidney and lima beans. Other crops brought from Africa included peanuts (originally from South America), millet, sorghum, guinea melon, liquorice, watermelon, and sesame (benne). Over time, these foods found their way into American footways and became a basic component of southern cuisine. Without question, yams were the most common African staple fed to enslaved Africans on board ships bound for the Americas. The slave merchant John Barbot, for example, noted that "a ship that takes in 500 slaves, must provide above 100,000 yams," or roughly 200 per person. The ship logs of the slave vessel Elizabeth, bound for Rhode Island in 1754,
listed provisions of "yams, plantain, bread [cornbread], fish and rice." In another example, the account books of the slave ship Othello (1768-69) listed hundreds of baskets of yams taken on board as provisions along with lesser quantities of plantains, limes, pepper, palm oil, and gobbagobs (goobers or peanuts). One enslaved African told a free black in Charleston about the food eaten on the slave ship that brought him to America: "We had nothing to eat but yams, which were thrown amongst us at random--and of those we had scarcely enough to support life. More than a third of us died on the passage, and when we arrived at Charleston, I was not able to stand." The African yam, which is similar to the American "sweet potato," remained a popular food among slaves and whites alike. To this day roasted and sugared yams and "sweet potato pie" are favourite southern delicacies--both having their origins in African slavery. Black-eyed peas, which are actually
beans, also were used as food on the slave voyages, and enslaved Africans in the Caribbean thereafter consumed these easily cultivated beans as a basic food."
---African Crops and Slave Cuisine, Joseph E. Holloway, Ph.D.,California State University Northridge

"Although some European foods were acceptable, experience taught slave traders that Africans did better when they were fed foods that they were accustomed to eating. The Henrietta Marie may have stopped for yams, as they were thought to be the most suitable food for people from the Calabar region. Some 50,000 yams would have been necessary to feed the 200 slaves aboard the Henrietta Marie, and it would have taken about one week to fully provision her for the voyage. Africans were usually fed twice daily. Two cook stoves were found aboard the Henrietta Marie, one large one which was probably used to feed sailors and slaves, and this smaller one, possibly used in the officer's quarters."
---Henrietta Marie slave ship (primary source material)

"...The diet of the Negroes while on board, consists chiefly of horse beans boiled to the consistency of a pulp; of boiled yams and rice and sometimes a small quantity of beef or pork. The latter are frequently taken from the provisions laid in for the sailors. They sometimes make use of a sauce composed of palm-oil mixed with flour, water and pepper, which the sailors call slabber-sauce. Yams are the favorite food of the Eboe or Bight Negroes, and rice or corn of those from the Gold or Windward Coast; each preferring the produce of their native soil...Upon the Negroes refusing to take sustenance, I have seen coals of fire, glowing hot, put on a shovel and placed so near their lips as to scorch and burn them. And this has been accompanied with threats of forcing them to swallow the coals if they any longer persisted in refusing to eat. These means have generally had the desired effect. I have also been credibly informed that a certain captain in the
slave-trade, poured melted lead on such of his Negroes as obstinately refused their food...."
---Alexander Falconbridge's account of the slave trade (primary source material, 1788)

What did the slaves eat while in America?
"It is difficult to assess the abundance or the quality of average Southern food in the absence of an average Southerner--that is, a member of the middle class, for there was not much middle class to occupy the wide gap between the plantation owner and the poor white, a group which already existed in those times and could hardly expect to rise to any comfortable standards of living in competition with the unpaid labor of slaves. The famous "hog and hominy" diet was at least rendered a little less unhealthy by the prevalence on the Southern menu of greens, often ignored by food writers, perhaps as a food so lowly as to be unworthy of their attention, but providers of vitamins all the same. A significant passage in Frederick Law Olmsted's Seabord Slave States, a product of his travels of the 1850s, suggests that slaves may have enjoyed a diet better balanced than that of may whites. Olmsted remarked that the more modest Southern planters lived on bacon
(sometimes cooked with turnip greens), corn pone, coffee sweetened with molasses, and not much else, while their slaves had corn meal and salt pork, plus sweet potatoes of their own raising in the winter. Some owners encouraged the Negroes to grow vegetables for themselves also, because thy discovered that "negroes fed on three-quarters of a pound of bread and bacon are more prone to disease than if with less meat but with vegetables." It did not occur to the masters to draw any conclusions from this empirical observation for their own benefit."
---Eating in America: A History, Waverly Root & Richard de Rochemont [William Morrow and Company:New York] 1976 (p. 145)


Sally Rolls Pavia



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