Sugar, Slaves, and Food

The Emergence of a Fusion and Cuisine in the West Indies Colonies (19th century)

Ilaria Berti


In the context of the nineteenth-century imperialism, European powers did all their efforts to maintain their authority on the small but productive Caribbean islands. Due to their climate, Caribbean were, in fact, used to cultivate sugarcane in order of satisfying the growing European and global request for sugar, whose cultivation was mainly carried out by slaves.

In this paper the practices of everyday life connected to preparing and serving dishes are understood as an area of mediation within which the slaves were able to negotiate a certain degree of autonomy, despite having to observe norms relating to the setting of the table, the best ways of presenting and serving food, the times at which meals had to be ready, and the preparation of some dishes: all these being imposed on them by the colonists. My assumption is that, besides working on the cane fields and even in a context marked by a strong power asymmetry, slaves also played an active role, making personal decisions, showing their creativity and powerfully contributing to the “invention” of the Caribbean Creole cuisine. I examine, therefore, the space of the kitchens and the act of feeding others as, respectively an important environment and powerful cultural mechanism, which through the processes of acceptance, hybridization and rejection had a significant impact on colonial society that also led to the emergence of local cuisines.

The exchanges between the various ethnicities and cultures that lived in this same space, such as the ones of the colonists and the slaves among others, and the resulting hybrid or fusion cuisine will be examined mainly through cookbooks and travel accounts of that epoch. More specifically, this paper will employ the first Jamaican cookbook, The Jamaica Cookery Book, published in 1893 and written by Caroline Sullivan, a woman that worked as a housekeeper in a family who owned a sugarcane plantation. A Spanish recipe book (Nuevo manuál del cocinero cubano y español, 1857) will also be analyzed, compared and contrasted with the Jamaican one in order of discovering how, not only the Caribbean cuisine kept solid traces of the various African ingredients and culinary techniques, but also how slaves’ food habits strongly influenced the food practices of all the others ethnic groups who lived in the global Caribbean space. These encounters of people, ingredients, and different culinary techniques, food habits and tastes led to the emergence of a fusion cuisine in which slaves played a primary role and whose traces are still visible today.