Foods of the Enslaved Part 1 by Kevin Downie

Published Monday, 08 February 2016
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I. Diet during the Middle Passage


Diets varied from ship to ship and over the course of time, however; normally rice and yam made up the basic diet and sometimes live stock was taken aboard such as goats and chickens, it was boiled into a soup which was often with fish, shrimp or beef, other than this they were sometimes corn and European horse-beans, palm oil, peppers and flour were added to thicken the broth or soups and to stretch the amounts. The live animals were consumed first then the salted and dried meats and fish next. In the mid voyages from Africa to the New World most of the protein based foods were consumed first leaving the yams and rice as the staples.


On the other hand, most slave ships only served boiled rice and yams and although their stomachs were full they were severely deficient in most of the recommended nutrients. As a result many slaves that reached the West Indies were badly malnourished.


Yams rotted and rice became rancid in some instances and therefore on a normal voyage spoilage led to reduced rations and mortality rates increased as food supplies dwindled. Apart from the food stuff, water was also a major problem and almost always ran short and also contributed to the high mortality rates of the middle passage.


The lack of foods and nutrients caused some major problems for the enslaved aboard. Problems and symptoms included abdominal pain swelling and diarrhea. Deterioration in hygiene from the diarrhea most likely precipitated in bacillary dysentery. The reduced vitality activated latent amebiasis that exploded into epidemic proportions. These diseases back then were called the “white and bloody fluxes,” and were the major killers of enslaved aboard ships, all because of poor diet in the first place.


II. Diet of the Slaves on the Plantation


Enslaved persons were required to work their own grounds, and during the 17th Century the slaves generally attended to this on Saturday and Sunday afternoons.  In the early 18th Century as the landowner took over the estates, the enslaved were pushed much harder and Saturday afternoons were out of the question. If provision grounds were not far away they would normally attend to them during their lunch hours which were roughly around 2 hours and for the more industrious slaves some even tended to them during the night.  According to the Jamaican Slave Act(s) it was required that 1 acre be planted with provisions for every 10 slaves, they were also required to maintain themselves by cultivating their own food except for in times of scarcity, hurricanes or droughts.


A wide diversification of crops was normally grown: Yams, plantains, corn, cassava, eddoes, potatoes, coco yams, pumpkins, bananas, ackee and callaloo.  The method of cultivation & the normal practice was plant provisions on the hillsides and plantains on the flatlands. The practice of clearing the ground for cultivation was by fire and this was prevalent up until 1807. After this time, “Consolidated Slave Laws” had been put in place and slaves were punished if caught burning the land for cultivation.   Labor on the grounds was performed with the help of close friends and relatives.  Mothers worked with their babies on their backs while the older siblings carried baskets and performed other garden duties. Apart from the food grown, above cornmeal and rice were the principle cereals, with slaves receiving about a pint daily, this was a standard across the entire Caribbean.  In Barbados corn was the cereal most readily available and issued to slaves whereas in Puerto Rico, Jamaica and Cuba both corn and rice are mentioned as staples but cost and availability was the determining factor which was to play the dominant role at the time.


III. Modern Studies about Slave Diet


Cuban & other Caribbean slaves were not well provided for in terms of nutrients, early 19th Century height data identified Cuban Creole-born slaves along with Guiana and Trinidad as being the shortest of Caribbean slaves. The allotment for slaves living in the southern U.S.A was about 3 pounds of salt pork weekly which suggests that Caribbean slaves did not receive the amount of protein that records claimed. This data is confirmed by checks of salt fish imports to Barbados and Jamaica, along with plantation records point to a pound of salt fish weekly as being closer to the norm.


It was discovered that the shorter Creole slaves lived on islands where intense sugar cultivation was present, whereas the taller slaves lived on the islands of the Bahamas, Grenadines and Bermuda where sugar cane cultivation was not extensively grown, which means slaves had more time to fish, garden and to take care of their nutritional daily needs. The enslaved on sugar plantations did not have the time, opportunity or energy to tend to their supplemental and nutritional needs and as a result the evidence has shown in their height ratios.  Their diet was confined to very little animal proteins and a lot of carbohydrates.


On the island of Cuba slaves received only 2 meals daily consisting mainly of only corn and salt fish. In Puerto Rico and Santo Domingo food was so low in quality that salves were barely surviving, while in the French islands like St. Domingue their diet was characterized as poor because of the heavy carbohydrate concentration in relation to protein.  Ideally a slave would have been issued a half pound of animal protein daily in the form of pickled  salt fish or jerked beef which was common on Cuba, as well as a pint of cereal in the form of cornmeal or rice. This diet only provided a slave with a third of their caloric needs.   The remainder of the calories would have come from supplements to the core such as eddoes, plantains, yams, bananas etc.  Between these supplements and the core would combine to supply a slave with approximately 3.000 calories per day.

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