Caribana, Emancipation … and saltfish.


In honour of Emancipation, for Caribana 2011, celebrate August 1, breakfasting with family and partisans on ritual chunks of cassava bread, or farine peppered with sliced zaboca tucked into slivers of smoked herring bathed in lime juice. In Creole, called chiktay, Haitians make this dish best.

Later, lunch or sup on saltfish with boiled ground provisions like eddoes, dasheen, tanias and yellow yam, with pembua, bananas and ackee to go. Some might go for oildown or cookup, culinary descendants from the slaves making do with odds and ends of leftovers thrown them. And room temperature mauby (hot food eaten with cold drinks causes stomach flux).

Our history as an African people parallels the migrations of these food items. Wherever we were taken, they were, or followed. They were also the stuff of wealth, of wars, and empire. Foods like the cod fed Europe, ending perennial malnutrition and episodic cycles of famines. In fact, the last great famine, 1845-1852, was in Ireland, caused by the blighted failure of a new tuber brought back from the Americas: the potato.

These crops, especially the saltfish, are today the mainstay of national dishes in the West Indies. In Iere, it is bake and saltfish. In Xamaca, it is ackee and saltfish. However, in Bim, flying-fish and coucou rule. Other historic foods are also now staples. These, including curries, and vegetables like the eggplant arriving later, and brought by indentured East Indians and Chinese.

However, among all staples, then and now, the saltfish, also called bacalao, and buljol, and a bawdy metaphor with sexual connotations, remains the quintessence of Caribbean foods.

Slaves in the Caribbean and in North America had dissimilar diets, but both were fed the low-end scraps, called ‘West Indian saltfish’. An adult slave would be given a pound on Sundays, to last the week. This was supplemented with whatever they could grow and raise. Before 1807, the ending, not of slavery, but of the British slave trade from Africa, slaves in the West Indies planted, harvested, crushed and boiled the sugarcane.

In fact, Haiti, once a slave colony of France, from its produce of sugar, rum, and molasses then contributed more than one third to the French economy.

The bitter experiences with molasses, a by-product of sugar made into rums, became an iconic figure in today’s carnival. In Trinidad, it is the Jab Molassie character, derived from the patois, Diable Molassie, or the Devil Molasses.

It is said that, apart from cotton which arrived later in the U.S., no other plantation crop consumed the lives of so many slaves. The average working life of a slave on a sugar plantation was seven years. They could not reproduce sufficiently to maintain their numbers. After the 1807 decision to end the importation of slaves from Africa, the Bucky Massa slave owners in the British colonies had to find the means to keep Quashie slaves alive longer. And produce more.

Enter the pembua. The breadfruit. It featured in one of the best known mutinies in the British navy: the Mutiny on the Bounty. Captain Bligh, the ship’s master of HMS Bounty, accused by his men of brutality was set adrift in a small boat. At the time, Bligh was importing from Tahiti, breadfruit seedlings to be grown in the West Indies as food for the slaves.

The salted cod or saltfish provided the protein and pembua the carbohydrates. The salt used to preserve the codfish caught in the North Atlantic was mined in the West Indies and used as ballast in the journey back to New Foundland, etc. In fact, more salt left the West Indies than sugar. Then, without the benefits of refrigeration, West Indian salt was the preservative of other foods in Europe, like cheeses, etc.

There were other foods used by the slaves. One was the banana, brought along with yams, dasheen and eddoes from Africa. Today, after other staples like wheat and rice, bananas are the major source of carbohydrates eaten worldwide. In North America, the average person eats about 30 pounds a year. In Africa, a thousand pounds.

The ackee plant was also brought from Africa to the West Indies. However, it is only in Jamaica that it took hold as a food source. Interestingly, too, in Jamaica the breadfruit did not, and was used to feed swine until after Emancipation when it became more acceptable as food for people.

Other crops include the coconut. It is not native to the Caribbean, and its plants might have drifted halfway across the world, probably from Melanasia, and rooted in the Caribbean. One coconut is reputed, gram for gram, to have the same amount of protein as a quarter pound of beef. Other crops that were already local when the slaves were brought included the cassava, or tapioca, and the corn or maize.

The corn mentioned in the Bible was probably barley. The first nations in the Caribbean: the Ciboney, Arawaks and Caribs used corn along with peppers, tomatoes – initially thought to be poisonous by the conquistadores – fish, shellfish and meat, obtaining from these reasonably balanced nutrition. Columbus and others on first seeing the Amerindians described them as people wholesome to behold, fair of limb and fleet of foot. They obviously were not fleet enough. In less than a century they were reduced to museum piece numbers through diseases, starvation and genocide.

Among the mercantilists later providing Bills of Lading credit between importers and exporters of codfish for rum and rum for codfish, were merchant bankers like the Bank of Nova Scotia. Located in Canada’s Atlantic provinces, it also set up shop in Jamaica several decades before it did in Toronto. Other institutions, but pre-Emancipation, for example, today’s Barclays, earned their first capital either shipping slaves or like Lloyds of London, insuring them.

In conclusion, as a people, we take our past for granted, and others thereby take us for fools. Celebrating Emancipation with our families, members of our clubs and places of worship, will give our children a sense of how far we’ve come, and at what cost. They will more than likely become the kind of adults we want of them. It works. Ask the children of BADC members.

Celebrating this year’s August 1 Simcoe Day holiday, take a special moment to remember Emancipation. What it has meant, not only in our staple foods, but also in our culture – culture like carnival; carnivals like Caribana which we in Toronto must now liberate from the descendants of those whose ancestors benefitted for centuries from our ancestors’ oppression.

What are you doing to emancipate Caribana?

Farrell is a retired educator and a former board member and chair of the Caribbean Cultural Committee, the owners of Caribana.

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