Cuisine and Crops in Tropical Africa – Colonial and Contemporary – Pt. 2

Eating during the Nineteenth Century:

1. What colonial explorers had to say:

Last year I put the following quotes on The Old Foodie site, which are from 19th Century sources, as part of a discussion about food in Africa. I want to elaborate in this blog.

From: What Led to the Discovery of the Source of the Nile (1864), by John Hanning Speke:

Eastern Congo: “The population is considerable, and they live in mushroom huts, situated on the high flats and easier slopes, where they cultivate the manioc, sweet potato, maize, millet, various kinds of pulse, and all the common vegetables in general use about the country. Poultry abounds in the villages.”

Homes and grain silos (on stilts).  c. 1869

Homes and, on stilts, either grain silos or sleeping platforms to evade mosquitos. 1864

From: Two Trips to Gorilla Land and the Cataracts of the Congo Volume 1 (1876), by Sir Richard Francis Burton:

Central Congo: “… Meat rarely appears; river fish, fresh or sun-dried, is the usual “kitchen,” eaten with manioc, toasted maize, and peeled, roasted, and scraped plantain: vegetables and palm-oil obtained by squeezing the nut in the hands, are the staple dish, and beans are looked upon rather as slaves’ food. They have no rice and no form of ‘daily bread’.

… The travelling foods are mostly boiled batatas (sweet potatoes), Kwanga, a hard and innutritious pudding-like preparation of cassava which the “Expedition” (p.197) calls “Coongo, a bitter root, that requires four days’ boiling to deprive it of its pernicious quality;” this is probably the black or poisonous manioc.

The national dish, “chindungwa,” would test the mouth of any curry-eater in the world: it is composed of boiled ground-nuts and red peppers in equal proportions, pounded separately in wooden mortars, mixed and squeezed to drain off the oil; the hard mass, flavoured with salt or honey, will keep for weeks.”

2. Indigenous and introduced crops:

What really stands out is that the majority of daily foods mentioned were introduced to Africa from the Americas, some prior to and some by Portuguese slave traders, including manioc, sweet potato, red peppers, maize, beans, and plantain. Both millet and ‘common vegetables’, mentioned above, are indigenous. However, it is not clear what Speke refers to by ‘various kinds of pulse’ – nor what Burton is specifically referring to by ‘ground-nuts’, which could either be indigenous groundnuts (bambara) or peanuts from the Americas.

‘Gerkins and Tomatoes’ (Cynthia) had a nice blog on the former.

Another interesting comment by Burton is that ‘beans are looked upon rather as slaves’ food’. Now, this is certainly not the case today, for throughout central Africa beans of multiple varieties are a staple food in most areas and are considered culturally important as well – as I discussed in a previous blog.

What this suggests is perhaps the introduction of beans as part of the slave trade whereby – due especially to seasonal shortages of food – beans may have been specifically grown or carried by slave traders (initially Swahili Arabs from the East Coast of Africa who traded slaves and ivory with the Portuguese) for preparation and consumption by their slaves en route.

Captive slaves.

Captive slaves. Royal Geographical Society

This would render the slave merchants independent of procuring all food locally for the slaves, provide a very good source of energy, and be easy to transport and prepare. If so, it would also link beans with slave-status, and thus not be a very desirable food. The idea is attractive; I will look into it further, and welcome any comments.

Crops that were introduced, but not mentioned by these two explorers, include tomatoes, pineapples, coconut palm, guava and other fruits, etc.

I’ve much more to say about both indigenous and introduced crops – the political economy underpinning their demise or development, etc, and so other posts will follow.  But in the current brief overview, the next entry or two will cover:

– Cuisine before Colonization

About dianabuja

With a group of BaTwa (pygmy) women potters, with whom we've worked to enhance production and sales of their wonderful pots - fantastic for cooking and serving. To see the 2 blogs on this work enter 'batwa pots' into the search engine located just above this picture. Blog entries throughout this site are about Africa, as well as about the Middle East and life in general - reflecting over 35 years of work and research in Africa and the Middle East – Come and join me!
This entry was posted in Africa-General, Agriculture, Colonialism, Cuisine, Food. Bookmark the permalink.

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