The evolution of Tobago's food culture

Dr Rita Pemberton  -
Dr Rita Pemberton -


The traditional food culture of Tobago is annually celebrated as a part of the island’s popular Heritage Festival, highlighting the food items and their modes of preparation which sustained the population across the island’s history. This food culture evolved out of the cultural interface between the First People, the European colonisers and the introduced African population, implanted on the naturally occurring edible plants on the island.

In addition, the determination of the island as a sugar producer and the establishment of a plantation economy meant that the fortunes of the sugar industry would play a significant role in policies toward food production both in the quantum of land allocation and the nature and levels of food imports. It is to be noted that the prevailing view that agriculture was plantation agriculture led to the policy that maximum use should be made of the best available land resources for the production of sugar. The rationale for this was the conviction that it would be more profitable to devote the most suitable land to production for export and import food. Within the British Empire it was established that cheap food could be obtained from the American colonies, which became the lifeline of the British Caribbean sugar-producing colonies.

The growing European demand for sugar along with the resulting high prices to be fetched on the international market and the profits that accrued to sugar producers in territories such as Haiti and Barbados, stimulated a mad scramble to establish sugar plantations to take advantage of the expected profit bounties. However, the most critical consideration lay in the organisation of the sugar industry itself with its imported African labour force, which had to be fed at plantation expense. The variance between the profit expectation and the realities of the island’s historical experience caused a distinct policy change which had implications for the island’s food culture, the three most distinct features of which were the items which were consumed, their sources and modes of preparation.

The basis of the island’s food culture evolved from the food patterns of the First Peoples which were transmitted to the enslaved African population. The First Peoples utilised both naturally-growing edible plants and those they introduced, in a diet that was heavily based on fruit, corn (maize), cassava, seafood and wild meat consumption. They cultivated cassava, maize and sweet potato. They processed the cassava with the matapee, an instrument which they made, to extract the poisonous liquid from bitter cassava to make it edible, and the resulting flour was used to make farine and cassava bread. From the sweet potato they produced mábi, an alcoholic drink which has been described as the “universal drink” of 17th century Tobago. They coloured and flavoured their food with roucou and they practised seine fishing and processed the catch by smoking, salting, drying and baking on the boucan. Apart from the fact that mábi was replaced by rum as the favourite alcoholic drink on the island, the remaining food practices of the First Peoples remained entrenched in the island’s food culture across the 19th century.

The second set of factors was related to European influences on the food culture. This was first manifested by the items of food which were used to feed the African labourers. Plantation imports included wheat flour, corn meal, dried peas and beans, salted meat (pig tail, pig snout, pig feet), salted fish (usually cod) and smoked herring to feed their enslaved charges. The enslaved population of Tobago was housed in individual units so communal cooking was not the norm on the island. Each enslaved worker was given a weekly food ration which included items from the above list along with some locally-produced items such as plantains and/or bananas which could be prepared in traditional African fashion. It is also to be noted that the European influence was also exerted through the enslaved women who worked as cooks in the Great House. They were exposed to the preparation of food items that were imported specifically for the European consumption with instructions to prepare them in particular European ways, while at the same time they were able to infuse African cooking practices in the foods they prepared. Hence there were African influences on the food consumed by Europeans on the island.

The third factor came from the African food traditions that were transferred to the island which were used in the preparation of these imported foods. It was the established practice for plantation owners to allocate provision grounds to their enslaved workers to produce food. While this practice was initially intended to reduce the estate expenses, it later became essential for survival, given the island’s historical circumstance. Since the Tobago sugar industry did not generate the anticipated profit levels, even cash-strapped planters came to depend on the food items which were produced on the provision grounds. The enslaved were allowed to sell their excess produce on the local market, the main one which was located on the site opposite to Radio Tambrin was known as “Ole Market.” A portion of the earnings went to the plantation owner while the remainder was kept by the enslaved worker.

The dependence on imports left the food supply vulnerable to bad weather and, given the continued rivalry between Britain and France, open to the vagaries of war. Britain did not anticipate the revolt of its American colonies which provided an opportunity for its rival France to take advantage of its vulnerability to support the Americans, and to capture Tobago. The loss of the colonies interrupted the colonial food train causing severe food shortages and death of enslaved workers from starvation in the British Caribbean colonies. Tobago was negatively affected by the war exercises on the island in addition to the trade disruption. In an effort to save the lives of its labour force, the Tobago House of Assembly mandated the allocation of provision grounds to all enslaved persons over the age of 14 years, which remained a permanent feature of enslavement on the island. Also there was a policy to stimulate the introduction of plants which could be used to feed the enslaved workers, which resulted in the introduction of the breadfruit plant to the island. Plantation owner John Robley received an award for establishing a breadfruit plantation on the island.

The juggling ownership of Tobago between Britain and France caused severe disruption of plantation operations up to the first three years of the 19th century, by which time it was evident that the island’s sugar industry was in trouble. Plantations changed hands as owners tried to cut their losses but it became increasingly difficult to find either interested buyers or investors to provide credit to planters. While the plantation economy tottered across the 19th century, ground provision agriculture, on which many plantation owners came to depend, flourished on the island. This provided the base from which Tobago’s food culture would expand after Emancipation.


"The evolution of Tobago's food culture"

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