Foods of the Enslaved – Nutritional Value Part II by Kevin Downie

Published Monday, 08 February 2016
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Slave Foods

According to Joseph Holloway, the major crops that were brought from Africa during the transatlantic slave trade included rice, okra, Tania (Yam), black-eyed peas, kidney and lima beans. It had been documented that in 1687 a physician, Sir Hans Sloane, who was living in the West Indies at the time, found these crops growing on the island of Jamaica. Other crops that were brought from Africa were peanuts, millet, sorghum, guinea melon, watermelon, and sesame (benne).


Black-eyed Peas
Black-eyed peas first arrived in Jamaica around 1675 and by 1700 it had reached Florida, North Carolina in 1738 and then Virginia in 1775. William Byrd a slave planter mentions black-eyed peas in one of his writings in 1738 and by the time of the American Revolution (April 19, 1775 – September 3, 1783) black-eyed peas were firmly cemented into American cuisine.


Okra arrived in the New World around the 1600s. Gumbo, as it is called in Africa, found its popularity mostly in New Orleans. One observer in 1748 noted that thickened soup was a delicacy liked by blacks, it was also being used by the American white population before the American Revolution. Enslaved Africans used the young fruit that contain mucilage to eat by boiling. The leaves were used medicinally and the seeds were used to make a coffee substitute on plantations of South Carolina. Okra was also used my female slaves to induce abortion.


Sesamum indicum, commonly known as Sesame or Benne arrived from Africa to South Carolina in 1730. Thomas Jefferson noted in the 1770s that the slaves ate benne raw, toasted or boiled in soups, he also noted that they baked it in breads and also used it in broths. Slaves cultivated large crops of it and also the oil from the sesame was also introduced to the Americas by the enslaved Africans.

Rice was imported from Madagascar in 1685. Experts in rice cultivation were from the island of Goree, near Senegal and they trained the Europeans how to cultivate rice. Oryza sativa and oryza glaberrimi are both indigenous varieties of rice from the island of Madagascar, by 1740 rice had become a major staple in South Carolina farming.


Cornbread is similar to African millet bread. A journal was found to contain the documentation of the cornbread from the ship Mary, June 20, 1796, is it believed that cornbread was one of the African foods provided for their cargo. A popular method of preparing corncakes is by frying it into small cakes as is still done today throughout Africa. In 1739 a naturalist (Mark Catesby) noted that slaves made a mush from corn meal which they called pone bread.

This is a thick soup similar to gumbo, this also has its roots in Africa. Coilu is the Mandingo name for the plant resembling spinach.


Fufu also called “turn meal and flour” is prepared by boiling water and adding flour while adding other ingredients. It is also highly favored in Africa. Fufu is a traditional west and central African meal eaten by ethnic groups from Senegambia to Angola, it is prepared by mixing palm oil and flour together. From these mixtures slaves made what is called hoecakes which later evolved into what is now known as pancakes and hot water corn bread. From this mixture slaves made what was known as hot cake and in the fields it was called ash cakes. It is a common food known throughout the New World. It can also consist of yam, plantains and cassava cut into pieces and boiled together with cornmeal and beaten into a mass with okra and pepper.


The peanut was first brought to Africa by Portuguese sailors and then to the New World from Africa by enslaved Africans. It was sometimes used to feed the slaves during the middle passage.
Peanuts, also known as (pindar). It came from the Congo where is it known as (mpinda). The peanut was first recorded in Jamaica around the time of 1707 and in South Carolina in 1848. The peanut was used as food for cargoes on board slave ships.


Ginger Cake
Gingerbread originated in the Congo and was brought to the New World by enslaved Africans on plantations.


Hop’ n Johns
Traditional West African meal made with black-eyed peas and rice cooked together.


Jollof Rice
Brought to Americas by the Mande of West Africa, it is a certain style of cooking red rice.


Foods that the enslaved Africans working on plantations collected from the Massa’s leftovers, was called juba or jiba. On weekends these leftovers were thrown together (meat, bread, vegetables etc) … it was placed in a large pot n cooked together. The slaves working in the Massa’s house would share this meal with the slaves working in the fields.


Palm wine was produced throughout Africa from the sap of palm trees. African slaves continued to make it even as they came over to the new world. Materials taken from the palmetto tress called palm cabbage is taken from the centre of the tree and is cooked or made into wine.


Kola nuts are used today in modern soft drinks, however; during the transatlantic slave trade these nuts were given to persons on board the slave ships to suppress hunger and thirst. It is used by the Colomanty people even today to stop belly pains.


Coco Yam or what we know today in the Caribbean as eddo, also called eddo in West Africa is indigenous to parts of Central Africa. It originated in the Congo basin with reference being made about it from the Portuguese in the 15th Century. It was very popular in Georgia and South Carolina until the hurricane in 1893 destroyed most of the crops.


Citrullus Vulgaris, spread from regions of Sudan to Egypt around the time of the second millennium B.C. The transatlantic slave trade was the main vehicle by which the watermelon made its way to the New World. 

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