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Our Roots Run Deep


by Esther George

“Cultural legacies are powerful forces. They have deep roots and long lives. They persist, generation after generation, virtually intact, even as the economic, social and demographic conditions that spawned them have vanished, and they play such a role in directing attitudes and behavior that we cannot make sense of our world without them.” Malcolm Gladwell

Over the last 25 years, these islands have become a melting pot of people coming from the Caribbean, the United Kingdom, the Americas, Europe, Africa, and as far away as Asia to make their home. Many of these new migrants are employed in the financial services, health services, and tourism industries, while others come in retirement to spend the winters in our Caribbean warmth.

Due to these new demographics, restaurants now cater for a wide variety of tastes, and dining out has become a culinary fusion experience. There is something for everyone and in the midst of all this diversity, Caribbean food has found its niche. It is no longer considered too heavy for European and American palates and our local chefs are well-trained and experienced, performing creditably in competitions abroad. But as we look forward to a bright future in the foodie business, we need to also look back to our roots, assess our present and prepare for the Territory’s future.

Human migration is a principle method by which plant genetic material, cultural knowledge and practices have been diffused across the globe (Niñez 1987; Carney 2001; Carrier 2007). The study of this phenomenon is called ethnobotany and is defined as ‘a body of knowledge, practices, and beliefs about the relationships between people and plants, which is continuously evolving and is handed down through generations by cultural transmission’ (Ford 1994; Turner 1995; Ellen 2000; Nesheim et al. 2006).

For instance, research has shown that the African culinary influence on the Americas began long before the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The forced migration of Africans to the West began in the 15th century and continued until the mid-19th century, spanning the Americas from Argentina in the South to Canada in the North, inclusive of the Caribbean Islands. This trade in people instigated a widespread culinary fusion in food preparation as the enslaved African women entered the kitchens of the plantocracy, forever changing the way people in the Caribbean ate. Incidentally, Caribbean cuisine would influence food preparation in areas connected to the transatlantic route such as Louisiana and South Carolina, as the experienced enslaved from the region were often sold on to plantations in the American South.

Although there is a recent desire of many Caribbean islands to retrieve and revive their West African heritage, until the early 1980s, Suriname had probably the best-preserved West African cultural patterns in the hemisphere.  Suriname is home to the descendants of the Saramacca (who settled along the banks of the Suriname River), and the Djuka Maroons communities which formed in the early eighteenth century.  The ancestors of the Saramacca were agricultural specialists from Guinea, Senegal, Mali, Ghana, and Nigeria, who cultivated an enormous array of crops introduced directly from their homelands, including moringa, which yields four edibles: pods, leaves, seeds, and roots; and sorghum, known as guinea corn in West Africa (which botanists confused with maize for a long time). Other popular crops included tamarind, legumes such as marama, Bambara groundnut (African peanut), cowpeas (black-eyed peas), locust and sword beans, as well as African eggplant. Their descendants continue to produce these crops well into the 20th Century.

Despite the rich agricultural history and tradition here and throughout the region, we in the Virgin Islands are now dependent on foreign goods to supply both locals and visitors. Any disruption in this supply chain will have a direct and disastrous impact on our food security.

As a country who experienced the ravages of a category five hurricane, we should pay close attention to the words of the retired Assistant Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS), Albert Ramdin, who said that “…the reality is that those who import simply do not have direct control over a significant percentage of their food supply, and are increasingly vulnerable to every change or disruption in external production.” Many of our grandparents and parents who experienced World War II in the 1940s could attest to Ramdin’s observation and found creative ways to preserve and prepare meals when their regular food supplies were unavailable. We need to find the same level of ingenuity and resourcefulness now.

Recently the Government of the Virgin Islands through the Ministry of Natural Resources, Labour, and Immigration published A Green Paper on Environmental Management Climate Adaptation and Sustainable Development for the Virgin Islands. This is a welcome step in the right direction, and it is hoped that it will be implemented without delay.

Emphasis should now be placed on local food production and fisheries, an accessible natural resource which should be carefully managed to ensure that the supply is not overexploited.  

For us in the Virgin Islands, food and its preparation are deeply infused with social and cultural meaning. Our roots run deep in our West African traditions and those should always be the basis on which we create, preserve, and transmit our ethnic cohesion. It is hoped that these cultural traditions will not be lost as these islands become more and more cosmopolitan. It is incumbent on Government through the Department of Culture, as well as all of us, to ensure that our culinary traditions and our cultural relationships with food are kept vibrant and central to our daily lives.

In our next article, we will explore the ethnobotany of these islands and the role that the cultivation of cash crops played in the destruction of their natural biodiversity.