‘Good Things […] from Bristol and Ireland’: Dietary Ambiguities in the British Caribbean (1790s-1850s)
From Firenze University Press Journal: Cromohs
Ilaria Berti, University of Florence
As is widely renowned, food is more than the simple act of nutrition, it is also a bearer of strong social significances –identity being the most relevant –whose meanings and rituals can be politicised. Among the scholars who have treated food history according to its cultural and social dimensions, British Caribbeanist Christer Petleyhas examined the written accounts of nineteenth-century British colonists in order to evaluate how they depicted the food habits of the Creoles, using this as a means to understand the relationship between the emerging abolitionist movement and the changing British perception of the white planter class.
Therefore, Petley’s emphasis on food and identities becomes a useful tool for the representation of some of the Creole patterns of food consumption, portraying the members of the planter class from the outside, through the eyes of British travellers.
For the sake of this article, Creole is taken to mean only white people with British ancestors who were born and grew up in the West Indies and were usually part of the economic and political elite even though the term also referred to all people born in the Caribbean, including individuals with African ancestors, among others. Mrs Carmichael, a Scottish gentlewoman who lived in the archipelago during the 1820s, explained who was part of the Creole population: ‘As the term Creole is often in England understood to imply a Mulatto, it is best to explain that the word Creole means a native of a West India colony, whether he be white, black or the coloured population.’
Drawing from Petley, I aim to compare and contrast the food customs and dietary ideas of Creole planters and British travellers in the colonial space of the Caribbean. I hypothesise that the various food habits and their connected diets encountered in the colonies were more than a problem of nourishment and instead concerned wider processes of identity construction and community-building as also defined through a common diet, a similar contempt for different food habits, and opposition to unfamiliar diets, dishes and ingredients. After all, as Sidney Mintz argued in his well-known work on sugar consumption, ‘One could become different by consuming differently’; similarly, Warren Belasco has stressed, ‘food choices establish boundaries and borders.’
Therefore, the ingredients and dishes described, chosen and eaten by white planters could be bothvalid indicators of their opinions about themselves and their views about not being born in the United Kingdom and not being British; in other words, food was used as a tool to express a sense of community and otherness. That is why I focus, firstly and mainly, on the white Creole planters’ diet and their love for local food, their feelings of difference and, in some implicit aspects, the supposed inferiority when they related their food to British cuisine. Secondly, I analyse the British colonists’ opinions about the unknown and alien dishes eaten by the local elite. Thus, I reconstruct how individuals perceived their food and the food of the otherin order to assess how British travellers and Creole residents regarded the local diet and also how Creole planters performed the act of eating both in public and in private, when they believed the British were not observing them, in order to evaluate the role played by the consumption of local, European and British food in the invention of their Creole identity.