American Collections blog

103 posts categorized "Americas"

30 July 2021

Columbus and the Idea of Cuba

This blog by JS Tennant is part of a special Summer Scholars blog series highlighting recent research across the British Library's Americas collections by scholars and creatives associated with the Eccles Centre, including those supported by the Centre's Awards.

Like Columbus I have torn through one reality and discovered another but like Columbus I thought Cuba was on the mainland and it was not and like Columbus also it is possible I am leaving a heritage of destruction.

– Malcolm Lowry, 1937

It might seem like a truism to restate the importance of Columbus’s so-called ‘discovery’ of the Americas. But recent theories around primacy - those jostling counter claims attributing first transatlantic landfall to Norsemen, Basque or Bristol cod-fishermen, or a Portuguese pilot - detract little from the hemispheric and historical significance of the Genoese navigator’s albeit unintended achievement.

Portugal was the pioneering nation of exploration in the late medieval period. Columbus had first sought sponsorship for his design from the kings of Portugal and England. He then spent seven long years petitioning Fernando and Isabel of Spain, trailing around after the regents’ itinerant court among their vast retinue of hand-wringing camp followers.  Eventually, his doggedness won over the ‘Catholic Sovereigns’ whose union had brought together the kingdoms of Aragon and Castile and reached its apotheosis in the rout of Islam’s last stronghold on the peninsula at Granada.

Columbus failed to convince the regents during a debate with the country’s leading theologians and cosmographers at Salamanca in 1486, but a further audience near Granada in 1491 (under siege at the time) led Fernando and Isabel – buoyed no doubt by their imminent success – to grant his request. They urged him to set off quickly, in fact, perturbed by recent news that the Portuguese had succeeded in rounding the Cape of Good Hope; Spain needed to open a new, westward, maritime trade route into the lucrative spice markets of Asia.

Medieval European cartography can be generally categorised within three traditions: the mappaemundi, portolan charts and celestial maps. Mappaemundi were large, decorative circular maps of the known world, intended as much for spiritual instruction as locational accuracy. They were often beautifully illustrated with densely symbolic imagery, classical themes, placing Jerusalem at the nexus of all lands. Portolan charts, or sea charts, usually showed the Black Sea or Mediterranean and were deemed to be accurate, meant for active use by navigators. Although invented by the Phoenicians, these portable charts were perfected in late medieval times in the city states of Venice, Genoa, Florence as well as Ancona and Palma de Mallorca.

In the 1400s Europeans believed there were three continents, corresponding with those assigned to the sons of Noah: Asia, Europe and Africa. But both mappaemundi and portolan charts did signal the possibility of Terra incognita: most notably the existence of an Edenic terrestrial paradise, the Garden of Earthly Delights, whose existence was a given for orthodox Christians in the Middle Ages. The few sea charts which have come down to us showing a portion of the Atlantic – such as that of Grazioso Benincasa (1470) [Figure 1] – often position mythical islands such as Antilia, Brasil, Saint Brendan's Isle and Salvaga out at the edge of the mar tenebroso, the shadowy sea. An entirely new continent, though – let alone two – would have been beyond the wildest imaginings (even to the highly susceptible medieval mind). 

Detail from the Benincasa chart showing the mythical islands of Antilia & Salvaga.
Figure 1: Portolan chart from 1470 by Grazioso Benincasa. British Library shelfmark: MS 31318A.

Claudius Ptolemy’s Cosmographia – a mid-second century work of theoretical geography and manual for map-making – proved a sensation in clerical and courtly circles in Western Europe when it was translated into Latin in 1406. A manuscript of the Alexandrian scholar’s treatise had been copied out in the late thirteenth century the Byzantine monk Maximus Planudes and was preserved in the Monastery of Vatopedi [Figure 2]. Although not printed until the 1470s, the Cosmographia was widely circulated before then and, although it overestimated degrees of longitude (elongating the distance between west and east), confirmed the tripartite nature of the world. Having languished practically unknown – except by Arab astronomers – for 1,300 years before the time of Columbus, the eventual rediscovery of Ptolemy as a geographer became one of the major intellectual events of the fifteenth century. 

A yellowing manuscript page in Greek with two spherical sketches suggesting the tripartite nature of the world.
Figure 2: 14th century MS of Ptolemy’s Geographia. British Library shelfmark: Burney MS 111.

Like many learned men of his age, Columbus was steeped in the work of Ptolemy and colourful travelogues such as Marco Polo’s Il milione and Mandeville’s Travels. Lumbered with such preconceptions it is hardly a surprise that, when he stumbled upon the myriad cays, atolls and islands of the West Indies, he assumed this was the same archipelago off the eastern end of Orbis terrarum where the Great Khan – Emperor of China (or Cathay) – went to capture slaves. Although Ptolemy never fully mapped the outer rim of East Asia, he did describe a cluster of islands numbering 1,378 which must have recalled, for Columbus – who jotted this in the margins of his copy of Pierre d’Ailly’s Imago mundi – Polo’s 1,300 cities in Mangi (South China) and the 7,448 islands in the Sea of Mangi, verdant with fragrant trees and a profusion of white and black pepper.

Ptolemy’s conjectural coastlines, and Polo’s fanciful writings, were of little use to him in the Caribbean, which he named ‘the Indies’: at that time a term often assigning the whole of South and East Asia, a hazily imagined space so characterised by islands that its easternmost confine was often labelled Insulindia. Encountering Cuba on his first voyage, in 1492, Columbus publicly declared it to be the fabled Golden Chersonese (the present-day Malay Peninsula), stating later it was the littoral of mainland Cathay.

Displaying their own doubts, perhaps, ahead of his second voyage, the Spanish sovereigns urged Columbus to explore Cuba, ‘known up till now as a continent [tierra firme]’, once more. In June, 1494, dismissing claims to the contrary from native inhabitants ‘so ignorant and provincial they think the whole world is composed of islands’ he made his crew sign an oath affirming the continental nature of Cuba which, if reneged upon, would entail a cutting out of tongues. Privately, he conceded the possibility it could be an island, which he initially called Juana, only later updating this to ‘Cuba’: the name used by its local peoples (which in any case may have signified Florida).

At the turn of the century Pietro Martire d’Anghiera, an Italian humanist in the service of the Spanish court, had written of reports from men who claimed to have rounded the island. Given that he sailed under Columbus’s command on both the first and second voyages (as mate of the flagship Marigalante, which he also owned), and that first recorded circumnavigation of Cuba was by Sebastián de Ocampo in 1508, it is surprising that the Castilian cartographer Juan de la Cosa dared to depict Cuba as an island on his map of 1500. Beautifully executed on ox-hide [Figure 3], it also shows a putative channel cleaving the isthmus of Central America, through which wades a cartouche of St Christopher (who Columbus openly associated himself with) ferrying a cherubic Christ child on his shoulders. Was this to salve his admiral’s potential misgivings about the depiction of Cuba? 

Coloured map showing the islands and sea in the Caribbean.
Figure 3: Map of Juan de la Cosa, 1500. Detail of the Caribbean Sea region. Courtesy WikiMedia Commons.

The beautiful Cantino planisphere of 1502 [Figure 4, below] is coloured and adorned like a mappamundi but studded by compass roses radiating rhumb lines and strongly accented coastlines in the portolan fashion. It shows a half-figured, spectral presence of the South and North American continents, but likewise a breach in Central America, hoping against hope for a seaward passage there towards Cathay and the Spice Islands. The Cantino planisphere also carries the prominent legend The King of Castile’s Antillies, named of course after Antilia, the island or (sometimes) archipelago of legend: the place – often associated with Cuba – some of Columbus’s many detractors felt he had really reached.  

This detail of the planosphere has a white/cream background and shows numerous islands, some with images of wildlife.
Figure 4: Planisphere named for Alberto Cantino. 1502. Image courtesy WikiMedia Commons. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cantino_planisphere#/media/File:Cantino_west.jpg

Columbus seems to have been afflicted with a sort of Insulindia of the senses, an archipelagic delirium derived from antiquity, the bible, and books of travel. Writing to the Pope in February, 1502, he claims that, among the hundreds of islands he discovered were Tarshish, Cethia, Ophaz, and Cipangu [Japan]; Ophir, the biblical region from where King Solomon received regular tributes of gold, ivory, peacocks and apes; as well as ‘vastly infinite lands’: it is ‘in that vicinity the Terrestrial Paradise is to be found’. Publicly, perhaps for fear of having duped the Catholic Sovereigns, Columbus maintained the unwavering conviction that he’d reached Asia – one professed, in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary, until the day he died in 1506. 

Figure 4 revised
Figure 5: Francesco di Lorenzo Roselli & Giovanni Matteo Contarini, Mundu [sic] spericum. [Florence ?], 1506. British Library shelfmark: Maps C.2.cc.4

The first printed map to show the ‘New World’ is the Contarini-Rosselli that same year, the only copy of which is held at the British Library [Figure 5, above]. Ptolemy, although writing in Greek, owed much of his knowledge to the expansion of the Roman empire; Columbus’s discovery of the Americas for Europe, and Portuguese advances across Asia, made it clear to cartographers that the old Jerusalem-centred manner of depiction no longer held. But such was the Alexandrine’s influence that, well into the sixteenth century, attempts were made to fit the Americas and Asia into a Ptolemaic framework, such as can be seen in the Contarini-Rosselli Map the Ruysch World Map of 1507 [Figure 6]. 

5 revised final
Figure 6: Johann Ruysch world map, created 1507-08. Image courtesy WikiMedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ruysch_map.jpg

Confusion, sparked by Columbus’s equivocations over the nature of Cuba, are evidenced here in analysis which has shown that Ruysch painted over his original inscription Terra de Cuba, on the large island in its place, leaving it unnamed. The 1507 and 1516 Waldseemüller maps mislabel Cuba as ‘Isabella’, while the latter goes as far as to categorise an area of mainland Mexico as Terra de Cuba, Asie Partis. Similarly, the 1520 Schöner Globe marks Terra de Cuba on a landmass floating where North America should be, with Japan hovering tantalisingly nearby through an open sea channel [Figure 7]. In the end, Columbus’s characteristic intransigence had a devastating effect on the posterity and status he so craved. His false idea of Cuba contributed to the two continents being named instead for his friend, a Florentine also in the service of Spain: the explorer Américo Vespucio. 

Colourful detail of Schoner's 1520 globe.
Figure 7: Detail of the globe by Johannes Schöner, 1520. Image courtesy WikiMedia Commons.

 

JS Tennant’s work Mrs Gargantua and the Idea of Cuba is forthcoming from William Collins. It was shortlisted for the 2020 Eccles Centre & Hay Festival Writer’s Award.

 

26 July 2021

Shape-shifting: Creative research and 'The Owner of the Sea'

This blog by Richard Price is part of the Eccles Centre's special Summer Scholars blog series highlighting recent research by scholars and creatives working across the British Library's Americas collections. 

In a past life I was a researcher, studying for a PhD. I was investigating the novels and plays of the writer Neil M. Gunn who wrote in the interwar period and just beyond. I used the Lord Chamberlain’s Plays collection in the Library to see what the state censor of the day had made of Gunn’s play The Ancient Fire (1929). Gunn had located this drama in two politically sensitive places: post-war Glasgow, dependant on warship contracts for the British Empire, and a Scottish Highlands dominated by super-wealthy, super-absent landlords. I suspected there would be crossings-out in blue pencil, blustering annotations – any manner of indignation – and I was right. The Lord Chamberlain’s office was not going to let that play pass across its desk without the sharpening of pencils.

I duly completed the PhD and to this day use “Dr”, mainly to remind myself I actually did it. As it happens the revelations about censorship – it is still quite shocking to see a person’s art damaged by systematic authority – didn’t form much of my thesis. As often in research, specific information you glean doesn’t always, or even usually, make it to the central argument. Mine was more about aesthetics and internal Scottish self-identity rather than British politics, though of course these three components have various kinds of critical relationship with each other.

And, bar a published paper here or there afterwards, that was it. Fairly soon I decided to settle for just two vocations rather than three – Librarianship and Poetry. I let Research go, continued to work for a certain national library then located in the Round Reading Room of the British Museum (among other places), and continued to work in my own time – yes, I have finally learnt to call it work – as a writer.

Or I thought I had left Research. As the years have gone on, I’ve realised that thing that is reading and thinking and conversing about a subject before making something from that activity is still, of course, Research. 

Here are some topics I’ve felt the need to study for creative projects over the years: medical and psychological interventions for insomniacs (Rays, poetry, 2009); airborne pathogens (The Island, novel, 2010); stroke and patient care (Small World, poetry, 2012); the Scottish Highlands in wartime (Wind-breakers, Sea-Eagles and Anthrax, radio, 2019); the history of little magazines (Is This A Poem?, essays, 2015); the music of Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson (The World Brims by the Loss Adjustors, album, 2018); and, most recently, Inuit legends (The Owner of the Sea: Three Inuit Stories Retold, poetry, 2021). I’ve used a mixture of interviews with practitioners, straight-out purchases of academic books, and of course library-based study for all these.

Writing that paragraph I realise I’ve just missed the most significant segment of research that I have carried out: reading poetry. Contemporary poetry, yes, but poetry from all kinds of territories, times and directions, too; books and magazines about poetry which maintain context and skills knowledge; and of course conversations and correspondence with other poets and with readers including those who may not even know they could like poetry. Any writer, I imagine, is continually and voraciously reading works within their form and discussing them, so much so that they lose sight of it sometimes as study, as ‘Research’. In some ways, I hope that they do lose sight of it. Play, pleasure, enjoyment – immersion – perhaps, these are under-rated qualities in a society driven, at times, by a mixing up of  education and the work ethic? In any case, all this is the circulating blood at the heart of research, creatively speaking.

I think there’s another element, and perhaps that is also ‘invisible’ to many as labour, as researching activity. It is developing a practical understanding of the material demands, from physical form to people networks, that one’s art moves in, through, and across. For visual artists this is, say, ‘To know the gallery trade’. For a poet like me, who often works with book artists, it’s knowing the artist’s book market and the kinds of possibilities book artists explore in their work; it’s working with book artists. The same is true for knowing the mainstream poetry publishing world: this doesn’t happen instantly but takes years of finding-out (and luck). Some may say that these are compromising complications for a ‘pure poet’ or equivalent artist but I’m not so sure that one can ever escape the material nature of even such an apparently ethereal art.  I’d go further, that the nature of its material form and distribution is a big enough part of its meaning for a poet to devote time to learning it. 

This helps in a way to explain how The Owner of the Sea came about, and how it was that this ‘invisible’ aspect of research inspired its creation. It was integration within the materiality of one part of the poetry world – artist’s books – that led to it. For well over twenty years I have, in my time away from the Library, been an appreciator of and collaborator with the Anglo-Brazilian artist Ronald King. Our first book was gift horse (Circle Press, 1999; British Library Shelfmark: Cup.512.b.232). It’s a large off-white book with very few pages and striking images which are not inked – they are ‘blind embossed’. The printing equipment has made an impression on a damped page whose paper has to be chosen carefully for its strength and stretchiness in the process. Because no ink is used on these images the eye relies on slight shadow and light differences to make them out. Ron ‘animated’ the image: he used the central figure of a horse starting from a standing position and gradually going into a gallop by the end of the book. The artist Karen Bleitz set the type of the poem in soft grey.

Decades later, after a series of King-Price collaborations, all duly and proudly now in the British Library collections, we joined up for a return to a blind-embossed book, Sedna and the Fulmar. Ron asked me to write a small set of poems based on one of the legends of Sedna, who is a major sea spirit or god, known by various names across different Inuit territories. As a young man, Ron had lived in Canada and had stumbled across her legend. He had never found a satisfying artistic way of responding until now when he would use blind-embossing as an analogy for Arctic white-space, the images imprinted as it were into the snow of the page.

Following his invitation to work with him again, the more conventional usage of ‘Research’ came into play for me. I began to read (and write) more about Sedna than the project required. I was particularly taken by Frédéric Laugrand and Jarich Oosten’s The Sea Woman: Sedna in Inuit Shamanism and Art in the Eastern Arctic (University of Alaska Press, 2008; British Library shelfmark: YK.2009.b.8589) which offered not only information for me to make narrative outlines but a rich sense of traditions and beliefs surrounding Sedna, including shamanism.

The cover of Frédéric Laugrand and Jarich Oosten’s The Sea Woman: Sedna in Inuit Shamanism and Art in the Eastern Arctic, showing the mermaid-like goddess in blue water.
Frédéric Laugrand and Jarich Oosten, The Sea Woman: Sedna in Inuit Shamanism and Art in the Eastern Arctic. Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press, 2008; British Library shelfmark: YK.2009.b.8589

Unlike my encounter with the Lord Chamberlain’s plays, this time I wasn’t going to let the extra research go to waste. I very quickly established a narrative for a poetry sequence which would, yes, incorporate the small number of poems I had been commissioned to write, but would tell a longer story. I sent the whole sequence to Michael Schmidt, my publisher at Carcanet but also editor of the poetry journal PN Review. He offered to publish it in its entirety in the magazine almost by return of email. He also encouraged me to write more poems based on Inuit figures.

My study took me to further mythic accounts, from the more fragmentary ones assembled from various nineteenth century accounts by the anthropologist Franz Boas to Kira Van Deusen’s focussed and revelatory book Kiviuq: An Inuit Hero and His Siberian Cousins (McGill-Queen’s, 2009), based on the stories of living storytellers. This helped me counterbalance the story of the female god Sedna with the one of the male hunter Kiviuq.

The cover of Kira Van Deusen’s Kiviuq: An Inuit Hero and His Siberian Cousins, showing an Inuit person’s face.
Kira Van Deusen, Kiviuq: An Inuit Hero and His Siberian Cousins. McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2009; British Library shelfmark pending.

I also visited a now tragically defunct website, Kiviuq’s Journey, which Van Deusen had also been involved in, and which featured summaries of the tales of the mythic hunter Kiviuq. Again, these were taken directly from living Inuit storytellers (sadly, at least some have since died). Being Canadian, the site was out of scope for the work of our own UK Web Archive, but it does survive thanks to the US-based Internet Archive.

Screen shot of the website Kiviuq’s Journey taken from the Internet Archive.
A screenshot of the apparently defunct website Kiviuq’s Journey, taken from the Internet Archive: https://web.archive.org/web/20191214155128/http://www.unipka.ca/

So there were a range of focussed research resources I used for my poetry collection. But wait, I haven’t given examples of the ‘background research’ (like beneficial background radiation) that I mentioned is a way of life for poets – the collections we read day in and day out and the conversations we have. As my readers will know I am a poet of the sequence – from Tube Shelter Perspective (1993) to Small World (2012) – my poems inhabit connected narratives poem by poem, building drama, jumping gaps whose significance the reader will see as they read on. That is in part from being influenced by and having an affinity with such writers as the Tom Leonard of nora’s place or the Bernadine Evaristo of the verse novel The Emperor’s Babe.

Purple book cover of The Emperor’s Babe by Bernadine Evaristo, depicting a black woman’s hand holding a bunch of grapes.
A recent edition of The Emperor’s Babe by Bernadine Evaristo, originally published by Hamish Hamilton, 2001, British Library shelfmark: H.2001/2208.

It was adding this, what?, sensibility? towards the poetry sequence to my understanding of the narrative structures in Inuit story (at times trance-like, shamanistic, structures) that was the ‘breakthrough’ for me. In fact, sometimes it felt like writing the poems was being in a trance: I look at The Owner of the Sea and I don’t fully understand how these poems came to be written.

Conversations-wise I also shared my drafts with poet friends, including Nancy Campbell , author of Disko Bay and The Library of Ice, who has lived in Greenland and knows Inuit culture far better than I do. Nancy provides an afterword to the sequences in the book.

There is a key point about appropriation here, one that any researcher – creative or otherwise – needs to think carefully about when using the creative labour and common intangible heritage of indigenous cultures. I have, for example, been careful within The Owner of the Sea to acknowledge not just the authors I’ve mentioned but the many individually named storytellers who are cited in the key works. I’ve also emphasised distances in my introduction to the book, in asides contained within the poems themselves, in the jangle of contemporary UK language registers, and the distinctly un-traditional way the book proceeds. No reader could think that the book is anything but a contemporary collection from a Western poet, albeit based on the key moments of Inuit narratives. The original stories are not poems, they are in an entirely different form, the story of oral tradition, a tradition which has its own conventions and needs a set of sophisticated and localised skills for its rendering and which, though I imagine has some overlaps, must be very different from my own poetry tradition. My poems are also not translations and again I emphasise that.

Purple cover of The Owner of the Sea: Three Inuit Stories Retold, by Richard Price, depicting a sculpture of an Inuit woman.
Richard Price, The Owner of the Sea: Three Inuit Stories Retold; with an afterword by Nancy Campbell. Carcanet, 2021. Shelfmark pending.

It’s important, I feel, that the reader understands that set of distances and hopefully enjoying the different textures of poetry in The Owner of the Sea can, if they want, lead to the stories the book pays tribute to. I liken this distancing not to scientific or anthropological activity, each fraught with the risks of dehumanisation in such a context where framing is important to the investigating process, but as the distancing that takes places when any one art form, and its culture, tries to relate to another, especially across very different societies and (because the stories are hundreds and probably thousands of years old) across time. Instead of framing, ‘reaching towards’ is what such an activity does. An analogy would be, say, a 16th century painting from Europe depicting the story of Christ’s Nativity many centuries before in ancient Palestine. That artist, whether they are painting for devotion or for patronage or, as may be likely, both, cannot in the making of that painting, I believe, be seen as only ‘appropriating’ the teachings of and folklore around that religion. Rather they are responding in a way that is paradoxically distanced and dedicated: if they are an appropriator in some way they are also and, perhaps more firmly, an apostle.  They are also bringing in their contemporary world – the architecture of the stable, the nature of the snow – all European rather than Palestinian (in poetry, we would think of Peter Whigham’s Catullus or Christopher Logue’s Homer, where the world of now glances through the world of the past).

I am also aware that this painting analogy is itself a very Western one, and I use it here to give the  opportunity to pause to remember what trauma Christian organisations enacted on Inuit and other indigenous communities in Canada up until very recently, for example through the brutal residential schools systems. In fact in writing these poems I was driven by the sense that these stories -- where creatures are ‘human’’ and humans ‘creaturely’, all within a nature-space that depends on each and their relationship to each other -- were significant not just for their narrative interest but for their reflections on human behaviour. To write the tribute that The Owner of the Sea became was to place Inuit ideas, with all their unsettling challenges and breath-taking beauty, right into contemporary discourse, where they are much needed.

Richard Price is Head of Contemporary British Collections at the British Library. Richard’s The Owner of the Sea: Three Inuit Stories Retold is available here.

13 July 2021

Hazel Daniels: Pepperpot Philosophising

This is the ninth and final blog coming out of the Eccles Centres’ Caribbean Foodways oral history project. Identifying connections between participants’ stories and collection items, each blog explores one of the nine oral history interviews that will be deposited in the Sound Archive.

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This blog is about Hazel Daniels who was born in Guyana in 1946. Training and practicing as a radiographer in Georgetown, she then married Omar Daniels in 1973 and moved to the UK in 1975, where they have lived ever since, raising their three children. An enthusiastic home cook, Hazel likes to experiment with different cuisines and flavours in the kitchen, but is guided by her Guyanese roots. This blog focuses on Hazel’s descriptions of Guyanese ingredients and dishes alongside her philosophy of food and health, but you will soon be able to listen to her full interview via the British Library’s Listening and Viewing Service.

Black and white photo of hazel in a white headress
Wedding photo Hazel, photograph courtesy of Hazel Daniels

Pepperpot

‘if you want to take something forward, into the future, I think it has to pepperpot’

Pepperpot

Pot with stew on a stove
Pepperpot cooked by Hazel, courtesy of Hazel Daniels

All the participants of Guyanese heritage that I have interviewed for the Caribbean Foodways oral history project spoke about pepperpot. A dish with First Nations origins, pepperpot is history in a bowl. Paying tribute to the First Nations people of Guyana, ‘the people who were there hundreds and hundreds of years … before the colonies,’ Hazel explains the intriguing process of making this historic meal. The key ingredient is cassareep, which is made from boiling cassava for hours, until the pristine white flesh of the root becomes a ‘dark substance.’ The seemingly magical ‘preservative quality’ of the cassareep means that this rich stew, which is made from combining meat, fish or vegetables with the dark sauce, does not need to be refrigerated and it sits on the back of the stove, being eaten day in and day out until the pepperpot is gone!

Also commenting on the importance of the cassava to 'Guinan natives', Rev. J. G. Wood's exploratory index to Charles Waterton's, Wanderings in South America (1882) described how boiled cassava was then 'flavoured with red-pepper' to become the 'well-known cassareep' and that 'when the palate has become accustomed to the inordinate amount of red pepper, is not only nourishing but appetizing.'1 Moreover, 'the pot is never cleaned, so that, as it is very thick, very soft, and very porous, it absorbs the juices.'2 Alongside Hazel's interview and recipes, Wood's glossary evokes the continuity of cassareep in Guyana's foodways.  

Front cover with drawings
Tom Brown's School Days, Wanderings in South America, Old Christmas and Bracebridge Hall (London: Macmillan & Co, 1882) British Library Shelfmark 12350.m.12.
 
Text and illustrations about cassava and cassareep
Rev J. G. Wood, 'Explanation Index' in Wanderings in South America, The North-West of the United States, and the Antilles, in the Years 1812, 1816, 1820, and 1824 (London: Macmillan & Co, 1882) British Library Shelfmark 12350.m.12.
 

In Olive Senior’s introduction to Pepperpot: Best New Stories from the Caribbean, the poet states that: ‘One thing that unites us in the Caribbean is food, especially the melange: we all love pepperpot by any name - calalu or sancocho or ‘Saturday soup.”’3 Like many Caribbean dishes, pepperpot embodies cultures of creolisation and adaptability that reflect the region more broadly. Hence, there are numerous versions of pepperpot. ‘Pepperpot a la Jamaican’ that is featured below, does not include cassareep. The article sarcastically claims that ‘We are told that our pepperpot is but a poor imitation of the real thing which originated in British Guiana’. Likewise, the version described in recent Netflix series, High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America (based on food historian, Jessica B. Harris’s book), seems closer to a take on oxtail stew. ‘The most popular dish in Philadelphia in the eighteenth and nineteenth century,’ chef and artist, Omar Tate, explains that pepperpot was sold by free women of colour who made a living as street vendors.4

Black and white page from a magazine
Pepperpot. Annual Jamaican potpourri (1951) British Library Shelfmark P.803/423.

Caribbean Guyanese Food is...

a language that we can virtually all communicate with, even without speaking’

Attuned to the variance and connectivity that encompasses the Caribbean region, Hazel compares Guyana’s ‘racing rivers’ to the island nations of the region that have ‘beautiful beaches and blue water.’ Whilst highlighting the distinctiveness of Guyana as a mainland country, located on the South American continent, she believes that the ‘roots are virtually the same … we understand each other, we eat each other’s food.’ This understanding is the outcome of the region’s history, where all these societies have been profoundly shaped by the African diaspora.

Sketch of a waterfall
James Rodway [Royal Agricultural and Commercial Society of British Guiana], Handbook of British Guiana (Georgetown: published by the Committee [Printed by John Andrew & Son: Boston, USA]), 1893. British Library Shelfmark 10480.d.27.

Experimenting in the Kitchen

Playing with English Food

Hazel moved to England in 1975 to join her husband, Omar Daniels, who was studying psychiatry at the Maudsley Hospital in London. Having trained as a radiographer in Guyana, she started working at King’s College Hospital. Upon moving to England, Hazel noticed that ‘the food was different,’ it lacked ‘that extra bit’ from the food she had grown up with – the wonders of fresh thyme, juicy tomatoes, papayas and garlic that smelt ‘to high heaven.’ Inviting her new colleagues round for dinner, Hazel would ‘try to create’ classic English dishes with ‘a little twist’ by adding a stick of cinnamon, sweet peppers or pomegranate molasses (that she likens to cassareep), which seemed revolutionary to her dinner guests who were bowled over by her food.

Cooking and Freedom

This playful approach to cooking, which contrasted with Hazel’s serious and accurate line of work as a radiographer, offered a feeling a freedom. Describing herself as a maverick in the kitchen, Hazel speaks about being ‘free to try new things’ without the constraints of a cookbook or scales. Always inspired by other cuisines, Hazel’s food has been influenced by the aromas and textures of Egypt, where Omar received a scholarship to study medicine (and her paternal grandfather had fought for the British army). Talking me through her favourite meals, she describes cooking melting lamb and rice with almonds and fruits, a dish that is traditionally eaten for Iftar, when Muslims break their fast during Ramadan. From roast beef and tagines to plant-based stews, Hazel’s repertoire captures her open spirit and tastebuds that are always trying to create not only tasty, but beautiful looking dishes.

Multi-coloured book cover
Rosamund Grant, Caribbean and African Cookery (London: Virago, 1989) British Library Shelfmark YK.1989.a.5313
 
Page from cookbook recipe for Fish Creole
Rosamund Grant, Caribbean and African Cookery (London: Virago, 1989) British Library Shelfmark YK.1989.a.5313

Finding Rosamund 

Whilst not one for using recipes, Hazel’s ‘Fish Creole with Herb Dressing’ features in Rosamund Grant’s landmark cookbook, Caribbean and African Cookery. Published in 1989, with a foreword by Maya Angelou, it was one of the first Black-British authored cookbooks about Caribbean food. An old friend of Grant’s, the two attended primary school together in Georgetown. Meeting up at her legendary North London restaurant, Bambaya, Hazel reminisces about the joys of eating at a restaurant that served ‘all the food that we remembered.’ As Grant explains in her own oral history with the British Library, ‘Europeans tend to see Caribbean food in a particular way,’ for example, it is stereotyped as ‘spicy’ or ‘exotic.’5 In defiant response to this, Grant stated ‘I will define who I am and I will define … what I’m cooking.’6 Much like her schoolfriend, Hazel has forged her own personal and culinary path.

Food Philosophy

‘food is so much more than sustenance’

Food and Health

Given her lengthy career in healthcare, it is, perhaps, unsurprising that Hazel's food philosophy is embedded in a belief that food is a ‘preventative medicine.’ Throughout the interview, she often highlights the mineral and vitamin qualities of certain ingredients, such as getting magnesium from avocados, nuts and raisins. Much like this page in the health section of a West Indian cookery book, Hazel has wide-ranging knowledge of food’s nutritional value, which was partly shaped by her parent’s emphasis on maintaining a balanced diet and eating well.

Chart of ingredients and nutritional value
E. Phyllis Clark, West Indian Cookery (Edinburgh: Published for the Government of Trinidad and Tobago by Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1946) British Library Shelfmark 7948.a.66.

Food, Happiness and Identity

As Hazel sets out in her philosophy, ‘culture and food are integral to the sense of identity … of every human being.’ Food has shaped Hazel’s life profoundly and that of her children, to whom she has passed down an adaptable Guyanese culinary heritage that lives on through the spices that they rub, coat or add to food. As the last blog in the Caribbean Foodway series, I think that Hazel’s food philosophy is the perfect note to end on, as it encompasses the centrality of food in the politics of health, community, history and identity formation. In the words of the remarkable Hazel Daniels … ‘it’s what defines us all and brings us all together’!

I will leave you all with Hazel’s recipe for a classic Guyanese pepperpot, which she has generously shared. The Caribbean Foodways series may be over for now, but I invite you all to continue your exploration of Caribbean cooking by trying out the recipes shared in these blogs by our wonderful participants. Whether it is Ranette Prime’s Trini Phoulourie, or Ann Husband’s Green Banana Salad, tweet us with photographs of what you’ve cooked @BL_EcclesCentre!

Recipe
Hazel’s Pepper-pot Recipe, courtesy of Hazel Daniels

Thank you Hazel Daniels for sharing your memories and thoughts with me.

Naomi Oppenheim is the project lead on Caribbean Foodways in her role as the Caribbean Collections and Community Engagement Intern at the Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library @naomioppenheim

Read the previous blog in the Caribbean Foodways series – Rod Westmaas: A Hotchpotch of History and Hospitality

Further reading / references

  • Phyllis Clark, West Indian Cookery (Edinburgh: Published for the Government of Trinidad and Tobago by Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1946) British Library Shelfmark 7948.a.66.
  • Hazel Daniels interviewed by Naomi Oppenheim, Caribbean Foodways Interview, April 2021 (uncatalogued)
  • High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America, directed by Roger Ross Williams (2021)
  • James Rodway [Royal Agricultural and Commercial Society of British Guiana], Handbook of British Guiana (Georgetown: published by the Committee [Printed by John Andrew & Son: Boston, USA]), 1893. British Library Shelfmark 10480.d.27.
  • Jessica B. Harris, High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to the America (New York: Bloomsbury, 2011) British Library Shelfmark DRT ELD.DS.70649
  • Annual Jamaican potpourri, 1951 – 1969 Reprint (Nendeln, Kraus Reprint, 1970) British Library Shelfmark P.803/423.
  • Pepperpot: Best New Stories from the Caribbean (Leeds: Peekash Press, 2014) British Library Shelfmark YKL.2015.a.1788
  • Rosamund Grant, Caribbean and African Cookery (London: Virago, 1989) British Library Shelfmark YK.1989.a.5313
  • Rosamund Grant, ‘Not just Caribbean Stew’, Oral history curator’s choice (2000-2002) C821/35
  • Rev J. G. Wood, 'Explanation Index' in Wanderings in South America, The North-West of the United States, and the Antilles, in the Years 1812, 1816, 1820, and 1824 by Charles Waterton (London: Macmillan & Co, 1882) British Library Shelfmark 12350.m.12.
  1. Rev J. G. Wood, 'Explanation Index' in Wanderings in South America, The North-West of the United States, and the Antilles, in the Years 1812, 1816, 1820, and 1824 by Charles Waterton (London: Macmillan & Co, 1882), pp.50-51
  2.  Ibid, p.51. 
  3. Olive Senior, ‘Preface’, in Pepperpot: Best New Stories from the Caribbean (Leeds: Peekash Press, 2014), pp.11-16 (p.11).
  4. High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America, directed by Roger Ross Williams (2021).
  5. Rosamund Grant, ‘Not just Caribbean Stew’, Oral history curator’s choice (2000-2002) C821/35.
  6. Ibid.

30 June 2021

Rod Westmaas: A Hotchpotch of History and Hospitality

This is the eighth in a series of blogs coming out of the Eccles Centres’ Caribbean Foodways oral history project. Identifying connections between participants’ stories and collection items, each blog explores one of the nine oral history interviews that will be deposited in the Sound Archive.

*** Please note that certain browsers do not support the audio clips - read and listen on Chrome or Internet Explorer to ensure that the clips play in full ***

This blog is about Rod Westmaas who was born in Guyana in 1957 but grew up in Streatham, South London. Raised on the flavours of Guyana in their London home and moving back there as a teenager, Rod has a deep knowledge of Guyanese cooking and history. Dedicating his life to the hospitality industry, he has worked in Britain, Barbados and the United States. Aside from this, Rod set up Guyana SPEAKS with his wife, Dr. Juanita Cox, and he runs history walking tours. This blog focuses on his descriptions of one pot dishes with indigenous and African roots and his experience in the world of catering, but you will soon be able to listen to his full interview via the British Library’s Listening and Viewing Service.

Map of British Guiana
James Rodway [Royal Agricultural and Commercial Society of British Guiana], Handbook of British Guiana (Georgetown: published by the Committee [Printed by John Andrew & Son: Boston, USA]), 1893. British Library Shelfmark 10480.d.27. Available to view online.

The One Pot 

Rod’s mother, Zena Westmaas, grew up in the Pomeroon, a region in Guyana next to the Pomeroon River which is located between the Orinoco and Essequibo rivers. As Rod explains, this area of Guyana had a significant First Nations population, which meant that the food of Zena’s upbringing was based on ‘the native foods of that region and … Afro-Centric foods.’ In contrast to this, his paternal grandmother, Winifred Alberta, a woman of mixed descent with an Irish father and a light complexion, would only cook Eurocentric food, ‘she didn’t dabble into other types of foods – it’s the way she was brought up.’ During the interview, Rod showed me Winifred’s now tattered cookbook, that was printed by the Royal Bakery Company in 1929. After reading aloud a handwritten recipe for sponge cake, he recalled the treacle cake, baked potatoes and cheese soufflés that she used to love eating. The varying food heritages from Rod’s family capture his own reflections on the relationship between food, race and class in Guyana – ‘there was the distinct colour division, and colour defined what you ate.’

Food, Race and Class

Page of a book - text about ground provisions in Barbados
John Davy, M.D. and F.R.S. The West Indies, before and since Slave Emancipation comprising the Windward and Leeward Islands' military command; founded on notes and observations collected during a three years residence (Barbados: J. Bowen, 1854) British Library Shelfmark 10470.d.4. Available to view online
 
 
Page of cookbook with a recipe for Metagee
Rosamund Grant, Caribbean and African Cookery (London: Virago, 1989) British Library Shelfmark YK.1989.a.5313

Metemgee is a prime example of this historic food division. This tasty and nutritious stew, ‘stems from the enslaved Africans having … to put all their foods together in this one pot to make something delicious.’ A popular dish in the Pomeroon area, it typically contained ‘ground provisions’ cooked with coconut i.e. root vegetables that were historically cultivated by enslaved Africans on small plots of land that were used to supplement the meagre rations that were supplied by planters.1 Hence, Metemgee is a living record of resistance through cultivation, cooking and nourishment. As fellow Guyanese, Rosamund Grant’s recipe shows, ‘There are many variations of this cooked around the Caribbean Islands, with different names e.g. Sancoche (with many more ingredients), Oildown or Oileen.’2 Interestingly, Rod tells me that Metemgee means ‘and the plantain makes it better’ – which a common ingredient across adaptations of this one pot. Using the example of Metemgee in his race-class-food analysis, Rod explained that it would not have been well received to cook this in a ‘light-skinned household.’ However, nowadays it is universal, which speaks to the fact that so much of Guyanese cuisine is a blending of indigenous and African cultures.

Silver pot on an open fire
Pot on Fire, photograph courtesy of Rod Westmaas

Cow Heel Soup Recipe

Cow heel soup is another one pot that Rod temptingly describes. Reciting a recipe, the cook is instructed to ‘scald, scrape and thoroughly clean the cow heel’ before cooking with a mix of ‘celery … mixed root vegetables … lime juice and grated nutmeg.’

Front cover of recipe pamphlet
Ninety-nine ways of cooking and serving dainty dishes of U.C.P Tripe and Cowheel (Manchester: United Cattle Products Ltd, 192?) British Library Shelfmark YD.2005.a.170
 
Page from recipe pamphlet, including Cowheel and Lentil Soup and Cowheel Hotchpotch
Ninety-nine ways of cooking and serving dainty dishes of U.C.P Tripe and Cowheel (Manchester: United Cattle Products Ltd, 192?) British Library Shelfmark YD.2005.a.170

Interestingly, Rod’s cow heel soup – hailing from the hills and rivers of Guyana – has much in common with these various cow heel hotchpotch concoctions that were published in a pamphlet-style cookbook by United Cattle Products Ltd. from the 1920s. Combining tasty and cheap offcuts with root vegetables, herbs and spices (with more seasoning in Rod’s version) embodies the resourcefulness of cooks with limited means, who seem to have magical powers of flavour extraction.

Rod’s recollections of bubbling one pots remind me of a folktale that I read in Andrew Salkey’s archive, ‘Anancy and the Honey Dumplings.’3 In this story, Brother Anancy sniffs around Gordon Town, Jamaica, searching for ‘large honey dumplings’ that are ‘being cooked in coconut milk, on a low gas flame.’ The narrator explains how Anancy: 

‘craved food of that kind ever since he was a spider boy, in Nigeria, the old Gold Coast (now Ghana), Sierra Leone and Mali, and he had brought his craving for honey dumplings, all the way across the Middle Passage into the horror of slavery in Jamaica and throughout the Caribbean. … They made him think of his African childhood and his promises to return, one day, to his first homes on the continent.’

This folktale conveys an important lesson about the histories of colonialism and slavery in the Caribbean but also the sanctity of food as an unbreakable connection back to Africa. Like Anancy’s honey dumplings, Rod’s stories of Metemgee and cow heel soup embody the African roots that continue to shape Guyanese culture.

Life in London

Open page of children's book including a rhyme and an illustration
Valerie Bloom, Ackee, Breadfruit, Callaloo: An Edible Alphabet (London: Bogle L’Ouverture Publications, 1999) British Library Shelfmark YK.2000.b.360

Guyanese Fruits

Moving to London just before he turned two, Rod spent his early childhood in Streatham before moving back to Guyana in 1970. Rod recalls waking up to the smell of frying from bakes – a ‘cheap bread alternative’ – ‘that would invariably have mashed sardines with onions as an accompaniment.’ Whilst Zena and Patrick Westmaas encouraged Rod and his siblings to ‘integrate … enjoy your fish and chips … shepherd’s pie and bangers and mash, become a child of Britain,’ they were also exposed to Guyanese flavours at home, producing a sense of ‘cross culture.’ Rod remembers having a curry for school dinners, prompting him to ask his mother why the curry had raisins in it, to which she said, ‘that’s no curry’! As much as Zena and Patrick tried to recreate Guyanese dishes at their South London home, Rod could only imagine the rich variety of produce from the place of his birth. In this clip, Rod tells an anecdote about visiting a market with his father, who turned to him and said ‘that’s nothing compared to Guyana’ and he started naming an impressive list of fruits, from soursop to sapodilla. This reminds me of Valerie Bloom’s children’s book (pictured above) that was published by one of Britain’s first Black publishers, Bogle-L’Ouverture Publications. Using the fruits and roots of the Caribbean to list the alphabet, accompanied with beautiful illustrations, the book was a meeting of educational and culinary nourishment that equipped children with an understanding of Caribbean ingredients, flavours and creole language.

West Indian Students' Centre

Having a nourishing though frugal upbringing, Rod explains that they would only have chicken once a month, but that they ate lots of bakes (made out of flour, baking powder, sugar and water) with saltfish. Striving for more, like your ‘typical West Indian family,’ Zena decided to go into private catering. Her main customers were the West Indian Students Centre and the Commonwealth Institute. An important activist and creative hub, the West Indian Students' Centre in Earl’s Court, became a meeting place for the Caribbean Artists Movement and hosted the likes of James Baldwin.4 Orders for ‘dhal puris, rotis, curry, black pudding,’ came streaming in and ‘she made quite a bit of money on the side,’ especially given that during this period in the 1960s there were seldom other Caribbean food businesses.

Catering

Front cover with gold writing and sketches of the Savoy Hotel
W. C. K. W., Souvenir of Savoy Hotel (London: ‘Black and White’ Publishing Co., 1893) British Library Shelfmark 10349.e.19.
Black and white photograph of kitchen at the Savoy, with pots piled high
W. C. K. W., Souvenir of Savoy Hotel (London: ‘Black and White’ Publishing Co., 1893) British Library Shelfmark 10349.e.19.

Catering training

Inspired by his mother, Rod decided to go into the hospitality industry. Training for two and half years at Lewisham College, this was intermingled with work experience at the Savoy Hotel on the Strand and the InterContinental on Park Lane. Initially immersed in a world of “Souffle aux ecrevisses à la Florentine” and “Canard en chemise”, at London’s fine dining hotels, Rod later moved to Barbados to work with his mother, who had just set up the San Remo boutique hotel (later Zena established the Golden Sands Apartment Hotel where Rod also worked).5 These experiences set him up for an impressive catering career that has spanned Britain, the Caribbean and the USA; with Rod having managed 2,000 weddings, bar/bat mitzvahs and conferences in his lifetime. Whether talking about the politics of the hospitality industry (e.g. ‘getting more people of colour involved’) or the history of Guyana, Rod’s profound interest, love and knowledge of food chimes throughout his interview, which you will soon be able to listen to!

Black and white photograph of Rod standing infront of a tropical fruit display
Rod Westmaas, Banqueting Manager (1984), photograph courtesy of Rod Westmaas

Thank you Rod Westmaas for sharing your memories and thoughts with me.

Naomi Oppenheim is the project lead on Caribbean Foodways in her role as the Caribbean Collections and Community Engagement Intern at the Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library @naomioppenheim

Read the next (and final) blog in the Caribbean Foodways series - Hazel Daniels: Pepperpot Philosophising

Read the previous blog in the Caribbean Foodways series – Natasha Ramnarine: Doubles Queen

References / further reading

  • ‘Anancy and the Honey Dumplings’, Brother Anancy and Children’s Short Stories 1992 TS Box 47:5, Andrew Salkey Archive
  • Baldwin’s Nigger, directed by Horace Ové (1969)
  • ‘Diet and food production for enslaved Africans’, National Museums Liverpool
  • Elizabeth DeLoughrey, ‘Yam, Roots, and Rot: Allegories of the Provision Grounds’, Small Axe, 34 (2011), 58-75
  • Errol Lloyd, ‘Caribbean Artists Movement (1966-1972)’, British Library, 4 October 2018
  • Guyana Speaks
  • Jack Webb, Rod Westmaas, Maria del Pilar Kaladeen and William Tantam (eds.), Memory, Migration and (De)Colonisation in the Caribbean and Beyond (London: University of London Press, Institute of Latin American Studies, 2020)
  • James Rodway [Royal Agricultural and Commercial Society of British Guiana], Handbook of British Guiana (Georgetown: published by the Committee [Printed by John Andrew & Son: Boston, USA]), 1893. British Library Shelfmark 10480.d.27.
  • John Davy, M.D. and F.R.S. The West Indies, before and since Slave Emancipation comprising the Windward and Leeward Islands' military command; founded on notes and observations collected during a three years residence (Barbados: J. Bowen, 1854) British Library Shelfmark 10470.d.4.
  • Michael W. Twitty, The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South (Amistad: New York, 2017)
  • Ninety-nine ways of cooking and serving dainty dishes of U.C.P Tripe and Cowheel (Manchester: United Cattle Products Ltd, 192?) British Library Shelfmark YD.2005.a.170
  • Rod Westmaas interviewed by Naomi Oppenheim, Caribbean Foodways Interview, March 2021 (uncatalogued)
  • Rosamund Grant, Caribbean and African Cookery (London: Virago, 1989) British Library Shelfmark YK.1989.a.5313
  • Valerie Bloom, Ackee, Breadfruit, Callaloo: An Edible Alphabet (London: Bogle L’Ouverture Publications, 1999) British Library Shelfmark 2000.b.360
  • C. K. W., Souvenir of Savoy Hotel (London: ‘Black and White’ Publishing Co., 1893) British Library Shelfmark 10349.e.19.
  1. Elizabeth DeLoughrey, ‘Yam, Roots, and Rot: Allegories of the Provision Grounds’, Small Axe 34 (2011), 58-75.
  2. Rosamund Grant, Caribbean and African Cookery (London: Virago, 1989)
  3. ‘Anancy and the Honey Dumplings’, Brother Anancy and Children’s Short Stories 1992 TS Box 47:5, Andrew Salkey Archive.
  4. Errol Lloyd, ‘Caribbean Artists Movement (1966-1972)’, British Library, 4 October 2018; Baldwin’s Nigger, directed by Horace Ové (1969) – in this film Baldwin and Dick Gregory relate the Black experience in America to the experience of African Caribbean peoples in Britain, during a discussion that was held at the West Indian Students’ Centre.
  5. W. C. K. W., Souvenir of Savoy Hotel (London: ‘Black and White’ Publishing Co., 1893).

 

23 June 2021

Natasha Ramnarine: Doubles Queen

This is the seventh in a series of blogs coming out of the Eccles Centres’ Caribbean Foodways oral history project. Identifying connections between participants’ stories and collection items, each blog explores one of the nine oral history interviews that will be deposited in the Sound Archive.

*** Please note that certain browsers do not support the audio clips - read and listen on Chrome or Internet Explorer to ensure that the clips play in full ***

This blog is about Natasha Ramnarine, an NHS programme manager who cooks up a storm on the weekend for Natty’s Saturday Kitchen. Growing up in Trinidad, Natty moved to London in 2007. This interview focuses on her deep knowledge of Indo-Trinidadian food and her experiences of migrating to England but you will soon be able to listen to her full interview via the British Library’s Listening and Viewing Service.

‘Doubles is a derivative of the Indian dish, Chole Bhature … a flatbread with spiced chickpeas and condiments’

Doubles and Aloo Pie

Doubles are one of the most popular dishes at Natty’s Saturday Kitchen – a food business set up by Natasha to promote the flavours and history of Trinidad. As she explains in this clip, the spiced chana (chickpeas) that sit atop bara (fried flatbread), evolved from the Northern Indian street food, Chole Bhature, which is commonly eaten in the Punjab. In Trinidad, doubles became a popular food ‘for labourers that would work in the sugar plantations’ because ‘it was cheap, costing only 5 cents … and mobile, it was just put in brown paper so that they could hold it and eat it as they were going home because they were hungry.’ Natty’s description of men on bikes, fitted with a ‘huge Styrofoam cooler’ from which piles of bara, containers of chana and condiments would emerge, signifies the transportable and transient mode of serving and eating that was suited to both small businesses (with minimal start-up costs) and hungry workers (who were time and money poor).1 This spicy, tangy and filling snack – that incorporates Indian seasoning alongside Trinidadian flavours and produce – embodies the entangled history of Indo-Trinidadian food.

Legacies of Indentureship

Cover page and black and white text
D. W. D. Comins, Notes on Emigration from India to Trinidad (Calcutta: Printed at the Bengal Secretariat Press, 1893) British Library Shelfmark P/W 31

Nana - Babooni Cheddi

Like the food that she cooks, Natty’s story is rooted in Trinidad and Tobago’s histories of indentureship. Following the abolition of slavery across the British Empire, in 1834, and the end of the apprenticeship period in 1838, colonialists sought labour from elsewhere in the British Empire – chiefly India and Hong Kong. In 1837, the East India Company set out regulations for the system of indentureship, whereby emigrants would have to provide a minimum of 5 years’ service before being ‘returned’. As Trinidad had some of greatest labour shortages, it saw the arrival of Indian men, women and children in significant numbers between 1837 and 1917, when the system was suspended as part of the wartime emergency.2 According to Notes on Emigration: India to Trinidad, 127,240 people travelled from East India to Trinidad, between 1845 and 1891. Arriving on ships from Kolkata (Calcutta) and Chennai (Madras), there was a strong correlation between crop failures and patterns of emigration out of India’s agricultural districts.3 As the story of Natty’s great grandmother, Babooni Cheddi, reveals, many of these ‘labourers’ did not ‘return’, they stayed and built communities. The source below shows that by 1893, 35.1% of population was of Indian origin, which is virtually identical to 2011 figures of 35.4%.4 Aside from demographics, cooking is just one of the ways that the legacies of Babooni Cheddi and thousands of other first- and second-generation East Indians lives on in Trinidad and Tobago, as an integral part of its culture.

Table from a book 'Notes on Immigrants introduced into the Colony from India during the years 1845 to 1891'
D. W. D. Comins, Notes on Emigration from India to Trinidad (Calcutta: Printed at the Bengal Secretariat Press, 1893) British Library Shelfmark P/W 31

Grandmother's routine 

From rotis to curries, the Indian influence in Trinidadian cuisine is unmistakable. As Natty explains through her familial connection to this history and her own research, emigrants brought seeds such as okra and aubergine with them, which have become a popular part of Trinidadian cuisine. However, they also adapted – coriander was substituted for chadon beni, the green herb that ‘grows anywhere’, and Hindu and Muslim cultures blended with one another, which Natty captures in an anecdote about her devout Hindu grandmother reciting Halal prayer when she killed chickens.

Grinding spices and cleaning rice

Throughout Natty’s interview, she describes the wonders of this rich food culture, from the everyday array of breads and spiced vegetables to the festive eating of a goat or duck on special occasions. This clip evokes the aromas of whole cumin seeds, garlic and hot pepper crackling in a ladle of oil before it is thrown over a pot of cooked dal or split pea. Explaining how her grandmother and mother would rise in the early morning to prepare homegrown coffee and get started on the day’s endless chores, Natty is always attune to the intensive labour that went into making these staple dishes, such as washing starch out of rice or picking stones from split peas. This unpaid labour is one element in what she calls a patriarchal system. The legacies of her mother and grandmother’s labour can be tasted in Natty’s delicious food – these are the flavours and techniques that she reproduces and plays with at her home in South London.

Photography of woman holding utensils while she cooks roti bread on a hotplate
Natty making roti, Natty’s Saturday Kitchen, photograph courtesy of Natasha Ramnarine
 

Saturday Kitchen food philosophy

Every Saturday, Natty cooks her take on a different Trinidadian dish, which customers come and collect from her home. Her most popular meals are ‘doubles, roti and curry, shark and bake, crab and dumpling,’ which are always served with a side of history. As Natty explains, ‘the point of my food is to educate’ and if you look on Natty’s Saturday Kitchen Facebook page you will find delectable photographs of what she’s whipped up that week alongside stories about the ‘evolution of dishes and how it linked back from India or from Africa.’ Rather than forgetting or minimising the complex histories that this cooking is rooted in – which can be an issue when foods are commercialised or appropriated – the explicit historical connections that Natty promotes through her food business are revealing of her philosophy, of ‘unity in diversity through our food.’

Moving to London

Roti Joupa 

Four photographs from a book, shop front, roti, menu and logo
Riaz Phillips, Belly Full: Caribbean Food in the UK (London: Tezeta Press, 2020)

leaving a small island and coming to London is real shift in culture

Travelling from a ‘small island’ to another island is a common experience for those that have journeyed from the Caribbean to Britain (by choice and by force) for hundreds of years. This ‘shift in culture’, that Natty describes, is manifold, from modes of conversation to eating habits. Food is often the medium through which people recreate a sense of cultural familiarity as they navigate this island. Natty’s story of going to Roti Joupa in Clapham North when she moved to London, conveys this intense bond between belonging and food. One of the first places to sell Trinidadian roti in London, Natty says that ‘going there was just like walking into the sunshine’. This ‘walk in the sunshine’ referred to the general atmosphere of the shop, which offered Natty a chance for ‘picong’ (banter) and catching up on Trinidad, as well as the aromas and textures of familiar dishes like roti and dhal puri. This reminds me of Riaz Phillips’ essay on Roti Joupa, in Belly Full, where he describes it as ‘likely the only option close by for people craving a taste of the eastern Caribbean shores’ with ‘the constant energetic Soca music emanating from the shop’s speakers.’5 Both of these accounts echo the importance of food outlets in the creation of diasporic spaces of home, comfort and pleasure.

Thank you Natasha Ramnarine for sharing your memories and thoughts with me.

Naomi Oppenheim is the project lead on Caribbean Foodways in her role as the Caribbean Collections and Community Engagement Intern at the Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library @naomioppenheim

Read the previous blog in the Caribbean Foodways series - Anselm Berkeley: From Field to Shelf to Plate

References/Further Reading

  • W. D. Comins, Notes on Emigration from India to Trinidad (Calcutta: Printed at the Bengal Secretariat Press, 1893) BL Shelfmark P/W 31
  • David Dabydeen, Maria del Pilar Kaladeen and Tina K. Ramnarine, We Mark your Memory : writings from the descendants of indenture (London: School of Advanced Study, University of London/Commonwealth Writers, 2018)
  • Doubles With Slight Pepper, directed by Ian Harnarine (2012)
  • Hugh Tinker, A New System of Slavery: the export of Indian labour overseas, 1830-1920 (London: Oxford University Press for the Institute of Race Relations, 1974) BL Shelfmark 74/9550
  • Natasha Ramnarine interviewed by Naomi Oppenheim, Caribbean Foodways Interview, March 2021 (uncatalogued)
  • Riaz Phillips, Belly Full: Caribbean Food in the UK (London: Tezeta Press, 2020) British Library Shelfmark for 2017 edition YKL.2017.b.4909
  • ‘Trinidad and Tobago’, Britannica
  1. Doubles With Slight Pepper, directed by Ian Harnarine (2012). This short film follows the family of a young doubles vendor in Port-of-Spain.
  2. D. W. D. Comins, Notes on Emigration from India to Trinidad (Calcutta: Printed at the Bengal Secretariat Press, 1893), p.116.
  3. Ibid.  
  4. 35.4% of East Indian heritage, 34.2% being of African heritage, 22.8% of mixed heritage, 7% did not state and 0.6% described themselves as white, Britannica.
  5. Riaz Phillips, Belly Full: Caribbean Food in the UK (London: Tezeta Press, 2020), p.150.

19 June 2021

Celebrating Juneteenth

Yesterday marked the first observance of Juneteenth as a national holiday in the US, following President Joe Biden signing the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law earlier this week. Today, Saturday 19 June, is actually Juneteenth, and marks the 156th anniversary of the day when enslaved people in Texas learned of their freedom. Whilst the Emancipation Proclamation delivered by President Abraham Lincoln in 1862 had officially outlawed slavery in all the rebel states, enforcement generally relied on the arrival of Union troops. Texas was the most remote of the slave states and it wasn’t until 19 June 1865 that General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, and issued General Order Number 3 at locations around the city, informing Texans that all slaves were now free.

General Order No 3
‘General Orders, No. 3.’ included in The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. [Operations in Louisiana and the Trans-Mississippi States and Territories; April-June 1865; Series 1, Vol. 48, Chapter 60, Part 2] (1896), 54th Congress, 1st Session, Serial Set Vol No. 3437, Session Vol. No. 70 (H.Doc. 369, pt. 2); available in the US Congressional Serial Set digital e-resource (remote access for British Library Readers)

Juneteenth was marked by African American residents of Galveston in 1866 and annual celebrations gradually spread across Texas, then the south and eventually to other parts of the country, often thanks to Texans migrating. Celebrations are typically locally organised. In the early years they combined religious, civil and community elements.

In 1895 the community of Parsons, Kansas, a railroad town which would have had many black residents with connections to Texas, held its first community Juneteenth celebration. The ‘Local and Personal News’ column of the Parsons Weekly Blade, an African-American newspaper, reported that:

Last Wednesday the citizens of this city and vicinity, native Texans, assembled in the fair grounds to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of the liberation of the bonded Afro-American of Texas. After indulging in various pleasures, they were called to the sumptuous repasts that were spread by our energetic ladies […]. At 3:30 the people were called together in the amphitheater to hear the speakers of the day.1

There were songs, including ‘Hold the Fort’, a gospel hymn inspired by a Union victory in 1864, which melds martial and Christian imagery, and ‘John Brown’s Body’, a popular song commemorating the executed abolitionist John Brown and his attack on Harper’s Ferry in 1859. Both songs had been popular with the Union army during the Civil War. (They still held currency in 1895 and would continue to have a place in the gospel and folk traditions, as well as within protest and workers movements in the 20th century: you can find Pete Seeger, for example, performing both songs on YouTube if you’d like to hear them.)

Following the music and speeches by religious leaders, ‘an animated game of base ball was witnessed; when the happy throng repaired to their homes expressing themselves as highly pleased with their first Juneteenth celebration.’

Well into the 20th century, Juneteenth celebrations continued to have a regional flavour and were generally still associated with Texas. In 1941 The Negro Star, a black newspaper from Wichita, Kansas, ran an Associated Negro Press story, ‘Texas Preparing for “Juneteenth” Celebration’. Reporting from Houston, Texas, the item noted that, ‘This city, together with the rest of Tan Texas is busily preparing for the annual “Juneteenth” celebration, most colorful and all inclusive holiday celebrated by Negroes in the Lone Star state. Held on June 19th, civic, social and fraternal organizations join hands in celebrating their day of deliverance from slavery.’2 The article went on to explain that ‘most people use [the day] as a means of being excused from work. Few if any of them can be found on their jobs on that day. White employers have found it expedient to overlook their colored employees’ absence on Juneteenth.’ The main events were to be held in Emancipation Park, an area of the city originally solely used to mark Juneteenth but later donated to the city, and which, from 1922 to 1940 was the only park for African-Americans during segregation.3 There was to be ‘a traditional program of speaking and singing of spirituals […], and guests were to include ‘World war vets, Spanish-American war vets, and the few remaining ex-slaves.’ The inclusion of the formerly enslaved in an event taking place during the Second World War is a stark reminder, even now, of how near the experience of slavery is in human terms.

The popularity of Juneteenth celebrations dipped during the Civil Rights era, when campaigning energies were put towards integrationist efforts and making space for black Americans within existing social, political and cultural structures. However, with the rise of Black Power and renewed interest in African American history and culture in the late 1960s and 1970s, Juneteenth saw a resurgence across the US. This revival saw large celebrations take place in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin during the 1970s.

It Happened June 19  Milwaukee Star (Milwaukee  Wisconsin)  June 27  1974 (p.5)
Celebrations in Milwaukee in 1974, ‘It Happened: June 19,’ Milwaukee Star, June 27, 1974 (p.5), via the African American Newspapers 1827-1998 digital resource.

In 1974 the Milwaukee Star, an African American newspaper, reviewed the inner city Juneteenth celebrations of the previous week, giving a sense of the vibrancy of the event with people ‘dancing, laughing and singing’ in a heavily-illustrated article.4 Black arts and culture had taken a larger role in the celebrations by this point: the article noted ‘on one side street a poet stands speaking to a small crowd on Black love, while next to him a local DJ tries hard to drown him out with a very loud James Brown record.’ The journalist, Michael Holt, also noted the political tensions encapsulated by the day, describing a pull between those who felt the anniversary should be a solemn occasion and those ‘who look at the festivities as a vehicle to relieve the inner frustrations, if only for a day.’ Holt quoted a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee professor who had told his class the previous year that the ‘so-called Juneteenth Day celebration “was nothing but a modern day version of the practice in slavery days of masters giving slaves the day off to get drunk and release tensions upon themselves.” But despite the explanation by the professor, many of his students could be seen roaming the streets on the so-call Black Fourth of July celebration.’

The connection to the Fourth of July Independence Day celebrations has often prompted reflection on the broader significance of Juneteenth. A thoughtful editorial by Paula Harris-White in the Afro-Hawaii News in July 1991 noted that the Fourth of July holiday ‘often serves as a reminder of the position that people of color have held in America. They have been slaves, coolie workers, “savages”, foreigners, in spite of the fact that this was their place of birth. For many Americans, actual independence came long after July 4, 1776. Sometimes people who thought they were free, could have that freedom arbitrarily revoked, even in the 20th century, because their name was Wantanabe or Yamada.’5 Harris-White went on to explain the origins of Juneteenth to her readers and observed, ‘I share this information with all of you because sometimes we need to put our history in perspective. While I do acknowledge those leaders who chose to liberate the thirteen colonies from England, as a woman of color, I can quite never forget that their act of declaring freedom did not include people like me.’

As Kevin Young, Andrew W. Mellon director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, noted in the New York Times on 18 June 2021:

What Juneteenth and other Emancipation days commemorate is both the promise of freedom and its delay. For June 19, 1865, doesn’t mark the day enslaved African Americans were set free in the United States but the day the news of Emancipation reached them in Texas, two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation. It is a holiday ringed, like a good brisket, though not in smoke but irony. Out of such ironies Black people have made the blues, made lemonade, made good. The lesson of Juneteenth is both of celebration and expectation, of freedom deferred but still sought and of the freedoms to come.6

For those interested in researching African American history at the British Library, the African American Newspapers 1827-1998 digital resource from Readex is an excellent starting point, and is available for registered readers to access remotely. You can find out about the range of remote access e-resources here, including the US Congressional Serial Set, American Broadsides and Ephemera, and Early American Newspapers.

-- Cara Rodway, Eccles Centre
June 2021

Footnotes:
1. ‘Local and Personal News,’ Parsons Weekly Blade (Parsons, Kansas), June 22, 1895 (p.4)
2. ‘Texas Preparing for "Juneteenth" Celebration,’ The Negro Star (Wichita, Kansas), June 6, 1941 (p.3)
3. ‘Emancipation Park, Written Historical and Descriptive Data’, Historic American Landscapes Survey, HALS No. TX-7, HABS/HAER/HALS Collection at the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division (available here)
4. ‘It Happened: June 19,’ Milwaukee Star (Milwaukee, Wisconsin), June 27, 1974 (p.5)
5. Editorial, Afro-Hawai'i News (published as Afro-Hawaii News) (Honolulu, Hawaii), July 31, 1991 (p.3)
6. Young, Kevin, ‘Opinion: Juneteenth Is a National Holiday Now. Can It Still Be Black?,’ New York Times, June 18, 2021 (accessed online)

09 June 2021

Anselm Berkeley: From Field to Shelf to Plate

This is the sixth in a series of blogs coming out of the Eccles Centres’ Caribbean Foodways oral history project. Identifying connections between participants’ stories and collection items, each blog explores one of the nine oral history interviews that will be deposited in the Sound Archive.

*** Please note that certain browsers do not support the audio clips - read and listen on Chrome or Internet Explorer to ensure that the clips play in full ***

This blog is about Anselm Berkeley who was born on the island of Grenada in 1936. Moving to England in 1960, Anselm worked at Macfarlane Lang, the biscuit company, for 22 years before setting up a shop that sold West Indian produce in Shepherd’s Bush Market. When rent increases pushed him out of the market, he returned to Grenada in semi-retirement where he exported fresh produce to Britain. This blog focuses on Anselm’s memories of Grenada, his shop in Shepherd’s Bush market and his extensive experience of working in the business of supplying food, but you will soon be able to listen to his full interview via the British Library’s Listening and Viewing Service.

Spice Island

grow … and sell nutmegs all his life

Family Land

Colourful drawing
'Myristica Fragrans' Hout. (Myristicaceae). Nutmeg Tree. From an album of 40 drawings made by Chinese artists at Bencoolen, Sumatra, for Sir Stamford Raffles. Watercolour. 1824. British Library Shelfmark NHD 48/23

The small, brown, hard balls that we buy at shops in Britain, and grate into marinades and cakes, were once luscious greeny-yellow seeds growing on a tree, most likely, in Grenada or Indonesia.1 Known as ‘Black Gold’, nutmeg (which appears on the national flag) denotes Grenada’s identity as the ‘Island of Spice'. The largest producer of nutmegs in the Western Hemisphere, this nutty and aromatic spice features heavily in Grenada’s histories of flavour, imperialism and revolution.

Anselm Berkeley’s grandfather owned 15 acres of nutmeg land and before school, Anselm would ‘go up in the mountain … and pick up nutmegs and tek it back down to the village’. Later in the day, his parents would ‘go to the association and sell our nutmegs’. The ‘association’ refers to the Grenada Co-operative Nutmeg Association that was set up as the sole exporter of nutmegs from Grenada in 1947.

Brought to Grenada in 1843, nutmeg required ‘less land, capital and labour’ than sugarcane.2 As the price of sugar fell, abandoned plantations, that were ripe for ‘cultivation and settlement,’ were bought, leased or squatted by ‘Emancipated Africans and former indentured migrants.3 By the late 19th century, nutmeg had replaced sugar exports in Grenada. Perhaps Anselm’s ancestors were some of the original ‘Black Gold’ farmers on the island.

Book cover with photograph of Maurice Bishop and a crowd people
Maurice Bishop, Forward Ever! Three years of the Grenadian Revolution: Speeches of Maurice Bishop (Sydney: Pathfinder Press, 1982) British Library shelfmark YA.1987.a.16402

In 1979, When the People’s Revolutionary Government (PRG) came to power in Grenada, this small yet potent seed became a symbol for imperial control that extracted profits from the region:

‘A sister cracking nutmegs at a receiving station in Grenada receives a small wage of $7.10 a day, and that sister would need to crack about 150 pounds of nutmegs in order to earn that $7 for the day. Those same nutmegs are sold to a broker – a middleman – and taken off to Europe. Then they are resold to a miller, cleaned, blended, and packaged, and put on the shelves of European supermarkets. And when one of our sisters or brothers or aunts living in Shepherd’s Bush or Brixton or Hammersmith in London goes to buy a one-ounce carton of Grenada nutmeg, the price of that ounce of nutmegs is about 20 pence or one of our dollars. One ounce for $1, but 150 pounds of cracking for $7. … the real value of the nutmeg worker’s labor is 300 times what she receives in a day’s wage. That is what we mean by imperialism at work.’

Maurice Bishop, ‘Three Years of the Grenada Revolution’, 13 March 1982, Rally at Queen’s Park, St. George’s

Bishop’s speech was reflective of the PRG’s broader Agro-industrial policy, in which questions about crops and food reliance became a critical part of political debate.4 Interestingly, Anselm’s journey, from picking nutmegs in the mountains to running his own export business that shipped fresh Grenadian produce to Britain, represents a politics of independence that took ownership of foodways between Grenada and Britain.

Shepherd’s Bush Market: ‘one of the first shop fronts’

Black and white advert with palm tree and lists of produce e.g. Guava jelly
Tropic, September 1960. British Library shelfmark: P.P.7615.kf
 
Black and white advert with photograph of a food shop and list of locations and supplies
Flamingo, November 1962. British Library Shelfmark: P.P.5109.bq

Market Day

‘Some enterprising West Indians went to the importers and got the stuff, eliminating the middle man. These stuffs were sold from street to street wherever they could find West Indians and Africans. Later they bought out the shops.’

Donald Hinds, Journey to an Illusion (1966)

In the mid-1980s, Anselm took over one of the first permanent shopfronts selling West Indian food in Shepherd’s Bush Market. Much like these adverts for Edwin McKenzie and 3 Star Stores, Anselm’s shop sold fresh and dry produce. One of the earlier Caribbean-owned Caribbean food shops, Anselm’s story is part of a broader history of Caribbean people establishing their own supply chains in post-war Britain.

On a typical day, Anselm would arise from the family home in Thornton Heath at 4am and drive to Spitalfields Market to buy produce. Arriving in Shepherd’s Bush by 7am, he then unpacked the goods and arranged fresh produce on a bench outside of the shop. Fridays and Saturdays were the busiest days because that 'was the time that the majority of people get paid', so on Friday evening when the 'women come from work, they pass in the market' and bought food from his shop. Anselm recalls spending long days in the shop alone with no break until his children were old enough to lend a helping hand. Running the shop was ‘very hard work’; Anselm would get home at 7pm – meaning he was working 15-hour days, 6 days a week, with Sundays spent bookkeeping.

Chatting at the shop

Anselm’s shop was also a social hub, people ‘would come to chat’ and meet their friends and fellow customers there. Next door to Websters’ record shop, Anselm’s had a unique atmosphere that drew custom from across London. This reminds me of Sam Selvon’s Lonely Londoners, ‘the iconic chronicle of post-war Caribbean migration to Britain.’5 Tanty, an elderly aunt in the novel, makes frequent visits to the grocers:

‘Well Tanty used to shop in this grocery every Saturday morning. It does be like a jam-session there when all the … housewives go to buy …. They getting on just as if they in the market-place back home: “Yes child, as I was telling you, she did lose the baby … half-pound saltfish please, the dry codfish … yes, as I was telling you … and two pounds of rice please, and half-pound red beans, no, not that one, that one in the bag in the corner” … She too like the shop, and the chance to meet them other women and gossip.’6

Selvon’s description reconstructs the social vibrancy of the grocers as a place for conversing, gossiping and shopping. A public space of domesticity where the ‘market-place [of] back home’ could be recreated to produce feelings of familiarity and comfort. Anselm’s son, Rob Berkeley, describes how ‘Food traditions from across the Caribbean were exchanged, recipe secrets passed on, new fusions created, and old friendships rekindled.’

Fire in the market

During his 14 years at Shepherd’s Bush Market, there were four arson attacks at Anselm’s shop. This disturbing and upsetting part of the story speaks to the struggles that Anselm faced. Speaking about the first fire, that was done ‘deliberately from outside of the shop’, he recounts how the shop and shuttering were burnt out and all of his produce – most of which was uninsurable – was destroyed. Anselm explains that it is ‘hard to describe how he felt … there was nothing I could do.’ While the shop was being repaired, Anselm had a temporary stall on the market. On the Saturday after the fire that had happened two days prior, Anselm recalls how his customers refused to walk down Shepherd’s Bush Market and queued, waiting to buy from him, at his temporary stall. No one was ever charged with starting the fire and Anselm explains that he never received any information from the police about any suspects or the wider case. Whilst the state failed to respond effectively to the fire, the community rallied around Anselm. This dynamic, of state failure and community mobilisation, has been a defining characteristic of Black British history.


Coming full circle: farming and exporting 

Sketch of breadfruit growing on a tree
William Elwood Safford, The Breadfruit … Together with a biographical sketch of the author (Washington: H. L. McQueen, 1904) BL Shelfmark 7031.bbb.4.

Export business 

Anselm left the market in 1996 mainly due to sharply rising costs of running a shop there. Returning to Grenada with his wife, Rita, they started exporting Caribbean food to British markets from a farm that they created back in Grenada. They sent fresh produce, like mangoes and breadfruit – a favourite of Anselm’s – by air, to agents in the UK. Anselm’s circular journey from Grenada to Britain and back again (him and Rita recently returned to the UK) embodies the fluidity and connectivity of Caribbean foodways.

Thank you Anselm Berkeley for sharing your memories and thoughts with me.

Naomi Oppenheim is the project lead on Caribbean Foodways in her role as the Caribbean Collections and Community Engagement Intern at the Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library @naomioppenheim

Read the next blog in the Caribbean Foodways series - Natasha Ramnarine: Doubles Queen

Read the previous blog in the Caribbean Foodways series - Ranette Prime: Food and Identity in Britain

References/Further Reading

  • Anselm Berkley interviewed by Naomi Oppenheim, Caribbean Foodways Interview, March 2021 (uncatalogued)
  • Claude J. Douglas, The Battle for Grenada’s Black Gold (St. Andrew: Maryzoon, 2004) British Library Shelfmark YD.2006.a.4718
  • Donald Hinds, Journey to an Illusion: The West Indian in Britain (Heinemann: London, 1966) British Library shelfmark W49/3312
  • Flamingo, November 1962, British Library Shelfmark: P.P.5109.bq
  • Grenada, The Future Coming Towards Us, directed by M. Carmen Ashurst, John Douglas and Samori Marksman (1983). Available to watch on YouTube
  • Maurice Bishop, Forward Ever! Three years of the Grenadian Revolution: Speeches of Maurice Bishop (Sydney: Pathfinder Press, 1982) British Library shelfmark YA.1987.a.16402
  • Pure Grenada 
  • Samuel Selvon, The Lonely Londoners (London: Allan Wingate, 1956) British Library Shelfmark2013.a.2
  • Susheila Nasta, ‘The Lonely Londoners: a new way of reading and writing the city’, British Library, 2018
  • Tropic, September 1960. British Library shelfmark P.P.7615.kf
  1. Grenada produces approximately 23% of the world’s nutmeg, ‘second only to Indonesia, which accounts for 73%of the world’s production’, Claude J. Douglas, The Battle for Grenada’s Black Gold (St. Andrew: Maryzoon, 2004). 
  2. Ibid p.1.
  3. Ibid p.1.
  4. Grenada, The Future Coming Towards Us, directed by M. Carmen Ashurst, John Douglas and Samori Marksman (1983) 
  5. Susheila Nasta, ‘The Lonely Londoners: a new way of reading and writing the city’, British Library, 2018
  6. Samuel Selvon, The Lonely Londoners (London: Allan Wingate, 1956).

26 May 2021

Ranette Prime: Food and Identity in Britain

This is the fifth in a series of blogs coming out of the Eccles Centres’ Caribbean Foodways oral history project. Identifying connections between participants’ stories and collection items, each blog explores one of the nine oral history interviews that will be deposited in the Sound Archive.

*** Please note that certain browsers do not support the audio clips - read and listen on Chrome or Internet Explorer to ensure that the clips play in full ***

This blog is about Ranette Prime, a London-based lawyer and food enthusiast who set up her own supper club. Ranette’s parents, Randolph and Lynette Prime, travelled from Trinidad and Guyana to England, in the 1960s, and they have both shaped her love of food. This blog focuses on Ranette’s memories of family trips to Brixton market and life in Sheffield, but you will soon be able to listen to his full interview via the British Library’s Listening and Viewing Service.

Sundays at Brixton Market

Brixton Market

On Sunday mornings, Ranette’s family would pack into a car and drive from West Sussex to Brixton Market, where they would spend the whole day stocking up on supplies of food, beauty products and incense. Ranette’s memories of the market speak to Brixton as a hub of Black Britain – a place where were nods and smiles were signs of ‘community acknowledgement’. Trailing round the market for hours, getting the best eddoes or the cheapest sarsaparilla, and make-up from Island Beauty, Ranette and her siblings were rewarded with patties at the end of the ‘marathon’ shopping trip. Ranette’s recollection that she ‘felt very at home in Brixton’ echoes Brixton’s history as a place of Caribbean settlement, political activism, commerce and leisure.

Article about living in Brixton, B&W photos and text
Tropic, August 1960, British Library Shelfmark P.P.7615.kf.
 
B&W article about Brixton Market with photos and text
Flamingo, July 1963, British Library Shelfmark: P.P.5109.bq

These articles from the 1960s reflect this sense of Brixton as the heart of Black Britain at the time. Founded in 1960, Tropic magazine was a popular glossy magazine that described itself as the ‘voice of 250,000 coloured people in Britain.’1 ‘Living in Brixton’ tells its readers that if you ‘Walk through the famous Brixton market any Saturday and you are bound to hear the lilt of West Indian and West African voices mingled with cockney accents.’ On the next page, the article pinpoints the highlights of living in Brixton, including a photograph of Claudia Jones at the West Indian Gazette offices that were housed at 250 Brixton Road – above Theo Campbell’s record shop – and Leslie and Chris Morgan’s Caribbean Bakeries Limited. Founded a few months after Tropic’s demise, Flamingo magazine was similar in terms of content and style. This 1963 article, ‘West Indians in Brixton Market’ explains the increasingly profitability of ‘West Indian food, vegetables and tinned goods’ alongside recognising its importance as a ‘meeting place’. As Ranettes’ interview reveals, her memories of Brixton market in the 1980s and 1990s are in dialogue with these longer histories that have been documented in Britain’s Black magazines.2

Moving to Sheffield

Over the years we established a bit more of an identity in Sheffield … we had pockets … but it took a while

Martin's Deliveries

At the age of 11, Ranette and her family moved to Sheffield. As they built a new life, they sought out ‘parallels’ to what they had in London. Interestingly, the parallels that they were seeking were often food-based – they searched for familiar ingredients and flavours. In this clip, Ranette remembers a man called Martin who delivered Caribbean food to families across Sheffield. His van was an ‘Aladdin’s cave’ that was filled with fresh and dry foodstuffs, such as plantains, cakes and hardo bread. By the early 2000s Martin had opened a ‘massive’ shop in Pitsmoor, on the outskirts of Sheffield. This story of Martin’s evolution from his travelling van to a permanent shop captures Ranette’s broader reflections on adaptation and community-building, as Sheffield’s Black Caribbean communities established themselves.

Poster with different blue fonts
J. Crossley, Fried fish and chipped potatoes (Leeds, 1906) British Library Shelfmark HS.74/1588

Establishing a sense of community in Sheffield was a gradual process and one that was at times complicated by questions of food and identity. ‘Surrounded by fish and chip shops’, Ranette expresses a sense of fascination with their signification of Britishness. This beautiful ‘Fried Fish and Chipped Potatoes’ rhyme, that was printed on greaseproof paper and published in Leeds, in 1906, embodies this quintessential ‘British’ fish and chips narrative that Ranette speaks of. However, these positive, wholesome and British connotations were a relatively recent development in the early 20th century. In Fish and Chips: A History, Panikos Panayi explains how Sephardic Jewish refugees brought traditions of frying fish to Britain in the late 19th century. Panayi interprets records of people complaining about the “nauseous odour”, as symbolising denigrating associations between fried fish and London’s poor areas, where Jewish communities settled.3 So, interestingly, Britain’s ‘national dish’ tells a history of migration, othering and adoption.

Fish fingers and peas

As well as eating fish and chips, Ranette remembers asking her mum to make that ‘British stuff … peas and fish fingers’, when her school friend came over to the house. Reflecting on her associations of certain foods, like shop bread and fish and chips, with British culture, Ranette remembers her young self, feeling a need to identify with these foods. This anecdote of culinary elasticity signifies the multiple ways in which people, especially children, self-consciously shape their identities.

Photograph of phoulorie
Trini Phoulorie, photograph courtesy of Ranette Prime

I lived in little Trinidad as it were, and little Guyana at home

As Ranette explains, her approach to cooking, whether at home or for her supper club (Eats and Beats), has been profoundly influenced by the food of her parents i.e. the food of Trinidad and Guyana. However, other cuisines, from Turkish to Korean, have also shaped Ranette’s tastes and cooking style. Speaking about the her parents, she describes a ‘common ground in their culture that Guyanese and Trini … complement each other really well’ – a harmony of tastes that is born out the region’s complex history. Phoulorie, which is widely eaten in Trinidad and Tobago and Guyana, reflects this ethnic and culinary crossover that is in part a result of their respective Indo-Caribbean populations. There is a basic recipe for phoulorie in E. Phyllis Clark’s West Indian Cookery book , but I think that Ranette’s recipe, which she has generously shared, sounds far tastier than Clark’s version which seems under spiced. Why not try it at home this weekend?

Page of text recipe for phoulorie
E. Phyllis Clark, West Indian Cookery (Edinburgh: Published for the Government of Trinidad and Tobago by Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1946) British Library Shelfmark 7948.a.66.

text

text
Phoulorie Recipe, courtesy of Ranette Prime

Thank you Ranette Prime for sharing your memories and thoughts with me.

Naomi Oppenheim is the project lead on Caribbean Foodways in her role as the Caribbean Collections and Community Engagement Intern at the Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library @naomioppenheim

Read the next blog in the Caribbean Foodways series - Anselm Berkely: From Field to Shelf to Plate

Read the previous blog in the Caribbean Foodways series - Sandra Agard: An Ode to Ridley Road

References / further reading

  • Black London Histories http://www.blacklondonhistories.org.uk/
  • Caribbean Market, Brixton, 1961, British Pathé
  • Conversation in Sheffield about accent, dialect and attitudes to language, BBC Voices, British Library Shelfmark C1190/28/05
  • Flamingo, July 1963, British Library Shelfmark: P.P.5109.bq
  • Crossley, Fried fish and chipped potatoes (Leeds, 1906) British Library Shelfmark HS.74/1588
  • Loretta’s Kitchen
  • Naomi Oppenheim, ‘Popular history in the Black British press: Edward Scobie’s Tropic and Flamingo, 1960-64’, Immigrants & Minorities (2020), 136-162
  • Panikos Panaya, Fish and Chips: A History (London: Reaktion Books, 2014). British Library Shelfmark 2016.a.1892
  • Sahar Shah, Fish and chips are uniquely British, and so is its hidden migrant history, gal-dem, 1 December 2020
  • Shopping, Brixton, 1975, British Pathé 
  • Ranette Prime interviewed by Naomi Oppenheim, Caribbean Foodways, March 2021 (uncatalogued)
  • ‘The Hyper-Regional Chippy Traditions of Britain and Ireland’, Vittles, 30 October 2020
  • Tropic, August 1960, British Library Shelfmark P.P.7615.kf.

1. Tropic, March 1960, p.1

2. Naomi Oppenheim, ‘Popular history in the Black British press: Edward Scobie’s Tropic and Flamingo, 1960-64’, Immigrants & Minorities (2020)

3. Panikos Panaya, Fish and Chips: A History (London: Reaktion Books, 2014); Sahar Shah, 'Fish and chips are uniquely British, and so is its hidden migrant history', gal-dem, 1 December 2020

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