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Construction de l’espace atlantique et changements alimentaires

Foodways of Enslaved Laborers on French West Indian Plantations (18th-19th century)

Habitudes alimentaires des travailleurs asservis dans les plantations des Antilles françaises (XVIIIe-XIXe siècle)
Kenneth G. Kelly et Diane Wallman


Dans les villages des plantations des Amériques, les Africains asservis et leurs descendants étaient contraints de créer une alimentation leur permettant de garantir l’accès à une nutrition complète et suffisante et dont les ingrédients se trouvaient sur place. La cuisine créole des anciennes colonies françaises est aujourd’hui témoin de la capacité créative des esclaves. Les aliments, les méthodes de procuration, de préparation et la culture matérielle utilisée pour la préparation consistent en un mélange d’influences africaines, européennes et américaines reflétant l’économie des plantations et celles des villages d’esclaves, l’environnement et le patrimoine culturel. Dans cet article nous associons des documents ethnohistoriques et historiques avec des données archéologiques provenant de fouilles menées sur deux sites de villages d’esclaves, l’un en Guadeloupe et l’autre en Martinique, dans le contexte des habitudes alimentaires créoles des Caraïbes dans les Antilles françaises.

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  • 1  S.W. Mintz, 1974.

1The villages where enslaved people lived and died on Caribbean plantations, the rues Cases-Nègres, are an integral part of the Caribbean experience. Within these plantation settlements, enslaved Africans and their descendants were compelled to create a system of foodways that provided sufficient nutrition for their survival and that could be assembled out of the resources available to them. Without the labor of these enslaved communities, the sugar and other tropical products that fueled the Industrial Revolution and the way it transformed the world would not have been produced. These village sites, the locus of the origin of the Caribbean “peasantry”, retained their importance after the end of slavery as the places in which creole cultures were created and continued to develop.1 The ability of the enslaved plantation workers to formulate a system of subsistence within these communities is a testament to their creativity, and the cuisine they developed lives on today in the creole foods of the former slave colonies. It is in these villages that the creativity, resilience, and resistance of African-descended people were manifest. The foods, the methods of their procurement, the methods of preparation, and the artifacts used in that preparation consist of a blend of African, European, and American influences, reflecting environment, cultural heritage, and economics. This makes it all the more surprising that locations of such cultural importance as these have not been the subject of more actual, grounded research.

  • 2  D.V. Armstrong, 1990 (Jamaica); D.V. Armstrong, K.G. Kelly, 2000 (Jamaica); C.O. Clement, 1997 (To (...)
  • 3  J.A. Delle, 1994 (St. Eustatius); J.A. Delle, 1998 (Jamaica); J.A. Delle, 2009 (Jamaica); H.R. Gib (...)
  • 4 D.V. Armstrong, 1990; B.W. Higman, 1998; W.E. Kipple, 2001; L.A. Wilkie, P. Farnsworth, 2005.
  • 5 K.G. Kelly, 2002; K.G. Kelly, 2008; K.G. Kelly, 2011.
  • 6  P. Courtaud et al., 1999; P. Courtaud, T. Romon, 2004.
  • 7  D. Begot, 1991.

2Archaeological investigations of the sites of this cultural creativity have only a short history, with the first studies in the 1970s and 1980s in Jamaica, and later in Montserrat, Barbados, Tobago, and the Bahamas.2 By the early 2000s, slave village research had been explored in a number of Caribbean settings, and the results of this archaeological research demonstrated the role archaeology could serve in understanding the processes of creolization and adaptation as they played out in the context of plantation slavery.3 However, archaeological investigations of slave subsistence and food production within the Caribbean remains a developing field of research, having lagged behind slave village investigations in general. In particular, the research that has been conducted has focused almost exclusively on the British West Indies.4 Surprisingly, the major gap in the archaeological investigation of plantation foodways in the Caribbean at the dawn of the new millennium is in the regions that are most closely identified with the term “creole”—the islands of the French West Indies. These islands, settled initially by European colonists in the 1630s, became the home of significant numbers of enslaved Africans by the last third of the 17th century and grew to maintain considerable populations of captive laborers by the late 18th century. The present-day French départements of Guadeloupe and Martinique were home to the greatest numbers of enslaved Africans in the Lesser Antilles and were third after St Domingue and Jamaica in the size of their captive populations and their economic importance. In 2001, Kelly began an archaeological project to investigate the experiences of enslaved Africans and their descendants in Guadeloupe, and then Martinique, through the identification and excavation of sugar plantation slave village sites, to explore their daily lives including their housing, material culture, and foodways.5 This work complemented the excellent bioarchaeological work already underway in Guadeloupe by Courtaud and Romon,6 and the detailed industrial archaeological research coordinated by Danielle Bégotat of the Université Antilles-Guyane.7

3A comprehensive understanding of the daily lived experiences of enslaved people requires the recovery of data that inform on those activities. As we know, enslaved people were rarely able to record their experiences in written form for us to read today, and those who did document the daily lives of slaves, such as planters or travelers, were rarely unbiased, sympathetic, or nuanced observers of those lives. Furthermore, when the lives of the slaves were documented, it was rarely the more mundane aspects of those lives, such as the behaviors associated with foodways, which were described by observers. This means that vast numbers of people, struggling against considerable odds, who created cultures and developed strategies that enabled their survival and that endure in the creole foods of the region, have largely been relegated to the footnotes of history, in spite of the lasting contribution of those cultures to modern society. This status of marginalization due to the silences of history can be overturned through the contribution of archaeological research to reveal the otherwise obscured heritage of African and African-descended culinary creativity. Archaeological survey in Guadeloupe demonstrated that the locations where this activity occurred on the plantations, the rues Cases-Nègres, could be identified, and excavations there would shed light on the past experiences, including the foodways, of these captives. Subsequent testing of some of those sites has demonstrated that faunal remains could be recovered in addition to the more commonly recovered ceramics, thereby contributing to more complex interpretations of foodways. Since that initial survey, slave village sites have been identified in a number of locations in Guadeloupe as well as in Martinique, and several have been subjected to archaeological investigation by using a variety of techniques.

  • 8  M. Douglas, 1984; P. Farb, G.J. Armelagos, 1980; S.W. Mintz, C.B. Dubois, 2002.
  • 9 S.W. Mintz, 1996; S.W. Mintz, R. Price, 1976.

4Slave village archaeology studying the lives of enslaved people in the French West Indies demonstrates some of the commonalities of plantation slavery during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, and also some of the distinctions that characterize specific colonies and their historical trajectories. Research into slave foodways, in particular, reveals aspects of life that slaves within the French West Indies shared with those in other Caribbean colonies. Generally, academic studies of slave subsistence investigate systems of food procurement, processing/preparation, distribution, preservation, consumption, and discard; this complex of ideas has been defined in the anthropological literature as foodways or cuisine. Anthropologists, however, also explore the historical development and manifestation of food practices to examine the meaning and significance of foodways to cultures, communities, and individuals.8 Much historical, folklore, and anthropological work has focused on slave foodways and nutrition and indicates that throughout the Caribbean, slaves generally suffered from some aspects of malnutrition, experienced higher disease loads than many other contemporary groups of people, and also experienced higher mortality, lower fertility, and shorter lives than many of their counterparts. Anthropological and historical interest in the meaning and cultural significance of food, however, has allowed for more nuanced discourse within research of Caribbean ‘creole’ foodways. This research investigates both the active role of slaves in formulating culturally meaningful systems of subsistence and the persistence of food as a symbol of struggle and resistance.9 Slave diets were in need of supplementation. Although the Code Noir and other laws stipulated that slaves were to be accorded certain standards of provisioning, the reality was that they frequently were obliged to obtain wild food resources on their own, through trapping, collecting, and other means of obtaining supplemental foods, to make up the shortfalls in their rations. It is these strategies developed by the enslaved communities that reveal the creativity and persistence of enslaved individuals, and the origins of African-Caribbean cuisine.

5These expressions of cultural adaptations that are broadly similar throughout the Caribbean are one facet of slavery that slave village archaeology reveals to us. However, the specific historical trajectories of individual colonies are also significant and have important ramifications for the experiences of enslavement in particular colonies. Guadeloupe and Martinique present ideal laboratories for the exploration of the consequences of colonial cultures, changes in colonial administrations, and the impact of specific historical events on the lived experience of enslaved people who dwelt in the rues Cases-Nègres. Archaeology of the foodways of enslaved laborers in Guadeloupe and Martinique provides a view of the conditions of slavery in the colonial context of the most important 18th century Caribbean economic power—France. Prior to the last decade, virtually all Caribbean slave archaeology had been conducted either in former British colonies or on islands that were never major centers of slave-based agriculture, such as St. Eustatius or Curaçao. We know that French, British, Spanish, Dutch, and other colonies were different in many ways (food, architecture, etc.) because of the national cultures that established them, so why should we not expect that the conditions of slavery might be different in these various settings?

6In order to explore the food systems created by the people living in the rues Cases-Nègres of the French West Indies and how those conditions changed over nearly 200 years of slavery and emancipation, we draw primarily upon archaeological data from two excavations directed by Kelly: Habitation La Mahaudière, Guadeloupe; and Habitation Crève-Cœur, Martinique (Figure 1).We also draw upon ethnohistorical and historical documents that address slave subsistence within the French West Indies.

Figure 1: Map of Guadeloupe and Martinique, with location of Habitation La Mahaudière on Grande Terre, and Habitation Crève-Cœur on Martinique’s southern peninsula

Figure 1: Map of Guadeloupe and Martinique, with location of Habitation La Mahaudière on Grande Terre, and Habitation Crève-Cœur on Martinique’s southern peninsula

Image used with online permission from University of Texas Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection:​maps/​americas.html.

  • 10 D.V. Armstrong, K.G. Kelly, 2000.

7At the two village sites excavated, there are some broad structuring principles that are generally followed. The villages are located in settings that are close to the economic center of the plantation, minimizing travel time to fields and works. They are also located down-wind from the planter’s house, so that the smells of a rue Cases-Nègres of more than 100 people would be blown away and not trouble the planter’s sensibilities. These are patterns that are widely seen across the Caribbean, and it is within these spaces that enslaved communities developed food practices and traditions that archaeology can help to reveal.10

  • 11 D.V. Armstrong, 1991; S.W. Mintz, 1974; L.M. Pulsipher, C.M. Goodwin, 2001; L.A. Wilkie, P. Farnswo (...)
  • 12 D.V. Armstrong, 1991; D.V. Armstrong, 2003; L.M. Pulsipher, C.M. Goodwin, 2001; L.A. Wilkie, P. Far (...)

8The archaeological consideration of enslaved foodways requires a broad technique that includes archaeology not only in the houses occupied by enslaved workers but also in the exterior spaces surrounding the houses. It has been repeatedly identified archaeologically and ethnohistorically that enslaved people on plantations lived their lives in a range of spaces that have been grouped together and called the Afro-Caribbean ‘house yard’.11 As an analytical framework, the house yard concept has shifted the focus of investigation from concentrating solely on the space confined within the houses of the enslaved to the areas surrounding the structure. This is based on the recognition that in the Caribbean, many of the activities of daily life took place in the outdoor spaces surrounding the house. A number of archaeologists have used this concept to effectively explore enslaved life in settings from Jamaica (Armstrong), to the Bahamas (Wilkie and Farnsworth), the Virgin Islands (Armstrong), and Montserrat (Pulsipher and Goodwin), where they have identified loci associated with specific behaviors and activities, such as cooking and tasks, that were generally not conducted inside the house.12 The yard areas were also the location of household- and village-level production, ranging from the tending of medicinal and culinary plants, the raising of small animals, and the manufacture of material culture implicated in foodways. These crafts could include pottery manufacture, basketry, building and maintaining fish or crab traps, etc.

9Despite the limited area surrounding houses delineated by archaeological investigations at La Mahaudière and Crève-Cœur, the slave dwellings and spaces surrounding the cabins within the rues Cases-Nègres remained the primary loci for domestic and social activities within slave communities. Excavations at these sites thus focused on the house and yard deposits of the enslaved laborers who worked and lived on the plantations. Archaeological data collected from houses and yards provide some of the most compelling vestiges of slave life, and slave foodways in particular. With these data from Guadeloupe and Martinique, we hope to contribute to the ongoing discourse regarding the importance of these spaces, and the activities that occurred within them, on the development of Caribbean creole foodways.

  • 13 C. Benoit, 2007; B.J. Heath, A. Bennett, 2000; S.W. Mintz, R. Price, 1976; L.M. Pulsipher, 1991; D. (...)
  • 14 D.V. Armstrong, 1990; J. Deetz, 1995; Y. Edwards-Ingram, 1998; B.J. Heath, A. Bennett, 2000; B.W. H(...)
  • 15 C. Benoit, 2007; G. Debien, 1964; S.W. Mintz, R. Price, 1976; L.M. Pulsipher, 1991; L.M. Pulsipher, (...)

10Historians and anthropologists emphasize yard gardens and, to a lesser extent, provision grounds in discussions of slave subsistence.13 The focus on provision grounds and gardens as primary components influencing the formation and maintenance of slave community foodways has thus developed into one of the most prevalent research agendas within plantation archaeology.14 Research throughout the Caribbean demonstrates that while some planters provided rations for the enslaved populations, other planters encouraged slaves to garden, procure, and prepare their own food to relieve themselves of the ‘burden’ of having to feed the slaves.15 These scholars contend that subsistence practices such as gardening, raising livestock, hunting, and foraging during prescribed free time were central features of slave communities on Caribbean plantations. Despite the consensus within this research that foodways were a fundamental aspect in the development of slave lifeways and identity, few archaeological studies have explicitly focused on the material evidence of slave diet and cuisine, such as ceramics, fauna, and botanical remains. In this article, we aim to deconstruct the historical perspective of slave subsistence within the French colonial system by integrating primary sources with such archaeological data.

Provisioning in the French West Indies

  • 16  Édit du Roi, 1685.
  • 17  G. Debien, 1964; D.W. Tomich, 1991.

11Within the French colonial system, from 1685 to the abolition of slavery in 1848, slavery was regulated by the Code Noir, or Black Code, a charter drafted to protect slaves. This proclamation ostensibly mandated a uniform dietary minimum for slaves in all the French colonies. Specifically, Articles 22–25 of the code dictated that each week planters would provide: “two pots and a half, Paris measure, cassava flour, or three cassava, each weighing 2 and 1/2 pounds at least, or the equivalent, with 2 pounds of corned beef, 3 pounds of fish or other things in proportion”.16 In reality, however, the manner in which slaves obtained subsistence within French Caribbean colonies differed from plantation to plantation as regulations were difficult to enforce. In the French West Indies, the scale of self-provisioning by enslaved laborers reportedly increased over time; and by emancipation in 1848, slaves were encouraged to grow and raise their own food, and work-free Saturdays were mostly substituted for rations.17 Historical accounts suggest that enslaved laborers in the Caribbean likely exploited any such ‘freedoms’ gained within the system, manipulating their free time on their own terms to improve their welfare and conditions of life.

Observer’s accounts

  • 18  J.B. du Tertre, 1667–1671; J.B. Labat, 1724; A. Soleau, 1835; J.B. Thibaultde Chanvalon, 1763.

12Accounts of travelers to and occupants of colonial Caribbean islands offer considerable insight into the lives of colonialists and enslaved laborers. Historic sources often provide detailed discussions of the conditions on plantations, including the operations of the industries, the lives of the planters, and also the treatment and lifeways of the enslaved laborers.18 These journals and reports focus heavily on the subsistence practices of the colonists, the indigenous Carib populations, and the enslaved communities, information which can be critically evaluated and integrated with archaeological data.

  • 19  J.B. du Tertre, 1667–1671.
  • 20  J.B. Labat, 1724.

13The works of Jean-Baptiste Du Tertre and Père Labat remain the most well-known accounts of early colonial life in the French Antilles. Du Tertre painstakingly detailed both the natural and cultural history of the Caribbean islands he visited.19 While living in Martinique and Guadeloupe, Père Labat maintained excellent records of his experiences and developed techniques and standards for sugar agriculture.20 During this time, he recorded much with regard to slave life and treatment on habitations, and he focused particular attention on the subsistence practices on plantations in the French West Indies. These sources provide insight into early colonial life in the French Caribbean, detailing practices that were both maintained and modified throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.

  • 21  J.B. du Tertre, 1667–1671, p. 516.
  • 22  J.B. du Tertre, 1667–1671, p. 520.
  • 23  J.B. du Tertre, 1667–1671, p. 520.
  • 24  See P. Courtaud, T. Romon, 2004.
  • 25  J.B. Labat, 1724.
  • 26  J.B. Labat, 1724 vol. 2, p. 62.

14In the 17th century, Du Tertre observed that many plantations relied significantly on rationing systems during the early colonial period, but that many planters were beginning to apply the ‘Brazilian’ model of allowing the slaves to grow and raise some of their own foodstuffs on household and provision gardens.21 He noted that even in the 17th century, slaves were cultivating peas, potatoes, manioc, yams, and various fruit and herbs, while also raising poultry.22 Du Tertre further asserts, however, that many planters wanted to abolish this practice as it gave too much freedom to the enslaved laborers and did not provide sufficient nutrition for all slaves.23 Approximately 50 years later, Labat observed that slave nutrition was very poor (a fact confirmed by bioarchaeological research)24 and largely dependent on rations, which were not sufficient.25 In Martinique, he noted that the slaves often supplemented rations with roots, vegetables, and fruits from their gardens.26 In addition, he observed that slaves raised poultry and livestock, particularly pigs, but only slaughtered these on special occasions or holidays, or took them to trade or sell at local markets.

15The early accounts of Du Tertre and Labat offer valuable insight into the early development of slave foodways in the French West Indies, revealing that the early colonial period was a period of adjustment for both the planters and the enslaved Africans forced from their homeland. Their chronicles depict some variation between islands and plantations with regard to systems of alimentation for enslaved populations, and they indicate that the early colonial enslaved laborers maintained some control over their subsistence. These representations, however, might not be directly relevant to the fluorescence of slavery, which occurred from the end of the 17th through to the middle of the 19th centuries. We therefore address three additional accounts, those of Jean-Baptiste Thibault de Chanvalon, Alexandre Soleau, and Victor Schoelcher.

  • 27  J.B. Thibaultde Chanvalon, 1763, p. 108.
  • 28  J.B. Thibaultde Chanvalon, 1763, p. 108.

16Born in Martinique, Thibault de Chanvalon became a government official and detailed his observations of cultural and natural history of the island in a report published in 1763. Thibault de Chanvalon thoroughly describes the fauna and flora of the island, with particular attention to those used for subsistence, but he also focuses on the lifeways and treatment of the enslaved on the island. With regard to foodways, he suggests that many planters provided few if any rations for their slaves, noting “ils sont obligés de la chercher ailleurs”.27 He observed that many of the enslaved laborers in Martinique were obliged to procure subsistence resources during their free time and harvested manioc, bananas, and potatoes (Figure 2). His observations also suggest that the slaves depended on livestock as well as wild resources available, such as crustaceans, which he argued offered “de grandes ressources” for subsistence.28

Figure 2: Fabrication de la farine de manioc, Guadeloupe (1899-1900)

Figure 2: Fabrication de la farine de manioc, Guadeloupe (1899-1900)

Photo: Paul Drilhon (Image used with online permission from ANOM​anom/​fr). © / ANOM / 2005 / sous réserve des droits réservés aux auteurs ou ayants droit non identifiés.

  • 29  A. Soleau, 1835, p. 93.

17As both La Mahaudière and Crève-Cœur operated during the peak of plantation slavery in the French West Indies, from the late 18th century through to abolition in 1848, more recent accounts from the 19th century provide ideal sources for examining slave life during their periods of occupation. In particular, Alexandre Soleau, who traveled to the French West Indies during the early 19th century and abolitionist Victor Schoelcher, writing in 1842, offer insights into the development of slave foodways in the later colonial period. In his account from 1835, Soleau depicts flourishing internal market systems on both Martinique and Guadeloupe. His observations suggest that not only have the enslaved populations on the islands developed systems of foodways sustaining household and community needs, but that slaves were producing surplus foodstuffs to sell and trade at market. Specifically, Soleau noted the production and distribution of manioc flour, potatoes, yams, and poultry by slaves on Guadeloupe and Martinique.29

  • 30 V. Schoelcher, 1842, p. 11.
  • 31 V. Schoelcher, 1842, p. 11.
  • 32 V. Schoelcher, 1842, p. 13.

18Further corroborating the development of these autonomous practices, Schoelcher suggests that slaves in the French West Indies produced and sold produce and livestock within internal marketing systems.30 Citing an ordinance from 1786 requiring planters to distribute plots allowing every slave to cultivate crops, Schoelcher observed that the gardens were the principle source of well-being for the enslaved laborers in the French West Indies.31 In addition, Schoelcher notes that the slaves raised poultry, pigs, cows, and horses on their own time.32 Both Soleau’s and Schoelcher’s observations reveal that the enslaved laborers in the French Caribbean developed creative and successful systems of foodways, despite their enslavement, allowing for the formation of an active internal marketing system and setting the foundation for shared ‘creole’ foodways traditions (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Marché en plein air, Martinique, 1902-1907

Figure 3: Marché en plein air, Martinique, 1902-1907

Photo: Camille Le Camus (Image used with online permission from ANOM​anom/​fr). © / ANOM / 2005 / sous réserve des droits réservés aux auteurs ou ayants droit non identifiés.

  • 33 G. Debien, 1964.

19Based on these primary sources, historians have examined slave foodways in the West Indies, often focusing on the development of food systems over time and the ‘management’ of slave provisioning by planters. Debien, for example, argues that there was a progression within the French West Indies from the 18th through the 19th century.33 He suggests that during the initial rise of the plantation system and throughout the majority of the 18th century, slave subsistence was dominated by the distribution of rations by planters. Under this system, enslaved laborers were given a weekly ration of a mix of starches, proteins, and vegetables, mostly manioc flour, and salted beef, fish, or turtle. By the end of the 18th century, the planters preferred to give Sundays to the slaves to garden, and free Saturdays were also common. According to Debien, the 19th century gave rise to a significant increase in self-reliance for slave communities in the French Antilles. Throughout the 19th century, the communal gardens constituted almost all of the essential nutrition for the slaves. By emancipation, he suggests that there was a mélange of communal gardens, yard gardens, and rations.

20Debien’s exploration of the historical record with regard to slave alimentation provides a thorough overview of the laws and first-hand accounts relating to subsistence. His research, however, focuses mainly on the island of St. Domingue and provides limited insight into the diversity of food systems within the French Antilles. In general, ethnohistorical sources and primary accounts from the colonial period are rare, and those available offer only a small sample of the realities of slave lifeways as they undoubtedly varied significantly from island to island and plantation to plantation. Furthermore, the primary accounts come from highly biased colonial European perspectives and not from the slaves themselves. Archaeology provides a means to gain insight into the variable and localized nature of lifeways on Caribbean plantations. Often, the material recovered from archaeological research is some of the only direct evidence of the lifeways of enslaved laborers and how these lifeways varied based on colonial regime, island, and plantation within the Caribbean. We therefore focus the remainder of the paper on the archaeological evidence of slave foodways recovered from two sites in the French West Indies: La Mahaudière in Guadeloupe and Crève-Cœur in Martinique. We use archaeological data to supplement, but also to question the historical perception of slave foodways.


21Zooarchaeology examines faunal remains recovered from archaeological sites to investigate systems of food procurement, production, consumption, and discard. The analysis of faunal remains from plantation contexts examines the struggles, responses, and adjustments of slave communities within novel social and natural environment, specifically investigating the material traces of the creative dietary practices formulated by the enslaved laborers. In recent years, investigations of subsistence contexts on plantations have seen the development of a wide range of approaches.

  • 34  R. Ascher, C.H. Fairbanks, 1971; J. Bowen, M. Jarvis, 1994; D.C. Crader, 1990; J. Deetz, 1995; J.S (...)
  • 35 D.V. Armstrong, 1990; L.G. Ferguson, 1992; M. Franklin, 2001; L. McKee, 1999; L.A. Wilkie, P. Farns (...)
  • 36 S. Palmie, 2006; G.F. Schroedl, T.M. Ahlman, 2002; K.A. Yelvington, 2001.

22Early zooarchaeological studies of plantation foodways addressed issues of slave subsistence, often focusing on the acquisition of supplemental fauna by slaves or examining the dietary differences between the different plantation ‘ethnicities’ or ‘status’.34 As anthropologists view foodways as evocative of identity and culture, zooarchaeologists working in the African Diaspora frequently interpret faunal materials through the framework of ‘creolization’, assessing how enslaved communities created an African-American or Afro-Caribbean, ‘Creole’, subsistence pattern.35 Critics argue that studies of ‘Creole’ identities focus on how foodways articulate with African traditions or contribute to a singular pan-African-American or Afro-Caribbean ‘ethnicity’—thereby overlooking the historical particularities and complexities involved in the production of an African-American or Afro-Caribbean identity—or disregard how enslaved individuals and communities actively negotiated their own identity.36

  • 37  S.A. Mrozowiski et al., 2008; E.M. Scott, 2001; A.L. Young, 1997; A.L. Young et al., 2001.

23Current research in plantation foodways examines how slave communities actively negotiated their survival and coped with the cruelties of slavery by creating a unique system of foodways using self-sufficiency, creativity, and careful strategizing.37 While our research examines how food systems reveal the deliberate incorporation of European, African, and native Caribbean traditions into slave foodways, our work also contributes to an interrogation of the notion of a singular pan-Caribbean ‘Creole’ identity. As discussed previously, enslaved laborers on different islands and plantations likely adjusted to their conditions in numerous ways, creating a great diversity of cultural strategies to overcome their situation. We therefore focus on historically particular, local manifestations of subsistence and lifeways, exploring how slave communities in Martinique and Guadeloupe creatively navigated the social and natural landscapes of plantation life.

24The analysis of faunal remains from plantation contexts examines the struggles, responses, and adjustments of slave communities within novel social and natural environments, specifically investigating the material traces of the creative dietary practices formulated by the enslaved laborers. The objectives of the zooarchaeological analysis of food bone remains include evaluation of: 1) the fauna consumed, and the production or acquisition methods and sites; and 2) the methods of production, preparation, and distribution of faunal resources across the community. The evaluation of these data provide insight into where, how, and why the slave community acquired specific subsistence resources and also into how the resources were utilized and allocated within the community. In combination, the faunal, material, and historical data can delineate the social, physical, and environmental constraints and variables influencing slave subsistence practices and reveal the development of community social and economic organization and identity. Detailed zooarchaeological analyses were completed on the archaeological faunal assemblages from the sites of Habitation La Mahaudière on Guadeloupe and Habitation Crève-Cœur on Martinique. Results of the faunal analyses from these slave village sites indicate that domestic mammals were an important part of the diet of the slave communities in the French Antilles, but that households also actively exploited a diverse array of natural resources available on the island for subsistence.

Zooarchaeology at La Mahaudière

  • 38  P.L. Brunache, 2011.

25Faunal analyses completed on the assemblage from Habitation La Mahaudière, Guadeloupe by Peggy Brunache reveal that the enslaved laborers consumed a combination of domestic and wild taxa.38 The sample from Guadeloupe, however, includes only remains recovered from dry-screening; and therefore small animal remains, such as fish, bird, and small mammal, are likely to be significantly underrepresented in the assemblage. Despite this bias, the remains from La Mahaudière indicate that the slave community relied on a combination of terrestrial and marine fauna. Brunache identified 93 per cent of the assemblage as marine invertebrates, comprised largely of chiton and clams. Vertebrate remains in the sample from La Mahaudière include mostly domestic pig, cattle, and goat.

  • 39  P.L. Brunache, 2011, p. 251.
  • 40  P.L. Brunache, 2011, p. 252.

26This analysis suggests that domestic animal consumption increased during the 19th century at La Mahaudière, although shellfish were still common within the assemblage. Brunache contends that the faunal and historical evidence indicate that the diet of the enslaved community at La Mahaudière was dominated by carbohydrates, including sweet potatoes, manioc, and yams, with little protein.39 Marine resources therefore became an alternative source for protein, and the slave community exploited this easily accessible and procurable resource to supplement their diet.40

Zooarchaeology at Crève-Cœur

27Excavations at six slave household occupation terraces at Habitation Crève-Cœur, Martinique, recovered over 10,000 specimens of fauna through both dry-screening and water flotation. Excellent preservation conditions allowed for the collection of remains of variable sizes through flotation, a process that facilitates the recovery of minute faunal specimens, including fish, bird, and small mammal remains. Without this method, these small materials are often lost through dry-screening, and this technique allows for a more fine-grained analysis of subsistence practices, particularly fishing strategies.

28Initial results of faunal analyses completed at the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle in Paris, France on the remains recovered from Crève-Cœur indicate a highly varied diet. Similar to La Mahaudière, domestic mammals were an important part of the diet of the slave community at the plantation, including cattle, pig, sheep, goat, and chicken, many raised on-site. The enslaved laborers at Crève-Cœur also procured a diverse array of resources available on the landscape within and surrounding the plantation, including the trapping of small mammals, such as opossum, agouti, and the exotic mongoose (introduced in the second half of the 19th century).

  • 41  S. Grouard, 2001.

29In addition, the slave and later free community harvested a diverse range of aquatic species, including over 30 fish families, sea turtle, land crab, sea urchin, and numerous marine and mangrove shellfish. Common shellfish identified within the deposits include the West-Indian topshell (Cittarium pica), chitons (Acanthopleura granulata and Chiton marmoratus), and mangrove oysters (Crassostrea rhizophorae). Common fish species recovered at Crève-Cœur include many species still commonly prepared in modern-day Martinique. Specifically, the slave community consumed snapper (Family Lutjanidae), grouper (Family Serranidae), balao (Family Hemiramphidae), barracuda (Family Sphyraenidae), and herrings (Family Clupeidae), which all comprise a significant part of current creole cuisine in the French West Indies. All fish species identified inhabit reef, inshore, and mangrove swamp environments, with very few pelagic, or deep water, species identified, suggesting that they were procured along the coast. Both the fish and shellfish taxa consumed demonstrate that the slave community at Crève-Cœur focused extensively on the exploitation of nearby inshore and reef habitats, located only 1.5 km from the plantation. The material and faunal evidence indicate that the enslaved laborers were procuring fish and shellfish themselves for household consumption on the plantation. In particular, the relatively small sizes of the fish and the particular species identified within the assemblage suggest that nets were used at inshore locations to obtain fish.41 Furthermore, excavations have located a preponderance of lead fishing weights found within each locus of slave occupation on the site. The faunal and artifactual evidence reveal that inshore net fishing or seining, a practice that continues today, was the preferred method for procuring fish, as opposed to traveling on boats to acquire pelagic species (Figure 4).The faunal remains demonstrate that the enslaved laborers at Crève-Cœur were reliant on community self-provisioning, allowing for physical, economic, and social interactions beyond the boundaries of the plantation.

Figure 4: Un coup de seine à Sainte-Marie, Martinique, 1900

Figure 4: Un coup de seine à Sainte-Marie, Martinique, 1900

Photo: Author anonymous (Image used with online permission from ANOM​anom/​fr). © / ANOM / 2005 / sous réserve des droits réservés aux auteurs ou ayants droit non identifiés.

30Observed skeletal part representation indicates that pig, goat, and sheep were locally raised, possibly on-site, as those elements identified to these taxa came from the entire animal. The greater relative abundance of lower limb and distal rib beef cuts, on the other hand, indicate that most of the beef consumed likely originated from barreled imports. A small amount of equid remains were identified, suggesting that the slaves consumed old or deceased horses or mules, but only rarely. Based on the preliminary analysis of bird remains from the site, chicken was the principal avian species consumed. Interestingly, however, despite the good preservation conditions, few bird skeletal remains were identified in the assemblage, although eggshells are present throughout the deposits. Based on historical accounts and other faunal assemblages from Caribbean plantation sites, this is unexpected. The sparsity of avian remains could suggest that chickens were raised mainly for egg-production, possibly traded or sold in the Afro-Caribbean markets on the island, or reveal differential disposal practices.

31The zooarchaeological data from both La Mahaudière and Crève-Cœur reveal that slaves in the French Caribbean employed diverse subsistence strategies to survive the harsh plantation landscape. In particular, enslaved laborers creatively utilized their free time to supplement rations and diversify their diet, providing protein lacking in an otherwise carbohydrate-rich diet. Many of the strategies developed by these communities included harvesting fauna around and within close proximity of the plantations, such as small mammals, shellfish, and crustaceans. These resources would have been readily exploitable by members of the slave communities who may have been unable to perform more labor-intensive obligations, such as the elderly and children. Furthermore, many of the foods consumed at both sites remain a part of current creole cuisine in Guadeloupe and Martinique.

Material culture

32While zooarchaeological data can be the most direct indicator of the contribution of animal protein to the diet, other aspects of foodways are informed by the range and forms of cooking wares used to prepare and consume food. In Caribbean archaeology, many of these cooking- and consumption-related artifacts are ceramic or metal artifacts that can be recovered from slave village sites. The study of these artifacts is important in that they can provide clues to the means of preparation for animal foods also represented by faunal remains; but more than that, they can provide information about the technologies used to obtain and prepare foods that might otherwise not be represented with archaeologically recovered remains. In spite of these possibilities, it is important to remain cognizant that there may be cooking- and, more likely, consumption-related artifacts that are rarely preserved for archaeological recovery, such as wooden vessels or containers crafted from gourds or calabashes.

  • 42  See H.C. Covey, D. Eisnach, 2009; J. Deetz, 1995; T.A. Singleton, 1995.
  • 43 E. Weber, 1976.

33Recognizing the incomplete representation of foodways-related containers in the archaeological record, we can nonetheless learn a great deal from the vessels that are present and the strategies employed in their use, acquisition, and discard. In our excavations in the French West Indies, we have recovered many of the same kinds of food-related artifacts as have been found elsewhere in the Caribbean, although there are also some differences, both between the French and other colonial contexts, and between the French contexts of Martinique and Guadeloupe. In many slavery-related sites, it has been recognized that enslaved Africans were inclined to consume liquid-based diets that emphasized soup- or stew-like food preparation.42 While this has sometimes been associated with cultural preferences for foods that resembled African antecedents, there is also a strong argument that these means of preparation are efficient ways to use a variety of ingredients and to stretch them to feed a larger number of people. Furthermore, food preparation that does not require constant supervision would likely be advantageous in settings where the individuals preparing the food would also have other tasks to complete at the same time. While these characteristics are found in many African cuisines, they were also present in many of the foodways of poor and laboring classes in Europe, and in France in particular, up through the 19th century.43

  • 44 P. Farnsworth, 1999; L.A. Wilkie, P. Farnsworth, 2005.
  • 45 M.A. Fanning, 2008; M.A. Fanning, 2009; H.R. Gibson, 2007.

34Artifacts recovered in slave villages that reflect these foodways include cooking pots of various materials and ceramic serving dishes referred to as hollowwares.44 This category, hollowwares, usually refers to bowls, soup plates, and other dished receptacles, but could also include cups, mugs, and even the repurposed bases of storage jars. At both La Mahaudière and Crève-Cœur, hollowares predominated in the archaeological collections of ceramics. These ceramics included, in the earlier 18th century period of occupation, widely distributed French forms such as the faïence brune and faïence blanche dished plates, the bowl forms from Albisola in Italy, and the bowl forms from the French Mediterranean coast region, particularly the valley of the Huveaune near Marseilles. Later, in the 19th century these forms were augmented with so-called faïence fine production, the creamwares, pearlwares, and whitewares produced in French and British factories. The source of acquisition of these materials is difficult to determine with complete accuracy, as some were no doubt reused materials handed down or recovered from the plantation owners and managers, yet others were certainly purchased by enslaved people in the local markets.45

  • 46 J.F. Petrucci, 2002.

35At both Habitation La Mahaudière and Crève-Cœur, food preparation was done in individual households or groups thereof and not in a centralized kitchen. Preparation of largely liquid-based foods required the use of cooking pots, as opposed to frying pans or roasting spits. On British sites throughout the Caribbean, the artifact most commonly associated with this form of cooking is the cast-iron cooking pot. These may be supplemented by other varieties of cooking pot, such as the coarse earthenware yabba pots known from Jamaica. In both the Guadeloupe and Martinique slave village contexts, there is a notable lack of cast iron cookware. Instead, most cookwares are made of ceramics, including the industrially produced glazed coarse earthenware cooking pots known as Vallauris after their region of manufacture on the Mediterranean coast of France. These ubiquitous French cooking pots were manufactured in tremendous numbers in the 18th century, and even more so in the 19th centruy, and exported throughout the French domestic and colonial markets.46 This cultural tradition of cooking in earthenware pots continued in France long after ceramic cookwares had been replaced by iron in Britain, and French industrial production reflects that tradition.

  • 47  K.G. Kelly et al., 2008.
  • 48 C. Losier, 2012.
  • 49 M.S.L. Arcangeli, 2012.

36In the French Caribbean, locally based ceramic industries using skilled potters and large kilns principally focused on the manufacture of sugar wares but also made some culinary wares for use on the plantations.47 These ceramics are regularly recovered from slave village and other contexts in the French Caribbean and clearly supplemented the sometimes-spotty arrival of metropolitan-produced cookware in supply ships.48 The locally manufactured, industrially produced culinary wares include bowl forms, used for consumption, and cooking pot forms used in food preparation, as well as storage vessels for food and water.49 In Guadeloupe, we find that the culinary assemblage consists of the French metropolitan wares (Huveaune, Cox, Vallauris), supplemented with local industrial-scale production of bowls and pots. However, in Martinique, the imported and local ceramics are supplemented with another form, locally called coco nèg.

  • 50 L.G. Ferguson, 1992; M.W. Hauser, 2008.
  • 51 L.-R. Bueze, 1990.

37Coco nèg is a handmade, low-fired culinary ceramic analogous to the yabba pottery of Jamaica or the Colonoware pottery of the US Southeast.50 It is manufactured in a limited range of forms, mostly round-bottomed bowls and slightly constricted pots, and appears to have been made by enslaved potters for local use, although whether within each village or more regionally remains to be determined. This pottery is manufactured in a generalized ‘African’ tradition, with little or no decoration or embellishment other than small applied handle lugs. In spite of excavations at several plantation sites in Guadeloupe, coco nèg have not been recovered in any quantity there, and their distribution appears to be restricted to Martinique, where their production continues to this day.51

38The presence in Martinique and Guadeloupe of coco nèg, other locally produced ceramic culinary wares, and the metropolitan production of Vallauris, Cox, and the Mediterranean region largely takes the place of cast-iron cookware in the French West Indies. It can be argued that the continued use of ceramic cookware in the French cultural tradition was something that resonated with enslaved Africans and their descendants, as African culinary practices revolved around cooking and serving in ceramic utensils, particularly before the late 19th century.


39Archaeological study of plantation foodways provides insight into the creativity of enslaved people in the French West Indies that are otherwise obscure when relying exclusively on contemporary accounts. Practices seen that are in common with other enslaved African and African-descended groups, such as the reliance on self-sufficiency, are documented through traditional texts as well as archaeological data. However, the details of this self-sufficiency, such as the emphasis on trapping, hunting, and gathering wild animal food is revealed through archaeological data. Similarly, the development of culinary practices that draw upon generalized ‘African’ antecedents are well demonstrated through archaeological materials, although archaeological data also demonstrate the presence of distinct local and regional variants of foodways. Foodways practices that are not so commonly shared with others in the African Diaspora include the continued use of ceramic culinary wares to the almost complete exclusion of iron cookwares. This practice, apparently associated with elements of French culinary traditions, in relation to the sorts of cookwares available was probably also a convergence with generalized African preferences for or comfort with ceramic cookwares.

  • 52 R. Price, 1966.

40Our archaeological data also provide more nuanced interpretations of historical records—for example, chroniclers documented the raising of chickens in slave villages, but our data suggest that they were not raised for personal consumption but for trade. In addition, fishing is recognized as an important historical practice, and enslaved fishermen were detailed in some early accounts; but has received relatively little attention with regard to slave foodways.52 Research remains dominated by explorations of slave yards and gardens and rarely focuses on subsistence practices that occurred outside of plantation boundaries. Our data indicate that we need to focus more attention on the role of fishing and shellfish harvesting within slave lifeways.

41Finally, the coupling of archaeological and historical evidence provides insight into the developments of creole cuisine in the French West Indies. Through investigating these daily practices, strategies, and decisions made by the enslaved Africans and their descendants, this research enhances anthropological understandings of how individuals and communities use social identity and collective strategizing to negotiate and confront the consequences of living in bondage as forced laborers. Early in the colonial period, enslaved laborers likely supplemented diets by growing crops in small gardens, raising poultry and small livestock, and collecting fauna readily available and accessible to those less able to work fulltime in the fields or processing cane. Over time, enslaved Africans and their descendants formulated diverse strategies to provide not only sustenance for the community but also a means of obtaining relative control over their livelihoods and cultural identity. Much of what defines creole ‘identity’ was formulated in the yards, gardens, and landscape in and around the plantations, and at the markets at which food and food-related items were traded and sold. In the oppressive context of plantation slavery, the acquisition and consumption of food remained one of the few phenomenon that enslaved laborers could control themselves. Africans and their descendants, despite their enslavement, were able to adjust to this harsh environment by creating subsistence practices that strategically incorporated the resources available. Through growing crops, raising livestock, harvesting terrestrial and marine fauna, producing cookware, and preparing household meals, enslaved laborers established a foundation of cultural traditions that continue today.

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1  S.W. Mintz, 1974.

2  D.V. Armstrong, 1990 (Jamaica); D.V. Armstrong, K.G. Kelly, 2000 (Jamaica); C.O. Clement, 1997 (Tobago); T.H. Eubanks, 1992 (Tobago); P. Farnsworth, 1999 (Bahamas); P. Farnsworth, 2001 (Bahamas); B.W. Higman, 1998 (Jamaica); L.M. Pulsipher, 1991 (Montseratt); L.M. Pulsipher, 1994 (Monstseratt); L.M. Pulsipher, C.M. Goodwin, 2001 (Montseratt); L.A. Wilkie, 1999 (Bahamas); L.A. Wilkie, P. Farnsworth, 2005 (Bahamas).

3  J.A. Delle, 1994 (St. Eustatius); J.A. Delle, 1998 (Jamaica); J.A. Delle, 2009 (Jamaica); H.R. Gibson, 2007 (Guadeloupe); B.J. Heath, 1999 (St. Eustatius); K.G. Kelly, 2002 (Guadeloupe); K.G. Kelly, 2011 (Guadeloupe); W.E. Kipple, 2001 (Nevis); S. Lenik, 2009 (US Virgin Islands); S. Lenik, 2012 (Dominica); L.A. Wilkie, P. Farnsworth, 2005 (Bahamas).

4 D.V. Armstrong, 1990; B.W. Higman, 1998; W.E. Kipple, 2001; L.A. Wilkie, P. Farnsworth, 2005.

5 K.G. Kelly, 2002; K.G. Kelly, 2008; K.G. Kelly, 2011.

6  P. Courtaud et al., 1999; P. Courtaud, T. Romon, 2004.

7  D. Begot, 1991.

8  M. Douglas, 1984; P. Farb, G.J. Armelagos, 1980; S.W. Mintz, C.B. Dubois, 2002.

9 S.W. Mintz, 1996; S.W. Mintz, R. Price, 1976.

10 D.V. Armstrong, K.G. Kelly, 2000.

11 D.V. Armstrong, 1991; S.W. Mintz, 1974; L.M. Pulsipher, C.M. Goodwin, 2001; L.A. Wilkie, P. Farnsworth, 2005.

12 D.V. Armstrong, 1991; D.V. Armstrong, 2003; L.M. Pulsipher, C.M. Goodwin, 2001; L.A. Wilkie, P. Farnsworth, 2005.

13 C. Benoit, 2007; B.J. Heath, A. Bennett, 2000; S.W. Mintz, R. Price, 1976; L.M. Pulsipher, 1991; D.W. Tomich, 1991.

14 D.V. Armstrong, 1990; J. Deetz, 1995; Y. Edwards-Ingram, 1998; B.J. Heath, A. Bennett, 2000; B.W. Higman, 1998.

15 C. Benoit, 2007; G. Debien, 1964; S.W. Mintz, R. Price, 1976; L.M. Pulsipher, 1991; L.M. Pulsipher, C.M. Goodwin, 2001; D.W. Tomich, 1991; D.W. Tomich, 2004.

16  Édit du Roi, 1685.

17  G. Debien, 1964; D.W. Tomich, 1991.

18  J.B. du Tertre, 1667–1671; J.B. Labat, 1724; A. Soleau, 1835; J.B. Thibaultde Chanvalon, 1763.

19  J.B. du Tertre, 1667–1671.

20  J.B. Labat, 1724.

21  J.B. du Tertre, 1667–1671, p. 516.

22  J.B. du Tertre, 1667–1671, p. 520.

23  J.B. du Tertre, 1667–1671, p. 520.

24  See P. Courtaud, T. Romon, 2004.

25  J.B. Labat, 1724.

26  J.B. Labat, 1724 vol. 2, p. 62.

27  J.B. Thibaultde Chanvalon, 1763, p. 108.

28  J.B. Thibaultde Chanvalon, 1763, p. 108.

29  A. Soleau, 1835, p. 93.

30 V. Schoelcher, 1842, p. 11.

31 V. Schoelcher, 1842, p. 11.

32 V. Schoelcher, 1842, p. 13.

33 G. Debien, 1964.

34  R. Ascher, C.H. Fairbanks, 1971; J. Bowen, M. Jarvis, 1994; D.C. Crader, 1990; J. Deetz, 1995; J.S. Otto, 1984; E.J. Reitz et al., 1985; A.E. Yentsch, 1994.

35 D.V. Armstrong, 1990; L.G. Ferguson, 1992; M. Franklin, 2001; L. McKee, 1999; L.A. Wilkie, P. Farnsworth, 2005.

36 S. Palmie, 2006; G.F. Schroedl, T.M. Ahlman, 2002; K.A. Yelvington, 2001.

37  S.A. Mrozowiski et al., 2008; E.M. Scott, 2001; A.L. Young, 1997; A.L. Young et al., 2001.

38  P.L. Brunache, 2011.

39  P.L. Brunache, 2011, p. 251.

40  P.L. Brunache, 2011, p. 252.

41  S. Grouard, 2001.

42  See H.C. Covey, D. Eisnach, 2009; J. Deetz, 1995; T.A. Singleton, 1995.

43 E. Weber, 1976.

44 P. Farnsworth, 1999; L.A. Wilkie, P. Farnsworth, 2005.

45 M.A. Fanning, 2008; M.A. Fanning, 2009; H.R. Gibson, 2007.

46 J.F. Petrucci, 2002.

47  K.G. Kelly et al., 2008.

48 C. Losier, 2012.

49 M.S.L. Arcangeli, 2012.

50 L.G. Ferguson, 1992; M.W. Hauser, 2008.

51 L.-R. Bueze, 1990.

52 R. Price, 1966.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1: Map of Guadeloupe and Martinique, with location of Habitation La Mahaudière on Grande Terre, and Habitation Crève-Cœur on Martinique’s southern peninsula
Crédits Image used with online permission from University of Texas Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection:​maps/​americas.html.
Fichier image/jpeg, 128k
Titre Figure 2: Fabrication de la farine de manioc, Guadeloupe (1899-1900)
Crédits Photo: Paul Drilhon (Image used with online permission from ANOM​anom/​fr). © / ANOM / 2005 / sous réserve des droits réservés aux auteurs ou ayants droit non identifiés.
Fichier image/jpeg, 172k
Titre Figure 3: Marché en plein air, Martinique, 1902-1907
Crédits Photo: Camille Le Camus (Image used with online permission from ANOM​anom/​fr). © / ANOM / 2005 / sous réserve des droits réservés aux auteurs ou ayants droit non identifiés.
Fichier image/jpeg, 220k
Titre Figure 4: Un coup de seine à Sainte-Marie, Martinique, 1900
Crédits Photo: Author anonymous (Image used with online permission from ANOM​anom/​fr). © / ANOM / 2005 / sous réserve des droits réservés aux auteurs ou ayants droit non identifiés.
Fichier image/jpeg, 191k
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Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Kenneth G. Kelly et Diane Wallman, « Foodways of Enslaved Laborers on French West Indian Plantations (18th-19th century) », Afriques [En ligne], 05 | 2014, mis en ligne le 22 décembre 2014, consulté le 24 mai 2016. URL :

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Kenneth G. Kelly

Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of South Carolina

Diane Wallman

PhD Candidate, Department of Anthropology, University of South Carolina

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