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Columns : Island Notes - Peter Barratt Last Updated: Feb 13, 2017 - 1:45:37 AM

Peter Barratt: Consequences of the Columbus Landfall
Jun 28, 2014 - 4:13:05 PM

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The following is an extract from the book ‘BAHAMA SAGA’, The Epic Story of the Bahama Islands by Peter Barratt, published by Authorhouse, 2003

There are many arguments pro and con concerning the impact of the European conquest of the Americas however a largely positive aspect of the Spanish discovery of the Bahamas and its aftermath was the exchange it allowed between the two worlds. Take for instance, foods:

From Europe came traditional condiments such as clove, ginger, cardamom and almonds. The new world which was deficient in meats and dairy products obtained pork, lamb, goat and beef which yielded milk and cheeses; it also obtained the vegetable seeds, (wheat, oats, rye and barley) as well as chickpeas, onion, watermelon, citrus fruit and sugar cane (the latter of which was brought by Columbus from the Canary Islands but actually originated in New Guinea).

From Africa came the banana and okra. In exchange Africa, which had previously been confined to a narrow range of foodstuffs, obtained maize, sweet potatoes, manioc and green beans from the new world.

From the new world came such important staple vegetables as potatoes, tomatoes and corn. It has been suggested of the latter, that kernels of new world corn became, for a time, a yellow currency, more valuable to the well-being of the world than nuggets of gold. Columbus sampled maiz (corn) in Cuba and declared it to be, ‘most tasty boiled, roasted or ground into flour.’ It was to transform eating habits and trigger population explosions from Africa to China. When it was introduced to Africa it immediately became a staple. Indeed, some Africans relied on corn so much for sustenance that even to today they are afflicted by pellagra or ‘mealie disease’, a sickness related to malnutrition from over-reliance on corn. By the mid-16th century corn was a familiar food in southern Europe and formed the basis of such national dishes as Italian polenta and the Romanian staple mamaliga (a sort of cornmeal mush).

It would be difficult to imagine what northern European cuisine would be like today without potatoes and the cuisine of Italy and Provence without tomatoes. But one can add to these staples, green beans, pumpkin, avocado, peanuts, chocolate, vanilla and pineapple which were also introduced from the new world to enrich European palates. Few meats travelled east except for the now ubiquitous turkey. The guinea pig and hairless dog, delicacies in America, were not much favoured in Europe. Venison and bison were of course, available in both the new and old worlds.

The daffodil, tulip, daisy and dandelion were introduced to America from Europe. While flowers like the petunia, sunflower, black-eyed Susan, dahlia, marigold, and wild rice travelled in the opposite direction. A less welcome plant introduced from Europe to the new world was crab grass. But perhaps the most pernicious plants of all were to come from the Americas: tobacco and the narcotic, coca. When introduced to Britain, King James 1st of England (James 6th of Scotland) dismissively remarked of tobacco: ‘Smoking is a custom loathsome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain, dangerous to the lungs, and in the black, stinking fume thereof nearest resembling the horrible Stygian smoke of the pit that is bottomless’.

European food before the discovery of the new world was fairly bland so the Europeans went literally half way round the world to the East and West Indies to find spices. The West Indies supplied nutmeg and allspice and the Bahamas is a major source of cascarilla used in the Italian cordial Campari. The Lucayans used a concoction of the tree lignum vitae as a treatment for syphilis and, after the Spanish conquest, it was much in demand in Europe. The spicy peppers of the new world were a great culinary success all over the world. They flourished in southern climes and took hold in Italian dishes like ‘arrabiata’ (angry) sauce. Eventually the capsicum pepper of the new world made its way into the cuisine of India and the Sichuan and Hunan provinces of China. By obscure channels they arrived in Hungary as paprika.

Food consumed in the Bahamas owed much to the sea. Besides the conch that could be diced and eaten raw, it could also be fried in batter and made into a chowder. Nassau grouper would be common fare as were the smaller fish like grunts, snappers and yellow tail. Occasionally deep-sea fish like tuna, marlin and sailfish would find their way to the table of the white settlers, especially those engaged in fishing as an occupation. Lobster was occasionally eaten by the poorer classes but was more highly regarded by the whites.

Though cattle were bred on stock raising islands, meat would probably have been eaten only once or twice a week even by the well-to-do white inhabitants. Before refrigeration the problem of keeping food fresh was a major consideration. Chickens were commonly reared and were perhaps the only flesh, apart from an occasional goat, that the black population tasted with any regularity. Vegetables included many native root vegetables though strains of peas, beans and tomatoes were plentiful. Melons and bananas too were common. Coconut and other introduced fruits like mango and citrus were also readily available.

Among beverages beer was commonplace though almost all was imported from Europe and North America. But the most common alcoholic drink until the early twentieth century was rum brought mainly from the sugar-producing islands of the Caribbean. Coffee was more easily available than tea until the late nineteenth century though people with close English connections found a way to import sufficient tea for their own use and often kept it under lock and key. And it was about this time too that food imported from Europe and North America made its appearance in jars and tin cans on the shelves of the more upscale grocery stores.

For a time the Bahamas exported citrus, pineapples, sisal and sugar cane. While from the sea the exportation of conch and sponge were once major industries, the latter especially found a ready market in Europe. During the Second World War there was even a seafood packing plant at West End in Grand Bahama.

The interchange was not confined only to plants and foods. After the ship, the horse was the most important (and fastest) means of transport of the age that was carried from Europe to the new world. The European colonists set them to familiar tasks: pulling wagons, ploughing, carrying soldiers. It would be difficult to imagine how the great land masses of north and south America could have been conquered without equestrian aid. Some of the horses escaped or otherwise fell into the hands of the indigenous peoples who adopted the horse primarily for personal transport and warfare. In the Bahamas, until the advent of the motorcar in the early twentieth century, horses were extensively used as beasts of burden and for transport. The Nassau horse-drawn Surrey is a relic of this era.

Some other exchanges were less happy. European diseases like mumps, smallpox, measles, whooping cough and gonorrhea found the natives of the new world immunologically defenseless. In Mexico, for example, it is thought that the population fell from thirty million before Cortes, to a mere three million after his arrival. A similar devastation shook the Caribbean islands and the entire northern and southern continents. The great germ migration was largely a one-way affair though it is thought that possibly syphilis travelled from the old world to the new. It claimed Vincent Pinzon as one of its victims and it soon spread throughout Europe. In England it was sometimes known as the ‘Spanish’ disease.

America afforded cures for many ailments. Quinine, derived from Peruvian bark, eased malaria, Ipecac from Amazonian roots, cured amoebic dysentery and a tonic from Canadian pine needles was found to be a remedy for scurvy. Mark Catesby the famous naturalist writing in 1731 noted that Ilathera (Eleuthera) bark, a member of the croton family, gave a fine ‘perfume’ on being burnt and that, infused with wine, and yielded a fine aromatic bitter. Today American herbs enhance over 500 prescription drugs.

Timber was a major resource and from early times tropical hardwoods were sent to Europe to create fine furniture and for use in the shipbuilding industry before ships were made of iron and steel. The main pine islands of the Bahamas; Abaco, Grand Bahama and Andros exported yellow pine to North America and Europe. In America the pine was used in the manufacture of cardboard and in Europe it found its way down the coalmines of Wales and the Ruhr in Germany for use as pit props.

The other great exchange was the great precious metal wealth which was drained from the new world to the old, while at the same time, technology and masses of people, important resources of a different kind, were moving in the opposite direction.

This Appendix re-printed from ‘Bahama Saga’ on the subject of cultural and other exchanges between the two ‘worlds’ was borrowed liberally from the ‘Newsweek Special’ Issue, ‘The Great Food Migration, Fall/Winter 1991

Peter Barratt
is an architect/town planner who was formerly in charge of the development of Freeport. He writes with first-hand knowledge of the Bahamas having first visited the country in 1960. Because of his long experience in the islands he has been able to record many interesting insights, observations and historic moments that readers should find intriguing. He has published several books about the island nation: Grand Bahama, Freeport Notebook and Bahama Saga, (the latter a historical novel about the islands). He has also written a full colour work entitled: Angelic Verses and two other works are near publication: The Port at War and St Peter Was Never There

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are solely those of the author in his/her private capacity and do not in any way represent the views of TheBahamasWeekly.com

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