Cassava: A Contested Good

Brandi Simpson Miller

The widescale adoption of cassava in Ghana today has its roots in the nineteenth-century transition away from the slave trade to the “legitimate” trade in the palm oil that lubricated British industry. Cassava was introduced to the Gold Coast in the seventeenth century and flourished in the arid climate and infertile soils of the Osu environs of the Danish Fort, Christiansborg. Soon after, local experimenters tried to adapt the introduced varieties of cassava they found near Christiansborg into types that had a lower poison content (as recognized by taste), while maintaining attractive features, such as hardiness.[i]

Cassava or tapioca plant. Coloured etching by J. Pass, c. 1809. Courtesy of the Wellcome Library.

Intermittent food shortages in the southeast throughout the mid-eighteenth century gave experimenters the imperative to continue their development of cassava as a hunger food. Cassava gardeners were gratified to find that plants grown from cuttings rather than seeds halved the time it took to produce tubers of harvestable size. Cooks discovered that clones grown from a stem cutting produced tubers less fibrous and thus more suitable for making ampesi (boiled starch) and fufu (boiled and pounded starch dumplings).[ii]

 

By the 1780s farmers around Accra had produced cassava cultivars that were distinct from original, introduced stock from the New World. Their cassava was less poisonous, and Accra consumers considered these new types to be edible. These types were not completely free of cyanogenic glucosides, but cooks who peeled the tubers made the remaining starch safe because the toxicity of the hybrid cultivar resided in that outermost layer of the fibrous husk they removed.[iii]

The transition from the slave trade to the “legitimate” trade in palm oil resulted in conflicts that increased the consumption of cassava. The cessation of the slave trade resulted in an Asante invasion of the coastal Fante beginning in 1806-7 to monopolize any remaining trade with Europeans. This invasion was directly responsible for a series of famines beginning with the 1809 famine, as people were unable to properly attend to cultivation for the persistent fear of attack. The 1816 famine alone was responsible for the deaths of many thousands of Fante.[iv] Fante farmers turned to cassava to buttress themselves against famines by planting the crop in soils that were dry, nutrient-poor, or otherwise unsuitable for maize (which did not tolerate saline spray) or plantains (which required shelter from wind, and moisture).[v] Cassava, which stored well underground, could be grown in poor soil and retrieved under these arduous circumstances to stave off hunger.

Afro-Brazilians who resettled in West Africa following a series of slave revolts in Bahia between 1831 and 1835 contributed to the development of new cassava dishes.[vi] The dish now known as gari fortor—most likely derived from the Brazilian-Portuguese farofa or grated, roasted maniocmixes flavourings like onions, tomatoes, and eggs into the shredded cassava before frying and has become a residual marker of the Brazilian contribution to today’s Ghanaian cuisine.[vii]

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Jean Blackwell Hutson Research and Reference Division, The New York Public Library. “Accra, Gold Coast.” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed July 9, 2021. https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47df-a1a7-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

However much cassava came to be consumed on the coast by the Fante it was never to attain the positive associations that the eating of yam or maize embodied in daily life or in ritual. After the 1803 Danish ban on trans-Atlantic slave trafficking, Danish traders relocated toward the Legon Hills and along the Akuapem Ridge near Accra and used slave labour on plantations of indigo, cotton, or sugar cane.[viii] Cassava was chosen as a staple on slave provisioning plots and on core plantation grounds for the sustenance of the workers.[ix] As Europeans in the early nineteenth century began to ban the slave trade, merchants in Accra adjusted to the downturn in the maize trade by using their slaves to produce cassava for the coastal towns.[x] These choices resolutely identified cassava as the chief sustenance for enslaved people and reinforced its association with misfortune. Despite the low esteem in which cassava was held, cassava gari had become a staple food by the end of the nineteenth century. Gari is an excellent example of how the global migration of humans contributed to the ideas, tools, and techniques that make a cuisine.[xi]

 

[i]  J. D. La Fleur, Fusion Foodways of Africa’s Gold Coast in the Atlantic Era (Leiden: Brill, 2012), 163.

[ii]  E. V. Doku, Cassava in Ghana (Accra: Ghana Universities Press, 1969), 4-12.

[iii]  La Fleur, Fusion Foodways, 165.

[iv] Brodie Cruickshank, Eighteen Years on the Gold Coast of Africa (London: Hurst and Blackett, 1853), 118.

[v] La Fleur, Fusion Foodways, 168.”

[vi] Paul E. Lovejoy, “Background to Rebellion: The Origins of Muslim Slaves in Bahia,” Slavery & Abolition 15, no. 2 (1 August 1994): 151–80; Lisa A. Lindsay, “‘To Return to the Bosom of Their Fatherland’: Brazilian Immigrants in Nineteenth-century Lagos,” Slavery & Abolition 15, no. 1 (April 1994): 22–50.

[vii] Fran Osseo-Asare and Barbara Baëta, The Ghana Cookbook (New York: Hippocrene Books, 2015), 152.

[viii] C. D. Adams, “Activities of Danish Botanists in Guinea 1783-1850,” Transactions of the Historical Society of Ghana 3, no. 1 (1957): 30–46.

[ix]  Ray A. Kea, “Plantations and Labour in the South-East Gold Coast from the Late Eighteenth to the Mid Nineteenth Century,” in From Slave Trade to Legitimate Commerce: The Commercial Transition in Nineteenth-Century West Africa, ed. Robin Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 137; Henrik Jeppesen, Danske plantageanlæg på Guldkystem, 1788-1850 (Place of publication and publisher not identified, 1966), 57–59.

[x] Kea, “Plantations and Labour,” 125.

[xi] Rachel Laudan, Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015), 2–3.

 

About

Brandi Simpson Miller is the Visiting Assistant Professor of History at Wesleyan College Macon, Georgia. Beginning in the autumn term she will also serve as the Assistant Director of the Wesleyan College Center for Social and Racial Equity. Here research interests include the study of West African foodways from the seventeenth century to the present. Her current publications include a book chapter entitled ‘Food and Nationalism in an Independent Ghana,’ published by Bloomsbury in The Rise of National Foods in 2019. Her thesis, entitled ‘The Social History of Food and Cooking in Nineteenth- and Twentieth- Century Ghana,’ is being published as a monograph with Palgrave MacMillan. You can follow her on Twitter: @bsimpsonmiller1.