“My work was planting and hoeing sweet-potatoes, Indian corn, plaintains, bananas, cabbages, pumpkins, onion, &c.”
—Mary Prince, 13
The Food Garden, Creolization
& Memorial Practice
In the Americas, during the time of the Middle Passage, African and European food plants intermingled with Aboriginal American food plants. Because of this, the food garden may be a place where we can learn about the migration of peoples, forced or otherwise, who carried food plants, as seed, cutting, or root, from distant lands and planted them in new soil.
The place of the food garden has transformed into something new. Not a usual place for historical consensus building, food gardens may open up different possibilities for learning than do other kinds of historic sites and monuments. This is because the food garden, and the plants grown in the food garden, may be regarded as a metaphor for creolization.
Creolization is a result of colonialization, where African, European, and Aboriginal American persons developed new identities in the Americas. Not only did bloodlines from these three groups mix, but, also, participants in the process of creolization actively selected (and still do select) cultural elements that together have become (and are still becoming) something new. In the condition of creolization, these new identities supersede what had existed before.
New World recipes are often given as examples of creolization. Foods not previously used together in a dish resulted in new food traditions. A New World Bermudian dish, codfish and potatoes, is traditionally served with Bermuda onion butter sauce, tomato sauce, avocado, and Bermuda bananas. None of these foods are indigenous to Bermuda. Even the onion and banana, which are designated "Bermudian," were transferred in from Africa.
Food gardens may be effective places to learn about creolization because they are new creations shaped from plants originating in Africa and Europe that comingled with plants indigenous to the Americas. The plant complex of our food gardens supersedes what had been before, and it is a metaphor for our condition.
Food gardens are also places that may call up feelings of closeness to ancestors who once worked the soil, saved seed, harvested nutritious plants, and cooked tasty dishes. Food gardens are places where people are engaged.
In the face of racial division and racial violence that are currently afflicting many sectors of society, hope and healing are needed. It may be that a realized creole identity will achieve this much-needed healing. We are a complex people, descended from survivors of the Middle Passage, from survivors of the genocide of Aboriginal Americans, and from the perpetrators of these crimes. A new creation, we are not comprised solely of any one group.
I maintain that the food garden Mary Prince once tended in Bermuda, 1813-1815, when she had returned to the territory from Grand Turk Island, was a creolized food garden, and that it may be an opening, or a stepping-stone, to learning about creolization and the Middle Passage. “My work was planting and hoeing sweet-potatoes, Indian corn, plaintains [sic], bananas, cabbages, pumpkins, onion, &c.” (Prince 13) she relates.
The plants that Mary mentions hail from Africa, Europe, and the Americas. Plantains and bananas were originally African, and they came to the Americas aboard slave ships. The onions Mary mentions most probably were Bermuda onions, which originated in the Madeira and Canary Islands, off Africa’s west coast. Cabbages originated in Europe, and sweet potatoes, Indian corn, and pumpkins originated in the Americas.
With food and food gardens come stories—stories about food and growing food. A Bermudian story about onions comes from Mary Elsie Tucker who related her story to her granddaughter Julia Place, in 1975. Tucker, who was also known as Grandmother Ashie, was born in 1813, when Mary Prince would have been 25 or 26. Her narrative is recorded in Nellie E. Musson’s book Mind the Onion Seed.
Grandmother Ashie explains how it was children’s work to “mind the onion seed” (Musson 25), which meant to keep birds from eating seeds set by onions with a “palmetto bird swat” (Musson 25). They did this because the seeds were crucial for the next year’s onion crop. She also relates that slaves were fed on chicken guts and table scraps, plus plants grown in food gardens.
In addition to tending the garden, Grandmother Ashie had to “pick up the dung” (Musson 27). Every day, she took a box to the cow pasture, picked up cow manure, and took it to storage where it was kept out of the rain. “Dried cow-dung sometimes mixed with dry grass was often used as fuel for cooking in place of wood or coal,” (Musson 27) relates Grandmother Ashie.
I come from a family of gardeners, which influenced my interest in food plants from my earliest years. My mother tells a story about how apple trees came to grow on Mayne Island, British Columbia, where she lives. It was an officer of the British Royal Navy, she says, who planted the first apple seeds there. His wife had saved the seeds in England. Before he left on his commission, she had put them in his pocket, telling him to sow the seeds in new lands.
Like the food garden Mary Prince once tended in Bermuda, the food gardens my family and I grow are creolized. Not only do we have apple trees, which hail from Europe, but we also grow other food plants that originated in territories worldwide and were transferred by ancestors.
I reflect on the creolization of my food garden when I am in it, and when I tend it. I also remember stories about specific plants and historic persons connected with them, such as the apple trees growing on Mayne Island and the Royal Navy officer who planted them.
Stories told regarding food and food gardens live with us, shaping who we are, meaningfully and deeply. Food is part of our daily existence. Since learning Grandmother Ashie’s story of minding the onion seed when she was an enslaved child, and learning Mary Prince’s story of the creolized food garden she tended as an enslaved woman, which included onions, the onion plant has taken on new dimensions for me. Growing, harvesting, preparing, and eating onions—even seeing a picture of an onion—brings forward images of Grandmother Ashie and Mary Prince as they tended onion plants in Bermuda.
Perhaps the food garden may become a compelling place of remembrance, and a valuable place to learn about the Middle Passage, other migrations to the Americas, and creolization. Because the food garden symbolizes resilience, abundance, nourishment, and prosperity—qualities which resonate within the human heart and give hope—it may be an especially powerful place to learn.