History 202 / Food: a Global Histor

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Born and raised in the Caribbean challenges me to know more about the food history in the environment where I was raised. Caribbean food is certainly one of the richest foods in the world. Exotic fruits, vegetables, nuts and spices have always been part of my diet and easily accessible. The year-round warm and sunny climate is ideal for agriculture. But how did these foods first reach Europe and when? The story of William Hughes, and his contribution in supplying and exporting these foods to Britain and the rest of Europe is intriguing.

William Hughes was a British pirate, one of many who crossed the Atlantic Ocean searching for treasures and adventures in the Americas. William Hughes was part of the group called “First Chefs”, which consisted of the first chefs of the early-modern era. This group provided a clear vision of the “early modern food culture and juxtaposed the extravagance of increasingly cosmopolitan and wealthy upper class against the human cost of its pleasures…” (Folger Shakespeare Library). In 1672, Hughes published a book called “American Physitian” where he described “Roots, Shrubs, Plants, Fruits, Trees, Herbs and Growing in the English Plantations of America”. The format of the book makes it unique because he states all his findings with careful detail, the places where he found them, and a full description of each thing, providing a clear image to the reader. A poster at the Folger Shakespeare Library had a brief summary of Hughes’s adventure; it stated that his goal was for the British people to “buy and try all of the “new world” foods available to them.” (Folger Shakespeare Library). Hughes was interested in learning the different types of plants, and their nutrients, available in the Caribbean Islands, particularly the islands of Barbados, Nevis, Jamaica, Antego, St. Christopher’s, and “Hispaniola”.

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He described many of his discoveries as “intensely flavored foods”, which included pumpkin, maize, chocolate, vanilla, among others. But Hughes was most impressed with the chocolate, or the “Cacao Nut Tree”. His experiences with the Cacao Nut Tree convinced him that this food should be incorporated as part of every morning meal. On the brief summary at the Folger Library, Hughes said that chocolate gives us the energy required to perform our tasks, “of what rank or quality so ever… even the meanest servants… or else they are hardly able to hold out and perform their tasks.” (Folger Shakespeare Library). William named the chocolate as the “American Nectar”. Hughes began experimenting with the nut tree and learning of its many uses. He was able to create various recipes for the now famous hot chocolate, utilizing chocolate along with different other ingredients. The response to Hughes recipe for hot chocolate continues to be positive. In the article, “American Nectar”: William Hughes Hot Chocolate by Marissa Nicosia, she expresses how Hughes’s recipe helped her to create the tasty hot chocolate, “When I was set out to make William Hughes’s Hot Chocolate, I was presented with a wealth of possibilities for how to sweeten, thicken, enrich, scent, spice, and spike my drink.”

William Hughes didn’t only write about his experiences with food, he also wrote about the flora and fauna in the Caribbean. He described different types of creatures such as the Sea Star. The book, Literary Histories of the Early Anglophone Caribbean: Island in the Stream by Nicole N. Aljoe, states that Hughes classified some of his discoveries as “Rarities” (p. 66), which he described as “remarkable things which were exposed to my consideration on when I first visited the shore; which indeed, although they grew, yet cannot properly be called Herbs, Roots, etc.…”. In the “American Physitian” Hughes described his encounter with the sea star fish as he said, “I know not the use of this kinde of Fish; but doubtless it is good for something, there being nothing made in vain: as for the shell, it is a very pretty Toy.” (p. 11). He had endless curiosity with all the beings he encountered in the Caribbean. As explained in my philosophy class, it all begins with wonder.

The book by Nicole Aljoe states that another of his contributions was to collect different Caribbean “Rarities” like “Sea Eggs” and supply them to his audience with the purpose of moral power and decoration, “The ability to own and observe a “sea egg” in one’s closet, or cabinet of curiosities, could suggest one’s status and learning while also demonstrating one’s “control over the natural world.” (p. 67) This way of thinking is also present in the “Columbian Exchange”, the term given to the importing and exporting of plants, animals, and diseases between America, Europe, and parts of Africa.

All of Hughes’s discoveries had a huge impact on the places where he shared his writings, mainly in Britain. All of this was new to his audience because he was the first explorer to write about Caribbean food and culture. British and Caribbean food were and continue to be very different, but his discoveries were key to promoting the export of Caribbean food and recipes to Europe, mostly his homeland of Britain, where it formed part of the Columbian Exchange. The Columbian Exchange was a way to transfer the goods produced in one country to another country where those exact goods were lacking, and vice-versa. But like most trade agreements, the Columbian Exchange had its pros and cons. Providing these goods created a demand, which in turn, may have played an important role in the creation of plantations and slavery.

“British hunger for these products ultimately led to the creation of Caribbean Agricultural Labor Camps (sometimes called “plantations”). The so called “plantations” are “assaults on indigenous communities in the Caribbean, and the enslavement and forced migration of millions of African and African-descended people to the Americas.” (Folger Shakespeare Library). William Hughes tried to distance himself from the allegations in order to preserve his reputation and insisted in referring to the workers as “planters”, instead of slaves. Hughes was able to successfully intrigue British people with his writings enough that they were consuming all of the findings described in his books; this movement certainly helped the British market economy at the time by importing the external foods discovered by Hughes and supplying it to the British people.

Although the production in the “plantations” was giving William Hughes and the British people positive results, the health of the enslaved workers was not positive. Many slaves died during the process and even more were sick. William Hughes continued to test his findings in order to try to determine what was causing illness and death to the enslaved workers. He finally reached the conclusion that some slaves got scurvy because they consumed too much sugar. The book written by Nicole Aljoe presents the statement by William Hughes that says the following, “Those who work very much in the Sugar-houses are very subject to the Scurvie, by reason of excess in the use thereof; not that Sugar is apt to breed the Scurvie, (for salt will do the same, being immoderately used, as we among Seamen) but rather the contrary in both; for they are both Preservatives to the body, as well as to fruit or flesh, being used accordingly.” Scurvy is a “disease caused by a deficiency of Vitamin C, characterized by swollen bleeding gums and the opening of previously healed wounds, which particularly affected poorly nourished sailors until the end of the 18th century.” (dictionary.com). According to Hughes, it was quite evident that the disease was commonly found in tropical climates, and that was the reason it was affecting many of the slaves working in the plantations in the Caribbean Islands.

After some time, Britain began experiencing cases of very ill and dead people, and it seemed that the tropical disease was being spread to Britain by food, mostly by food being brought from the Caribbean. A man named Sloane began investigating these cases of illnesses and deaths. He conducted several case studies and kept in touch with Hughes. The British people began to avoid contact with the Caribbean imports. It was a very difficult time for both Sloane and Hughes because this disease was new in Britain, and they were lacking information to cure the patients and prevent further cases. But Sloane, defending Hughes’s reputation for his findings, determined and stated that the reason people were dying was not due to a spread of the tropical illness in England, but instead it was due to a “failure to follow medical advice (that is, death by drinking can happen in England just as easily as in the Caribbean).” (p. 71). That “medical advice” was given by Sloane and it said that “British bodies could maintain their health by controlling their consumption of food and drink.” There is evidence that many of the diseases exported from the Americas to Britain had to do with the conditions under which these goods were transported between the two sides of the Atlantic Ocean. The long journey across the Atlantic, the hot and humid temperatures in the Caribbean, and lack of proper preservatives, caused that many products were spoiled and damaged when they reached Britain, and had negative effects on the people who consumed them.

The term “pirate” immediately brings to mind an image of theft, of men sailing to find gold and precious gems in the Caribbean, and of pillaging and abuse to the natives. The case of William Hughes forces us to examine the term pirate in a broader sense. William Hughes found one of the richest treasures of the Caribbean, it’s food, floral and fauna, and other natural resources. He recognized their value, learned to use them, described his findings in detail, and formed part of the First Chefs. He was successful in allowing Britain to show power, much of it resulting in cruel and rough methods, using enslaved workers in agricultural labor camps. He brought an image of superiority to his country by being the first man who wrote about such intriguing findings. “There’s no denying that Hughes’s book helped to increase demand for chocolate and sugar.” (Folger Shakespeare Library). It could be said that the “American Physitian” book served as a method of promotion for all the Caribbean findings. He displayed them on his book by describing them in such way that people felt the necessity to consume on them. Certainly, Hughes played a crucial role in the context of the Columbian Exchange as he exported the three main things that characterized the Columbian Exchange which were: plants, animals, and diseases.

After learning of William Hughes’ adventures, I’m reminded of how lucky it is to be born and raised in a place where some of the richest foods were first discovered. It’s also a grim reminder that the effort to distribute these foods to other parts of the world resulted in slavery and suffering for many. Although my homeland, Puerto Rico, is not directly mentioned as one of the islands visited by Hughes, it is considered “the key to the Americas”, and therefore must have played an important role in his discoveries.”

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History 202 / Food: A Global Histor. (2021, Apr 21). Retrieved from https://papersowl.com/examples/history-202-food-a-global-histor/