Slave diet and food production

The gate post of the slave market in Charlestown, Nevis

From the 17th century onwards, it became customary for plantation owners to give enslaved Africans Sundays off, even though many were not Christian. Slaves used some of this free time to cultivate garden plots close to their houses, as well as in nearby 'provision grounds'.

Provision grounds were areas of land often of poor quality, mountainous or stony, and often at some distance from the villages which plantation owners set aside for the slaves to grow their own food, such as sweet potatoes, yams and plantains. (Sloane 1707, lii; cited by Fog Olwig 1993, 29) In addition to using the produce to supplement their own diet, slaves sold or exchanged it, as well as livestock such as chickens or pigs, in local markets. The location of the provision grounds at the Jessups estate, one of the Nevis plantations studied by the St Kitts-Nevis Digital Archaeology Initiative, is shown on a 1755 plan of the plantation. It is labelled as the ‘Negro Ground’ attached to Jessups plantation, high up the mountain. 

By the early 18th century slaves trading in their own produce dominated the market on Nevis. In William Smith's day, the market in Charlestown was held from sunrise to 9am on Sunday mornings where "the Negroes bring Fowls, Indian Corn, Yams, Garden-stuff of all sorts, etc".

In Charlestown today there is a place now known as the 'Slave Market'. We do not know whether this was the place where enslaved Africans were sold on arriving in Nevis or whether it is where slaves used to sell their produce on Sundays.

The location of the provision grounds at the Jessup's estate, one of the Nevis plantations studied by the St Kitts-Nevis Digital Archaeology Initiative, is shown on a 1755 plan of the plantation. It is labelled as the 'Negro Ground' attached to Jessup's plantation, high up the mountain.

Food supplies

‘Sunday Morning in the Country’; enslaved Africans going to market in Trinidad. Source Richard Bridgens, West India Scenery... from sketches taken during a voyage to, and residence of seven years in… Trinidad (London, 1836), plate 15)

Although the volcanic soils of the two islands were highly fertile, plantation owners and managers were so eager to maximise profits from sugar that they preferred to import food from North America rather than lose cane land by growing food. Salted meat and fish, along with building timber and animals to drive the mills, were shipped from New England.  Watts 1978, 173; Bridenbaugh and Bridenbaugh 1972, 93-6).

The plantation owners provided their slaves with weekly rations of salt herrings or mackerel, sweet potatoes, and maize, and sometimes salted West Indian turtle. The enslaved Africans supplemented their diet with other kinds of wild food. Revd Smith observed,

"I have known some of them to be fond of eating grasshoppers, or locusts; others will wrap up cane rats, in bonano [banana] leaves, and roast them in wood embers".  (Smith 1745, 232).

On the Stapleton estate on Nevis records show that there were 31 acres set aside for the estate to grow yams and sweet potatoes while slaves on the plantation had five acres of provision ground, probably on the rougher area of the plantation at higher elevations, where they could grow vegetables and poultry. The plantation owner distributed to his slaves North American corn, salted herrings and beef, while horse beans and biscuit bread were sent from England on occasion.

Although the enslaved Africans were permitted provision grounds and gardens in the villages to grow food, these were not enough to stop them suffering from starvation in times of poor harvests. A law was passed in Nevis in 1682 to force plantation owners to provide land for food crops to prevent starving slaves from stealing food. In the year 1706 there was a severe drought which caused most food crops to fail. Many slaves would have died from starvation had not a prickly type of edible cucumber grown that year in great profusion.  (Smith 1745, 208).

In 1750 St Kitts grew most of its own food but 25 years later and Nevis and St Kitts had come to rely heavily on food supplies imported from North America. (O’Shaughnessy 2000, 71).  At the outbreak of the American Revolution in 1776 trade was closed between North America and the British islands in the West Indies, leading to disastrous food shortages. In 1777 as many as 400 slaves died from starvation or diseases caused by malnutrition on St Kitts and on Nevis. (O’Shaughnessy 2000, 161).