The Food of Empire: What Colonial Settlers in British Africa Cooked and Ate

Introduction to this new series

In the first of a new series of articles, I will be looking at what effect British colonial rule had on African cookery and the cooking of settlers in the African colonies. In particular, I am very interested in researching how and what British women cooked at home in Africa, their relationship with the black servants who worked in their kitchens, how they learned to acculturate themselves to the local ingredients, tools, markets and methodologies and what recipes, ideas and techniques they took back to Britain once they left after independence. After 350 years of settlement, the diaspora of white settlers back into European society meant that in many kitchens in Britain there remains, to this day, a historical link to British colonial culture.

The British Empire, a series of colonies, protectorates, dominions and territories ruled by Britain, originally during the 16thand 17thCenturies, was the largest empire in history. By 1922 the British ruled 458 million people in the world, which constituted 20% of the planet’s population, in 4 million square miles. After the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, at the beginning of what is known as the Imperial Century, between 1815 and 1914, Britain was unchallenged in conquering those lands it viewed as economically desirable, either for agricultural or strategic purposes or for the extraction of mineral wealth and slaves or the securing of markets. The British also appropriated the most valuable resource in the largest continent of all, and that was the River Nile in Africa.

British colonial rule in Africa began in a trading post in Gambia, at Fort James in 1689, and outposts were soon established in the Gold Coast, Ivory Coast and Sierra Leone. The Dutch East India Company had founded the Cape colony as a provision station on the southernmost tip of Africa in 1652, in order to serve the Dutch ships that sailed back to Europe with their cargoes of tropical spices and slaves from their colonies in Sri Lanka, Bengal, Malaysia and Indonesia. These slaves brought their own recipes and cooking styles from their homelands, and this created the spicy, fragrant Cape Malay dishes, which have greatly influenced South African cuisine. The British acquired the Cape colony in 1806 from the Afrikaners, who were systematically driven north, to what became known as the Orange Free State. Ships landed at the Cape of Good Hope with settler families from Britain who came to consolidate British rule here and establish villages, towns and farms.

In the period known as “The Scramble for Africa” , during the Imperial Century, Britain managed to conquer and colonise twenty countries in Africa, including Swaziland, South Africa, Rhodesia and Botswana in the south, Kenya and Uganda in the East, Nigeria, Ghana and Sierra Leone in the West and the Sudan in the north. It is estimated that before the European colonisation of Africa there were around 10 000 different political states in Africa, many consisting of small, family units or nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes and kingdoms.

By the late 1940’s 80% of Africans lived under the European rule of just 2% of the white population, around 6 500 000 colonial settlers. It was not until the late 1950’s, when African nationalism rose to its peak that European empires were dismantled and independence gained for indigenous people. Many British Colonial Office employees, farmers, engineers, teachers, builders and administrators returned to Britain, although many also stayed, regarding themselves not as colonial transgressors, but as “white Africans”. Amongst certain white communities in Africa, tea is still served at four o’clock with scones and jam, and even in thirty degree heat, Sunday roasts with gravy, Yorkshire pudding and roast potatoes are not uncommon in country clubs and at weddings. The hangover of colonial rule clings tightest in the heritage and legacy of food than in any other part of everyday life.

In this new series I will be looking at the lives of the women who accompanied their husbands to colonial Africa, and those of them who were born and grew up there as a result of their ancestors’ colonial past. I will be looking at the indigenous cuisine they found, the recipe books they brought with them and the sorts of facilities that were available for the buying, transporting, preparation, cooking and serving of food. I will be drawing reference from the works of the household management and cookery writers that wrote books, from the late 19thCentury, to assist and inform those families leaving Britain for the colonies as well as personal accounts of those settlers that managed to carve a new life in this brave and unfamiliar world.

What the natives ate: the African larder and its ingredients

Prior to colonisation, and intercontinental trade, the staple food of the African tribes that inhabited the continent depended on topography, soil structure, transhumance, agricultural development and climate. The staple crops for millennia were rice, sorghum {a type of grass-grain}, millet, lentils, peanuts, groundnuts, yams and barley. Africans began to herd animals such as cattle and goats approximately 2000 years ago, and so were able to enrich their diets with meat and dairy produce. Maize was introduced in 1500 and rapidly became a cash crop.

A commonly served African meal would be a rich, spicy meat stew served with sadza {a Rhodesian-Zimbabwean mealie meal type of porridge-mash}, or fufu {a West African combination of cooked yams, cassava or plantain}.

Trade opened the routes to international market thoroughfares, and the Arabs were sailing ships filled with fruit, rice, spice, oranges, lemons, limes and pigs to Kenya during the medieval era. In the 15thCentury European traders brought beans, cassava, maize, tomatoes and sweet potatoes grown by the Indians in Northern America. From Asia came the spices: pepper, cinnamon, clove, curry and nutmeg.

Native African cuisine varied enormously from region to region. Central Africa remained free from colonial influences right until the end of the 19th Century. A popular dish was Bambara, a mixed porridge of rice, peanut butter and sugar. Crocodiles, monkeys, antelopes and water hogs were roasted on spits and eaten with rice. In east Africa the inland savannah region provided pasture for cattle, sheep and goats that were considered currency, and as a result only the milk would be drunk, as killing the animal for meat undermined the villagers’ wealth. Milk was a very important commodity in all of Africa and because of the high daytime temperatures Africans would make a sourmilk yoghurt drink. Ugati and Matoke were starchy dishes eaten with the meat dishes that were served for special occasions. In the Horn of Africa, in Eritrea and Ethiopia, tsebhis meat stews were eaten with teff flour injera bread and hillbet, a legume paste made with beans. The Somalis, the spice traders of the East, ate basmati rice which was flavoured with cinnamon, nutmeg and pepper, bought from Arab merchants, and they also consumed halva, made from tahini sesame seeds. In Southern Africa, the Bantu tribes {mainly of Zulu, Xhosa and Swazi lineage} and the Khoisan tribes {later names as Hottentots by the settlers}, cultivated many leafy crops, herded animals, fished for seafood on the coast, collected ostrich eggs and made iron tools. Again, their diet was highly dependent on grains which were served with meat stews. In West Africa baobab leaves were eaten and Jollof Rice, or Benachin, created a one pot dish of rice, tomatoes, onion and red peppers.

If we were to fast-forward to the mid 19th Century, and the arrival of many European settlers to Africa, and consider the effect of land seizures and coercive colonisation, we would see the demise of traditional African farming communities. Settlers killed many game animals to make way for grazing livestock and they appropriated farms. Increasing urbanisation, housing, development and infrastructure growth led to the increased need for industrially produced food stuffs, such as flour, white rice and sugar, all foods processed by settler-owned mills and factories. The range and variety of indigenous ingredients were dramatically reduced as a result of colonisation and many blacks suffered food shortages and marginalisation from family farms.

British writers that came to write colonial cookery books in Africa {the first of which was published in 1889, written by Mrs. A.R.Barnes} were often very patronising and condescending about African cooking, labelling it dull and uninspiring.

It is interesting to note that even as recently as 1939, when Mrs. E.G.Bradley published “A Household Book for Tropical Colonies” {second edition 1948, published by Oxford University Press}, indigenous tribes clung onto their traditional larder:

“Once upon a time a man found himself in a native village in East Africa, without stores, and depending on his black brethren for meals. There were chicken, pumpkin, green mealies, sweet potatoes, maize flour, kaffir corn, eggs, groundnuts and native spinach. He missed his tea, butter and sugar. It was not even cattle country so he was without milk, butter, butter fat or beef. Most of the foods had to be eaten in salted water as the natives were without any kind of fat. Otherwise he did not do too badly, and he decided when he came home to use more of their foods as they were cheap and plentiful.

In West Africa, he would have been more fortunate, as the native women prepare the local “porridge”, be it maize, Kaffir corn or cassava, more palatable than their Bantu sisters. Their groundnut soups and stews, palm oil chop, palm-nut soups, fish and chicken dishes, rice, onions and local vegetables have been gratefully copied by their European invaders.”

When Victorian and Edwardian British ladies first left their homeland and set foot on African soil, they must have been bewildered and fearful of how they were going to manage in a continent where domestic arrangements, the finding, training and retention of suitable household staff  and the provision of supplies were utterly different from what they were used to at home. In the next edition of The Foodie Bugle I am going to showcase examples of the sorts of books that helped settlers deal with their new found challenges, and how the food of empire was affected by the indigenous larder and customs.

Similar Posts