Alcohol Production Among West Africans and African Americans
This essay is part of an unpublished manuscript on the history of wine in Louisiana. I decided to put the portion on West African alcohol production on the Zydeco Meadery website several weeks after a customer told me that he never thought anyone outside of Scandinavia produced mead. I told him anyone who harvests honey has probably made mead intentionally or accidentally. And since apiculture is a practiced everywhere, all humans produce mead. After that encounter, I decided to “get serious” and self-publish this chapter on the website during the 2022 Christmas holiday. It is my sincere hope that you enjoy this essay and the images.
Most people in the United States do not associate the production of mead, wine, and distilled alcohol with people of African descent. We are thought to be consumers not producers of these beverages. The general public associates mead with Scandinavia, wine with the Mediterranean region, and cider and perry with northern France and England. Who can blame them? Watch television and there are endless historical fiction dramas about Vikings and medieval Europeans showing scenes of harvesting grapes, drinking cider, and partying while drinking mead. Even though today’s African American population contains ancestry from northwestern Europe, black folks are never considered to be associated with those beverages. That is simply not true. All societies produced alcohol using whatever sugar source was readily available. The process of fermenting sugary liquids into beer, wine, cider, and perry is similar though there are some important distinctions in the manufacturing processes. All societies overproduced agricultural commodities at some point. Fermenting grain or fruit is a smart technique to gain a value-added product from a basic farm commodity. It isn’t rocket science. All farmers want to earn extra money to supplement their incomes. Pre-colonial West Africans produced and consumed a variety of alcoholic beverages using locally available ingredients. New ingredients brought to West Africa by European traders were incorporated into the local diet and converted to alcohol. This essay does not pretend to tell the entire history of West African alcohol production and consumption. It is just a little overview to inform people that we were and still are producers of a variety of alcoholic beverages.
Honeybees exist everywhere on the African continent. Where there is honey, there is bound to be mead. Beekeepers will sometimes inadvertently ferment honey by harvesting the honey too early before it has cured inside the hive or leaving honey exposed to rainwater and allowing ambient yeast to ferment the honey/water solution. Go to any Ethiopian restaurant and you will find t’ej, an Ethiopian mead flavored with gesho sticks (Rhamnus prinoides) on the wine list. Ethiopians have been producing t’ej for millennia. The bittersweet flavor of the gesho sticks and the sweetness of the honey compliments heavily seasoned and highly aromatic Ethiopian cuisine.
West Africans practiced have practiced apiculture or have been collecting honey for at least 3500 years. A recent analysis of pottery shards produced by the Nok culture of Nigeria shows the presence of beeswax. The analysis shows that beeswax was used with other animal fats possibly used for food preservation or in combination with animal protein for food preparation. It is possible that the pottery could have been used for fermentation although chemical analysis of artifacts associated with ancient alcohol production is very difficult.
Nok pottery currently on view at the Yale University Museum of Art. Photo taken by the Author in November 2022
There is historical evidence of medieval Arabic texts describing West Africans making beer and/or mead using grains and honey. The 11th and 12th century geographers, Al Bakri and Al-Idrisi describe the inhabitants of the Soninke kingdom of Ghana, located in modern-day Mali, making sorghum beer for personal consumption and as libations for funerary rites. In 1352, Ibn Battuta described the Tuareg inhabitants of Walata, a small oasis located in Mauretania serving merchants a sour beer containing millet, honey, and sour milk to Magrebi merchants and to mitigate the risk of water-borne illness due to poor water quality.
As international trade shifted from West Africa’s interior to its coast, Upper Guineans (the descendants of West African’s medieval kingdoms) traded beeswax for its water insolubility, and its metallurgical applications in bronze and brass casting, candle making, and cosmetics. European travel reports from the seventeenth century describe Upper Guineans building beehives out of wattle and clay. The beeswax trade was an important side business for a group of Afro-Portuguese traders called lançados. Reports from Valentim Fernandes, Father Manual Álvares, and Richard Jobson describe Upper Guineans making mead by diluting honey in water in calabashes. The solution would be allowed to ferment in the sun for 12 to 15 days in the sun.
Source: West Africa: Quest for God and Gold, 1454–1578
Beer was and is still popular among West Africans. Instead of using wheat or barley as a sugar source, millet, sorghum, and later maize were used to produce low-alcoholic beers. Fernandes and André Álvares de Almada describe how Mandinga nobles drank millet beer on special royal occasions. They also describe how Wolof brewers produced beer by pounding millet into flour, mixing it with water, filtering it through a palm cloth, fermenting it for several days, and finally clarifying it.
18th-century Illustration showing East African Women Producing Pombe, Millet Beer
Along the Gulf of Guinea coast, Dutch trader Pieter de Marees credited the Portuguese settlers of São Tomé for introducing American maize to mainland West Africa. Kwa speaking peoples began producing maize beer by boiling dried corn until it germinates and fermenting the cooled, sweet liquid for several days. The 17th century Dutch geographer, Olfert Dapper, described millet beer of Allada as good but not as tasty as English ale. Dapper also said that millet beer was used as a treatment for scurvy among captives deported from Allada, destined for the Americas.
A Ceramic Brewing Pot Used for Fermenting Millet Beer by the Bwa People of Burkina Faso currently at the Yale University Museum of Art. Photo Taken by the Author in November 2022
Throughout the tropical coastal zones of West Africa, palm wine was more common. Palm tree tapping was male activity since only men could climb the trees. Palm trees were abundant and were tapped using a hollow rod or leaf to drain the white-colored sugary liquid from the tree into a calabash where ambient yeast would ferment the liquid over a few days. If the finished product was not consumed in a few days, fermented palm wine would spoil and become sour due to lactic acid-producing bacteria.
"Climbing a Palm Tree, Senegal, 1780s", Slavery Images: A Visual Record of the African Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Early African Diaspora, accessed December 26, 2022, http://www.slaveryimages.org/s/slaveryimages/item/1667
Father Lieven-Bonaventure Proyart, an 18th-century Belgian priest working in Loango said that the consumption of palm wine was a way for men in West Central Africa to socialize with each other in outdoor settings. Palm wine’s use in West Central African societies extended to religious ceremonies, marriage celebrations, and commercial transactions. Father Proyart commented that viticulture and viniculture were not native among West Central Africans. He thought that women would be forced to make wine for their husbands if grapes were native to the region. He did not want to add to their burdens since women were responsible for all food production.
In the highlands of West Central Africa, mead and beer were produced. Unlike folks in Upper Guinea, West Central Africans added the honeycomb to the honey/water solution for extra flavor and as a source of nitrogen to maintain a healthy fermentation. Father Giovanni Antonio Cavazzi da Montecuccolo, another 17th-century Catholic missionary working in the Congo-Angola region briefly mentions in his book Missione evangelica al Regio de Congo several varieties of beer made by the Angolans and Kongolese including corn, millet, and sorghum. Like Europeans who used hops as a beer flavoring, Angolans and Kongolese used the fruit from the sausage tree (Kigella Africana) to flavor beer. The caption in the image below explains that the men are performing a sangamento, part military dance demonstrating strength and part prayer invoking God’s aid against impossible odds. Sangamento predates the arrival of the Portuguese and incorporated elements of Kongolese and Portuguese symbols including nkutu shoulder nets, coral beads, crucifixes, and Iberian-style swords. The caption continues to say that sangamento participants got drunk with palm wine before the festivities began.
"Capuchin Missionary Witnessing a Tournament, Sogno, Kingdom of Kongo, 1740s", Slavery Images: A Visual Record of the African Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Early African Diaspora, accessed December 26, 2022, http://www.slaveryimages.org/s/slaveryimages/item/1808
Alcohol manufacturing was also regulated by class and by gender. The elite of West Central Africa consumed palm wine. Farmers and the poor drank millet beer. Men were responsible for palm wine production while women were tasked with beer production. It is striking how West Central Africans divided labor according to gender similarly to western Euro-American society without being influenced by each other. America’s colonial elite consumed vast quantities of wine particularly imported Portuguese wine while the colonial poor and middle class made beer and cider using locally available ingredients.
Palm wine became a liability for locals living in the West Central African kingdoms of Kongo and Ndongo. During the 17th century, a group known as the Imbangala raided and destroyed the countryside of Angola. The Imbangala did not practice agriculture or cattle ranching. They raided to survive and areas with large numbers of palm trees were targets. Imbangala soldiers cut down many groves of palm trees, drained the sap, consume the fermented liquid over a 26-day period, and then move to another area. Imbangala occupation caused many areas to be devoid of food and caused an internal refugee crisis in 17th century Angola. This political instability encouraged by the Portuguese government from Luanda, Angola’s capital city, provided an incalculable number of captives for Latin American plantations and mines. The deportations of these West Central Africans have an impact on the future United States. Some of these deportees ended up in British North America (Virginia) in 1619 and Dutch North America (New York/New Jersey) in 1626. Looking at the map below, one can get an idea of the extent of the Imbangala raids on Kongo-Angola and the impact of the deportations of West Central Africans to the Americas.
Without going into great detail, Portuguese mariners and their Italian investors were the first Europeans to establish formal trading relations with the people of sub-Saharan Africa in the mid-14th century. Beginning in 1330 through 1490, the Portuguese government established a string of colonies on the Azores Islands, Madeira, the Cape Verdian Islands, São Tomé, Principe, Annobom, and Fernando Pó. The Portuguese constructed forts/warehouses called feitorias on the mainland beginning in Mauretania down the coast to Angola. Feitorias were trade depots where gold, ivory, and later slaves would be exchanged for textiles, glass, munitions, wine, distilled alcohol, tobacco, and iron bars.
The Establishment of Portuguese Feitorias (Trading Depots) along the West African Coastline during the 15th Century
"Untitled Image (Selling Fiber Textiles)", Slavery Images: A Visual Record of the African Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Early African Diaspora, accessed December 26, 2022, http://www.slaveryimages.org/s/slaveryimages/item/2280
Barrels of alcohol were a natural trade item for the triangular trade between Africa, the Americas, and Europe. Enormous oak barrels could be used as ballasts instead of stones in the hulls of ships. For many countries with large export alcohol manufacturing sectors, the triangular trade was an excellent way to rid the country of excess wine, brandy, rum, cachaça, and whiskey while making huge profits. Alcohol was and still is big business for many people. As shown below, pipe barrels containing 126 U. S. gallons and puncheon barrels containing 84 U. S. gallons were extreme bulky, heavy, and required large numbers of manpower.
"Interior of a Distillery, on Delaps Estate (Antigua)", Slavery Images: A Visual Record of the African Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Early African Diaspora, accessed December 26, 2022, http://www.slaveryimages.org/s/slaveryimages/item/1061
"Urban Porters, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 1819-1820", Slavery Images: A Visual Record of the African Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Early African Diaspora, accessed December 26, 2022, http://www.slaveryimages.org/s/slaveryimages/item/878
Alcohol became one of the many items used for diplomacy and used as barter to purchase captives for the Americas. Olfert Dapper remarked how brandy played a role in business transactions among the Islamic rulers of various Wolof kingdoms in Upper Guinea. The Mandinga and Diola elite offered English and French slave traders a variety of Spanish wines and brandies during their business negotiations for captives. Wine and brandy were used as part of the diplomatic festivities when the queen of Matamba-Ndongo, Nzingha Mbande, converted to Roman Catholicism. As a baptismal gift, the governor of Luanda, João Correia de Souza, gave the queen vast quantities of gold, silver, and alcohol to take home with her. Even in basic exchanges of trade like asking for a glass of water required an exchange of brandy barrels as evident in this 17th century image below.
Baptism of Queen Nzingha Mbande of Matamba-Ndongo by a Portuguese Missionary in the 1620s
"Untitled Image (West African Domestic Life)", Slavery Images: A Visual Record of the African Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Early African Diaspora, accessed December 26, 2022, http://www.slaveryimages.org/s/slaveryimages/item/2646
Wine routinely spoils if exposed to oxygen for long periods of time. The alcohol content of most wines is 12% and is not strong enough to kill sour-tasting lactic acid bacteria. European traders found a solution by fortifying dry table wines with brandy and adding extra sugar to survive the trip to far-flung tropical ports. An entire industry was created on the Azores, the Canaries, and Madeira supplying Latin American, African, and Asian consumers with sweetened fortified wines. Many of the work force on the islands were Portuguese and Spanish immigrants but landowners routinely traveled to Cape Verde or Cacheu to purchase captive Africans for their vineyards and wheat farms.
Once on-board ship, distilled alcohol became part of the rations for European crewmen and captive Africans. Using the Danish slave ship as an example, Fredensborg, which travelled between modern-day Ghana and the U. S. Virgin Island, captive Africans were given ¼ pint (120 milliliters) of brandy weekly. Seamen were given 1 pint (480 milliliters) and one barrel of beer after all the fresh water had been consumed. Dehydration must have been a severe health problem on slave ships since fresh water was severely rationed and since there was a heavy reliance on salted, preserved foods.
Slaves in the United States and in Louisiana were not legally allowed to drink alcohol but the application of the law depended on the will of the slave master. Beginning in the French colonial period, slaves were legally forbidden to drink alcohol for fear that it made them violent, fearless, and prone to revert to animalistic passions. Governor William Claiborne noted in 1806 that slave masters in New Orleans regularly complained to the New Orleans police department that free people of color were operating cabarets and taverns that sold alcohol to slaves. Masters complained of lost labor of slaves who were tired after a night of dancing and drinking.
On the other hand, some masters used gifts of alcohol and the permission of alcohol production to ease tensions on plantations without using coercion. African slaves were allowed to make wine from wild American persimmons (Diospyros virginiana), honey locust (Gleditsia thiacanthos), muscadine grapes, elderberry, dandelion, and dewberry. Some Louisiana slaves would make persimmon wine by crushing the soft fruit through a sieve for its pulp, combining it with two to three gallons of water, adding the peelings of sweet potatoes, and throwing cornbread in the mash to begin fermentation. The 1897 image below shows a corn shucking. Some slave owners gave their enslaved workforce pastries, cider, and hard liquor to process the corn for the winter. As “payment”, slaves may be given a big meal and whiskey for finishing the work.
"Corn Shucking, Virginia, 1840s", Slavery Images: A Visual Record of the African Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Early African Diaspora, accessed December 26, 2022, http://www.slaveryimages.org/s/slaveryimages/item/879
Some Louisiana masters paid slaves for services rendered such as chopping extra cords of wood for the sugar house, raising small livestock, manufacturing barrels, shingles, oxcarts, or bricks, repairing ditches, and cultivating small fruit orchards or vegetable gardens for sale to the master’s family or townsfolk. Any cash acquired during these master-slave transactions could be used to make purchases at the plantation store or stores in town. Whiskey at these country stores sold for twenty cents per gallon. Liquor could also be clandestinely purchased from itinerant traders servicing the large sugar plantations along the Mississippi River. Female slaves on larger plantations were given the task of collecting fruit and vegetables from their master’s kitchen garden. Under the supervision of planter’s wife, female slaves made fruit preserves and fruit-based alcoholic beverages.
Slave masters allowed slaves respite times and occasionally allowed slaves to have parties. It was during this time usually in the fall that slaves collected wild persimmons in the nearby forest and produced wine out of the ripe fruit. Some slave masters like William Smith of Virginia, saw nothing wrong with persimmon wine consumption among slaves. He said it made the slaves happy and gave banjo music a “pleasurable hilarity” at a Juber dance. Too much persimmon wine consumption caused Smith to give readers of his magazine article a detail description of the physique of one of the beautiful female slaves who attended the Juber dance. John Rowe’s 18th century painting, the Plantation Dance, shows an idealized, bucolic scene of slaves dancing to banjo music and drinking alcohol on a coastal South Carolina plantation. This is one of the earliest images in the United States showing African Americans “enjoying” life in what really was a brutal, labor intensive life in the swampy rice growing regions of South Carolina.
"Plantation Dance”, South Carolina, ca. 1785-1795", Slavery Images: A Visual Record of the African Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Early African Diaspora, accessed December 26, 2022, http://www.slaveryimages.org/s/slaveryimages/item/998
It is known a fact that cider and to a lesser extent, perry were the beverages of the common man and woman during the colonial period and in the early years of the republic. Apples were food for animals and for humans in sweet and savory dishes. Today’s modern American may think of cider as a sweet, nonalcoholic beverage consumed during the autumn but for America’s ancestors, cider was a necessary alcoholic beverage that preserved the apple harvest and gave farmers another way to way to convert a basis commodity into a value added product. Producing cider is differs from wine in that the fruit must be grinded into a pulp before the liquid can be extracted from the pomace. This is a strenuous job using mechanized equipment. Imagine doing this job by hand before electricity or water-powered apple grinders were invented.
Apples were cultivated throughout British North America and Dutch North America except for the Caribbean. Apple orchards were common throughout the Hudson River valley. Agriculture was and still is big business in Upstate New York and New Jersey since it was an export based economy that kept the Caribbean sugar islands fed. It is a known fact that New York and New Jersey were the last northern states to abolish slavery in 1827 and 1846/1865 respectively. Cider presses for commercial operations was a substantial investment. The account book of the Sylvester Manor on Shelter Island, New York attest to the purchase of cider making equipment in the 1650s. Owned by a group of investors banished from Barbados, the group established a successful 8,000 acre plantation in eastern Long Island focused on growing food for export their two sugar plantations on Barbados. Cider was used as currency as payment for furs, labor, and other services rendered by the local Indigenous peoples of Eastern Long Island. It can be assumed that the Sylvester brothers nor their other investors were doing the actual labor of cider manufacturing.
Massachusetts is never thought of as a slave state but slavery has a longer history in the Commonwealth (1641 to 1783) than it was in Georgia (1750 through 1863). One of the largest slave holding families in Massachusetts was Royall Family of Middlesex County. Originally from Yarmouth, Maine, the family made its wealth off sugar cultivation using enslaved labor. The family purchased a 500 acre property called Ten Hills Farm along the Mystic River, ½ mile away from Tufts University in what is now, Medford. The extensive plantation has been long sold and subdivided into the town of Medford but its main house and slave quarters still exist. In fact, its slave quarters are thought to be the last remaining slave quarters in the Northern United States. The family maintained the extensive property with its vast fruit orchards, large dairy cattle herd, and sheep ranch using its enslaved labor brought in from Antigua. Tax records for Middlesex County, Massachusetts show that over 34,000 barrels of cider were made in that county in 1771 and the Royall family produced 26 barrels (819 U. S. gallons). Middlesex County was largest producer of cider in Massachusetts probably because of its close proximity to Boston and its port.
The Royall House and Its Slave Quarters in Medford, Massachusetts
There is a bright spot in all of this traumatic cider history as it releates to African Americans. Benjamin and Martha Day of Pittsfield Township, Michigan were a prosperous African-American farming couple who owned one of the earliest documented cideries by a family of African descent. The Days migrated from the slave holding state of New Jersey in 1820s. Their ancestor was awarded a federal land grant for service performed in the Revolutionary War. The farm served as a stop on the Underground Railroad for escapees en route to Detroit and eventually Ontario, Canada. The family decided to open a commercial cidery in the 1880s as a way to increase their farm income in Washtenaw County. The mill was constructed at a cost of $1400 and the Day family produced 1500 barrels of cider at its height. The mill was in operation for at least 20 years.
This essay shows that alcohol production among West Africans and their American descendants is as diverse and varied as any other ethnic group. It also shows that West Africans have had a long documented history of alcohol production as far back as the 11th century These descriptions were written by Africans themselves in Arabic or in Portuguese. Europeans missionaries and traders wrote geographical descriptions of the people and customs where they conducted business and evangelization work. Africans were not just by-standards in the alcohol industry or consumers. Instead, Africans played a major role in alcohol production in the Americas by providing labor and technical skills processing fruit or grain, fermenting must or mash, distilling beer, wine, or cider into a higher proof alcohol, or packaging the final product. The images above are a testament to our varied historical and current involvement in alcohol manufacturing.
Further Reading from Printed Sources:
Manuel Alvares, Ethiopia Minor and a Geographical Account of the Province of Sierra Leone, 1615
Eva Crane, The World History of Beekeeping and Honey Hunting
José Curto. Enslaving Spirits: The Portuguese Brazilian Alcohol Trade at Luanda and its Hinterland, c. 1550 1830
Pieter de Marees, Description and Historical Account of the Gold Kingdom of Guinea
Olfert Dapper, Description de l’Afrique
Paul Farnsworth and Laurie A. Wilkie, “Fish and Grits: Southern, African, and British Influences in Bahamian Foodways” in Caribbean and Southern: Transnational Perspectives in the U.S. South
Valentin Fernandes, Description de la Côte Occidentale d’Afrique
Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women of the Old South
Katrina Hazzard Gordon, Jookin’: The Rise of Social Dance Formation in African American Culture
Linda M. Heywood and John K. Thorton, Central Africans, Atlantic Creoles, and the Foundation of the Americas, 1585-1660
Duarte López and Filippo Pigafetta, A Report of the Kingdom of Congo
Roderick A. McDonald, The Economy and Material Culture of Slaves: Goods and Chattels on the Sugar Plantations of Jamaica and Louisiana
Joseph C. Miller, Way of Death: Merchant Capitalism and the Angolan Slave Trade
Lievin-Bonaventure Proyart, Histoire de Loango, Kakongo, et autres royaume d’Afrique
Walter Rodney, A History of the Upper Guinea Coast: 1545-1800
Lyle Saxon et al., Gumbo Ya Ya: A Recollection of Louisiana Folk Tales
William Smith, “The Persimmon Tree and the Beer Dance,” Farmer’s Register 6 (April, 1, 1838)
Leif Svalensen, The Slave Ship Fredensborg
Further Reading from Online Sources:
Giovanni Antonio Cavazzi de Montecuccolo, Missione evangelica nel Regno de Congo, https://www.bu.edu/afam/people/faculty/john-thornton/cavazzi-missione-evangelica-2/
Ria Windcaller, Washtenaw County Cider Mills 1841 – Present - https://ciderchat.com/302washtenawmills/
Darlene Hayes, George and Ursula Granger: The Erasure of Enslaved Black Cidermakers - https://www.ciderculture.com/erasure-of-enslaved-black-cidermakers/
George S. T. Filler, “The History of the Royall House and Its Occupants” - http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A2005.05.0029
Nell Porter Brown, “Royall House and Slave Quarters: Preserving Black History as an ‘Act of Liberation’” - https://www.harvardmagazine.com/2020/09/h2-royall-house
Katherine Lee Priddy From Youghco to Black John: Ethnohistory of Sylvester Manor, ca. 1600–1735,",https://orb.binghamton.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1031&context=neha
Heather Trigg and Ashley Leasure, "Cider, Wheat, Maize, and Firewood: Paleoethnobotany at Sylvester Manor,"https://orb.binghamton.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1037&context=neha
Damian Costello, “Pray with Our Lady of Stono to Heal the Wounds of Slavery: The Legacy of the Kongolese Freedom Fighters Lives on Today,” https://uscatholic.org/articles/202009/pray-with-our-lady-of-stono-to-heal-the-wounds-of-slavery/
Julie Dunn et al, “Honey-Collecting in Prehistoric West Africa from 3500 Years Ago,” https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-021-22425-4
Christian Berger, “Beer Brewing in the Earliest African Kingdoms (9th to 13th Century)”, https://www.beer-studies.com/en/world-history/First-kingdoms/African-kingdoms/First-african-confederations