African Kola Nut Powder
Medicine turns into an essential ingredient
Early explorers of West Africa quickly took notice of the region’s native kola nut. One Portuguese explorer visiting the region in 1587, whose journals George examined, observed that many people he’d encountered on his travels used the nut to relieve thirst and improve the taste of water by chewing on it. Other similar journals by explorers noted these same medicinal properties and also documented African practices such as using the nut to strengthen the stomach and combat liver disease.
The nut’s original use on the African continent extended beyond the medicinal. “In Africa, the kola nut was often used as a form of currency, in religious ceremonies, or to reinforce social contracts,” said George. “One visitor to
The nut’s eventual expansion across the Atlantic was fueled by rising demand for kola in many western nations. “Much like sugar, tea, chocolate, tobacco and coffee, the kola nut became a product of mass consumption in Europe and North America around the1890s, albeit not on the same scale,” said George.
“Kola was attractive to [North Americans and Europeans] for its various medicinal uses, such
Demand for drinks like Pepsi-Cola and Coca-Cola, and in turn, the kola nut, soared. By the turn of the 20th century, investors across Europe and the Americas were putting huge amounts of money into kola production. However, as the speaker explained, “over time, the kola extract in [Coca-Cola] was reduced to a small amount, as was coca [extract]. Kola was expensive and bitter,” she said. Thereafter, the nut quickly lost traction as a commodity.
“Coca-Cola is touchy about its association with both plants, particularly coca. There was a fear that children were becoming addicted to Coca-Cola in 1902, so they removed coca from their drinks, by ‘de-coca-ing’ imported coca leaves. Later, the kola nut was also replaced by artificial flavorings,” George explained.
The kola nut’s ill-defined origins in the West
The medicinal and chemical properties of the kola nut have been analyzed and examined extensively over the years, but the same cannot be said for its history. George has dissected multiple hypotheses about the nut’s introduction into the Caribbean during her research, all of which center on the Atlantic slave trade, specifically, the Middle Passage.
One such explanation comes from a Jamaican health officer’s first-hand account of the growth patterns of the nut on the island. “This officer believed that elderly, enslaved Africans were the first cultivators of the kola in Jamaica,” said George. “He observed that the kola nut flourished alongside coca plants, coconut plants
The Afro-Brazilian Candomble religion has a narrative about the introduction of the kola nut in Brazil. “Many Afro-Brazilians believe their ancestors smuggled the seed to the Americas, but enslaved Africans would have had limited ability to carry the nut,” George said. “It is more likely that the career men on slave ships who came into constant contact with enslaved Africans could have transported it,” she hypothesized.
While the story of how the kola nut came to the Caribbean is still unclear, George is in the process of piecing together a fuller picture. “I've started with ethnographic material from my field work in Grenada. I hope to look at slave ship provision lists and trade records on ports in Western Africa at national archives,” she said.
Her search for more information on the nut’s origins in the West brought her to the Grenadian national archives, where she perused provision lists and trade records
The speaker was hopeful that by conducting further research, she might also unearth new information on the social practices of enslaved Africans in the Caribbean. “Examining the kola and the Atlantic world provides us with a fresh understanding of the nut’s consumption, production
Published: Friday, December 15, 2017
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