Current Issue Article Abstracts
Spring 2021, Vol. 19.2
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Empowering Appetites: The Political Economy and Culture of Food in the Early Atlantic World
Jennifer L. Anderson, Anya Zilberstein
This special issue of Early American Studies explores the dynamic relationship between food and power in the early modern Atlantic world. Originating from papers initially presented at a conference co-convened in October 2018 at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, "Empowering Appetites" interrogates the complex political, economic, cultural, and environmental histories of food and diet in a range of maritime, plantation, and settler-colonial contexts between the seventeenth and early nineteenth centuries. Part of the inspiration for this conference—and this publication—arose from the resurgent scholarly interest in food and drink as vital topics of historical inquiry in early American and Atlantic studies.
CULTURES OF SUSTENANCE
Our Best Places: Gender, Food Sovereignty, and Miantonomi's Kin on the Connecticut River
The composite phrase, "our best places," expresses what was at stake in early Indigenous struggles for self-determination and well-being and against colonial invasion in northeastern North America. This article critiques the colonial archive's representation of hyper-masculine Native resistance, by instead asking questions about women's labor and knowledge, about diverse cultivated and foraged plants, and about the place-based dimensions of food sovereignty. Narragansett sachem Miantonomi's organizing activities across the Native Northeast in the early 1640s can be reframed and better understood by applying place-based methodologies to specific sites within the intertribal alliance: in this case, by centering Miantonomi's strong ties of diplomacy and kinship at Suckiaug/Hartford and other Wangunk villages along the lower-middle Connecticut River. There, Wangunk women's knowledge of diverse wetland plants on the floodplains and in the coves of the Connecticut River was integral to food sovereignty. Following recent work in Native American and Indigenous Studies (NAIS), and drawing on insights from archaeology, environmental history, and political ecology, this essay reconstructs an alternative version of Miantonomi's message to allies at Suckiaug and other inland freshwater sites, replacing colonial authorities' obsession with masculine assertions of Native power with more diverse and nuanced affirmations of gendered environmental knowledge, power over the best places, and collective sustenance.
In the borderlands of northeastern North America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, hunger forced colonists and Native Americans to eat substances they found disgusting. This article reads captivity narratives and missionary accounts to argue that disgust fundamentally tested, transgressed, and reified cultural boundaries in the borderlands, while shaping the archive of early American foodways. In doing so, this article historicizes the concept of disgust and its formation in early America, and examines how colonial disgust formed perceptions of Indigenous food supplies. English and French settlers recorded their disgust with Indian food and claimed that Indigenous people could not even conceptualize disgust. The rhetorical aims of this literature of disgust shaped the colonial written archive, which records far fewer incidences of Native disgust. Nevertheless, these same sources document Native experiences of revulsion at colonial foodways and the foodways of other Native nations, which complicate the colonial narrative of the absence of Indian revulsion. A case study of fermentation and decay in Native and colonial foodways demonstrates that colonists saw Native fermented foods as rotten and thereby understated Native Americans' food supplies, contributing to an imperial discourse on Indigenous "poverty," food systems, and land use that sought to justify colonialism.
In 1615, the steady stream of bad news about the Virginia Company's Jamestown project was suddenly reversed with the publication of Ralph Hamor's famous True Discourse, which brought the unexpected, almost providential news of Pocahontas's conversion and marriage. The True Discourse described such a sudden and dramatic change in Virginia's fortunes that it required careful attention to concerns of credibility. Hamor and the Virginia Company drew on a collection of texts that aimed to instruct travelers how to render their observations and conclusions credible to readers. In the True Discourse, they assembled a sort of composite text whose final section claimed to provide direct insight into the 'honest inward intentions' of the Chesapeake Algonquians. Although this section was replete with snubs and slights, Hamor preserved these details in order to present himself as a particular sort of eyewitness observer: critical, meticulous, and objective, recording details but leaving his readers to draw inferences themselves. Most of the details that Hamor believed would win his readers' trust in this way related to the foods he was offered, and especially venison, which was a symbol of trust and mutual regard so deeply rooted as to complement Hamor's stance as "objective" observer perfectly.
In the second half of the eighteenth century, French physician Antoine Poissonnier-Desperrièresproposed a fully vegetarian diet for the French Navy in an attempt to combat the effects of scurvy. France was investing heavily in revitalizing its Navy after the Seven Years War in an effort to gain ground against Britain after substantial French losses in the Atlantic world, and scurvy had a devastating impact on these efforts. Desperrières occupied a privileged position in the French Navy that allowed him to implement his plans on a limited number of naval expeditions, although his experimental vegetarian naval ration proved a failure at both preventing scurvy and convincing the Navy to change the ration for dependent sailors. Desperrières' ideas drew from the rise of scientific food expertise in France in this period, if not from the long history of principled vegetarianism in Europe, and his trials contributed to the longstanding cultures of empiricism that marked knowledge production in the Atlantic world. Nevertheless, Desperrières' theories of the causes and cures for scurvy reflected enduring conceptions of the relationship between human bodies, the foods they consumed, and the maritime environment. To his disappointment, Desperrières remained a marginal figure in the wider debates over scurvy that celebrated contemporaries such as James Lind and James Cook.
This article examines how debates and policies concerning the nutritional standards of West Indian slaves were shaped by comparisons to the eating habits of other laboring and impoverished groups in early nineteenth-century Britain and the Empire. Planters and abolitionists argued over the relative adequacy of slaves' sustenance vis-à-vis European laborers since at least the late-eighteenth century. Proslavery figures insisted that the supposed ease of procuring subsistence in tropical colonies rendered such comparisons largely moot. However, abolitionists increasingly mobilized data on the food consumption of English agricultural workers, prisoners, and other subjects in order to prove that the typical rations given to many slaves in the sugar colonies created conditions of malnourishment and population decline. Abolitionists' empirical efforts to quantify slaves' sustenance influenced policies crafted by the Colonial Office to establish a universal scale of food allowances for enslaved laborers on the eve of Emancipation—one of the most advanced dietary reforms concerning a laboring population in the early nineteenth-century British Empire. While the Colonial Office's ration was only partially implemented throughout the slave colonies, the questions that it sparked about what constituted adequate nourishment for plantation labor shaped subsequent debates over the Emancipation Act (1833) and the Apprenticeship System (1834–38).
Potatoes, Populations, and States
Today, dietary guidelines, healthy-eating pyramids, and other nutritional advice are a familiar and expected feature of governance. It was not always so. What we eat has not always been of such interest to the state. That people ate was of course very important; since ancient times rulers have feared the disruptive effects of famine. The minutiae of what ordinary folk ate, in contrast, was rarely considered an important component of statecraft. Over the course of the eighteenth century, however, the diet of working people acquired an unprecedented importance within European notions of statecraft, because of its perceived capacity to foster or impede the development of a higher-quality population. This article reviews these developments, to show how during the Enlightenment, everyday eating habits acquired political relevance. Although scholars often identify the twentieth century as the period when food became an object of governance, food's important instrument of modern statecraft has a much longer history.