The Journal of Caribbean History: Volume 38, Issue 2

Article 5
Spirits and Spirituality: Enslaved Persons and Alcohol in West Africa and the British and French Caribbean

Frederick H. Smith


Alcohol was familiar to newly arrived Africans enslaved in the British and French Caribbean, and the spiritual meanings enslaved persons attached to drinking reflect the continuity of African cultural beliefs. Despite occasional efforts by colonial officials to restrict drinking by enslaved persons, they had easy access to rum and other alcoholic beverages. The ready availability of alcohol sparked the creation of new African-oriented drinking practices, which, at the level of the lowest common denominator, combined the social and sacred alcohol-based traditions of diverse African ethnic groups. As in Africa, alcohol helped foster spirituality and promote group identity among enslaved persons. The construction of new drinking styles also strengthened resistance ideologies, which challenged European efforts to suppress African-oriented customs. Understanding alcohol use by enslaved persons provides a prism through which to view underlying principles that helped shape the life of enslaved persons, and highlights the way Africans in their homeland and the diaspora maintained cultural links across the Atlantic.