How African slaves in the Caribbean reinvented their own aphrodisiacs with herbs they came to find

Stephen Nartey October 07, 2022
Bitters. Image via Wiki

One of the growing cultures in many West African and Caribbean countries is the use of bitter tonics by men to improve their sexual performance. The preparation of the bitter tonics begins with the boiling of bitter plant mixtures and allowing them to ferment before use. The bitter tonics are believed to improve sexual performance, purify the blood and offer remedies to those suffering from malaria.

Its growing use in the Caribbean is what piqued the interest of researchers to trace its roots and how the enslaved reinvented such mixtures when they were not allowed to board slave ships with herbs and plant medicine, according to the Journal of Ethnopharmacology.

Tindevan Andel, the author of the paper, ‘In search of the Perfect of Aphrodisiac’, and other researchers said the ingredients used in the preparation of bitter tonics suggested its knowledge was of African descent. They said their findings pointed out that the enslaved in the Caribbean used their knowledge of plant medicine and ingenuity to exploit the herbs they found in the new region.

They explained that the ability to use ingredients such as taxa only presupposes that the enslaved were already drinking these bitter tonics in West Africa before the slave trade. Andel and other researchers in their publication in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology posited that the enslaved had to capitalize on new plant medicine they found in their new environment. According to them, one of the approaches was to experiment with the Caribbean mixtures while preserving their traditional way of treating themselves.

This adaptation is what led to the reinvention of the bitter tonics from forest species the enslaved found in their new environment. The researchers argued that little is known of the origins of African-American plant medicine because the enslaved produced these herbal tonics under strict obscurity. Andel and other researchers were of the view however that some enslaved were able to smuggle a few forest species from Africa such as crops and herbs during the transatlantic slave trade to their new environments.

It is on that basis that they carried out their experiments with known and unknown forest species they found in their new environment to determine which one would work for them. They depended on flora that looked similar to plant species in West Africa before carrying out the experimentation.

Andel and other researchers said the wide popularity of the use of plant mixtures among millions of African populations is a testament to the efficacy of the experimentation carried out by the enslaved. The researchers were quite surprised at the level of success of these herbal mixtures because the enslaved had limited access to the original herbs and roots in the old environment to prepare the bitter tonics.

With the help of native knowledge, recipes and ingredients, they made a breakthrough on the Caribbean Islands. The researchers said many of the architects of the experimentation were of Nigerian descent, who related many of the forest species they found in the Caribbean with those in their native region. Despite the stark difference in the plant species in the new environment, the enslaved pioneered the use of what they found among many Africans in the Caribbean.

Andel and other researchers said the use of plant medicine in modern Afro-American herbal practices is evidence that this knowledge was of African origin. The researchers however observed that because the bitter tonics have taken on commercial value, it is difficult for many manufacturers to share the ingredients used with others.

But, in 19th century Brazil, many Whites were of the notion that Africans had immense knowledge of herbal aphrodisiacs and their usage. The researchers cited a popular alcoholic bitters in the late 1700s which was widely used by the Africans in the Caribbean.

They concluded that based on the findings they gathered from the various bitter tonics and the plants used in their preparation, there is enough evidence to suggest that the enslaved Africans reinvented their own aphrodisiac mixtures.

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