Why Afro-fusion, why Freetown?

Food fusion is referred to by some Chefs as the ‘F’ Word.  When we think about the birth place of Afro-fusion, the ‘F’ word is Freetown!

Food fusion is massively misunderstood. With early world travelers exchanging and combining food knowledge, inevitably recipes would become more complex and interesting, taking influence from contrasting climates, ingredients, and cooking methods. Therefore, the fusion of culinary techniques and recipes has been in existence since the dawn of international trade.

Why Freetown?

Freetown, Sierra Leone has occupied a unique place in the history of international trade for over 600 years.

Since the dawn of time there has been a lot of economic migration within Africa and Muslim traders brought Islam.  European exploration of Sub-Saharan Africa begins with the Age of Discovery in the 15th century (1401 to 1500).  Portuguese sailors reached Cape Bojador in 1434 and Cape Blanco in 1441.  In 1443, they built a fortress on the island of Arguin, in modern-day Mauritania, trading European wheat and cloth for African gold and slaves. It was the first time that the semi-mythic gold of the Sudan reached Europe without Muslim mediation. Most of the slaves were sent to Madeira, which became, after thorough deforestation, the first European plantation colony. Between 1444 and 1447, the Portuguese explored the coasts of Senegal, Gambia, and Guinea. In 1456, the Venetian captain Alvise Cadamosto, under Portuguese command, explored the islands of Cape Verde. In 1462, two years after Prince Henry’s death, Portuguese sailors explored the Bissau islands and named Serra Leoa (Lioness Mountains).

The Sierra Leone river, with a natural harbour at its mouth where Freetown now stands, is one of the places where slaving ships of the European nations regularly docked to trade with local rulers for their transatlantic cargo. But it is also the site selected by a British abolitionist, Granville Sharp, for a practical experiment in philanthropy.  In the 1780s the number of freed slaves in London was growing. The question was where they should best live and be employed and the answer was that they should settle in the continent from which they or their ancestors came.  By agreement with a local chief of the Temne tribe, known to the British as King Tom, twenty miles of hilly coast are secured for the purpose (they lie between the mouths of two notorious slaving rivers, the Sierra Leone and the Sherbro). Here there arrives from London, in 1787, a naval vessel carrying 331 freed slaves, 41 of them women, and – somewhat confusing the issue in philanthropic terms – 60 white London prostitutes.

The Freetown experiment got off to a disastrous start. Half the settlers die in the first year. Several of the freed slaves opt for a prosperous new life working for local slave traders. And King Tom’s successor, King Jemmy, attacks and burns the settlement in 1789.  But it is rebuilt on a new site, and is given the name Freetown. A corner is turned with the arrival of 1000 freed slaves from Nova Scotia and other black settlers from Jamaica, and with efficient administration from 1794 by a new governor, Zachary Macaulay

Black settlers who had liberated themselves from American slavery were brought over from Nova Scotia and built a new settlement, named Freetown. In 1800 “Maroons,” free blacks from Jamaica, were also brought in. These settlers were English-speaking, and many were literate and Christian.  After the British Parliament made the slave trade illegal in 1807, the British government took over the settlement (January 1, 1808) as a naval base against the slave trade and as a centre to which slaves, captured in transit across the Atlantic, could be brought and freed. Between 1807 and 1864, when the last slave ship case was adjudicated in the Freetown courts, the British navy brought in more than 50,000 “recaptives,” also known as “liberated Africans.”

The recaptives and their children, known as Creoles (today usually rendered Krios), prospered as traders, and some entered the professions, qualifying in Britain as doctors and lawyers. Thus, they formed an educated West African elite. Notable examples include James Africanus Beale Horton, who qualified as a doctor and served as an officer in the British army and published books on medical and political subjects, and Sir Samuel Lewis, a distinguished barrister. Many Creoles sought employment opportunities in other parts of West Africa.

How does this unique history link to food fusion? 

Food Fusion is a form of cooking that combines contrasting culinary traditions or techniques into a single dish. There are various forms of fusion food, including regional fusion which combines food from different regions or sub-regions.

Food fusion allows experimentation and freedom in exploring a contrast of flavours and textures. This can take many forms and could be one culinary technique that uses the ingredients of a completely different dish. Other forms of food fusion combine two culinary disciplines evenly to create a something new and distinctive.  Sadly though, food fusion has suffered a turbulent past because of its application. At times fusions can be underwhelming, worse still a sentimental souvenir from a culinary voyage. Yet to dismiss fusion food on this basis is to miss out on fresh and exciting flavour combinations. When broken down to their core, many classic recipes owe their existence to a compound of several influences rather than a single source of origin, which is where the boundaries of food fusion can be blurred.

Perhaps this is why food fusion is referred to by some chefs as the ‘F word’.

Arguably, one of the oldest food fusions is pasta, as many believe it to be a descendant of the Chinese noodle, brought to the Italians during the 13th Century. Closer to home, the Edwardians also celebrated food fusion. The combination of Indian and English produced dishes such as Kedgeree: adapting a traditional mix of rice and lentils known in Indian cuisine as ‘Kicheri’ for English tastes.  Even fish and chips is essentially an early fusion dish, combining elements of Jewish, French and Belgian cuisines. ‘Pescado frito’ contains the original ingredients of what we know now as fish & chips, yet it tends to be associated with the British seaside, accompanied by ketchup and lashings of salt and vinegar. The original recipe used fish coated in flour and dipped in batter before being fried. With the later inclusion of beer, corn flour and soda water there have been many modifications to the recipe since.

Among popular trips for the adventurous chef, Malaysia is a place full of food fusions. Home to exciting native cuisine as well as a strong influence of Chinese, Thai and Indian food, street food also plays a vital role in the everyday life of Malaysian citizens. Allegedly, one of the world’s first fusion restaurants resides in Macau, China, where a blend of Cantonese flavours, with olives and chorizo from Portugal date back around 450 years.

Freetown has a unique history due to the transatlantic slave trade.  The philanthropic experiment that is Freetown gave birth to Afro-fusion cooking, out of necessity rather than choice.

Sierra Leone, initially known as the ‘Province of Freedom’, was a colony founded by British abolitionists who believed the African Diaspora could be re-settled in Africa.  As the British Empire grew in naval power and conquered continental North America, territories in Asia and several islands in the Caribbean, it became the leading slave trader among the European nations. This was a position held previously by the Portuguese. For the British, slaves were the main labour force in the sugar cane and tobacco plantations located in their colonies in the Americas, and Britain was responsible for transporting 3.5 million African slaves to the ‘New World’, a third of all victims of the transatlantic slave trade between 1670 and 1833, the year when slavery was completely abolished in the British Empire.

So Freetown’s food history has been influenced by economic migration within Africa, the arrival of Muslim Traders, followed by Europeans from Portugal, Great Britain and France.  The settlement of London’s black poor, returned slaves from Nova Scotia, Jamaica and other parts of Africa has all contributed to the cities culture.  The transatlantic slave trade took ingredients from Africa to the America’s and Europe.  The slaves themselves took cooking techniques and recipes to which have then mutated in the Caribbean, Southern States of America and Europe.

The British project of repatriating freed slaves in the ‘Province of Freedom’, now known as Sierra Leone, did not create the utopia intended,and the transatlantic slave trade has disadvantaged black communities for centuries, however food is culture and the history of food culture has been influenced by international trade and Freetown’s unique place in the history books is evidence enough that Freetown is the spiritual home of Afro-fusion cooking and it’s links to the Western world.