You think you know who you are; in our modern world, persons tend to be ‘black or white’. However, a deeper look shows that most of us are a colorful tapestry made of many ‘threads’. We believe that we are ‘Anglo’, ‘Hispanic’, or some other definition taught to us. How many of us know, or take the time to learn, the donation that many other cultures have made to the person that we are?
For today, I would like you to become ‘field’ researchers and come with me to a not-so-far-away island, to meet the people known as the Belongers of the Turks and Caicos Islands. As a researcher in the field of human nutrition, I am often compelled to investigate the reasons people eat the way they do. At times, these eating habits define, or even limit, a culture.
How many of you thought about the cultural history of the breakfast you had this morning? It’s possible someone here had miso soup for breakfast; in the Orient, it would be very common. Here, some of us may have had coffee and doughnuts. However, if we woke up on Grand Turk today, our breakfast may have consisted of boiled fish and hominy.
If you have been to the Bahamas, or have seen the island chain on a map, the Turks and Caicos Islands lie at the end of the chain. Grand Turk is the last major island, separated by considerable miles from the rest of the nation. Turquoise waters and beauty abound there. Fodor’s Travel 2007 travel guide notes that “the 7,000 foot coral wall drop-off is actually within swimming distance of the beach.” However, because of its isolation, Grand Turk has developed some unique cultural features, such as its foods.
What sort of foods could sustain life in a place like this? Are the foods eaten there today connected to the history of the people? The original natives, the Taino Indians, lived off the bounty of the ocean. They were also masters at raising root crops that did not need tending. So, boniato, yucca, and malanga were the first known foods to be consumed on the island; we know these today as cassava and sweet potato. Bill Keenan, an archeology professor who studies Grand Turk, noted in his winter 2004 article for the Times of the Islands magazine: “a plot of land was cleared…the cut vegetation was burned to release nutrients...a wide variety of crops were then planted..”
As European settlers and conquerors passed through the Caribbean, they brought salted fish and pork to the island’s pantry. Of course, the prominent salt industry of the past allowed the inhabitants to preserve meats and fish. Little farming was done on Grand Turk in the days of the salt miners, after the business interests stripped the vegetation to promote faster drying of the salt.
Little farming is done in our time either. The harsh slavery that the ancestors of today’s Belongers endured has left the majority of their descendants with no desire to farm the unforgiving land. Therefore, on Grand Turk, no farming remains today of the yucca and cassava of the Taino Indians. The assumption that fish is consumed often on Grand Turk because of the abundance in the surrounding waters is also deceptive; only a handful of men fish for food, and then only when they are inclined. Foods consumed today vary greatly from that of the original cultures. Imports from the States such as macaroni and cheese, potato salad and barbecue chicken have become commonplace. This has taken a toll on the ‘native’ dishes, such as Grits and Fish, as restaurant owners cater to the palates of the tourists.
But, as much as geography and food shape a culture, so do other external forces. The British brought in new religious concepts. However, one thing was taught and another practiced. The concept of freedom preached by some of the European religions naturally attracted some slaves. Yet, in her 1831 book, “The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave” the author observes: “After I left Turk's Island, I was told...that the poor slaves had built up a place with boughs and leaves, where they might meet for prayers, but the white people pulled it down twice, and would not allow them even a shed for prayers.”
The hypocrisy evidenced by the religions that promoted or tolerated slavery polarized the slave and slave owners not only into different social groups, but also into different religions; the buckra (as the slaves called the white men), tended to be of the Anglican faith, while the slaves inclined more to the Moravian or Methodist churches, which preached freedom.
In its Website, the Turks & Caicos National Museum notes:
“This contradictory society, on the one hand the Slave owners declaring to be religious, on the other hand refusing the slaves even the smallest degree of respect seems to run throughout the slave society of the West Indies. It is peculiar that the owners seemed to go through the process of making the slaves legitimate in the eyes of God by baptising the slaves yet limiting their rights to be treated equal and fairly.”
What did this clash of cultures, foods and religions produce? The Belongers today are the result of a mix of contradictory cultures; they are the offspring of the different slave populations that were forcibly resettled to be exploited for labor. Intermarriage, and the successive blending of immigrants from Haiti and Santo Domingo, has resulted in a population that is 90% black and 10% mixed and ‘other’. Therefore, their history begins with a people that did not ‘belong’ in these Caribbean Islands.
Most would assume their language is English; however, the website “Ethnologue Languages of the World” defines it as English-based “Turks & Caicos Creole”, a further defining feature of the Belongers. A Belonger by birth has a number of privileges: certain jobs are to be held only by Belongers; they can also freely accept employment without a work permit.
However, as the Turks and Caicos Islands are not an independent country, they cannot confer citizenship. The Belonger is allowed to apply for ‘British Overseas Territory Citizenship’ status, as noted by Wikipedia. This will not, however, confer British citizenship on the Belonger, nor give them the right to dwell in the United Kingdom.
The Belongers of the present day inhabit a world uniquely their own, yet their world does not truly ‘belong’ to them. They are governed by another country, and their rich culture and history of foods and folklore is being set aside by a younger generation seeking higher education and an ‘escape’ from the islands and its simple life. The outside world, in the shape of tourists and the driving need for imports and income is quickly eroding their unique customs and cuisine, their natural healing traditions, and the memory of the harsh crucible that formed the Belongers of the Turks and Caicos Islands. The Belongers of the Turks & Caicos Islands, are a people not that different from you and I, if we remember to look to the past that shaped the person we are today.