Bleds de froment or cassave? Bread in the French Tropics during the Seventeenth Century

Today’s post in the Roundtable on Food and Hunger is from Bertie Mandelblatt, who is the George S. Parker II ’51 Curator of Maps and Prints at the John Carter Brown Library in Providence, Rhode Island. She is a historical geographer whose research and publications address a number of intersecting questions related to the early Americas, and, in particular, both the early modern Caribbean and French overseas expansion: the geographies of subsistence, plantation slavery, and colonial trade and commodities; and cartography as an imperial practice. Our food roundtable began on Monday. You can read Carla Cevasco’s introduction here, and yesterday’s post, by Zachary Bennett, here.

The economic potential of the trade in foodstuffs destined for France’s colonies in the Lesser Antilles in the eighteenth century—the period of the colonies’ economic pre-eminence—was common knowledge on both sides of the Atlantic. Metropolitan and colonial administrators, merchants and their lobby groups, all understood the profits to be made from the subsistence crises endemic to plantation slavery. This knowledge decisively shaped France’s restrictive trade policies in the decades before and after their formal articulation in law in 1717 and 1727.[1]

But what of earlier periods? How was colonial subsistence both imagined and daily enacted when colonial populations themselves were much less dense and characterized by a kind of demographic diversity and parity in which indigenous Kalinago outnumbered the newcomers (French, other Europeans, and Africans), a diversity which simply didn’t exist in the eighteenth century? Recent interest in the seventeenth-century Caribbean has revealed the complexities of early European colonies that have too often only been considered as embryonic forms of better-known eighteenth-century colonial phenomena.[2]

Seventeenth-century missionary accounts are vital evidence that help us understand the early political economy of colonial subsistence of one pivotal category of dietary staple: wheat bread and wheat bread substitutes. Wheat bread formed one part of the cultural dyad of pain/vin (bread/wine) that had a powerful significance, both in terms of its symbolic connections to the Catholic Eucharist for French colonists and the transatlantic political economies of commodity production that it ultimately involved.[3] It is a useful commodity to examine because it became, in later decades, one of the central commodities in both smuggling and legal trades between the islands and mainland North America and France. How did it arrive in the Caribbean with the first generations of French colonizers, and what was its role in the first colonial diets?

Despite the assurances of that Herodotus of the islands, Jean-Baptiste Du Tertre, that the French were initially welcomed on St. Christophe in 1625 by indigenous Kalinago who “liberally furnished them with foodstuffs,” subsistence for the first French who settled on that island in the later 1620s, and then on Martinique and Guadeloupe in the 1630s was consistently precarious, and famine conditions were common in these decades.[4] The chief indigenous staple, manioc, most often transformed into cassava bread to be eaten, was adopted immediately by European and African settlers throughout the tropical and sub-tropical Caribbean region, and it provided a local counterbalance to the French focus on les bleds de froment, [wheat.] In many ways, the French attitude towards their own subsistence in their new Caribbean colonies reflected the ubiquitous European desire to reproduce familiar dietary practices in the profoundly unfamiliar and dissimilar territories, but this focus on familiarity was eminently pliable, and often and easily dislodged.[5]


Maria Sybylla Merian, manioc plant with insects, 1719. Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University.

Dominican Raymond Breton was a member of the first French colonizing expedition of Guadeloupe in 1635, and he led his mission there alone until 1642. In his description of the processing of manioc—“the root from which we make our bread in this country ”—Breton spoke of its relationship with wheat bread: “And this is how we make the bread called cassava, which is extremely white when it is well made, and delicious when one is used to it (although it does take some time); nevertheless, neither in its taste nor in its substance can it be compared to wheat bread.”[6]  The Capuchin missionary Hyacinthe de Caen took Breton’s ambivalence or even relative openness to this staple even further in his short 1641 manuscript account of his years moving between the islands of the French Antilles between 1633 and 1641, observing simply that: “This bread is of such substance that our Frenchmen take to it easily.”[7]

Significantly, writing a few decades later, Dominican Jean-Baptiste Labat remarked that wheat cultivation on the islands was ‘useless” because the local consumption of wheat bread was so inconsequential. He wrote:

I consider [wheat bread] insignificant because very few people eat wheat bread; slaves, indentured workers, domestic servants, workers eat nothing but manioc flour, or cassava bread; almost all creoles, even those who are wealthy and who push themselves to serve [wheat] bread to visitors, or to show off, willingly eat cassava themselves, and prefer it to [wheat] bread.[8]

This avowal of the dominance of cassava over wheat bread represents a radical departure from the shared understandings today of the importance of wheat and wheat bread in the French Caribbean colonies, and in metropolitan France too.  At the turn of the eighteenth century when Labat was writing, wheat and wheat bread consumption differed greatly from what it would become after the Seven Years War, when wheat was one of the highest-valued consumer goods at stake in the wars over colonial trade fought over l’Exclusif. However, in France too, it is helpful to remember that bread amalgams had long existed: while wheat bread consumption predominated amongst a majority of French urban residents (along the social spectrum) during this period, rural consumers had long been used to eating bread made from other common grains, such as rye, barley and buckwheat, as well as from non-grain vegetables (peas and beans).[9]

In the Caribbean, the shift in consumption patterns over the eighteenth century more likely became differentiated according to race, and both economic and civil status: Labat made a clear connection between enslaved workers, indentured workers, domestic servants and cassava consumption, although he did note that the true distinction between cassava and wheat bread consumption derived from geographic provenance: creoles, whether rich or poor, enslaved or free, of French or of African descent, preferred cassava. Arguably, the hardening of the regulations that restricted the social, cultural and economic lives of free people of colour in the post-war period increased the association of whiteness (and freedom) with European wheat and contributed to the intensification of wheat bread consumption as free creoles increasingly sought to enact their European identity through the consumption of their daily staple.

Certainly there is little evidence across the entire colonial period for distribution of wheat bread or wheat flour to enslaved populations. In periods of stability and warfare alike, the diet of enslaved workers remained predominantly marked by locally-grown carbohydrate staples, such as manioc and plantain.[10] Despite the commercial rhetoric of colonial authorities of the mid-eighteenth century and later, the definitive colonial consumers of French wheat flour remained free men and women: planters, merchants and other colonists, and their families. This stubbornly-defended preference, however, belies the adaptability of earlier colonial life. Food consumption in the French Caribbean colonies of the seventeenth century, as the missionaries tell us, drew from many sources: from a diversity, if not a cacophony, of European and African dietary influences, from desperation and a lack of options, and above all, from indigenous Caribbean dietary practices rooted in local ecologies.

[1] Jean Tarrade, Le Commerce coloniale de la France à la fin de l’Ancien Régime: l’évolution du régime de ‘l’Exclusif’ de 1763 à 1789 (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1972); Bertie Mandelblatt, “‘A Land where Hunger is in Gold and Famine is in Opulence’: Plantation Slavery, Island Ecology, and the Fear of Famine in the French Caribbean,” in Fear and the Shaping of Early Modern American Societies, eds. Lauric Henneton and L.H. Roper (Leiden: Brill, 2016), p. 243-264; B. Mandelblatt, “How Feeding Slaves Shaped the French Atlantic: Mercantilism and Food Provisioning in the Franco-Caribbean during the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries,” in The Political Economy of Empire in the Early Modern World, eds. Sophus Reinert and Pernille Røge (London: Palgrave, 2012), p. 192-220.

[2] The Torrid Zone: Caribbean Colonization and Cultural Interaction in the Long Seventeenth Century, ed. L.H. Roper (Columbia, South Carolina: The University of South Carolina Press, 2018).

[3] Jacques Petitjean-Roget, La Société d’habitation à la Martinique: un demi-siècle de formation, 1635-1685, 2 vols. Lille: Atelier Reproduction des Thèses, Université de Lille III, 1980.

[4] Du Tertre, Histoire Générale des Antilles,1667-1671, vol. 1, p. 4.

[5] Rebecca Earle explores how these dietary questions developed in Spanish America in The Body of the Conquistador: Food, Race and the Colonial Experience in Spanish America, 1492-1700 (Cambridge University Press, 2012).

[6] “la racine duquel nous faisons nostre pain en ce pais…” (“the root”); “Et ainsy se fait le pain qui est appellé cassave, qui est extrêmement blanc quand il est bien fait, et de bon goust lorsqu’on y est accoustumé (à quoy on a un peu de peine du commencement) mais il n’est pas pourtant comparable ny en goust ny en substance au pain de froment” (“And this is how”). Raymond Breton, Relations de l’Ile de la Guadeloupe (Basse-Terre, Guadeloupe: Société d’histoire de la Guadeloupe, 1647 [1978]), vol. 1, p. 46. All translations are my own.

[7] “Ce pain est de telle substance que bien facilement nos Français s’y accoutument…” Hyacinthe de Caen, Relation des îles de Saint-Christophe, Gardelouppe et la Martinique… 1641 [2015], p. 137.

[8] “Je la regarde comme inutile, parce que très peu de gens mangent du pain de froment, les Nègres, les engagez, domestiques, les ouvriers ne mangent que de la farine de Manioc ou de la Cassave; presque tous les Creolles, ceux mêmes qui sont riches & qui font servir du pain sur leurs tables par grandeur ou pour les étrangers, mangent plus volontiers de la cassave & la préfèrent au pain. II n’y a donc qu’un très-petit nombre de gens qui mangent du pain…” Jean-Baptiste Labat, Nouveau voyages aux isles de l’Amérique… (Paris, 1724), tome 1, p. 118.

[9] Steven Kaplan, The Bakers of Paris and the Bread Question, 1700-1775 (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1996), esp. p. 23-61; Henri Louis Duhamel du Monceau, Traité de la conservation des grains et en particulier du froment (Paris : H.-L. Guérin et L.-F. Delatour, 1754), p. 2.


[10] There is evidence that any meaningful consumption of French wheat flour by the enslaved, as with sailors, was in the form of ship biscuit. Théophile Malvezin, Histoire du commerce de Bordeaux depuis les origines jusqu’à nos jours (Bordeaux: Belier, 1892), vol. 3, p. 105; Pierre Deffontaines, Les hommes et leurs travaux dans les pays de la Moyenne-Garonne (Agen: Quesseveur, 1932), p. 289.

2 responses

  1. Pingback: Food and Friendship in Early Virginia « The Junto

  2. Pingback: Roundtable Conclusion: Food and Hunger in Vast Early America « The Junto


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