The blissful afterlife of the Carib Indians.Article 12 of 16 From the Amerindian mabi to the beer for slaves

The first European settlers adopt the Mabi-beer (16st - 17st c.)



The first Europeans to sail toward the Caribbean seas, with and after the Spaniards, pirated convoys of the Spanish Crown. A veritable shuttle ship laden with gold and silver regularly crossed the Atlantic from Mexico, Peru and Venezuela to Spain. French, English and Dutch sail from island to island in search of their prey. They stop on the coasts inhabited by the Amerindian peoples and sometimes settle there. They unreservedly adopt their way of eating and drinking. Among these, the more or less fermented mabi is compared to white wine or cider, at least by the French, often of Norman origin.

The French imitate and drink the ouicou, the manioc beer, and the potato beer named Maby. In 1666, Le Febvre de La Barre[1] describes the customs of the Indians of Equinoctial France, a term which designate the Indian territories of America located close to the equator and which the French royalty wanted to colonise :

" Generally all Indians live off the culture of the land, which they only practise as much as they need for their livelihood. They are very skillful at all kinds of fishing, & they like fish better than meat. They are sober when eating, but they are heavy drinkers of many kinds of beverages which they make, & our Frenchmen imitate them. The Vuacou [var. ouicou] is made with Cassave [cassava loaves] a little moistened, which is left to sour [mold]. This drink is quite good and refreshing. Palinot is made with burnt Cassava, & is quite similar in taste to beer. Maby is made with boiled Pattates, & is like white wine, a bit gruff, very pleasant to drink, but a bit windy. Most of our French people still have the Wine from Sugar which is made from syrup & foam with water, which mixed together ferments and takes on a strength which corrects its sweetness, and makes this drink quite pleasant, so that it would be good, if it didn't smell a little like cane. " (Le Febvre de La Barre, 37-38)

This almost idyllic picture of countries where Amerindians and Europeans produce and consume the same beverages side by side changed with the first colonisation projects. In the 17th century, freebooters and slaves traders already frequent the American coasts. The triangular slave trade (Africa ⇔ America ⇔ Europe) is developing.

The preference of the Amerindians for sweetness emerges from the testimony of the Anonymous of Carpentras about the Indians of Martinique and their way of consuming green bananas, as a fruit to be eaten or as wine :

" The fruit [balyry = banana in Arawak] not yet ripe is green in colour and very hard and heavy, and ripening becomes yellow and softens. Our Indians usually pick it green; and hang it on the floor [of their elevated habitat] to ripen it... We sometimes cooked it in hot ashes, and it was an excellent food. The great abundance we had of it was because we made wine out of it, which had the same taste as cider, and to do this we chopped it up into slices the thickness of a teston [a silver coin, 5 mm thick at most], and then filled a jar or one of those great coys, which we have described above, with plenty of water, and it boiled [fermented] for 24 hours like wine. Our Indians did not want to drink it in that state, because they do not like sourness. So this is how they made their drink. The women put a great quantity of bananas in a large bowl, which they called louara, put a little water in the bottom so that they would not break, and after putting all the bananas in it, covered them well with leaves of the same fruit and, in this way, left them for five or six hours on the fire, at the end of which, when they had become very soft, they crushed them in a wooden mortar which they called hana and the pestle leurba. And when they want to drink it, they soak it with water, which becomes a very good and clear drink, however it is even better if it is eaten after being cooked in the terrine, without being soaked with water, or cooked on embers: then there is no pear that is as good. " (Moreau 2002, 136-137)

This is about green banana wine, not sweet potato beer. But the two Amerindian processes are very similar. In each case, they favour the sweet taste either by over-ripening the banana (" and after having put all the bananas inside, covered them well with leaves of the same fruit and, in this way, left them five or six hours on the fire at the end of which they became very soft "), or by accelerated hydrolysis of the starch of sweet potatoes (whole unpeeled potatoes cooked in a pottery).

Europeans are changing this way of brewing the maby to obtain an acidulous maby. Instead of cooking the potatoes beforehand, they macerate the raw potato pieces directly in water with cane sugar, without cooking or hydrolysis. The spontaneous fermentation triggered by the cane sugar acidifies the mixture and causes a partial acid hydrolysis of the starch in the potatoes. The maby that is obtained is clearly more sour and astringent than the completely saccharified mabi of the Amerindians.

Arrivé en 1635 à la Guadeloupe, d'où il gagne le Dominique en 1642 pour vivre parmi les indiens, le Père Raymond Breton signale la même différence entre la méthode amérindienne plus sophistiquée et la manière européenne expéditive de brasser le Mabi :

" Mábi míti, or ira, are potato roots and the drink, which is made in this way; the French cook them in a pot, and peel them all hot in water, which they filter at the same time, and put them in bottles where it boils [ferments] for one or two days, at the end of which they drink it, clear and pungent like a little white wine ; the same ones pour a pot of potatoes into the water where the cassava is to boil it, the Sauvages grind [grater] them raw, and so they do the same effect, this last drink is called ouicou, and the first one mabi that the women of the Savages do otherwise. When they [the sweet potatoes] are cooked they chew them, spit them out in a coui [a jar], and after one or two days they have turned sour, they take a coui full of water, and scramble a handful of it in it and make their husbands drink it. "[2].

R. Breton also notes in his Caribbean-French dictionary that mabi refers to both the sweet potato and the beer made from it:

" Mabi : Sweet Potatoes are the manna of the country with which one cannot die of hunger; they are not so subject to the ravages of the Hurricanes as the Cassavas which they ruin; its leaves and roots are put in a pot, instead of herbs, the pieces of potato wood are eaten like asparagus, and one would not have eaten well without eating sweet potatoes; they are cooked like chestnuts in a cauldron, or in the ashes like chestnuts, which they taste like. " (Breton, 171).

Then Father Breton enumerates the species of potatoes he may have known. His list reveals the astonishing diversity of sweet potatoes domesticated by the Amerindians of the West Indies:

" Hueléche, are sweet potatoes that have red skin outside, and yellow inside with the pulp.
Cámicha, are the squishy white ones.
Aláli, are the white marbled ones, drier than the others, and more tasty..
Huelleéronum, sweet potatoe for Mademoiselle.
Chimoúli, sweet potatoe romilières.
Chítij, are others which can be found at the Grande Anse
Tourou tourouti, are dry and tasty.
Yahuíra, are the green ones which are very good, but too dry. "

In Barbados, among the roots cultivated by the Amerindians, the sweet potato was of considerable importance. In 1634, a traveller noted that: "this kind of root grows in such abundance that you can have a whole cartload of it for nothing."[3].

In 1638, a colonist wrote that the potato "is the best food you have in the country for yourself and the servants [understand slaves], but especially for them, because they don't want ... other food than these boiled sweet potatoes.". (Bruce 1853, 194).

From potato was made the Mobbie or Mauby, an ordinary beverage of the 17th century[4] which, according to Ligon[5], was brewed by Indian women. The beer was made by taking sweet potatoes which "... after they are boiled and mashed [and] then filtered with water through a bag, and then drunk since it does not last more than a day."[6]

The brewing of Mauby in Barbados seems to have adopted the full Amerindian process (stewing, mashing, addition of sugar at the end) with one detail: the filtration of the cooked mass to let only its liquid part ferment.

Ligon gives a detailed description of this technique. The brewing process uses red or white sweet potatoes:

" being first put in a bath filled with water which is stirred until the sweet potatoes are clean. Removed from the vat, the sweet potatoes are then placed in a large "iron or brass pot" and enough water is poured in to cover about a quarter of them. The pot itself is covered with a piece of cloth or fabric to contain the steam and a small fire is lit underneath so that the sweet potatoes cook slowly. When they are "soft", they are removed, placed in fresh water, crushed by hand into small pieces, and left in this water for an hour or two.The water and the sweet potato pieces are then poured into a conical woolen bag that works like a sieve, the liquid drains through it into a container, and within two hours it will begin to work. Cover and leave it to rest until the next day, when it is good to drink. " (Ligon, 31).

Ligon adds that " the drink ... drunk sober doesn't go to your head at all, but is a sparkling, thirst-quenching beverage;  » and Spoeri[7] specifies that the mauby " satisfied like beer or wine ", noting that molasses or lemon juice, just like " a little ginger " are added to the drink before fermentation begins.

The mauby seems to have posed some problems of conservation, more or less well solved by the addition of ginger. Opinions diverge. For Whistler this drink must be prepared " twice a day otherwise it becomes stale "[8]. But for Ligon (311) this Mauby " if put in small barrels ... will keep well for 4 or 5 days. "

Mauby and Perino (or Palinot in the French texts) are similar, if not identical, to the sweet potato and manioc beers common among the Caribbean islands in the 17th century[9], and widespread in northern South America.


[1] Le Febvre de La Barre 1666, DESCRIPTION DE LA FRANCE EQUINOCTIALE, CY-DEVANT APPELLEE GUYANNE, ET PAR LES ESPAGNOLS, EL DORADO. Nouvellement remise sous l'obeïssance du Roy, par le sieur Le Febvre de La Barre, son lieutenant general dans ce païs. AVEC LA CARTE D'ICELUY, FAITE ET PRESENTEE à Sa Majesté par ledit sieur de La Barre. ET UN DISCOURS TRES-UTILE ET NECESSAIRE pour ceux qui voudront établir des Colonies en ces Contrées; qui les détrompera des impostures dont tous ceux qui en ont parlé ont rempli leurs Ecrits; Et leur fera connaître la force, le nombre & le naturel des Indiens de cette coste, & ce qu'elle peut produire d'avantageux pour le Commerce de l'Europe.

[2] Breton Raymond 1665, Dictionnaire caraïbe français. Nouvelle édition annotée par le CELIA et le GEREC. IRD/Karthala 1999, 172.

[3] Bruce J. (ed.) 1853, Letters and Papers of the Verney Family Down to the End of the Year 1639, Printed From the Original Mss. London, 23-24. Also quoted by J. Handler 1977, 199.

[4] Bruce 1853, 194; Moreau E. (éd.) 1890, Voyaqe de Daniel LeHirbec de Laval aux Antilles ... 1642-1644. Laval, p. 20 ; Uchteritz 1652, 11.

[5] Ligon Richard 1657, A True and Exact History of the Island of Barbados. London, p. 543. Richard Ligon has lived in Barbados between 1647 and 1650. He provides the most accurate technical descriptions.

[6] Anonyme 1650, A Brief Description of the Island of Barbados, n.d. (1650-1652). Trinity College Dublin. Manuscript G. 4. 15 (quoted by Handler 1970), pp. 182-187.

[7] Spoeri F. C. 1677, Americanische Reiss-beschreibung nach den Caribes Insslen, und Neu-Engelland. Zurich, 25-26 (quoted by Handler p. 61 n. 12).

[8] Whistler Henry 1655, A Journall of a Voardge from Stokes Bay . . . for the West Inga .., ff. 7-10 British Museum Sloane Manuscripts, p. 6.

[9] Hodge W. H., Taylor D. 1957, The Ethnobotany of the Island Caribs of Dominica, Webbia, Vol. 12 pp 575-598. Taylor D. 1949, The Interpretation of Some Documentary Evidence on Carib Culture, Southwestern Journal of Anthropology, Vol. 5 p. 386.

The blissful afterlife of the Carib Indians.Article 12 of 16 From the Amerindian mabi to the beer for slaves