Fire & Freedom: Food and Enslavement in Early America
Fire and Freedom: Food and Enslavement in Early America began traveling around the United States in November 2016. The six-banner traveling exhibition uses George Washington’s Mount Vernon home as a specific example of how meals reveal how power is exchanged between and among different peoples, races, genders, and classes. This exhibition was produced by the National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health with research assistance provided by the staff at The Washington Library at George Washington’s Mount Vernon.
Please Examine collection materials, mostly from the 18th century,that describe connections between food, botany, health, and housekeeping.
Meals can tell us how power is exchanged between and among different peoples, races, genders, and classes. In the Chesapeake region, during the early colonial era, European settlers survived by relying upon indentured servants, Native Americans, and African slave labor for life-saving knowledge of farming and food acquisition. Without this knowledge, Europeans suffered poor nutrition, in addition to widespread illness caused by the lack of medical care. Despite their perilous position, the colonists used human resources, the natural environment, and maritime trade to gain economic prosperity. But, it is through the labor of slaves, like those at George Washington’s Mount Vernon, that we can learn about the ways that meals transcend taste and sustenance.
For more information about this topic, please visit National Library of Medicine/fireandfreedom/Introduction
Commerce on Land + Sea
Maritime spaces served as landscapes of power for colonists, but also provided unique opportunities for enslaved Africans to seek relative autonomy and freedom. Rivers and waterways are important transportation routes and commerce centers. A mix of peoples and goods flowed along the Potomac River. Markets featured fish and other foods, and luxury goods like imported coffees. European slavers transported a seemingly inexhaustible source of slave labor by sea and sold these men, women, and children on land.
For more information about this topic, please visit National Library of Medicine/fireandfreedom/Commerce on Land + Sea
Producing Food / Negotiating Power
The Potomac River was a lucrative source of trade and commerce for planters and slaves who, when possible, used the informal economy to barter and exchange fish for other goods. George Washington used the Potomac River for an extensive fishing enterprise, and grew food for sustenance and commerce. Washington relied upon the skill, labor, and knowledge of the slaves at Mount Vernon for much of his wealth. Slaves used this position as a negotiating tool to bargain for labor arrangements that provided some degree of autonomy.
For more information about this topic, please visit National Library of Medicine/fireandfreedom/Producing Food/Negotiating Power
Plantation kitchens were chaotic, noisy, smoky, smelly, sweltering, and very dangerous. The cooking hearth is an enduring image of warmth and well-being. For the enslaved, however, kitchens were anything but comforting. There was never an idle moment. If the cooking was finished, enslaved workers performed other chores, including watching their own children and those of their white slave owners. Because they labored in the house kitchen, these workers were regularly exposed to the whims of the slave owner and mistress.
For more information about this topic, please visit National Library of Medicine/fireandfreedom/Kitchen Contradictions
Slavery put in place social and culinary boundaries that could separate those who ate from those who worked. The preparation of food is often described as a labor of love, capable of strengthening family ties. For all slaves—regardless of gender, age, or health—the preparation of food meant work. In the fields, women and men killed hogs, shelled corn, planted and gathered crops, dug holes for fence poles, and performed other seasonal agrarian duties. There was a hierarchy among domestic slaves. Scullions handled the menial tasks in the kitchen. Maids and houseboys assisted the butler, who guaranteed that meal times were coordinated.
For more information about this topic, please visit National Library of Medicine/fireandfreedom/Labored Meals
Slavery was never benevolent or kind. Despite the realm of opportunities provided a slave, she or he always desired freedom and liberty. Because of their status on the plantation, some slaves were awarded extra privileges. These privileges may have included the ability to earn income from selling leftover foodstuffs or their own crops in the marketplace; the opportunity to wear fine clothes; and, permission to travel outside the plantation. Despite these advantages, slaves, no matter how revered or “well-treated,” still longed for freedom. Holidays, with relaxed work schedules and absent slaveholders, along with festive events provided opportunities for escape.
For more information about this topic, please visit National Library of Medicine/fireandfreedom/Freedom