A PAGE FROM HISTORY: EATING DUMBOY IN LIBERIA IN THE 1800s

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My attention was drawn to a story in an 1870 Liberian newspaper.  It was about festivities marking the thirty-seven anniversary of the British abolition of slavery in the West Indies (or Caribbean).  Indeed, this was a historic day.  Five years earlier 346 men, women, and children from Barbados had disembarked in Liberia, beneficiaries of the abolition.  That small group would nurture two presidents, Arthur Barclay and his nephew Edwin Barclay. 

For me, however, the climax of the story was the dumboy some attendants ate in Virginia en route to Clay-Ashland for the celebration.  According to the narrative, the dumboy was “excellent . . . healthy, harmless and nutritious . . . relished by all classes, high and low, rich and poor.”As an occasional dumboy-eater, I was excited not because of the supposed wholesomeness of this starchy paste and peppery soup; this is a topic for another day. Rather, the story whetted my appetite for culinary history.  Who ate the dumboy nearly 150 years ago, and what is its origin?

The dumboy was eaten (swallowed to be precise) by women and men in the home of Mr. Isaac Capehart.  Not much is mentioned about their backgrounds, especially the females who are identified simply by the names of their spouses.  The list reads as follows: “Mrs. President Roye, Mrs. Benson, widow of the late lamented Ex-President Benson, Mrs. S. C. Blyden, consort of the distinguished Professor of Languages in Liberia College (i.e., Edward W. Blyden, later president of Liberia College), Professor Martin H. Freeman of Liberia College, and the Commissioner of Education, the Rev. G. W. Gibson” (likely Liberia’s 1900-1904 president); also partaking in the meal, was the anonymous author.

These were obviously Americo-Liberians or descendants of the free black Americans who founded Liberia in 1822 and ruled exclusively until 1980.  More importantly, they represented the elite of Liberian society.  I will add another notable to the list.  I subsequently discovered that the preeminent Joseph J. Roberts, Liberia’s founding father (also president of Liberia College) ate dumboy as well.  In his 1859 letter, Roberts indicated that he enjoyed “dumb-bay” as he called it, “with a hearty good will.”

Apparently, these dumboy-swallowers were well familiar with this recipe.  For example, the story stated that the dumboywas “nicely prepared by Mrs. Capehart” and   furthermore that “dumboy is associated with pleasant reminiscences to residents of this country . . . Liberians would not exchange it (i.e., dumboy) for any two or three of the best foreign dishes.”

So far, there is scant evidence on the origin of dumboy.  Nonetheless, an excerpt from the 1866 Liberian Herald newspaper reported that “dumboy” was a modified version of the Bassa word “dorbouy,” a compound of dor, which stands for mortar and bouy, meaning cassava.  Together, they form “mortared-cassava,” or cassava pounded in a mortar. This translation still holds true, a reminder that languages change very slowly.  It appears that the variation in pronunciation from dorbouy to dumboy coincided with the arrival of the English-speaking black Americans. 

Anglicization, however, did not alter the technology of making dorbuoy or its recipe; it still was (and continues to be) dorbouy, i.e., cassava pounded in a mortar.  Did the Bassa invent dorbuoy or borrow the recipe?  One may never know, as the African Coast is historically noted for starchy dishes.  In Liberia, for example, besides dumboy there is Deepor (by the Dei?) made from dried-cassava flour; other examples are Ivory Coast’s fufu, Ghana’s Akankye, and DR Congo’s Ugali.  In any case, cassava, which is also the key ingredient in most of the above starchy dishes, was neither indigenous to Liberia nor Africa. 

Cassava is a root crop from the Caribbean and South America.  It is also known as manioc, yucca and tapioca.  Cassava was among a number of crops including corn, sweet potatoes and ground-peas that Portuguese mariners transported to the African coast, beginning in the sixteenth century.  The introduced plants were intended to supplement the diet of the growing number of resident Europeans and Africans involved in the transatlantic slave trade. 

These transplanted foods became part of what historians nowadays called the “Columbian Exchange,” i.e., foods, materials, and ideas that spread in the wake of Christopher Columbus’s 1492 voyage to the so-called New World.  One part of that Exchange saw African plants like okra, African rice, benne-seed (or sesame) and plantain, also transferred to the New World via slave ships returning with enslaved Africans.  Through trade with the Europeans, the Bassa, along with other coastal Africans, obtained the New World foods.

Cassava was well established on the Grain Coast, or present Liberia, when the black Americans landed.  For example, in 1822, Agent Jehudi Ashmun wrote of obtaining cassava from “Grand Bassa.” Other littoral inhabitants, like the Dei, Kru, and Vai, must have been familiar with this tuber prior to 1822 as well.  It is not known as yet when cassava spread to the Liberian interior.  But in 1858, Liberian explorer George Seymour wrote that cassava was cultivated in “Pessay (Kpelle) Country,” about 100 miles in the interior of Grand Bassa (very likely Margibi and Bong Counties).  The Kpelle could have obtained cassava through their long interactions (some legendary) with the Bassa.  (Remember the old saying: “Zahngbah die Kpelle man wear trousers”?) Like many others, the Kpelle treat dumboy typically as a hungry food, consuming it mainly during the period of scarcity, from around August to October while awaiting the “new rice.”  The Ma/Dan “GB,” is testimony of the diffusion of cassava into their region. 

There are more questions about dumboy.  Research on this subject could shed further light on relationships between the various Liberian groupings of the period.  For example, since evidence abounds that Americo-Liberians tended to shun “native” culture, how did the former acquire the taste for dumboy?  Moreover, there is undisputed evidence in American studies that dumboy (and cassava) was alien to Americo-Liberians.  So, who taught them (e.g., Mrs. Capehart) to prepare this African dish? Finally, how did cassava diffuse beyond the coast?  Studies indicate that the introduction of sweet potatoes and cassava in Angola and Nigeria, for instance, resulted in social and demographic changes.  Did cassava do likewise here?  Culinary history can make a big contribution.

(For references and questions, send email to [email protected].)

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