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Bunce Island in Sierra Leone, 20 miles up the Sierra Leone River, and a few miles north of the capital Freetown, was home to one of the most profitable slave trading operations in West Africa. Established in 1670 by English slave traders, it was the largest British slave castle on the Rice Coast where tens of thousands of African slaves were shipped to North America and the West Indies.

It was part of the over sixty slave-trading forts on the West African coast. The island was majorly operated by two companies one after the other — the Gambia Adventurers and the Royal African Company of England — from 1670 to 1728. It flourished during private management by a consortium of London firms from 1744 to 1807. Slave trading ceased on the island in 1808 after the slave trade was abolished but the trading fort was totally abandoned in 1840 and has been uninhabited since.

The selection of slaves from the Rice Coast, which stretches from Senegal right to Liberia through Bunce Island, was not random. In fact, Africans were particularly targeted on account of their skills – rice cultivation.

South Carolina, which became one of the wealthiest states in North America with an economy based on rice cultivation, benefited the most from these enslaved Africans from the Rice Coast. Nearby Georgia also insisted on using slaves from this region. At the time, during slave auctions in Charlestown (now Charleston), South Carolina, Savana and Georgia, slave selling advertisements specifically mentioned slaves from the Rice Coast or Bunce Island to assure buyers that they would get experienced hands. Buyers would then be willing to pay more for them.

Rice cultivation in America saw an uplift as more and more African captives were shipped from Bunce Island to work on rice farms.

Naturally, tracing descendants of enslaved Africans in the diaspora is quite cumbersome. However, slaves from Sierra Leone’s Bunce Island who are indigenes of the West African country can directly be traced to the Gullah peoplein the United States.

According to UNESCO, the Gullah community in South Carolina and Georgia still retain traditions in food, names and stories that draw heavily from their Sierra Leonean roots.

What makes the story of Bunce Island different from the likes of Goree Island in Senegal and The Elmina Castle in Ghana is that it became “the only instance where Africans were particularly targeted for buying and selling on account of their skills,” according to UNESCO.

Food Migration: Foods Brought To The Americas By Enslaved Africans

Also, US Independence was negotiated, in part, between Bunce Island’s British owner, Richard Oswald and an affluent rice farmer and slave dealer in South Carolina called Henry Laurens.

Laurens served as the business agent for Bunce Island in Charlestown right before the American war of independence. When the war began, Laurens was made President of the Continental Congress. He was then captured by the British and bailed by his friend Oswald.

When the war ended, Laurens was one of the American Peace Commissioners who negotiated the United States’ independence under the Treaty of Paris. His British counterpart and friend Oswald headed the British negotiating team that led to the independence of the U.S.

Today, remains of the once very busy port that can be seen are the bastions, walls of the merchants’ quarters, the gunpowder magazine, and the gate to the slave house.

The remoteness of the island has helped in its preservation as there is no human interference. Nonetheless, a severe local climate has contributed to the degradation of the elements. Lastly, wild growth of vegetation in and around the ruins and coastal erosion are the biggest threats to the preservation of the site. 

What is Acaraje?

It’s a small Brazilian fritter made from black-eyed peas. The dish uses onions and ground dried shrimp to give it an extra punch in flavor. They’re shaped into balls and deep-fried in boiling azeite dende also known as Brazilian palm oil. The balls are then split in half and filled vatapa, a creamy paste made from finely ground peanuts, shrimp and coconut milk.

To elaborate, you need to soak the peas overnight and strip their skins. This will include the black “eyes”, making it tedious but often optional. But if you opt to do this, you’re rewarded with a creamier texture for the final dish.

Vatapa Brazilian food in a bowl with spoon

History of Acaraje

Acaraje originated from Western Africa, that’s why you can also find it on Nigeria and Ghana. But after getting to the Americas, it became more popular in Salvador, Brazil as street food. Women in Bahia made and sold the dish as well.

It is popular with the Yoruba people of south-western Nigeria and Sierra Leoneans. In Ghana, it is a popular breakfast dish, eaten with millet or corn pudding while in Nigeria it is eaten with bread, ogi or eko, a type of cornmeal made with fine corn flour.

In the Yoruba culture, akara plays a significant role when a person assumes the age of 70 or dies. It is fried in large quantity and distributed across every household close to the deceased. Back in the day, the cake was also prepared in large numbers as a sign of victory when warriors returned victorious from war. Wives of the warriors fried it and distribute to fellow villagers as gratitude for the safe return of their husbands.

In Sierra Leone, akara aside being a street snack, is usually prepared upon the birth of a child, a wedding, funeral or party.

The dish, made from peeled beans formed into a ball and then deep-fried in palm oil or vegetable oil, is found in West African and Brazilian cuisines. It was sent to the Americas, especially Brazil’s northeastern state of Bahia by the West Africa enslaved from Nigeria, Ghana, Togo, Benin, Mali, Gambia and Sierra Leone.

With that, the dish became part of the “heritage culture” of Bahia. Its ceremony of certification happened at the headquarters of the National Institute of Artistic and Historic Heritage in Salvador. The ceremony featured a lot of proud women, serving lots of trays to everyone.

Pin em Bahia

The dish’s name is a funny mistake since its real name is “acara”. But women from the Yoruba ethnical group selling these shout “acara -je”, meaning, “I have acara”.

Acarajé is  sold on Brazil’s streets but here it is variously made with fried beef, mutton, dried shrimp, pigweed, fufu osun sauce and coconut. Distinct sellers wear all-white cotton dresses and headscarves and caps. The bean cake is reported to have made its way to Bahia in the 19th century.

10 Caribbean Dishes You’ve Got To Try At Least Once.

Earnings from its sale was used to sometimes buy the freedom of enslaved family members until the abolition of slavery in Brazil in 1888 while serving as a source of family income. It also has a notable presence in Sergipe and the markets of Rio de Janeiro.

Acarajé serves as both a religious offering to the gods in the Candomblé religion and as street food.

A taste of Africa in the Americas

As an essential ritual food used in Afro-Brazilian religious traditions such as Candomblé, it is offered to the orixá Exu. They vary in size based on their offering to a specific deity: large, round acarajé are offered to Xangô; smaller ones in form are offered to Iansã. Small, fritter-size acarajé are offered to Erês, or child spirits. Acarajé is used in Candomblé rituals in the states of Bahia, Rio de Janeiro, Pernambuco, Alagoas, Sergipe and Maranhão.

Acarajé was listed as a federal immaterial asset (patrimônio nacional imaterial), by the National Institute of Historic and Artistic Heritage in 2004; the role of baianas in the preparation and sale of acarajé was recognized in the same act.

Today, acarajé represents a good example of how African influences have been shaping Brazil’s cultural heritage and its culinary identity.