Newfoundland salt fish connection to West Indian slavery

Bushra Junaid

Salt cod and molasses are no strangers to the plates and palettes of many people in Newfoundland and Labrador. But they are also traditional foods on much warmer islands in the Caribbean.

The latest episode of Unearthed explores the complicated culinary connections between the foods and the regions and the collision of classes.

Sonja Boon, a professor of gender studies at Memorial University, said Newfoundland had a type of dried cod called “Jamaica cod,” which “wasn’t the best grade.”

“The better grades, the better cuts were sent to Europe and the Mediterranean. The worst kind of cod came to the islands, but anyway we thought it was great. They became part of the national dish. So from an early age, Newfoundland has been in my consciousness with regards to our cuisine,” she said. 

“I heard the term ‘refuse fish,’ so the fish that is the lower-quality fish you wouldn’t be able to sell to the markets in Portugal. It’s the stuff that you then would toss over to the Caribbean because … slave owners want cheap food so they can feed the enslaved.”

“Think about all the hands — white and Black, Newfoundland and Caribbean — that are joined by fish, rum and molasses. The poor hands, enslaved hands, hands working in dangerous environments. Hands

Xaiver Campbell bakes ginger cookies with molasses

that hauled in nets of codfish and salted them never touching the hands that cut the sugar cane and stirred the vats of molasses,” Campbell said.

Afua Cooper, a Halifax-based Black historian, writer and artist, said it’s about being more conscious of something that may seem as innocuous as baking.

“So as you use that molasses to make your cookies, then we think about where’s it from? What’s the sugar cane production situation like in the Caribbean now? Who are the people still growing sugar cane in the Caribbean? How are they paid?” she said. “We have to think about how this is produced. And there is a terrible history behind the production of this and we should engage with that history.”

Each week, Unearthed will include recommended reading on Black people in Newfoundland and Labrador and the North Atlantic, from Bushra Junaid.

Born in Montreal, she grew up in St. John’s. With a mother from Jamaica and a father from Nigeria, the Junaids were one of the few Black families living in Newfoundland and Labrador during the 1960s. That experience greatly influenced her work as a visual artist and curator, which included exhibitions at the Eastern Edge Gallery and The Rooms, titled What Carries Us:

Ackee and Saltfish

Newfoundland and Labrador in The Black Atlantic.