by Kevin Sprague (UCLA 2018)
UCLA International Institute, December 15, 2017 — While many Americans are unfamiliar with the kola nut, they are deeply familiar with products like Coca-Cola, whose origins can be traced to the nut’s introduction to the Americas as a medicine over a century ago. Shantelle George, dissertation fellow in Africana & Latino studies and history at SUNY Oreonta, presented her research on the kola nut’s origins and its economic and cultural importance on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean at UCLA in early November. Part of the Atlantic History Seminar Series, her talk was cosponsored by the African Studies Center, the Department of History and the Program on Caribbean Studies.
George’s work on the kola nut was inspired by her Ph.D. research on the ethnolinguistic origins of captive Africans sent to Grenada in the Caribbean. “While I was conducting my research, many of my informants spoke about the centrality of the kola nut in their [Orisha] traditions and I thought it would be fantastic to learn more about this commodity,” the speaker explained.
Medicine turns into an essential ingredient
Early explorers of West Africa quickly took notice of the region’s native kola nut. One Portuguese explorer visiting the region in 1587, whose journals George examined, observed that many people he’d encountered on his travels used the nut to relieve thirst and improve the taste of water by chewing on it. Other similar journals by explorers noted these same medicinal properties and also documented African practices such as using the nut to strengthen the stomach and combat liver disease.
The nut’s original use on the African continent extended beyond the medicinal. “In Africa, the kola nut was often used as a form of currency, in religious ceremonies, or to reinforce social contracts,” said George. “One visitor to Gambia in the late 19th century noted that the kola was sworn upon as the Bible was in western countries — people would swallow kola nuts to convey their honesty. [The nut] was used a form of currency in Sierra Leone, and kola’s use in religious rituals in Ghana is well-documented,” she said.
The nut’s eventual expansion across the Atlantic was fueled by rising demand for kola in many western nations. “Much like sugar, tea, chocolate, tobacco and coffee, the kola nut became a product of mass consumption in Europe and North America around the1890s, albeit not on the same scale,” said George.
“Kola was attractive to [North Americans and Europeans] for its various medicinal uses, such as a cure for hangovers,” the speaker said. She noted that kola quickly transitioned from being a natural medicine to an essential ingredient of soft drinks and tonics. “The kola nut was the unsung hero of Coca-Cola,” said George, explaining that it added caffeine to the beverage, as well as thirst-quenching energetic properties. Energy-increasing tablet versions of Coca-Cola, containing kola nut and coca leaves, for example, were used by Ernest Shackleton’s crew in Antarctica and by World War I soldiers on the front lines.
Demand for drinks like Pepsi-Cola and Coca-Cola, and in turn, the kola nut, soared. By the turn of the 20th century, investors across Europe and the Americas were putting huge amounts of money into kola production. However, as the speaker explained, “over time, the kola extract in [Coca-Cola] was reduced to a small amount, as was coca [extract]. Kola was expensive and bitter,” she said. Thereafter, the nut quickly lost traction as a commodity.
“Coca-Cola is touchy about its association with both plants, particularly coca. There was a fear that children were becoming addicted to Coca-Cola in 1902, so they removed coca from their drinks, by ‘de-coca-ing’ imported coca leaves. Later, the kola nut was also replaced by artificial flavorings,” George explained.
The kola nut’s ill-defined origins in the West
The medicinal and chemical properties of the kola nut have been analyzed and examined extensively over the years, but the same cannot be said for its history. George has dissected multiple hypotheses about the nut’s introduction into the Caribbean during her research, all of which center on the Atlantic slave trade, specifically, the Middle Passage.
One such explanation comes from a Jamaican health officer’s first-hand account of the growth patterns of the nut on the island. “This officer believed that elderly, enslaved Africans were the first cultivators of the kola in Jamaica,” said George. “He observed that the kola nut flourished alongside coca plants, coconut plants and star apples. These are part of the range of healing plants used among enslaved and freed African peoples,” the speaker explained.
The Afro-Brazilian Candomble religion has a narrative about the introduction of the kola nut in Brazil. “Many Afro-Brazilians believe their ancestors smuggled the seed to the Americas, but enslaved Africans would have had limited ability to carry the nut,” George said. “It is more likely that the career men on slave ships who came into constant contact with enslaved Africans could have transported it,” she hypothesized.
While the story of how the kola nut came to the Caribbean is still unclear, George is in the process of piecing together a fuller picture. “I've started with ethnographic material from my field work in Grenada. I hope to look at slave ship provision lists and trade records on ports in Western Africa at national archives,” she said.
Her search for more information on the nut’s origins in the West brought her to the Grenadian national archives, where she perused provision lists and trade records, and searched for references to the nut in Caribbean folk medicine books, medicinal pamphlets and journals. “So far, I haven’t found [many mentions], but this is still a fairly new project,” George noted.
The speaker was hopeful that by conducting further research, she might also unearth new information on the social practices of enslaved Africans in the Caribbean. “Examining the kola and the Atlantic world provides us with a fresh understanding of the nut’s consumption, production and role in exchange of commodities, in addition to its relationship to religion, medicine and identity,” she concluded.