UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Of fishpots, bonnets, and wine : the cultural history of the Bermuda palmetto Wolsak, Anna Saskia


This thesis represents the first academic study of Bermuda’s historical ethnobotany. Settled by the English in the early 17th century, Bermuda soon gave rise to a set of interfused hybrid cultures formed by people from around the Atlantic Basin. While inhabitants were shunted into political categories according to social standing (slave, slave-owner, indentured servant, land-owner, etc.), in reality each group arrived with traditional ethnobotanical knowledge which they rapidly adapted to the new social, political, and ecological climate. Until the 20th century, Bermudians were dependent on the island’s two dominant, endemic forest species: Sabal bermudana L.H. Bailey (Bermuda palmetto) and Juniperus bermudiana L. (Bermuda cedar). While much is known and has been written about the cedar, this thesis focuses on the palmetto which played an equal, if not more fundamental, role in the island’s economy and daily life. The palmetto was an invaluable source of food, wine, and household goods to 17th century settlers; its leaves were central to the 18th century plaiting and hat-making industry; and, now an endangered species, it is pivotal to today’s conservation and ecological restoration efforts. By tracing the rise and fall of palmetto use in Bermuda, we gain a lens through which to consider Bermuda as a complex social-ecological system, one that, both socially and ecologically, has been in constant flux since its inception. Some of the driving forces explored in this thesis include the adaptation of knowledge from Bermuda’s constituent cultures, the implementation of British colonial values and law, migration, slavery, scarcity of natural resources, starvation, the industrial revolution, and economic globalization. While this multiplicity of factors has led to a sharp decline in plant knowledge in Bermuda in the last century, many Bermudians are keen to preserve their hard-won traditional knowledge, evidenced by the small but impassioned cultural-revitalization and conservation movements on the island. Appendix A, therefore, provides a catalogue of plants of historical and present-day value in Bermuda and serves as a record for present and future generations. This list is supported by herbarium specimens, housed at UBC, to ensure accurate identification.

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