The Caribbean region has a deep and complex history of natural medicine. “Bush medicine” is historically the first health care option exercised in the Caribbean and in parts of South America. The artful collaboration between African and Indigenous Indian medicinal practices resulted in Caribbean bush medicine, and through the course of history, Ayurveda comfortably adapted to this cultural milieu. Much like Ayurveda’s Indian history, Caribbean medicine survived its suppression by British, Dutch, Spanish, French, and Portuguese colonial rule. East Indians generally arrived in the region during the mid-19th century as indentured servants, and carried with them extremely strong cultural ties to their homeland, India. With a history of East Indian indentured servitude, countries such as Trinidad and Tobago in the British West Indies or Guyana in South America developed majority Indo-Caribbean populations of over 50%. This Indo-Caribbean population retained historical Ayurvedic practices that began to intersect with Afro-Caribbean and indigenous Indian health modalities. The first indentured populations were able to retain such traditions because of their strong ties to the Indian homeland. While indentured servitude was a brutal form of paid labor, indentured servants were given the option of returning home to India according to the stipulations of their labor contracts in the islands. This small flexibility by the colonial powers enabled East Indians to retain cultural practices, more so than in the case of enslaved Africans who were not paid for their labor or allowed to return to Africa. Consequently, common Ayurvedic medicinal products like bitter melon, turmeric, ginger, aloe vera, coconut oil are extremely popular amongst local natural health practitioners of varying ethnicities and are widely available in the Caribbean.
Cultural Influences on Herbal Medicine
In Guyana, South America, herbal medicine is largely an outcome of cultural miscegenation or mixing; but the primary origin of herbal medicine in Guyana and the greater region of South America and the Caribbean lies with the shrinking Indigenous Indian population. Indigenous Indian knowledge of the terrain was historically unrivaled, as they understood how the growth of their surrounding landscape enhanced their lives. For example, both Afro-Guyanese and Indo-Guyanese peoples adopted bitter cassava into their diet, a vegetable widely used by indigenous Indians. The Indians learned that the vegetable contained poisonous substances that could damage the kidney and liver, and developed an extraction method that made the vegetable safe for human consumption. With correct preparation, the bitter cassava was used for food and its leaves for a variety of domestic needs. It was also used to prepare casareep, a flavoring agent and food preservative widely used in the region.
While the majority of the Indo-Guyanese population practice Ayurveda, such practices may not even be recognized as “Ayurvedic”, but simply a means of personal care that evolved in the cultural context. This kind of daily practice by a large segment of the population helps to promote the use of herbal medicine, but has also worked in conjunction with Afro-Guyanese and indigenous medicinal practices to gain some acknowledgement of Ayurveda and Bush Medicine in the country. After Independence during the 1960s, Caribbean medicine tended to take a back seat to more westernized approaches to health care and development, as the goal of Caribbean nationalism and independence was to compete on an equal footing in a larger global economic context. Many practitioners of South American and Caribbean traditions in the arts, religion, health, and education systems struggled for public recognition of cultural practices that continued in a hidden private sphere. These same practices were oppressed in the public sphere as the leadership of the newly independent region continued the contradictions of colonial life. The socio-political climate was as such that herbalism and bush medicine, including Ayurveda, by Africans, Indians, and indigenous persons was typically branded as savagery and barbarism in both the public and private spheres.
Enslaved Africans were imported to Guyana in the 16th century. The actual tradition of African healing can be traced back to before 3200 BC during the early period of African dominance and Egyptian leadership. North Africa was home to a number of skilled medical practitioners who created a variety of natural medicines to prevent and cure illness. Through cultural and tribal exchanges, such medicinal knowledge spread throughout the continent. Keenly aware of the importance of diet and nutrition for survival, enslaved Africans carried their rich tradition of medical discovery with them on their journey to the Americas. Afro-Guyanese enslaved people commonly relied on fruit like karela (bitter melon, cerasee) in their diet as a means of survival during colonial rule. The observance of cultural dietary practices survived the independence period and, as a result karela continues to form an essential component of the Guyanese diet. It offers a variety of nutritional benefits, and its naturally occurring chemical composition contains material that is similar to insulin; it is therefore extremely beneficial in regulating blood sugar levels.
Research by Badrie and Schauss on the sour sop fruit (graviola) further demonstrates the cultural connectivity between Ayurveda and bush medicine. Sour sop is a fruit used in Ayurveda to reduce fever, regulate blood pressure, and stimulate the respiratory system. It also works as a tonic and abortifacient. The fruit has been used to treat scorpion stings, kidney disease, nervous conditions, ulcers and wounds, and each part of the plant has a medicinal use. The roots are used to suppress muscle spasms and also attack parasites in the body, while the leaves help to reduce fever and have also been used in Trinidad and Tobago to treat hypertension. The bark is processed into a tonic, and the flowers help to relieve cough and congestion. The unripe fruit can help to prevent and treat scurvy, and the seeds have astringent and insecticidal properties. The fruit is widely used throughout South America and the Caribbean in Barbados, Brazil, Guyana, Dominica, Curaçao, Guatemala, Guyana, Haiti, Jamaica, Peru, Suriname, the Amazon region, and the West Indies as a whole. In South America and the West Indies the fruit is widely respected for its cancer-fighting properties and benefits in the treatment of cancer patients1.
There are several other plants, herbs, and vegetables that are used across the Caribbean that share medicinal value with Ayurveda. Haridra (turmeric), one of the most popular Ayurvedic herbs, in African and Caribbean Medicine is used as an astringent diuretic, to prevent gas and to stimulate blood flow in the pelvic area. It is also said to enhance mental functioning and well-being. In Haiti it is used to treat fevers with jaundice. In Guyana and other South American countries like Peru, it is used internally to treat hepatitis and malaria, and is also used externally for herpes, bruises, wounds, and rheumatism. In Bolivia, turmeric is used for mental health, to prevent excessive menstrual pain, and for scurvy. In Trinidad and Tobago, turmeric’s use has also extended into veterinary medicine2.
Castor oil is also a well-known medicinal product in Ayurveda. In Jamaica, once the toxic parts of the castor seed are removed from the shrub, the seeds can be used to produce a richly colored black castor oil. The black castor oil is used as a laxative, to purge children of intestinal worms; it is also an abortifacient. Warmed black castor oil is widely used in Jamaica to soothe ear aches, excessive earwax, eye conditions, and to clean and treat wounds. It is used to treat biliousness and is also extremely popular in treating hair and skin conditions. Black castor oil is also known for its anti-tumor and anti-microbial properties. The leaves of the plant are used in bush baths and poultices for relief of headaches, stomachaches, arthritis, and other rheumatic conditions3.
Taste is a fundamental principle in Caribbean natural medicine as it is in Ayurveda. The bitter rasa is highly valued for its therapeutic effects by Ayurvedic physicians and practitioners. In fact, Dr. Robert Sobvoda quotes Dr. Vasant Lad saying, “Bitter is better”4. In the Caribbean, wild rice bitters are valued for the medicinal benefits associated with its bitter taste. The naturally occurring organic chemicals that are bitter work to boost the immune system and work against many diseases. Wild rice bitters are useful in the treatment of cancer, inflammation, kidney stones, and respiratory infections. It is also said to have sedative effects and helps to relieve pain5.
In some parts of the Caribbean, wild rice bitters are considered to be in the same family with bitter melon and neem in terms of bitter taste. When speaking about childhood in Guyana, older Guyanese people will often recall that they used to pick the neem that grew wild and abundant, and bring it home to be boiled whole in the coal pot. The tea would have a strong bitter taste with purgative effects, typically used as an internal cleanse. Beverages and bush teas made from the green parts of rice bitters and other bitter herbs like neem are frequently taken to treat illnesses such as colds, fevers, diabetes, diarrhea, dysentery, constipation, and high blood pressure. They are also highly regarded in terms of dermatological care and blood purification, and used to bathe skin ulcers and sores6.
Bitter cassava, sour sop, castor oil, bitter melon, turmeric, and neem provide just a few examples amongst an array of medicines that demonstrate the cultural fusions that continue to occur in the development of herbalism in South America and the Caribbean.
The manas prakruti in a core concept of Ayurvedic Psychology and mental health. Outside of herbal medical applications, members of the African diaspora in general tend to rely heavily on mind-body medicine, qualities of mind, and the approach of healing mental states through faith-based activities. Faith healing, particularly for mental disorders, works as a form of alternative medicine7. The ready acceptance of mind-body medicine in cultures of African heritage has made the fusion of Ayurvedic psychological principles and Caribbean medicine that much easier.
This reliance on faith healing amongst Caribbean populations is not unique to the English-speaking islands, but is also highly valued in French- and Spanish-speaking islands. For example, faith healing is very popular in Puerto Rico, a Caribbean island and US commonwealth territory. Puerto Ricans frequently use medicinal cassera (naturopathic healing modalities) in conjunction with faith healing (espiritismo), where the control of the mind is essential in the healing of the body8. Such faith healing traditions that incorporate mind-body medicine are an historical necessity in South American and Caribbean cultures to survive the turbulent history of cultural contact and exchange in the region.
Like India, most independent Caribbean economies are medium-income, but economic conditions lend to an abundance of lifestyle diseases. In 2010, The University of the West Indies held an international symposium in conjunction with the High Commission of India, concluding that Trinidad and Tobago, a high-income economy and leader in the region, must advance Ayurveda and bush medicine in South America and the Caribbean to mitigate the impact of poor health economics. Additionally, island economies depend on tourism, with health and wellness tourism forming a part of this economic niche. Health and wellness retreats flourish in islands such as Dominica, Tobago, Antigua, Anguilla, and throughout the region. Consequently, regional organizations such as the Caribbean Tourism Organization seek to harness the market through standardization of healing practices.
Creating a recognizable and viable system of natural medicine in the Caribbean has its challenges largely because this method of health care has flourished precisely because of its non-institutional character and its universal accessibility. An additional barrier is the tumultuous nature of Caribbean history itself, particularly following the independence era that began in the 1960s. Most islands experienced independence around this time, with the exception of regions such as Haiti and a few other islands that remain French, British, or American colonies. Caribbean nationhood has further unveiled many economic and socio-political difficulties, including racial rivalries between Afro-Caribbeans, Indo-Caribbeans, and other ethnicities. Yet, herbal medicinal practices have breached these racial divides. So, while the regional political machinery continues to debate over the best methods to implement universal health care, some form of universal care is in practice on the ground as the everyday person continues to use natural methods to care for themselves and their families.
Article written by Sai Ayurvedic College's very own student graduate, Xenobia N. Delgado, PhD, Certified Ayurvedic Counselor. Article also appeared in ayurvedanama.org
1 Badrie, Neela, and Alexander G Schauss. Sour sop (Annona Muricata L.): Composition, Nutritional Value, and Medicinal Products in Promoting Health. Oxford: Academic Press, 2009 (621-643).
2 The Natural Standard: The Authority on Integrative Medicine. “Traditional Uses for Turmeric” www.naturalstandard.com, 2011.
3 Warner, Monica. Herbal Plants of Jamaica. Oxford: MacMillan Caribbean 2007. 85-89
4 Sobvoda, Robert. Prakruti: Your Ayurvedic Constitution. Wisconsin: Lotus Press. 25
5 Warner, Monica. Herbal Plants of Jamaica. Oxford: MacMillan Caribbean 2007. 139-40.
7 Amanda T. Woodward, Ph.D., Kai M. Bullard, Ph.D., Robert J. Taylor, Ph.D., Linda M. Chatters, Ph.D., Raymond E. Baser, M.S., Brian E. Perron, Ph.D. and James S. Jackson, Ph.D. “Complimentary and Alternative Medicine for Mental Disorders Among African Americans, Black Caribbeans, and Whites”. American Psychiatric Association. Psychiatric Service V. 60: 1342-1349. 2008.
8 “Caribbean Folk-Medicine: An Alternative or Complement to Biomedical Health Care“ https://www2.bc.edu/~rusch/Jonah.htm. Accessed October 2011.