Zanzibar Heat and Other African Chiles

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Zanzibar, 1897

In the Kew Bulletin (1892, p. 88) the following information respecting chillies was given in an article on the Agricultural Resources of Zanzibar, contributed by Sir John Kirk, G.C.M.G., K.C.B. :—

“The small red peppers or chillies are largely grown in the more dry and rocky part of the island, where the upheaved coral presents a honeycombed surface that favours the accumulation of rich soil in the crevices. The pods are picked when ripe, sundried, and packed in mat bags made of the split frond of the Hyphaene palm for shipment. This is an industry that has sprung up within the last 30 years.”

Zanzibar chillies, as they appear in the market in a dry state, are small, red, thin, carrot-shaped fruits about an inch in length.

The following further particulars are contained in a Report on the Spice and other Cultivation of Zanzibar and Pemba (F. O. Report, 1802, Misc. Series, No. 22G).

The pepper plant growing on the island is Capsicum minimum, usually termed the ‘shrubby capsicum,’ and producing the bird’s-eye chillies forming the basis of cayenne pepper. This is to be found in a small degree in every shamba, but the principal source from which the annual exports are derived is the eastern side of Zanzibar, and the cultivation here is chiefly in the hands of the Wahadinu people.

“Judging from observations made during my brief visit to this portion of the island, east of Dunga, the chillie cultivation struck me as being of a very scattered nature, generally small isolated patches from half to one or two acres in extent, and combined with tobacco, tomato, pumpkins, etc. I regret my inability to quote the annual total exports, but I believe they are large, and an undoubted source of revenue. As the chillie is, as yet, the only product of any value grown in this less favoured portion of the island, I consider that this cultivation could be extended, and that a little fostering care might be productive of much advantage. It is a cultivation easily carried on, and calling for no special trouble or skill, and the returns are certain and profitable. At present the people are so blind to their own interests as to purposely depreciate the value of this product. I understand that through fear of possible shortage by theft on the way down, owners actually damp the chillies before dispatching, and it is often necessary, on their reaching the Government Customs godowns, to dry them as quickly as is possible as the only chance of saving them.

“Another variety of pepper (Capsicum annuum) bearing a larger red and yellow pod is also cultivated, but the produce from this is all consumed locally.”

The latest account of Zanzibar chillies is contained in the Report of Mr. Consul Cave on the Trade and Commerce of Zanzibar for the year 1897 (Foreign Office, 1898, No. 2129, Annual Series): “The production of chillies has risen from 16,336 frasilas [about 35 pounds] in 1896 to 17,698 frasilas in 1897, an increase of 47,670 lbs. The average price was 2 dol. 37 c. per frasila, as against 2 dol. 57 c. per frasila during the previous year. A better price than this could doubtless be obtained for Zanzibar produce if a little more care and attention were devoted to its cultivation and harvesting, but up to the present time it has been allowed to grow almost wild on the coral outcrop which covers the eastern portion of the island, and the slight personal discomfort which attends the handling of pods prevents the native from exercising any care in its picking and subsequent preparation for market. Attempts have lately been made to obtain a better sample on ground which has been specially cleared and prepared for the purpose, but the results are not yet to hand.”

From: The Kew Bulletin, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. H. M. Stationery Office., 1897.

Angola, 1875

Chili pepper is the universal condiment of the natives of Angola, and it is only one species, with a small pointed fruit about half an inch long, that is used. It grows everywhere in the greatest luxuriance as a fine bush loaded with bunches of the pretty bright green and red berries. It seems to come up spontaneously around the huts and villages, and is not otherwise planted or cultivated. It is eaten either freshly-gathered or after being dried in the sun. It has a most violent hot taste, but the natives consume it in incredible quantities; their stews are generally of a bright-red colour from the quantity of this pepper added, previously ground on a hollow stone with another smaller round one. Their cookery is mostly a vehicle for conveying this Chili pepper, and the “infundi” is dipped into it for a flavour.

Eating such quantities of this hot pepper often affects the action of the heart, and I remember once having to hire a black to carry the load of one of my carriers, who was unable to bear it from strong palpitation of the heart, brought on from the quantity of Chili pepper he had eaten with his food.

From: Angola and the River Congo, Volume 1, by Joachim John Monteiro. London: Macmillan, 1875.


Congo, 1877

Pepper.—The common black pepper was common at Nyangwe. Chilies, large and small, are found everywhere; and in Manyuema and Urua there grows a pepper so excessively hot that Arabs who would eat bird’s-eye chilies by handfuls were unable to touch it. It is a small, round, red fruit about the size of a marble.

From: Across Africa, by Verney Lovett Cameron and Daniel Oliver.  London: Daldy, Isbister & Co., 1877.


The Journal d’Agriculture Tropicale for April 30th contains an article on the cultivation of capsicums and chillies in tropical countries. These peppers (called generically in French piments) reach the English market chiefly from tropical Africa, Natal, Japan, India and Nepaul. Botanically, the two species which furnish the red peppers of commerce are Capsicum frutescens and Capsicum annuum. The former (in French piment enrage), is that from which Cayenne pepper is obtained; it is indigenous in tropical America, but now naturalised both in East and West Africa. It was introduced on the Zambesi by the Portuguese, and has spread to a considerable distance from their settlements, being cultivated by the natives, under the name of Sabola 1 in the Shire Highlands. Capsicum annuum (poivron) is also of South American origin, and exists in numerous varieties due to cultivation; the fruit is very variable in shape and colour, being yellow, purplish-black, or red. In all cases, however, it is less pungent than that of C. frutescens. The ” long red pepper,” with pods 8 to 10 cm. in length, is very common in North Africa, where it furnishes the filfil (felfel) of the Arabs. The peppers commercially known as ” capsicums ” are the pods of C. annuum, while “chillies” (imported from Zanzibar, Sierra Leone, Mombasa, Nyasaland, Nigeria and Japan) are those of C. frutescens. The capsicums imported from Natal are known as “Pod-pepper.” These peppers can be grown without difficulty in all hot countries where the soil is moderately rich (silicious clay is the best) and which are not liable to prolonged periods of drought. In Natal, the first pods can be gathered four months after planting, and the plants continue to yield for five or six months—sometimes longer—at the rate of three or four pickings a month. This industry derives its chief importance from local consumption and inter-colonial trade; the European market is too limited to justify cultivation on a large scale. Cultivation for export, however, would involve less risk, if capsicums were regarded as a secondary or intermediate crop, to be grown on a plantation along with the principal one—as natives plant groundnuts or other beans between the rows of their maize-gardens —in a country with favourable soil and climate. It would be necessary also to fix on a good type of plant, improve it by careful selection, and observe the greatest care, not only in cultivation, but in picking, drying and packing.

From: Journal of the African Society.  London: Macmillan, 1908.

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