by Mark Yokoyama

In a notebook of medical treatments used on St. Martin in the early 1800s, there are quite a few recipes made from ingredients purchased abroad. Many of those compounds are things we know are poisonous. Others were plant-based ingredients from around the world that were brought into the western medicine of the time.

But the notebook also includes some remedies based on local plants. The source of these cures is not revealed, but plant medicine traditions in the Caribbean are rich. They come from African and Amerindian cultures, which have roots going back thousands of years.

“A cure for the most obstinate ulcer” is one of these plant cures: “Yellow prickle wood water must be used as a bath for the sore, after which you take the bark of the yellow prickle wood pounded & sifted fine & the sore sprinkled with it then apply over it a poultice of bread.”

Cures made from locally available ingredients would have big advantages over those that require imported chemicals. Imported goods were expensive and took a long time to arrive. It is not surprising to see local plants used in some cures.

Four o’clock blossoms and some young leaves are used in a poultice. For dropsy, a cure includes several plants: bitter root stinking weed, black dog root and white candle wood root. A tea to break a fever was made from stinging wind roots and black dog root.

Although many cures in the notebook are attributed to Dr. Allaway, these plant cures were not. It seems Allaway preferred his mercury and lead concoctions. A cure for stoppage of urine from Dr. Griffin of St. Kitts was made from plants: chicken weed root and white nicker root. The transfer of knowledge from black Caribbean people to white doctors was surely different from island to island and doctor to doctor.

By the time this notebook was written, the population of St. Martin was mostly people of African descent, both free and enslaved. These people had brought a rich tradition of plant medicine, and even many of the plants themselves. The most skilled doctor on the island was probably one of these people, although we don’t know their name or have a record of their work. They may have used dozens or even hundreds of local plants. Although their cures are not recorded in their book, some of them survived to this day via oral traditions.

Were plant cures passed down in your family? Share them by writing to The Daily Herald or [email protected]