My job at the University of the Virgin Islands is around the clock. I am constantly in demand by the local community, internationally and by universities and colleges on the U.S. mainland.
In the 1970s, I promised the late Gov. Cyril E. King that I would return home from college to give my skills to the people of the Virgin Islands. I kept that promise. However, one of the busiest times of the year for me at the university is the spring and summer.
Dr. Amy Forbes, professor of history at Millsage College and associate professor of academic information services at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, reached out to me about a month ago. She got my contact information from Dr. Alicia Odewale, an anthropology professor from the University of Tulsa, as I have lectured to her students on the natural and cultural history of the Virgin Islands, particularly the history of St. Croix. I gave two lectures this spring to Forbes’ students at UVI. One was on medicinal plants and another on the cultural history of hurricanes in the Virgin Islands.
The history of medicinal plants of the Virgin Islands is not just how to use them effectively to remedy an illness. Medicinal plants also are used to make beverages, season local food, and are found in folklore. In my lecture to the Millsage students, I mentioned the medicinal beverage of maubi and the cultural use of the plant. The Amerindian people of the Caribbean had been making maubi for thousands of years. The Kalinago, or “Island Caribs,” made two kinds of beer: maubi and ouicou.
Ouicou beer used to be made from mashed cassava, a plant native to South America. The Amerindians brought cassava to the Caribbean thousands of years ago. Besides using cassava to make ouicou beer, the Amerindians also used it to make bread, pancakes, etc. Maubi, which is part of the culture of the Virgin Islands and the wider Caribbean region, was made from sweet potatoes by the Amerindians.
“Mabi was made with cooked sweet potatoes, which Carib women chewed and spat into a large pot where the concoction would be allowed to ferment for one or two days with presumably some mabi bark and other spices or herbs thrown in. Afterwards it was diluted with water, strained, and consumed,” wrote Dr. Arnold R. Highfield in his book, “Sainte Croix 1650-1733: A Plantation Society in the French Antilles.” In Kalinago, or “Islands Carib,” maubi means “sweet potato.” In French Creole, it is beer that is made today with sugar and bark from the maubi tree, which gives the drink flavor. In the Virgin Islands Creole, the spelling is maubi.
Maubi remained popular on St. Croix during the period of French occupation. At every meal, the enslaved Africans and other poor people, particularly whites living on the island, would partake of maubi. It was considered a “poor man’s drink” due to the fact that many French households couldn’t afford to purchase wine or brandy for their meals.
Today, we prepare maubi somewhat differently, with sugar and spices instead of sweet potatoes. Besides a beverage made from the bark of the tree, the tree has many medicinal uses.
The leaves of the maubi tree (Colubrina elliptica) were used for treating gumboil and stomachache. The bark was also used as a tonic for treating itching, which was associated with fish poisoning, as well as for diabetes, liver problems, etc.
At the close of the 19th century, the coal carriers, women who carried coal in baskets on their heads to fuel the ships in Charlotte Amalie harbor, drank maubi. On the weekends, the women would drink maubi as a cleaning tonic to counteract the ill effects of inhaling the coal dust.
Amy Mackay’s cookbook, “Le Awe Cook,” a collection of authentic Crucian recipes, mentions the maubi beverage. She notes that culturally, maubi was consumed after the noon meal. According to Mackay, maubi is very nutritious and a great medicinal drink with several herbs, spices, bark, sugar, and yeast.
She notes that a leavening agent is required for the drink, which could be yeast or a portion of the maubi drink itself. She says that when the drink is made, it should be bottled but never corked because of the fermenting action of the leaven. Instead of corking, a funnel of waxed paper should be placed in the bottle opening, to allow the gases to escape. She also mentioned that the waxed paper should be removed now and again and replaced with a fresh piece until the foaming action has stopped. At this point, she said, the drink is ready to use. Mackay came from the old Crucian tradition when she said maubi is best made in an enamel pot, about a 5-quart size.
Believe me, what was missing from my lecture to the students of Mississippi was a cold glass of maubi drink.
— Olasee Davis, St. Croix, is an ecologist at the University of the Virgin Islands. He is active in Virgin Islands historical, cultural and environmental preservation, and he leads the St. Croix Hiking Association’s hikes focused on those topics.