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The Columbian Exchange in Africa

Two years ago, I attended a conference organised by the British Academy on the current vogue for global history. It ended with a discussion on the pitfalls of the field and one of the panellists – a distinguished historian of African history – made the important point that much of which goes under the name of ‘global history’ is simply European or North American history spiced up with a few references to India or China. Africa, and to a lesser extent, South America and Australia tend not to get much of a look in. During the discussion, an economic historian managed to earn himself the hatred of every Africanist in the room by remarking that Africa is indeed deeply important to global history. How else, he asked, would historians write prehistory?

This is such a daft remark that I really don’t want to devote any space to disproving it, but, unfortunately, it does provide at least some explanation for the neglect of Africa in global history: most European and North American historians tend to know very little about African history, and, if they do, it’s only through the prisms of the Atlantic slave trade and imperial conquest. Food history – which is usually seen as an offshoot of global history – is as guilty in this regard.

One of the reasons for the absence of Africa in food history – other than the fact that only a very small handful of African historians write about food – is that Africa is not seen as having been part of that founding moment of food history, the Columbian Exchange. Although not directly implicated in it, Africa did certainly experience the effects of the exchange. I think that taking a closer look at the place of food in African colonial encounter – and food, as I argued here, played a similar role in Africa as it did in South America – sheds some light on the nature of the Columbian Exchange.

Jan van Riebeeck, the Dutch East India Company’s first commander of its outpost in the Cape, noted carefully the seeds which he brought with him from Europe and planted in the Cape: radishes, peas, chickpeas, cabbages, lettuce, beans, watercress, wheat, melons, barley, carrots, chervil, parsley, beetroot, spinach, cauliflower, turnips, fennel, cucumbers, quince, and pumpkins. He hoped to import more fruit trees, and contemplated the chances of introducing rice. Despite planting the crops in the middle of winter and forgetting to fence them in – meaning that baboons and other animals feasted on the seedlings – the employees of the DEIC managed to supplement the bread, rice, and salted meat which they had brought with them to the Cape with fresh produce. They even had enough of a surplus to provide some passing ships with vegetables.

In terms of the Columbian Exchange, the choice of plants which Van Riebeeck and his crew brought to the Cape are interesting. They were almost identical to those which Columbus took to the Americas during his second voyage in 1494: wheat, chickpeas, melons, onions, radishes, lettuce, grapevines, and sugar cane. These crops flourished selectively, though. Olives and grapevines took root only in Chile and Peru, for example. In Mexico, wine and wheat didn’t prove to be popular, but Mexica women added European salad ingredients to the small gardens they cultivated to supplement their families’ diets and to sell at market.

With around seventy years separating Columbus and Van Riebeeck’s voyages, the similarity of their crops is striking. With the sole exception of beans and pumpkins, Van Riebeeck took exclusively the crops of the Old World to the Cape. For the modern reader, the absence of potatoes and maize are particularly inexplicable. Corn and potatoes are nutritious, good sources of energy, and grow relatively well in adverse conditions. Both crops demonstrate, though, the extent to which the uptake of new foodstuffs during and after the Columbian Exchange was an uneven one.

Jeffrey Pilcher notes that ‘Although a global process, the Columbian Exchange was nevertheless negotiated at the local level.’ By this he means that the popularity of the foods taken to and from South America was determined by a range of factors, from the ecological to the cultural. Squash and beans – which were similar to more familiar foodstuffs – were quickly incorporated into European diets. In contrast, potatoes and maize were first fed to animals. Potatoes, in particular, came to be associated with famine. Potatoes were only cultivated in Britain on a large scale from the late eighteenth century onwards as a result of bad grain harvests and population growth. Economists and agriculturalists urged the government to order farmers to plant potatoes alongside wheat to ensure a food supply when the harvest failed. Thomas Malthus railed against this, arguing that potatoes fuelled unsustainable population growth which would, in the end, result in more famine. (England proved him wrong. Ireland didn’t.)

In France, the connection between potatoes and famine was broken shortly before the French Revolution. One of the vegetable’s greatest proponents, the scientist Antoine-Augustin Parmentier (yes, as in pommes and potage parmentier), presented a bouquet of potato flowers to Louis XVI, who then placed one of the purple blooms on Marie Antoinette’s wig. This was a signal that potatoes were now high fashion. The leaves and flowers of the potato plant are actually highly poisonous, so who knows how French history would have turned out had Louis or Marie Antoinette, neither of them the sharpest knife in the picnic basket, decided to nibble one of Parmentier’s plants…. The various revolutionary governments maintained this enthusiasm for potatoes, which isn’t surprising considering that France, along with the rest of Europe, experienced a series of food shortages and famines during the late 1700s. The Committee of Public Safety had the flowerbeds of the Tuileries gardens ploughed and planted with potatoes in 1794.

Maize was cultivated more quickly in Europe. It was grown in Spain and Portugal by 1524, and in the form of polenta soon became part of the southern European peasant diet. It was this association with peasants that prevented maize from spreading more widely. But the crop proved to be incredibly popular outside of Europe: it was taken up rapidly throughout the Middle East, arriving in Lebanon and Syria in the 1520s where it helped spur population growth. From here it moved to northern India and the Chinese provinces of Sichuan and Yunnan by the seventeenth century. Seen as a cheap foodstuff ideal for feeding slaves, maize was introduced to West Africa by Portuguese traders in the 1500s and spread rapidly throughout the continent. This was not the only New World product to find favour in Africa: peanuts, chillies, and sweet potatoes were also assimilated into local cuisines.

As far as I can see, maize seems to have arrived in what is now South Africa during the eighteenth century, and given European food trends, it seems likely that potatoes were first planted then in the Cape as well. The African experience of the Exchange demonstrates the extent to which it was dependent not only on ecology and patterns of human migration, but also on cultural assumptions about race and class.

Further Reading

Texts quoted here:

Jeffrey M. Pilcher, Food in World History (New York and London: Routledge, 2006).

Jeffrey M. Pilcher, iQue vivan los tamales! Food and the Making of Mexican Identity (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1998).

Other sources:

Alfred W. Crosby, The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492 (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1972).

James Walvin, ‘Feeding the People: The Potato,’ in Fruits of Empire: Exotic Produce and British Taste, 1660-1800 (Basingstoke and London: Macmillan, 1997).

Redcliffe Salaman, The History and Social Influence of the Potato, revised ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985).

Arturo Warman, Corn and Capitalism: How a Botanical Bastard Grew to Global Dominance, trans. Nancy L. Westrate (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003).

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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2 Comments Post a comment
  1. This is so fascinating. Just this week I was wondering when exactly maize was introduced to the country, and now I know. It’s also amazing to consider that potatoes, so utterly delicious and versatile, were initially seen as peasant food and shunned by the rest. Stupid buggers.

    March 4, 2011
    • Stupid buggers indeed!

      I’m so glad you found the post interesting. I’m also fascinated by the fact that the cultural assumptions around a particular foodstuff can have more of an impact on its popularity than its flavour.

      March 5, 2011

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