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African Rice

I’ve recently finished lecturing an undergraduate course on African history up until 1914. It’s one of my favourite areas to teach, partly because students – even South African ones – tend to have very little knowledge about the continent’s past.

In fact, it’s often quite difficult to persuade them that there is a pre-colonial African history to study and teach. Now, most people would be horrified by the racism which underpinned Hugh Trevor-Roper’s 1963 assertion that

Perhaps in the future there will be some African history to teach. But at present there is none, or very little: there is only the history of Europe in Africa. The rest is largely darkness.

But there’s still a relatively widespread belief that not only were African societies not subject to change over time – that their ways of life remained static over the course of several centuries – but that only anthropologists have the requisite skills to study Africans and their past.

This is all nonsense, of course. Since the early 1960s, an extraordinarily rich and varied body of work on African history has been produced by scholars working all over the world. More recently, and particularly as global history has emerged as a popular field, historians have begun to examine the links between the continent and other parts of the world.

Far from being isolated until the arrival of Portuguese traders in the fifteenth century, Africans have long had contact with foreigners. For instance, the trade in gold and salt across the Sahara from around the second and third centuries onwards, connected African kingdoms in the Sahel with the Islamic world.

Too often accounts of, particularly European, contact with Africa describe this trade as benefitting only one side of the exchange: that a plundering of Africa’s natural resources in exchange for beads, alcohol, or muskets deliberately bamboozled Africans into giving up incredibly precious ivory or gold for objects of considerably lesser value.

This was not entirely the case. One of the best ways to understand the complex history of exchange between Africans and traders and other visitors from Europe and Asia is – naturally, dear readers – through food.

Since the second and third centuries AD, the east coast of Africa was part of an international trading network which extended around the Indian Ocean. As Africans came into contact with Arab traders, goods, languages, ideas, and people arrived and left this long coastline over the course of nearly a millennium. During this period, African crops – including millet, sorghum, okra, and watermelon – were taken to the Middle East, India, and beyond. In return, coconut palms, sugarcane, and bananas were introduced to the continent.

Coffee from Ethiopia probably reached Yemen – via the port of Mocha – during the sixth century. Here, Yemenis roasted, rather than fermented, coffee beans, and the drink spread slowly around the Middle East, Turkey, and North Africa. When Europeans discovered that it could be made more palatable with the addition of milk and sugar, it became popular in Europe in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Coffee plantations established in Dutch and French colonies in southeast Asia and the Caribbean during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries helped to fuel the growth of these European economies.

Sometime between the eighth and twelfth centuries, Oryza sativa, or Asian rice, was introduced to east Africa from India. Muslim traders were probably responsible for the earliest cultivation of rice in Kenya, and migrants from Malaysia and Indonesia brought rice to Madagascar.

All this occurred long before 1492, the year of Christopher Columbus’s crossing of the Atlantic to the Americas, and the beginning of the Columbian exchange. Although there was a significant circulation of crops around the Indian Ocean and Mediterranean worlds, the Columbian Exchange holds a particular significance in histories of food and medicine: it describes the introduction of livestock, European and Asian crops – predominantly wheat – and diseases like syphilis and smallpox to the Americas, and the gradual cultivation of New World staples – maize, potatoes, tomatoes, squash, beans – in Europe, Asia, and Africa.

Judith A. Carney writes:

Within decades of the arrival of Columbus in the Americas, the New World domesticate, maize, was being planted in West Africa. Other Amerindian staples soon followed, such as manioc, sweet potatoes, capsicum peppers, tomatoes, peanuts, cashew nuts, pineapple, pumpkins, squash, and tobacco. The early establishment of maize as a food staple in West and Central Africa illuminates the radical transformation of African agricultural systems wrought by the Columbian exchange.

By the time that the transatlantic slave trade reached its height during the eighteenth century, maize cultivation was widespread throughout west Africa, and was a staple for slaves shipped across to the Americas.

Slaves took with them not only their own languages, cultural practises, and social structures – but also their knowledge of agricultural production. African rice, Oryza glaberrima, had been grown in west Africa since long before the arrival of Asian rice on the east coast of the continent. Carney explains:

Muslim scholars reaching the western Sudan from North Africa in the eleventh century found an already well developed system of rice cultivation in the inland delta of the Niger Delta and a robust regional trade in surpluses. The domestication of glaberrima rice in West Africa was thus established centuries before Asian sativa arrived in East Africa.

It was slaves taken from these regions who used their expertise in rice production in the Americas, and particularly successfully in South Carolina. The cultivation of rice had begun there in the 1690s, and by the eighteenth century, was the source of significant revenue for the colony. There is compelling evidence to suggest that African slaves used the same irrigation and planting systems that they had in west Africa, in South Carolina. Far from being only the labour which worked the plantations in the Americas, they were also responsible for establishing a successful system of rice cultivation.

Labourers on a rice plantation, South Carolina, 1895 (http://www.niu.edu/~rfeurer/labor/chronological.html)

African slaves also pioneered the cultivation of a range of other crops, including black-eyed peas, okra, yams, and watermelons. Perhaps the best example of the circulation of crops around the Atlantic world was the peanut: introduced to west Africa from South America by the 1560s, it was taken to North America by African slaves during the eighteenth century.

What all of this demonstrates is not only that Africa and Africans have participated in global trading networks for centuries, but that they shaped food production in the Americas.

One of the many narratives peddled by foreign coverage of Africa is that the continent’s salvation – whatever we may mean by that – lies in outside intervention: in Nicholas Kristof’s ‘bridge characters’ (foreign aid workers, volunteers), or in elaborate packages created by the IMF or other international organisations.

This narrative is predicated on the wholly incorrect belief that Africans have, historically, been acted upon – have had change thrust upon them – rather than being actors themselves. As an understanding of the transfer of agricultural knowledge and produce across the Atlantic from the seventeenth century onwards demonstrates, this could not have been further from the truth.

Sources

Judith A. Carney, ‘African Rice in the Columbian Exchange,’ Journal of African History, vol. 42, no. 3 (2001), pp. 377-396.

Judith A. Carney, ‘From Hands to Tutors: African Expertise in the South Carolina Rice Economy,’ Agricultural History, vol. 67, no. 3 (Summer 1993), pp. 1-30.

Judith A. Carney, ‘The Role of African Rice and Slaves in the History of Rice Cultivation in the Americas,’ Human Ecology, vol. 26, no. 4 (Dec. 1998), pp. 525-545.

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

Food Links, 29.08.2012

The hidden costs of hamburgers.

What can American’s healthcare system learn from Cheesecake Factory?

A former McDonald’s executive opens a chain of health food restaurants.

Baking bread in Beirut.

What Ireland eats every night.

The terrible tragedy of the healthy eater.

San Francisco has the largest number of restaurants per household in the US.  New Orleans has the most bars.

Favourite dishes from countries competing in the Olympics.

Are Japan’s eel restaurants in danger? (Thanks, Mum!)

Dan Lepard‘s pop-up bakery.

Paying with maple syrup.

Arabella Boxer’s Book of English Food.

Woman vs (bread) machine.

So what *do* Britons call their mealtimes? (Thanks, Anupama!)

Bolivia seeks to expel Coca Cola.

How to make mole.

How to pick the perfect mealie.

Lamb biryani.

Seedless watermelon?

Early Modern recipes for medicine.

Imogen Heap sings Chladni lines into salt.

Red wine and coke.

Lake Trout, a deliberately crappy restaurant. In Williamsburg. Obviously.

A profile of Anita Lo, New York chef. (Thanks, Carl!)

Putting the ‘h’ back into ‘yoghurt‘.

British icons in biscuits.

New York’s biggest roof-top farm. (Thanks, Rafaella!)

Microwave turkish delight.

Four new flavours of ice cream.

Cake.

A pop-up shop which, quite literally, pops up.

Lobster and caviar burgers.

Dangerous Bodies

On Saturday I was part of Cape Town’s SlutWalk. A local manifestation of a global movement which emerged in response to a Toronto policeman’s daft comments about rape and women’s ‘slutty’ choice of clothes in January this year, Cape Town’s SlutWalk was a resounding success. It was the most fun, friendly, and good natured march I’ve ever been on. According to the Mail & Guardian and – hurrah! – the Washington Post, about 2,000 people marched from Prestwich Memorial to Green Point stadium. I really was impressed by the numbers of men there, and by the range of ages represented by the marchers. (This is my report for FeministsSA.)

The posters were brilliant, and people came dressed in ball gowns, angel wings, bunny ears, leotards, jeans and t-shirts, fishnets and thigh-high boots, and (almost) nothing at all. In many ways, it was a typically Capetonian event: we gathered outside hip Truth Coffee beforehand, and the march began half an hour late. It was also overwhelmingly middle-class and, really, for an anti-rape protest to make any sense in Cape Town, it should have been in Khayelitsha or Manenberg.

But I don’t want to detract from the success of the event. In particular, I hope that it’ll prove to be the basis for a campaign against street harassment. SlutWalk is, inadvertently, a protest against the constant low-level harassment of women in public spaces. I was, though, deeply unsettled by the vitriol aimed at SlutWalk when it was announced that South African marches were in the offing. Commentators on SlutWalk Cape Town’s Facebook page accused the organisers of being irresponsible, stupid, and of contributing to – rather than solving – the problem of victim blaming.

If anything, those remarks demonstrated the extent to which women are still held responsible for rape. One particularly unpleasant contributor insisted that only one per cent of all reported rapes are ‘genuine’ – the rest, he alleged, are simply made up by women. What many of these angry men (and they were mainly men) had in common was a fear of a group of scantily-clad women marching together in public: a belief that the amount of naked flesh on display would have – alas undefined – catastrophic ramifications for the women on the march.

Another commentator explained that she opposed the event because she prefers women to ‘have a little mystery’ about them. Unfortunately, she didn’t specify if this was to be achieved by wearing false moustaches, speaking in strange foreign accents, or investing in trench coats.

Women’s bodies, argue the anti-Slutwalk brigade, need to be covered and contained. Because female nakedness is usually sexualised, it’s seen as excessive, dangerous, and disruptive. Clothing is, then, one way of controlling women in patriarchal societies. We are told to cover ourselves up for our own good – because our bodies exercise too powerful an influence over terminally suggestible, weak-willed men.

Food is another means of exercising control over women. As I’ve written in the past, the current vogue for cupcakes is partly the product of the fact that they are the acceptable face of feminine eating: they’re small, childlike (indeed, they’re children’s party food), and pretty – like the women who are supposed to eat them. (I should like to add, for the record, that after SlutWalk, my friends and I picnicked and feasted on cheesecake, samoosas, egg sandwiches, naartjies, as well as breast-shaped cupcakes.)

This link between women’s diet and the control of their bodies can be traced to the eighteenth century. A few weeks ago, I mentioned the influential Enlightenment physician George Cheyne (1671-1743), whose writing on health and eating was not only extraordinarily popular among the English upper classes, but was also partly responsible for a shift in the understanding of the ideal physical form during the 1750s. Partly as a result of Cheyne’s own obesity, he associated excess flesh with excessive behaviour and a kind of moral laxity. Whereas before, fleshiness had been a sign of good health, increasingly slimness was associated with physical and moral health, strength, and beauty.

Cheyne’s audience and the patients whom he treated at his fashionable practice in even more fashionable Bath, were primarily female. In a society where eating meat had long been associated with masculinity – and this had even deeper roots in the ancient humoral system which associated meat and spicy food with the blood, the most ‘manly’ of the four humors – Cheyne advocated the renunciation of all meat, and the adoption of a dairy-rich, vegetarian diet. Men, in other words, needed to eat like women.

During this period, the female body was slowly being reconceptualised as being more delicate – more easily upset – than the male body, and also ruled by the unpredictable emotions, rather than the rational, sober intellect. Although gendered, this emotions-intellect binary did not necessarily privilege the one over the other: the Romantic cult of sensibility celebrated the emotional and irrational, for example. But male and female bodies – or, more accurately, middle-class male and female bodies – needed to be fed differently.

Cheyne was unusual in his implacable opposition to meat-eating, but he and other physicians were united in the belief that a moderate diet was essential for good health – and this was particularly important for women. Cheyne became interested in the ‘nervous’ complaints which seemed to plague his female patients, and connected their diet to their psychological well-being. Essentially, the less women ate, the better. Anita Guerrini explains:

Cheyne’s audience, the aristocracy and new merchant class that frequented Bath, was also the audience for William Law’s exhortations in his popular devotional work A Serious Call (1728). He provided contrasting models of female character in the ‘maiden sisters’ Flavia and Miranda, who ‘have each of them two hundred pounds a year,’ a comfortable middle-class income. While Flavia spent her income on clothes, luxurious foods, sweetmeats, and entertainment, the ascetic Miranda ate only enough to keep herself alive and spent her income on charity. Miranda, said Law, ‘will never have her eyes swell with fatness, or pant under a heavy load of flesh;’ such excess flesh was not only morally depraved, it was physically disgusting. Cheyne’s patients, like the doctor himself, grew in spirit as they wasted in flesh.

During the 1720s, Catherine, the adolescent daughter of British Prime Minister Robert Walpole, was referred to Cheyne because of his specialisation in nutrition and nervous diseases. She suffered from loss of appetite, fainting, and chronic pain, and died in 1722 aged eighteen. Cheyne tried his best to treat her, but could not find a way of making her eat more.

This association of femininity – of physical and moral beauty – and not eating persisted into the nineteenth century and, I would suggest, into the present. Even though we have records which indicate that people, and particularly young women, have purposefully starved themselves to death since the Middle Ages and usually for religious reasons, anorexia nervosa was isolated as a specific ailment by William Withey Gull (1816-1890) in a paper he presented to the Clinical Society of London on 24 October 1873. He argued that this ‘peculiar form of disease occurring mostly in young women, and characterised by extreme emaciation’ was not a symptom of the catch-all feminine disorder ‘hysteria’, but a separate condition with its own symptoms and treatment.

As Joan Jacobs Brumberg notes, this identification of anorexia nervosa occurred within a wider cultural concern about the phenomenon of ‘fasting girls’: young, adolescent women who denied themselves food on religious grounds. Sarah Jacob from Wales claimed that her piety was such that she was able to live without eating.

Some British doctors regarded Sarah Jacob’s claim to total abstinence as a simple fraud and, therefore, an affront to science… Consequently, they called for a watch, with empirical standards, which deprived the girl of all food and, not surprisingly, killed her within 10 days because she was already severely undernourished. Some British doctors attributed Sarah Jacob’s condition to girlhood hysteria, provoked by religious enthusiasm and her celebrity status.

In other words, girls’ decision to starve themselves moved from the realm of religion or mysticism, to science and medicine. It was a disorder which could be described and treated. For example, the French psychiatrist Charles Lasegue (1816-1883) suggested that anorexia should be treated by examining the dynamics of middle-class family class. He

noted the difficult relation between anorectics and their parents but went on to elaborate how the girl obsessively pursued a peculiar and inadequate diet-such as pickled cucumbers in cafe au lait – despite the threats and entreaties of her anxious parents. ‘The family has but two methods at its service which it always exhausts,’ he wrote, ‘entreaties and menaces …. The delicacies of the table are multiplied in the hope of stimulating the appetite, but the more solicitude increases the more the appetite diminishes’.

This shift was due to the increasing medicalisation of the body, and also the secularisation of public life. By the 1870s, doctors exercised the same – or even more – authority as ministers. But what had not changed over the course of eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was the association of femininity with eating very little.

Anorexia is caused by a range of factors, but the connection of ideal femininities with eating a restricted diet only exacerbates the condition. As rape isn’t really about sex, so anorexia isn’t entirely about food: it’s a manifestation of (mainly, but not exclusively) women’s attempts to exercise control over their circumstances through their bodies. Because of the wider, cultural approval of feminine thinness and not eating, these starving young women receive a kind of affirmation for their self-denial.

It’s easy to talk glibly about encouraging a ‘positive attitude’ towards food and eating. We can only achieve this when we acknowledge that women’s bodies are still perceived as dangerous – as needing to be contained by their clothes, kept pure by a range of hygiene products, and made small through dieting and exercise. This is why we still need feminism. In South Africa – where the ANC Women’s League and Lulu Xingwana‘s Department of Women, Children, and Disabled Persons have shown a singular lack of enthusiasm for leading a feminist movement – I hope that SlutWalk represents the beginnings of a new, stronger feminism.

Further Reading

Texts cited here:

Joan Jacobs Brumberg, ‘“Fasting Girls”: Reflections on Writing the History of Anorexia Nervosa,’ Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, vol. 50, no. 4/5, History and Research in Child Development (1985), pp. 93-104.

Anne Charlton, ‘Catherine Walpole (1703-22), an Eighteenth-Century Teenaged Patient: A Case Study from the Letters of the Physician George Cheyne (1671 or 73-1743),’ Journal of Medical Biography, vol. 18, no. 2 (May 2010), pp. 108-114.

Anita Guerrini, ‘The Hungry Soul: George Cheyne and the Construction of Femininity,’ Eighteenth-Century Studies, vol. 32, no. 3, Constructions of Femininity (Spring, 1999), pp. 279-291.

Erin O’Connor, ‘Pictures of Health: Medical Photography and the Emergence of Anorexia Nervosa,’ Journal of the History of Sexuality, vol. 5, no. 4 (Apr., 1995), pp. 535-572.

Roy Porter, Flesh in the Age of Reason: How the Enlightenment Transformed the Way We See Our Bodies and Souls (London: Penguin, [2003] 2004).

Martha J. Reineke, ‘“This Is My Body”: Reflections on Abjection, Anorexia, and Medieval Women Mystics,’ Journal of the American Academy of Religion, vol. 58, no. 2 (Summer, 1990), pp.245-265.

Edward Shorter, ‘The First Great Increase in Anorexia Nervosa,’ Journal of Social History, vol. 21, no. 1 (Autumn, 1987), pp. 69-96.

Other sources:

I. de Garine, Food, Diet, and Economic Change Past and Present (Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1993).

Sander L. Gilman, Fat: A Cultural History of Obesity (Cambridge: Polity, 2008).

Harvey A. Levenstein, ‘The Perils of Abundance: Food, Health, and Morality in American History,’ in Food: A Culinary History from Antiquity to the Present, eds. Jean-Louis Flandrin and Massimo Montanari, English ed. by Albert Sonnenfeld (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), pp. 516-529.

Harvey A. Levenstein, Revolution at the Table: The Transformation of the American Diet (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988).

Susie Orbach, ‘Interpreting Starvation,’ in Consuming Passions: Food in the Age of Anxiety, eds. Sian Griffiths and Jennifer Wallace (Manchester: Mandolin, 1998), pp. 133-139.

Kerry Segrave, Obesity in America, 1850-1939: A History of Social Attitudes and Treatment (Jefferson, NC,: McFarlane, 2008).

Peter N. Stearns, Fat History: Bodies and Beauty in the Modern West (New York: New York University Press, 1997).

Doris Wit, Black Hunger: Food and the Politics of US Identity (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).

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