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Posts tagged ‘squash’

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 (

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.


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.

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.