Judith A. Carney, “African Rice in the Columbian Exchange” Journal of African History 42, no. 3 (2001): 377-390
Judith Carney is Professor of Geography at UCLA whose research deals with Africa and the African agricultural legacy in the Americas. Her work brings together research on African ecology and development, the African diaspora, food, and the environment.
The decades following 1492 launched an unparalleled exchange of crops in what has become known as the Columbian exchange. In underscoring the significance of maritime expansion for global seed exchanges, scholarship on the Columbian exchange has drawn attention to the critical role of Europeans in revolutionizing transoceanic food systems with the introduction of Amerindian and Asian seeds to Africa. Relatively little attention, however, has been directed to the African plant domesticates that also figured in the Columbian exchange. This neglect is surprising for several reasons. Africans domesticated several life-sustaining cereals; crops grown in Africa routinely provisioned the slave ships that delivered at least eleven million forced migrants to the New World; and the establishment of many African staples in the Americas resulted from the deliberate cultivation by slaves of preferred food crops. . . . This article seeks to correct a longstanding distortion in the literature on the Columbian exchange. . . . .
. . . The scholarship on the Columbian exchange draws attention to the plant transfers. . . but. . . Africa is cast as a recipient rather than donor to transoceanic seed transfers. . . . Yet African food crops had provisioned the slave ships that traversed the Middle Passage of Atlantic slavery for some 350 years, and the establishment of these crops in the Americas profoundly shaped regional cuisines. . . .
. . . Commentaries by captains and surgeons on slave ships reveal that surplus food produced in Africa disproportionately fed the human cargoes forced across the Middle Passage, including such African domesticates as sorghum, millet, rice, yams, tamarind, melegueta pepper, and palm oil. . . .
. . . The conventional view of African crops in intercontinental plant exchanges echoes through the words of historian Orlando Ribeiro: 'Brazil supplied maize, beans, cassava, cashew, papaya and pineapples; India, rice, coconuts... Africa... provided nothing important.’ . . .
. . . By privileging European seed introductions over the foundation of the knowledge system that slaves and maroons drew upon to adapt preferred food plants to diverse environments, scholarship has ignored a significant narrative of the Columbian exchange. The establishment of rice cultivation in the New World represents an African legacy, as millions enslaved from the West African area of rice domestication were already expert in the cereal's cultivation, having mastered its complexities more than a thousand years before the first Europeans arrived on that continent.