The University Record, January 28, 2002

Carney offers historical taste of rice cultivation in America

By John Woodford
Michigan Today

The enslaved Africans who made rice the most lucrative crop in the Carolinas in early Colonial America did more than plant and harvest the crop, they provided the know-how for rice cultivation, too, a UCLA geographer said.

Under the prevailing concepts of the “Columbian Exchange” (the period of unparalleled crop exchanges from the 16th through 18th centuries), scholars have maintained that important crops were dispersed to Africa from the Americas, Asia or Europe,” said Judith Carney, professor of geography at UCLA. “But recent historical research has challenged the view that Africa was primarily a recipient, and contributed little more than labor to the agricultural history of the Americas.”

Citing the work of Peter Wood, W.O. Jones, R. Porteres, O. Ribeiro and other historians, Carney, who lectured on “Black Rice” Jan. 17 at the Center for African and Afroamerican Studies, said that West Africans were the source not only of the early strains of rice crops in the Americas but also of the techniques and “knowledge systems” required for achieving successful crops.

Africans in the Senegalese, Gambian and Ivory Coast regions domesticated a distinctive “red rice” (Oryza glabberima) more than 3,000 years ago, “long before any navigator from Java or Arabia could have introduced rice” to the subcontinent,” Carney said.

Numerous Europeans in the era of early contact between the civilizations referred to indigenous rice cultivation, Carney continued, but until well into the last century, “scholars routinely assigned rice an Asian origin, and attributed its diffusion to Africa to Arab and Portuguese traders.”

One reason for the oversight, Carney said, is that Oryza sativa, the Asian variety, is higher yielding, and therefore replaced red rice as the preferred variety. In 1981, however, “Dan Littlefield, author of ‘Rice and Slaves,’ drew attention to the antiquity of African rice-growing systems and documented the preference of Carolina planters for slaves from areas where Africans cultivated rice,” Carney said.

The early American settlers came from English and French Huguenot communities that knew nothing about rice production, Carney added. Nevertheless, questions remained as to the role of the Africans. Did they initiate cultivation or merely accept job assignments?

“To resolve this question,” said Carney, whose book “Black Rice” was published by Harvard University Press last year, “I looked at rice not just as cereal, but as a knowledge system that goes from the field to the kitchen.” She saw that available water regimes determined the method of rice cultivation and focused on the three most prevalent regimes of growing rice in the regions and eras she studied: by reliance on rainfall, by planting in inland swamps and by planting along river floodplains.

It was clear from the writings of the earliest non-African explorers, Carney said, that each rice regime was “firmly in place long before their arrival, disproving later Western claims that Portuguese sailors who’d been in Asia were Johnny Appleseeds of rice in Africa.” Not until the 1920s, however, did European botanists establish that the African red rice in European botanical collections was a different species from Asian ‘sativa.’

When Carney studied the colonial rice systems of the Carolinas, she found that they were identical production systems to those practiced in West Africa. The mortar-and-pestle milling process in the Carolinas, the method used until 1770 or so, was the same practiced in West Africa, Carney said.

“Africans still prepare cereals that way,” she said. “It’s not just pounding the grain; it’s done by a skilled tapping and rolling method to knock off the husk without crushing the rice kernel. Europeans cultivated oats, barley and wheat by milling it into a powder, flour or porridge, but rice was different, and required techniques that made its cultivation difficult to the unfamiliar.”

Growing rice was a job for females in Africa, and they winnowed the rice by swirling it in round or oval baskets. The baskets found on plantation sites were made by connecting coiled strands, just as West African women did and still do fashion them. In contrast, Native Americans made winnowing baskets by plaiting or twilling grass strands.

Slaves had an incentive to transfer their knowledge to the rice plantations in pre-Revolution days, Carney said, and perhaps had the leverage to bargain for it, since Africans formed a majority of the population in the Carolinas and some adjacent areas at the time. That incentive was the task-labor system, in which the workers had quantitative assignments. “If they finished their duties quickly, they had time to use the remainder of the day to fish, trap or tend their own garden plots,” Carney said. Elsewhere, slave plantations used the gang-labor system, which required working from dawn to evening.

Carney thinks similar illuminating histories could be told about the cultivation of other African crops in the Americas, such as yams, sorghum, millet, indigo, okra and cow peas, and also about fishing and hunting methods, and similar lore.