I am always interested in the origins and historical cultivation of our modern edible plants, particularly with subsistence farming, because it provides clues on how those plants can be cultivated today with a minimum of labor and inputs. Carney’s In the Shadow of Slavery: Africa’s Botanic Legacy in the Atlantic World traces the origin of many modern crops back to Africa, and their introduction to the New World during the Atlantic slave trade. In short, she upends the idea of the Columbian Exchange where New World crops and methods were transferred to Africa, and documents that it was a two way trip. (Although Mr. Alfred W. Crosby’s work focuses on European ecological history, his books are also recommended reading.)
This is not Ms. Carney’s first foray into this territory; it is a much expanded treatment of her early work, Black Rice: The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas. Like her earlier book, Ms. Carney’s insistence on the contributions of Africans leaves out evidence that while African foods, food knowledge and growing systems were very important, the Africans were not running the show in the New World, but it does provide some much needed counterweight to the stereotype that the African continent and people were inept and starving until the white man came along. Given that the African slaves were generally responsible for somehow growing or acquiring the bulk of their own diet (and clothes and shelter and other necessities) in addition to their work duties, the crops the African slaves were growing for their own use is certainly the summit of subsistence growing with minimal labor in our region.
Unfortunately for me, Ms. Carney covers the Caribbean in much more depth than the Southeastern United States. While African coffee and bananas are very important foods in the modern world, I can’t grow either of them. So I mostly focused on her discussion of rice farming in the Carolina colonies, which is about the only crop in the southeast that she discusses in any detail. To my surprise I learned that not only is there African rice (Oryza glaberrima), but it was the first rice cultivated in the new world. And, it some places, still is. Its Asian cousin, Oryza sativa, is the primary species in the modern rice trade due to its higher yields, but I keep coming across references that the African variety is tougher, more tolerant of weed pressure and more drought resistant, which makes me wonder whether Oryza glaberrima might be a good crop for gardeners who don’t have access to the warm lowlands and swamps where rice is usually grown. Perhaps not: it is also more difficult to mill. One heirloom rice variety, Carolina Gold, is still grown commercially today in smaller amounts, may in fact be a variant of the African species.
Another interesting fact is that African women encased rice seeds in clay for planting, a practice popularized in the modern era by Masanobu Fukuoka but is by no means a new invention. I had believed this to be a middle eastern and Asian practice, but apparently the historical use of this very practical method in regions of sporadic rainfall is geographically even wider.
Beyond rice, African crops grown today that can be grown in the southeast include okra, watermelon, black-eyed peas, millet, sorghum, sesame, rice, kidney and lima beans, and taro. Most of these are grown and used by southern gardeners today, although taro is much more likely to be grown as an ornamental. (Please do not go out and dig up your elephant ears and eat them. Taro roots and leaves require special processing and not all things sold as elephant ears are an edible species.)
If the origins of plants is a topic of interest to you, Ms. Carney’s book definitely deserves a spot on your reading list. However, it is a book designed to persuade to a point of view that is only slowly emerging, so keep a careful attitude of skepticism and read her critics as well.