History of ‘African Rice’ and It’s Expansion to North and South America

15 May

Jola women (from Senegal) transplant the rice seedlings.

Few Americans identify slavery with the cultivation of rice, yet rice was a major plantation crop during the first three centuries of European invasion in the Americas. Rice accompanied enslaved Africans across the Middle Passage throughout the ‘New World’ to Brazil, the Caribbean, and the southern United States. By the middle of the eighteenth century, rice plantations in South Carolina and the enslaved who cultivated them had created one of the most profitable economies in the world.

Oryza glaberrima, commonly known as African rice is believed to have been domesticated 3000+ years ago in the inland delta of the Upper Niger River in what is now Mali. Its wild ancestor, which still grows wild in Africa is Oryza barthii. This species is grown in West Africa. African rice often shows more tolerance to fluctuations in water depth, iron toxicity, infertile soils, severe climatic conditions, and human neglect, and exhibits better resistance to various pests and diseases,


Image of African Rice

The embarkation of the Portuguese into the Atlantic in the fourteenth century led to social and ecological transformations that brought sub-Saharan Africa within the orbit of European navigation. With the ‘discovery’ of the Canary Islands in 1336, just one hundred kilometers from Morocco off the West African coast, the Portuguese found an Atlantic island archipelago inhabited by a people they called the Guanche. The Guanche, whose ancestors left the African mainland in repeated migrations between the second millennium B.C. and the first centuries A.D., were farmers and herders. They tended crops and animals originally domesticated in the Near East, which included wheat, barley, peas, and sheep and goats. But contact with Europeans brought military defeat and enslavement. By 1496 the Guanche had ceased to exist, the first indigenous people to become extinct as a consequence of European maritime expansion. Heralding the fate that would await other peoples over the next 350 years, the islands of the Guanche became stepping-stones for the diffusion of sugarcane plantations and African slavery throughout the Atlantic, a process that radically recast the relationship between Africa, Europe, and the Americas.

Talking advantage of abundant marine resources for food supplies, the Portuguese established a trading fort north of the Senegal River on Arguim Island off the coast of Mauritania in 1448. The location served to provision the quickening number of Portuguese forays southward along the coast. This resulted in the discovery of the uninhabited Cape Verde archipelago, fourteen small volcanic islands some five hundred kilometers west of Senegal, on one return voyage in 1455. By 1460 the Portuguese had completed reconnaissance of the Upper Guinea Coast, the densely populated region from Senegal to Liberia that would serve as a major focus for the Atlantic slave trade.


Men prepare the rice fields using the kajandu.

Carolina Gold is now considered an heirloom variety of rice that is no longer grown widely, Historical accounts suggest that Carolina Gold first reached America on a cargo ship from Madagascar, indicating that the rice variety was picked up on the African island country. Over the next centuries European mariners would call this region the Grain or Rice Coast after its specialized production of cereals. Following the lead of the Portuguese, others too would depend upon surplus grain production for provisions. Thus for European ships voyaging along the West African coast, passage south beyond the Senegal River brought them to a region abundant in cereals (see map below). East of Liberia, grain cultivation gradually gave way to root crops like yams. While reference to the Upper Guinea Coast conjures up images of the Atlantic slave trade, the term “Grain or Rice Coast” does not. Yet, the two reveal the Janus-faced relationship of food surpluses to the dense populations that Europeans enslaved in the region from Senegal to Liberia. Widespread cereal availability resulted from the sophisticated level indigenous agriculture had already attained in Africa in the early modern period.

The first Portuguese chronicler to mention rice-growing in the Upper Guinea Coast was Gomes Eanes de Azurara in 1446. He described a voyage along the coast 60 leagues south of Cape Verde, where a handful of men, navigating down a river that was probably the Gambia, went ashore. They said they ‘found the country covered by vast crops, with many cotton trees and large fields planted in rice’. Portuguese observers greatly admired the native rice-growing technology, because it involved diking, transplanting, and other “intensive” practices. Already in the 1590s, André Alvares d’Almada, who was born in Cabo Verde of mixed European and African heritage…provides us with an account of rice cultivation as practiced by peoples living along the Gambia, Casamance, and Geba rivers. He wrote that “in these parts the rainy season starts at the end of April, beginning of May. The Blacks make their rice fields in these plains; they construct dikes of earth for fear of the tides, but despite them [the dikes] the river breaks them frequently, flooding the rice fields. Once the rice has sprouted, they pull it out and transplant it on land that is less inundated, where the rice yields.”


Rice regions of Africa

Nearly a century was to pass before we have another detailed account of local rice-growing practices. In 1685 or thereabouts, Sieur de la Courbe crossed the hinterland between the Gambia and Guinea Bissau, a territory that he mentions was occupied by the Felupos (the Jola) and the Banyun (the ancient Bainouk). He wrote, “I saw fields of rice located along the river; they are traversed by small walkways from space to space that prevents the water from running out; after it rains, one seeds the rice, which grows in the water”. Further on he describes the technology used by the Felupos or Jola: “The lands that are flat and well irrigated are perfectly cultivated, and they do not use but shovels of wood provided with a flat piece of iron at one end and a long handle to cultivate” (ref. Labat  J.-B., (1728Nouvelle Relation de l’Afrique Occidentalepp. 43–44). This is one of the most detailed early references (circa 1685) to the kajandu, the long-handled fulcrum shovel used by the Jola and their close relatives in Guinea-Bissau to turn over the earth and prepare their fields. the Jola and their neighbors were certainly growing wet rice and using intensive techniques, such as diking to retain rainwater and transplanting, at the time they first encountered the Europeans. The rice they grew was doubtless the African species O. glaberrima. Although it is not known with certainty when and where the first varieties of Asian rice O. sativa were first introduced into West Africa, the general consensus is that, beginning in the 16th century, the species spread and was adopted by people living in the Upper Guinea Coast who had previous experience growing the local African species.

Two British trading companies based in England operated the slave prison at Bunce Island (formerly called Bance Island), located in the Sierra Leone River. Henry Laurens was their agent in Charleston and was a planter and slave trader. His counterpart in England was Richard Oswald. Many of the enslaved Africans taken in West Africa were processed through Bunce Island. It was a prime export site for slaves to South Carolina and Georgia. Slave forts in Ghana, for instance, transported their captives to sites in the Caribbean islands. Once British colonial ‘planters’ in the American South discovered that rice would grow in that region, they often sought enslaved Africans from the rice-growing regions because of their skills and knowledge needed to develop and build irrigation, dams and earthworks. By the middle of the 18th century, thousands of acres in the Georgia and South Carolina Low Country, and the Sea Islands were developed as rice fields. African farmers from the “Rice Coast” brought the skills for cultivation and tidal irrigation that made rice farming one of the most successful industries in early America. It’s African inhabitants were known as ‘Gullah / Geechee people. According to South Carolina archival records, enslaved Africans shipped to the port came from the following areas: Angola (39%), Senegamibia (20%), the Windward Coast (17%), the Gold Coast (13%), Sierra Leone (6%), and Madagascar, and Mozambique (5% combined) (Pollitzer, 1999:43). By the year 1700, 300 tons of American rice, referred to as “Carolina Gold Rice,” was being shipped to England. Enslaved were producing more rice than there were ships to carry it. By 1726, the Port of Charleston, SC was exporting about 4,500 metric tons of “Carolina Golden”. [Sources: African Rice History and Future Potential and U.S. Slave Blogspot]

Who are the Gullah/Geechee people?

The Gullah people are the descendants of enslaved Africans who were transported to the ‘low country’ regions to 1389011Georgia and South Carolina, which includes both the coastal plain and the Sea islands. The Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor is home to one of America’s most interesting cultures, a tradition first shaped by captive Africans that were enslaved and brought to the southern United States from West Africa and continued their traditions in later generations by their descendants. Gullah developed their own creole language. Gullah/Geechee culture is such an important thread of our American fabric that in 2006 U.S. Congress designated, the Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor which extends from Wilmington, NC in the North to St. Augustine, FL in the South.

Gullah Cultural Roots: The Gullah people have been able to preserve much of their African cultural heritage mainly because of their determination to do, but also because of climate, geography, and patterns of importation of enslaved Africans. They developed a culture that has preserved much of the African linguistic and cultural heritage from various people, as well as absorbed new influences from the region. The Gullah people speak an English-based ‘creole language’ containing many African words and influenced by African languages in grammar and sentence structure. Referred to as “Sea Island Creole”, the Gullah language is related to Bahamian Dialect, Barbadian Dialect, Belizean Creole, Jamaican Patois, Trinidadian Creole, and the Krio language of Sierra Leone, in West Africa. Gullah crafts, farming and fishing traditions, folk beliefs, music, rice-based cuisine, and story-telling traditions all exhibit strong influences from Central and West African cultures. [Learn more:  Gullah Geeche Nation and Gullah: Rice, Slavery and Sierra Leone]

History of African Rice in Suriname, South America: Not surprisingly, as I continued my research connections to African rice doesn’t stop at the introduction into the Southern U.S. economy. The establishment of African rice culture in Suriname, my ancestral home, followed similar historical pathways. Africans transported to Suriname came from some of the same locations along West Africa’s indigenous rice region. Rice continues to have special significance for Maroon identity. Through ritual offerings of the grain to their ancestors, Maroons symbolize and commemorate the gifts it conferred: freedom from hunger and freedom from bondage. Each handful of rice recalls the legend of Paanza and the founding generation of African women, whose smuggled seeds made that hope possible. Maroon women, in the manner of generations before them, continue to plant rice in the ‘African way’: by sowing the seeds directly, performing the weeding, harvesting the panicles with a small knife, hand milling the cereal with mortar and pestle, and cooking it so that all the grains are separate. Such are the key features of African rice culture wherever the cereal was planted in the ‘Black Atlantic’.

IndpeoplesCredit for rice history in Suriname is typically attributed to Dutch and Asian settlers. This follows from the emphasis of historical research on rice as an export commodity. When attention turns to subsistence, however, another history comes into view, one based on oral accounts. The oral history presents rice as a African crop, attributing its presence in the colony to the deliberate efforts of enslaved Africans. Suriname’s Maroons, whose freedom-seeking forebears escaped enslavement in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and for whom rice remains an indispensable dietary staple, commemorate rice as food from Africa. Today we now have compelling confluence between the oral history of Suriname Maroons and as previously noted, recent findings in botany, archaeology and historical linguistics that West Africans domesticated an independent species of rice (Oryza glaberrima) thousands of years ago.

In 1627 the leader of the Barbados settlement petitioned fellow Protestant and Dutch governor of the older colony of Essequibo (present day Guyana) for ‘roots and seeds for planting’. Rice could easily have figured among these unidentified food stocks, especially as people from African rice-growing societies had already been forcibly migrated to the Americas. It is interesting to note that the colony of South Carolina was founded in 1670 by planters from Barbados and enslaved Africans. Documentation on the first rice exports from the Carolina colony in 1690 refer to rice cultivation in Barbados at least a decade earlier. Evidence for rice cultivation in Suriname follows the arrival of refugee Sephardic Jewish planters from Brazil, who lost their religious freedom granted with Dutch rule when Portugal retook the colony in 1654.

The extension of the plantation sector into Suriname’s rainforested interior provided enslaved Africans opportunities to escape. In 1762, a full century before the ‘official’ emancipation in 1863, of the enslaved in Suriname, the Maroons (Ndyuka, Saramaka, and Matawai) won their freedom and signed a treaty with the Dutch Crown to acknowledge their territorial rights and trading privileges. Written confirmation of rice as a Maroon subsistence crop dates to this period. Maroon oral histories indicate an even earlier involvement with rice cultivation. Two accounts, collected among the Saramaka by anthropologist Richard Price in the 1970s, indicate the importance of rice to the Maroons in the late seventeenth century.

Screen Shot 2016-05-15 at 16.39.53

Figure 3: 1590 of what spices and grains grew in Suriname. Plate No. 13. Legend A: sugar cane, B: maize, C: rice, D: millet, E: cowpeas/black-eyed peas, F: fonio (Digitaria exilis), G: ginger, H: ne ́re ́ (Parkia biglobosa), I: pepper.

Rice is still an indispensable food item to the Suriname ‘self-emancipated’ African descendants of today.  Written accounts reveal that subsistence rice culture in Suriname has not much changed over the past 200 years and rice cultivation among the Maroons exhibits many features typical of its production in West Africa.

The growing Dutch participation in the Transatlantic slave trade was accompanied by considerable attention to areas of African food availability. Pieter de
Marees, who traveled to the Gold Coast in 1590, observed the brisk regional trade in African foodstuffs. He described and illustrated the rice market in a settlement just outside Elmina (not yet under Dutch control), where women sold their surplus production. His engraving of the spices and grains that grew in the Gold Coast captures the significance of plants grown in Africa for the expanding European presence in West Africa. A closer examination of Marees’ engraving indicates that the rice plant he illustrated (Figure 3, item ‘C’) is the African species, Oryza glaberrima. With the proliferation of forts and slavers along the Gold Coast in the first half of the seventeenth century, Dutch accounts offer salient details on the cultivation of rice in the geographical locales where it was grown. The area around Cape Mount in north-western Liberia (and part of West Africa’s indigenous rice region) generated a number of commentaries on indigenous rice culture and marketing [Read full article by Judith Carney: Rice and Memory in the Age of Enslavement: Atlantic Passages to Suriname]

Despite the significance of these agricultural systems in the regional economy and commerce with Portuguese caravels, the cereals produced along the Upper Guinea Coast have received little attention in historical scholarship. More research has focused on the food staples of New World provenance introduced into Africa, such as maize, manioc, and peanuts, than on those the Portuguese found in West Africa during the first century of exploration. Yet increased scholarly attention to the Grain or Rice Coast reveals a hidden narrative of the Atlantic slave trade, one that contributes significantly to the historical recovery of the African experience in the Americas. From its meager beginnings in South Carolina, rice has become a major U.S. agricultural product. Nearly 90 percent of the rice consumed in the United States today is produced within its borders. Presently, the United States is the world’s most advanced and innovative rice producer. The United States is also one of the largest exporters of rice in the world, and is respected worldwide for its abundant production of high-quality rice; and, half of Suriname’s cultivable land today is devoted to rice production, which makes up around 10 percent of Suriname’s total exports (Sources: USA Rice Federation and National Rice Conference in Suriname, 2016)


The standard belief that Europeans introduced rice to West Africa and then brought the knowledge of its cultivation to the Americas is a fundamental fallacy, one which succeeds in effacing the origins of the crop and the role of Africans and African-American enslaved in transferring the seed, the cultivation skills, and the cultural practices necessary for establishing it in the ‘New World’.

To begin the process of the historical recovery of African agricultural achievements and their linkage to the Americas, we need to examine early accounts of rice cultivation along the West African coast. Black Rice, by Judith Carney (2001), tells the story of the true provenance of rice in the Americas and reveals how racism has shaped our historical memory and neglected this critical African contribution to the making of the Americas. It establishes, through agricultural and historical evidence, the vital significance of rice in West African society for a millennium before Europeans arrived and the slave trade began.

Conventional scholarship has placed the knowledge and extent of African rice cultivation in the context of Portuguese exploration and the transoceanic crop exchanges that subsequently became known as the “Columbian Exchange. The book explores the indigenous knowledge systems in which crops developed, a process which brings a West African rather than a European protagonist to the history of rice cultivation and its dissemination.


Watch short video showing culture and history of African rice.

Unlike the Southern colonies agriculture in the Northern Middle Colonies, which consisted of Pennsylvania, Delaware, New York, and New Jersey had a mix of the New England and Southern features but had fertile soil and land that was suited to farming. The Middle Colonies had a mild climate with warm summers and mild winters. The natural resources available for trade in the Middle Colonies included good farmland, timber, furs and coal. Iron ore was


Inside the gristmill in Philipsburg Manor Center

a particularly important natural resource. The Middle Colonies were the big food producing region that included corn and wheat and livestock including beef and pork. Other industries included the production of iron ore, lumber, coal, textiles, furs and shipbuilding [Source: Trade in the Colonies]

Philipsburg Manor Historic Stie in Sleepy Hollow, NY was a thriving farming, milling, and trading owned by the Phillipses’,  a family of Anglo-Dutch merchants that represents the agriculture of the Northern colonies and a site along the <em>Native American – African – Dutch Heritage Tour.</em>  The Philips rented land to tenant farmers of diverse European backgrounds and relied on a community of 23 enslaved Africans to operate the complex. The site carefully re-enacts the lived experiences of its inhabitants, including the working gristmill, where, surrounded by the sound of rushing water and the creaking of wooden gears, you learn about the skills of Caesar, the enslaved African miller. A colonial bateau tied to the wharf reflects the flourishing river trade and the skills of Dimond, an enslaved riverboat pilot. Nearby is the enslaved’s garden, where they grew vegetables and herbs for consumption, market, and medicinal purposes.  Whether it’s the rice fields of South Carolina or the wheat mills in New York, the importance of the black presence and skills brought with them is evident.


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Posted by on May 15, 2016 in Black Heritage Tours New York


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