- In the Shadow of Slavery: Africa's Botanical Legacy in the Atlantic World
Many geographers know Judith Carney from her award-winning book Black Rice: The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas (2001). There she explored the development of rice growing techniques in Africa and subsequent role of enslaved Africans in transferring those techniques to North American plantations, particularly in the South Carolina low-country. In the Shadow of Slavery, a new book coauthored by Carney and independent researcher Richard Nicholas Rosomoff, builds on these findings, examining how enslaved Africans participated in botanical exchanges that have shaped foodways in the Atlantic world. In contrast to Black Rice, this book focuses on a variety of subsistence crops instead of a single cash crop, and discusses a wider geographic range of botanical histories, including Africa, the Caribbean, and the Americas. In the Shadow of Slavery is co-winner of the 2010 Frederick Douglass Book Prize and a welcome addition to the literature on the African Diaspora because it makes powerful connections between plants, culinary traditions, and forced migration.
In the introduction the authors describe the importance of Alfred Crosby's The Columbian Exchange (1972), which uncovered hidden cultural and economic histories of biota in the Atlantic world. They also cite this book as an example of how the African contribution to crops and foodways has been overlooked. Carney and Rosomoff argue that their study fills this gap by examining the slave trade as a corridor of crop diffusion and by analyzing the symbolic meaning of plants and foodways in shaping identities in the African diaspora.
The first two chapters use data from archaeology, historical linguistics, and botany to discredit the Eurocentric myths that Africans were "hapless farmers and herders in need of European instruction" [End Page 497] (p 4). Chapter one describes the origins of plant and animal domestication in Africa, approximately 10,500 B. P., and explains how agricultural techniques were developed to combat insects, erosion, and soil fertility long before European colonization. Chapter two describes how trade routes crossing the Indian Ocean, the Mediterranean, and the Iberian Peninsula connected African crops and traditional knowledge to the rest of the world.
Chapters three and four describe how the trans-Atlantic slave trade placed great demands on African crops and farmers. To feed slave traders, crews, and enslaved Africans on their voyage across the Atlantic, Europeans created a system of indigenous slavery forcing Africans, and women in particular, to grow and process subsistence crops for slave ships. This system eroded the ability of African farmers to choose what to grow and contributed to famine in African communities who were dependent on these same crops for their own subsistence. The authors suggest that the prevalence of African food crops on slave ships, unintentionally provided the seeds and cuttings for establishing an Africanized food system in the Americas, reminding us that, "The slave voyage may have ended at the auction block, but Africa's botanical legacy did not" (p 79).
The next four chapters concentrate explicitly on the appearance of African crops and foodways in the Americas. Thus, chapter five explores Maroon communities in South America where homeopathic medicinal traditions, missionary accounts, and botanical collections attest to exchanges between Africans and Amerindians. Carney and Rosomoff recount oral histories about African women who hid seeds on slave ships. These women are said to have anticipated the cultural and material importance of establishing Africanized food production in the New World. The authors argue that these counter-narratives underscore the centrality of crops in cultural traditions and raise questions, albeit ones very difficult to answer, about exactly how crops were transferred.
Chapters six and seven explain the importance of African foods on plantations in the American South. They describe how African crops (plantains, cowpeas, yams, and sorghum to name a few) were used to alleviate the...