Exotic Plants of Western Africa: Where They Came from and When

By Alpern, Stanley B. | History In Africa, January 1, 2008 | Go to article overview

Exotic Plants of Western Africa: Where They Came from and When


Alpern, Stanley B., History In Africa


I

History in Africa carried an article in 1992 entitled "The European Introduction of Crops into West Africa in Precolonial Times."1 I wrote this to correct an impression left by several historians that only maize and cassava were worth mentioning. My reading of precolonial African history had made it very clear that a great many new crops were brought to the continent during the slave-trade period. My initial geographical focus was what used to be called Lower Guinea, roughly the coast from Cape Palmas to Mt. Cameroon, but inevitably my research took in all of western Africa from Senegal to Angola and up to the southern fringe of the Sahara.2 My findings were admittedly interim, a sort of database for future refinement. And yet I was able to identify 86 introduced crops.

It was ingenuous of me to expect that one paper would suffice to overturn what had become conventional wisdom. In 1995 John Iliffe,3 in 1997 Elizabeth Isichei,4 in 1998 John Reader5 repeated the maize-cassava mantra. In 2002 Christopher Ehret expanded the duo of exotic crops to include tobacco, peanuts, New World beans, Asian rice and sugar cane.6 David W. Phillipson reiterated in 2005 what he had said 20 years earlier, citing only maize, cassava and bananas.7 And in 2006 James L.A. Webb Jr. named just four: maize, cassava, peanuts and potatoes.8

This pattern of minimization may reflect what seems to be a general disinclination of historians to dig deeply into botany. An important recent book titled Writing African History devotes only 17 of 510 pages to the subject.9 A 591-page tome, The History of Islam in Africa, says nothing about the Muslim impact on sub-Saharan farming.10 And yet agriculture has been the primary economic activity of western Africa for several millennia. The worldwide expansion of Europeans beginning in the fifteenth century brought profound changes to farming and diet there as elsewhere. The mixing of New and Old World plants after 1492 has been called "one of the most important aspects of the history of life on this planet since the retreat of the continental glaciers."11 The transfer of plants within the Old World by Europeans (and Arabs/Berbers) may have been just as important to sub-Saharan Africa.

The arrival of many new crops in the region permanently transformed the everyday life of its inhabitants and often the very landscape. The purpose of this paper is to encourage historians to give due recognition to this quiet, long-drawn-out, grass-roots revolution of the kind illuminated by the French historian Fernand Braudel.12 To begin, I have compressed the 31-page 1992 article (hereafter referred to simply as 1992) into a table naming the 86 crops, indicating their geographical source (not necessarily their place of origin), dating the earliest written reference, locating the sighting, and specifying who reported it. In cases where a crop was introduced both by Arabs (or Berbers) and Europeans, I include both. The plants are grouped by category and in order of their appearance in the written records for western Africa. Nearly all the written sources were fully detailed in the original paper.

Abbreviations used: Af =Africa; Am=the Americas; As=Asia; GC=Gold Coast (now Ghana); Med=Mediterranean area; Port=Portuguese; SL=Sierra Leone; S. Tiago=São Tiago (a/k/a Santiago) in the Cape Verde Islands; S. Tomé=São Tomé. Benin refers to old Benin in Nigeria.

Cereals

1. Maize (Am) 1554 GC Eden

2. Asian rice 1574-1625 SL Donelha

Root Crops

3. Taro (As) prehistoric13

4. Sweet potato (Am) 1520-40 S.Tomé Anon Port Pilot

5. Turnip (Med) 1337-38 Mali/Kanem al-`Umari

1572 Elmina Port source

6. Greater yam (As) 1591 S.Tomé Port source

7. Cassava (Am) 1612 Gabon Brun

8. Tiger nut (Med) 1662-69 GC Müller

9. Carrot (Med) 1698 Whydah Bosman

10. Radish (Med) 1698 Whydah Bosman

11. Tannia (Am) 1843 GC Reindorf

12. …

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