The "Black Rice" Hypothesis

Since the 1970s, what can be termed the “black rice hypothesis” has emerged in
ever stronger form in successive books by Peter H. Wood, Daniel C. Littlefield, and
Judith A. Carney. The major export crop of eighteenth-century South Carolina and
Georgia—rice—is now seen as predominantly a creation of Africans. This African
contribution to New World agriculture is epitomized by the arresting title of Carney’s
book: Black Rice. A direct role for Africans in American history strikes a chord at
a time when the national story is becoming less parochial and is increasingly being
viewed in an Atlantic or global context. Furthermore, the emphasis on African
agency resonates with histories from the bottom up and with subaltern studies in
general. That South Carolina’s rice industry was built not just on slave labor, but also
on the slaves’ agricultural and technological knowledge, is an exciting and appealing
revelation. In a multicultural world, it is reassuring to realize that the black contribution
to American life involved more than just backbreaking muscle power. The
development of American rice culture, the claim goes, marked the transatlantic migration
not only of an important crop but of an “entire cultural system.” It was a
major African accomplishment.
The basic argument rests on three core elements. First, rice culture was indigenous
to Africa and was a practice of long standing. Well before the Europeans
arrived, West Africans had developed complex systems of mangrove or tidal floodplain,
coastal estuarine, and upland rain-fed forms of rice cultivation. The area of
greatest rice specialization centered on the Upper Guinea Coast, that part of the
African littoral stretching from present-day Senegal to Liberia, but also reached into
the interior, and by the seventeenth century may have extended coastwise to the
western Gold Coast.8 Second, in contrast to the cultivation of most plantation crops
in the Americas, notably sugar and tobacco, there was never a period when free—or
at least non-slave—labor could be induced to produce rice for export. The workforce
engaged in cultivating rice for export was always black, although elsewhere in the
world, slave labor was not the norm. Moreover, among communities of Maroon or
runaway slaves, rice seems to have often become the major staple and assumed special
significance. Finally, putative parallels have emerged between rice cultivation in
Africa and its counterparts in the Americas. From land preparation through sowing,
weeding, irrigating, threshing, milling, winnowing, and cooking, African practices
seemingly left a deep imprint on New World ways of growing and processing the
South Carolina (later joined by Georgia and the Cape Fear region of North Carolina)
was the primary, but not the only, rice producer in the Americas. By the late
eighteenth century, northeastern Brazil (the present states of Amapá, Pará, and Maranhã)
had become a significant center of slave-grown rice for export. There were,
then, two key nodal points for commercial rice production in the eighteenth-century
Americas, although one was much larger than the other. In addition, the production
of rice for subsistence and as a minor plantation crop occurred in many other parts
of the New World—Peru, Mexico, the Guianas, Suriname, Cayenne, El Salvador,
Jamaica, and Louisiana. Surinamese Maroons grew rice as their primary food crop,
and their oral traditions include stories about female ancestors who hid seed rice in
their hair when moving either from Africa to Suriname or from plantation to Maroon
camp; a rebellion on a Bahian sugar plantation in 1789 involved a demand by predominantly
creole slaves to “be able to plant our rice wherever we wish.” In short,
rice became widely grown throughout the Americas, and in each case the association
with black labor is evident. Rice, notes Carney, was “the signature cereal of the
African diaspora.”

Excerpted from "Agency and Diaspora in Atlantic History: Reassessing the African Contribution to
Rice Cultivation in the Americas" by DAVID ELTIS, PHILIP MORGAN, and DAVID RICHARDSON, American Historial Review, December 2007, pp. 1332-1334

No comments: