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The European Introduction of Crops into West Africa in Precolonial Times

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 May 2014


Historians of West Africa seem generally to agree that the main benefit conferred on the region by early European visitors, particularly the Portuguese, was the introduction of new crops. These crops are said to have improved diets and accelerated population growth, to the point, some would argue, that human losses through the slave trade were more than offset by the enhanced ability to feed people. Usually a few crops are cited, and the subject is not pursued very far, even in economic history texts, though the societies under study were overwhelmingly agricultural. Usually, too, American crops are singled out—especially maize, cassava, sweet potatoes, and peanuts, but also tobacco, pineapples, guavas, and papayas. Sometimes these are the only crops credited to Europeans. That list occasionally includes tomatoes and avocados even though no evidence has been advanced that either plant was grown in West Africa before the nineteenth century. Some historians confuse origin with source, stating, for example, that the Portuguese brought citrus fruit and sugar cane from Asia when those Asian crops had long been established in the Mediterranean region. No one, it appears, has taken the trouble to examine all the printed sources for precolonial West Africa, plus relevant linguistic evidence, to try to determine which crops were introduced by Europeans, whence, where, and when.

Research Article
Copyright © African Studies Association 1992

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1. New plants were not the only reason food supplies increased. Europeans also introduced new species of livestock—pigs, turkeys, Muscovy ducks, geese, pigeons, cats (sometimes eaten)—and new breeds of domestic animals already present—chickens, dogs (often eaten), and larger beasts like sheep and cattle (though most of them were doomed by sleeping sickness). Four European trade goods also contributed to the rise in food ouput: iron bars that enabled African smiths to turn out considerably more farm tools than before; steel-bladed machetes that made it easier to start and maintain farm plots and kitchen gardens; firearms that helped farmers protect crops from wild animals and helped hunters bag more game; and fishhooks that boosted ocean, lagoon, and river catches.

2. Spadework has of course been done. See, e.g., Mauny, R., “Notes historiques autour des principales plantes cultivées en Afrique occidentale,” BIFAN 15B (1953):684730Google Scholar; Murdock, G. P., Africa: Its Peoples and Their Culture History (New York, 1959), 234–35Google Scholar; Harlan, J. R., de Wet, J. M. J., Stemler, A. B. L., eds., Origins of African Plant Domestication (The Hague, 1976), 107–53CrossRefGoogle Scholar(Shaw, T., “Early Crops in Africa: A Review of the Evidence”); 291309Google Scholar(Purseglove, J. W., “The Origins and Migrations of Crops in Tropical Africa”); 311–56Google Scholar (D. R. Harris, “Traditional Systems of Plant Food Production and the Origins of Agriculture in West Africa”).

3. See, e.g., Thomas Nicois' 1526 list of Madeira crops in Hakluyt, Richard, The Principall Navigations, Voiages, and Discoveries of the English Nation (10 vols.: London, 19271928), 4:31.Google Scholar

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155. Ibid., 137. Fernandes' editors translate milho zaburro as “sorghum.”

156. Ramusio, , Navigazioni, 1: 571Google Scholar; Blake, , Europeans, 1: 149.Google Scholar

157. Mauny, , Tableau, 240–42.Google Scholar Mauny later abandoned his theory and opted for millet as the grain sown on Sâo Tomé in 1502: Jeffreys, , “Maize,” 309.Google Scholar

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160. Hakluyt, , Navigations, 4:6364.Google Scholar The first clear Portuguese reference to maize on the Gold Coast may date to 1572. da Mota, Teixeira/Hair, , East of Mina, 81.Google Scholar

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164. Jones, W. O., Manioc in Africa (Palo Alto, 1959), 62.Google Scholar The earliest indirect reference to cassava in Africa may be that by the botanist C. Clusius, who wrote in 1605 that oil palm fruit (presumably he meant the oil), “after addition of some flour of a certain root,” was used by the Portuguese from São Tomé to feed slaves on the Middle Passage: quoted by Hartley, C. W. S. in The Oil Palm (London, 1969), 3.Google Scholar

165. Brun, in Jones, , German Sources, 47.Google Scholar Farther south at Mpinda resident Portuguese were growing cassava by 1617/23: Bontinck, , Histoire, 82.Google Scholar See also Hilton, Anne, The Kingdom of Kongo (Oxford, 1985), 79.Google Scholar

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167. Dapper, , Description, 314, 491.Google Scholar Dapper also said cassava was grown in Angola: ibid., 361, 363, 364. The Portuguese word is mandioca.

168. Williamson, , “Plant Names,” 162, 164Google Scholar; Alagoa, , “Niger Delta,” 357.Google Scholar

169. Jones has found a 1683 Dutch reference to “carsauen” as a local bread on the Gold Coast but cites an English document of 1706 as “the earliest clear reference” he has discovered “to the cultivation of cassava in this region.” Jones, , Brandenburg Sources, 76n6, 252.Google Scholar Rask attested that cassava was being commonly grown in the Accra area in 1709/12 and its root made into flour for bread. Rask, , Ferd, 159–60Google Scholar; Dalzel, , History, iii.Google Scholar

170. The first known as Bambara groundnuts or earth peas, the second as Kersting's groundnuts.

171. da Montecuccolo, G. A. Cavazzi, Istorica descrittione de' tre regni Congo, Matamba, et Angola (2d ed.: Milan, , 1690), 22.Google Scholar For the timing of Cavazzi's material see Thornton, J. K., “New Light on Cavazzi's Seventeenth-Century Description of Kongo,” HA 6 (1979): 260.Google Scholar

172. Bosman, , Description, 301.Google Scholar The other two “Beans” appear to have been Bambara groundnuts and tiger nuts. Ibid. See also Loyer, in Roussier, , Etablissement, 193.Google Scholar

173. In 1959 Murdock exploded a bombshell, as he put it, by suggesting that the sweet potato, though botanically a New World plant, may have reached Africa first from the east as part of his “Malaysian complex.” He pointed to evidence that it diffused westward from South America as far as New Guinea and that it is closely associated with southeast Asian plants in parts of East and Central Africa. Murdock, , Africa, 223–25.Google Scholar The bombshell proved a dud; the idea has not been accepted by the geobotanical community.

174. Ramusio, , Navigazioni, 1: 582Google Scholar; Blake, , Europeans, 1: 160–61.Google Scholar

175. A Portuguese document of 1572 clearly implies that Gold Coasters were raising sweet potatoes. da Mota, Teixeira/Hair, , East of Mina, 76.Google Scholar In 1574 the tuber was reported in Guinea-Bissau. Donelha, , Descrição, 351.Google Scholar The earliest sighting in Kongo may be by da Roma (1640s), though that seems very late. Brève relation, 96.

176. Marees, , Description, 63, 164, 166Google Scholar (plate 14).

177. Labarthe, , Voyage, 90.Google Scholar

178. Dalziel, , Plants, 436–37.Google Scholar

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183. Manuel I sent fava seeds to Kongo in 1512. Bràsio, , Monumenta, 1: 250.Google Scholar No doubt fava reached West Africa from the north too: Lewicki, , Food, 5556.Google Scholar Ca' da Mosto saw both “fava” and “fasoli” in Senegal; the latter would now translate as P. vulgaris, but may have been applied to an indigenous crop such as cowpeas. Ramusio, , Navigazioni, 1: 505Google Scholar; Crone, , Voyages, 42.Google Scholar Pacheco saw “feyxões” in Senegal; Fernandes was told they grew in Gambia and Sierra Leone as well. Pereira, Pacheco, Esmeraldo, Fr. tr. and ed. Mauny, R. (Bissau, 1956), 60Google Scholar; Fernandes, , Description, 14, 48, 54, 94.Google ScholarFeyxões would seem to equate with Ca' da Mosto's fasoli, but Manuel sent seeds of “feygoes” as well as fava. In this case they were probably a form of V. faba. Eventually the Portuguese would use the word feijãos and the Italians fagioli primarily for New World beans. In 1574 “feijões” were seen in Guinea-Bissau. Donelha, , Descrição, 351.Google Scholar Perhaps by then they meant vulgaris. French references are also ambiguous: in general Old World beans are fèves and New World beans haricots, but exceptions vitiate the distinction.

184. Marees, , Description, 42.Google Scholar See also Villault, , Relation, 382.Google Scholar

185. De Rome, , Brève relation, 96.Google Scholar

186. Müller, in Jones, , German Sources, 228.Google Scholar

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189. De Rome, , Brève relation, 96.Google Scholar

190. Harris, , “Traditional,” 332, 343.Google Scholar

191. Hemmersam, in Jones, , German Sources, 112.Google Scholar

192. Donnan, , Documents, 1: 220, 221.Google Scholar In 1686 a Gambian princess served La Courbe chicken and rice spiced “with a lot of piment, which is a species of red and green fruit, shaped like a little cucumber and tasting like pepper.” Cultru, , Voyage, 196.Google Scholar

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194. Borofo-mako in Twi (Christaller, , Dictionary, 40Google Scholar) and oso oyibo in Onitsha Igbo (Dalziel, , Plants, 427).Google Scholar

195. Kingsley, , Travels, 643.Google Scholar

196. Said to be the only crop of the same species common to the Old and New Worlds before Columbus.

197. Fernandes, , Description, 140Google Scholar; Bràsio, , Monumenta, 1: 250.Google Scholar

198. The Italian word used by Ramusio was zucche, which could mean either pumpkins or gourds. Navigazioni, 1: 587.Google Scholar Blake translated it as pumpkins. Europeans, 1: 166.Google Scholar

199. Hakluyt, , Navigations, 7: 13, 15.Google Scholar

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201. da Mota, Teixeira/Hair, , East of Mina, 8081.Google Scholar He used the word abobaras, but his description points to pumpkins rather than gourds.

202. Barbot, , Description, 269.Google Scholar

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204. Smith, , Voyage, 127Google Scholar; Adams, , Remarks, 78.Google Scholar

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206. Ibid., 254; see also ibid., 246.

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209. Duncan, , Travels, 1: 122Google Scholar; Burton, , Wanderings, 2: 145.Google Scholar

210. Dalziel, , Plants, 430.Google Scholar

211. Marees, , Description, 163, 166 (plate 14), 216, 246.Google Scholar

212. Ulsheimer, in Jones, , German Sources, 42Google Scholar; Brun in ibid., 53.

213. Müller in ibid., 230-31.

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221. Ibid., 52. Yevu-diba in Ewe, ogede-oyibo, okwuro-beke in Igbo.

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227. Dalziel, , Plants, 69.Google Scholar

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247. Hemmersam, in Jones, , German Sources, 117.Google Scholar On the basis of archeological evidence, Ozanne postulated the introduction of tobacco use on the Gold Coast in the Accra area to ca. 1640, but he seemed to be unaware of Hemmersam's testimony.

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253. Dalziel, , Plants, 471.Google Scholar

254. Ibid. Oburo or obro in Yoruba, opolo in Igbo.

255. D. R., ” in Marees, , Description, 229.Google Scholar

256. Dapper, , Description, 309.Google Scholar Cotton also qualifies as a crop brought from the Americas to West Africa since certain New World varieties have been added by Europeans to the local inventory. Buchanan, /Pugh, , Land and People, 144Google Scholar; Church, , West Africa, 94, 119.Google Scholar

257. To cite an extreme (and rhetorical) example, Walter Rodney lists exactly two: maize and cassava: Rodney, , How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (London, 1983), 111.Google Scholar

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