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.
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):684–730Google 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”); 291–309Google 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”).
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7. One of those rare occasions was in 1512, when Manuel I sent many Mediterranean plants to the Kongo kingdom: fig and lemon scions; peach and apricot pits; almonds, hazelnuts, and chestnuts; seeds of flax, wheat, barley, cabbages, radishes, lettuce, chick peas, fava beans, melons, gourds, cucumbers, onions, and garlic. But we do not know how they fared. Bràsio, António, ed., Monumenta missionaria africana: Africa ocidental, series 1 (14 vols.: Lisbon, 1952–1986), 1:250.Google Scholar
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196. Said to be the only crop of the same species common to the Old and New Worlds before Columbus.
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