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Slave trade and rice crop moved together

Speed read
  • African development of rice cultivation has long been suspected.
  • International study finds high level of rice knowledge existed among African slaves.
  • Findings incentivize reexamination of historical sources.

A team of researchers has revealed linkages between 'New World' and 'Old World' crops that likely resulted from the slave trade. The team traced a type of rice grown in the South American country of Suriname to a similar type found in the fields of Ivory Coast.

The work, which appears in the journal Nature Plants examined millions of single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNP), genomic data maintained at the Naturalis Biodiversity Center BioPortal. Sequencing and analysis were made possible through the resources at the Wageningen University High Performance Computing Cluster.

Their analysis found the Suriname black rice was shown to be similar to a specific type of black rice that derived from the fields of Mande-speaking farmers in western Ivory Coast.

<strong>Granular knowledge. </strong> Black rice (Oryza glaberrima) collected from a market in Suriname and cultivated in the Hortus Botanicus, a botanic garden in Amsterdam. Genetic analysis suggests slaves brought knowledge of the grain into the New World. Courtesy Hortus Botanicus Garden Explorer.

“This evidence is an incentive to re-examine historical sources to trace the way African rice ended up in the New World and why it was cultivated by enslaved Africans and their descendants,” writes Tinde van Andel of Wageningen University in the Netherlands, and lead author of the study.

In the Nature Plants study, the research team focused on Suriname black rice. Its work centered on Maroons, the descendants of escaped African slaves who live in the interior of Suriname today and who grow their own rice. In addition to many types of Asian white rice (Oryza sativa), they also cultivate a variety with black grains (Oryza glaberrima).

To explore the connection between the crops in South America and Africa, the scientists collected African rice from a Maroon market in Paramaribo, Suriname. These grains were cultivated into fully grown plants in the Hortus Botanicus, a botanic garden in Amsterdam.

The international team of scientists, including New York University biology professor Michael Purugganan, compared the DNA of these plants grown in Amsterdam with over 100 varieties of Oryza glaberrima from across West Africa, from Senegal to Chad.

<strong>Traveling rice. </strong> Digitally reconstructed logbook shows the route of the slave ship Unity. Genomic analysis reveals rice in the east and west of Africa are genetically similar, suggesting slaves were well acquainted with the rice imported alongside them into the New World. Courtesy Zeeland Archives.

The slave trade’s role in bringing African crops, including rice, to the Americas has long been documented.

For example, the records of slave ship captains reveal that rice was frequently bought in West Africa to feed their captives. A recently digitized logbook of the Dutch slave ship D’Eenigheid (the Unity), sailing in 1761 from the Netherlands, reports purchases of rice in West Africa. Before leaving from Ghana with 319 enslaved Africans destined for Dutch plantations in Guyana, the crew of D’Eenigheid bought slaves and provisions along the coast of Liberia and Ivory Coast.

However, the specifics of many of these crop connections remain unknown. This is partly due to the difficulty of understanding the level of impact of African rice practices on other continents — primarily due to limited written or botanical records. 

Genomics is proving its worth and helping us to understand the largely unwritten histories of the crop cultures of displaced peoples.

Read the original NYU article here. 

The research was supported, in part, by grants from the National Science Foundation.

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