Knowledge and skills contributed by enslaved Africans

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The recent controversy about Florida's new State Academic Standards for Social Studies leaves something out, in my opinion. The point of contention is the assertion (p.6) that "Instruction includes how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit". Critics have taken this as an inappropriate pitch for the benefits of slavery, evoking the "Slavery as Positive Good" viewpoint that was common in the American south before the Civil War.

Missing from the discussion is the fact that the transfer of crucial skills sometimes went in the other direction. In the 17th and 18th centuries, enslaved Africans brought with them the technology that enabled wet rice cultivation in South Carolina and Georgia. Needless to say, the British colonizers knew nothing at all about how to grow rice, especially in converted mangrove swamps. This imported technology led to lucrative rice-cultivation plantations that were essential to Britain's colonization of North America.

Documentation can be found in Peter Wood's 1996 book Black majority: Negroes in colonial South Carolina from 1670 through the Stono Rebellion, but I learned about this history through Edda Fields-Black's 2001 dissertation, Rice Farmers in the Rio Nunez Region: A social history of agricultural technology and identity in Coastal Guinea, ca. 2000 BCE to 1880 CE, and her 2008 book Deep Roots: Rice Farmers in West Africa and the African Diaspora.

The linguistic aspect is described in "Good Glottochronology", 1/12/2003:

Edda Fields' dissertation on Rice Farmers in the Rio Nunez Region works out the history and chronology for the migration of various ethnic groups and the development of wet rice cultivation in the mangrove swamps of coastal Guinea, during a period from roughly 2000 BCE to 1880 CE. Edda uses all available sources of evidence, but in this case, much of the evidence turns out to be linguistic. As she writes, "[i]n coastal Guinea, … [t]here is no viable method for dating oral narratives .. [a]nd … there is no other historical data that pre-dates the 15th century Portuguese accounts." She also faced current "absence of direct carbon, pollen, climate change and archeological evidence for the early history of the Rio Nunez region." As one method to find historical patterns, she examines the vocabulary associated with the material culture of rice farming, looking to see which languages borrowed terms from which other languages, as evidence about the sources of various innovations. In order to assign dates, classical glottochronology (based to a large extent on word lists she gathered herself in the field) was her main tool. Are the resulting estimated dates exact? Certainly not. Are the estimates worth having? Absolutely.

I think this is terrific work, and would argue that its application of lexicostatistics and glottochronology is entirely appropriate, given the usual caveats about interpretation of the results (which Edda is careful to express).

I should also mention that this work has a vital connection to American history, because of the key role of West African slaves in adapting their wet rice farming methods to the plantations of coastal Carolina in the late 17th century. These were the first commercially successful plantations on the North American mainland, and played a significant role in the early economic development of the British colonies here.

For more, here are some quotes from Edda's 2001 dissertation:

Abstract: Weaving together language evidence, oral narratives, and European travelers’ accounts, this dissertation reconstructs the earliest social and agricultural history of the Rio Nunez region. With original language data for Nalu, MbuluNuc, Mboteni, and Sitem, under-studied and little-documented languages, it establishes a language classification and settlement chronology for the Coastal and Mel subgroups. An analysis of reconstructed cultural vocabulary words related to agriculture reveals that coastal dwellers developed irrigated rice-farming systems as a small part of much larger processes of adaptation to coastal micro-niches. Between c.3000 to 2000 BCE, proto-Coastal-speakers developed planting techniques and adapted to the coastal mangrove region. From c. 2000 BCE to 1 CE, pre-Nalu-, pre-MbuluNuc-, and pre-Mboteni speakers cut down trees, cleared land, and drained swampy soils. With the subsequent migration of pre-Sitem-speakers into the Rio Nunez c. 1 to 1000 CE, coastal inhabitants innovated and adapted irrigated rice-farming techniques and material culture to microenvironments along the coast and borrowed rice-farming techniques from their Susu-speaking neighbors.

And the start of the Introduction:

The Trans-Atlantic slave trade transported an estimated 12 million Africans to the New World. Enslaved Africans brought with them diverse cultural, agricultural, and ritual practices and technology so sophisticated that they contributed to industrial economic transformations in Europe and the Americas. Enslaved Africans, for example, transported rice technology from West Africa to coastal Georgia and South Carolina. Americanist historians, namely Peter Wood, Charles Joyner, and Daniel Littlefield, have shown that English planters were looking for a crop that could flourish in the swampy and salty environment of the “Sea Islands”. They advertised and were willing to pay more for enslaved Africans from the Rice Coast of West Africa who possessed the agricultural technology to grow rice. Wood in particular argues that it was the rice-growing technology of enslaved Africans that fueled South Carolina’s economy before 1800. The story of this part of the Atlantic exchange begins much earlier.

Centuries before the arrival of Europeans, farmers along the Rice Coast of West Africa developed sophisticated rice growing technology in environments similar to the Georgia and South Carolina Sea Islands. Though enslaved Africans’ agricultural technology is an important part of the story of the Atlantic exchange, historians know little about the traditions, technology, or worldviews of West Africans who lived in the Rice Coast region during the early pre-colonial period. Why hasn’t this story been told? The history of West African farmers’ adaptation of rice species to the coast and their development of sophisticated agricultural technology has not been written because there is a paucity of written historical sources. This is the case for pre-colonial African history in general. Despite the presence of written Portuguese sources that date back to the mid-15th century, the coastal region of West Africa is still not an exception to this rule. My study will reclaim an important piece of African history — one which links West African rice farmers to the New World.

It will do so by focusing on a small corner of the Rice Coast, specifically the coastal strip of the Rio Nunez region in coastal Guinea-Conakry. In this small region, coastal farmers have developed sophisticated rice-farming systems that enable them to grow large quantities of rice in the flood-plains and mangrove swamps. And, it will examine how farmers in the Rio Nunez region adapted to the coastal region, experimented with agriculture, how they developed an irrigated rice-farming system specifically adapted to the region, specialized in floodplain and mangrove rice-farming, and how they came to construct themselves and their ancestors as farmers who grow nothing but rice.

The new Florida State Academic Standards for Social Studies document has only this to say about rice cultivation (p. 9):

Instruction includes how the desire for knowledge of land cultivation and the rise in the production of tobacco and rice had a direct impact on the increased demand for slave labor and the importation of slaves into North America (i.e., the importation of Africans from the Rice Coast of Africa).

That's consistent with the real story, but it leaves out the role of West Africans in developing wet-rice technologies over the course of several millennia, and their (forced) role in transferring those technologies to the New World.



  1. Jerry Packard said,

    July 27, 2023 @ 8:46 am

    Bravo! When I was a student in 2nd year Chinese way back in 1974, one of the chapters in the textbook was the start-to-finish planting to harvesting of a single rice crop. At the time I thought it strange, because surely I would never have a use for that vocabulary and process. With hindsight, I can see that it was a valuable addition to my store of Chinese language and culture.

  2. ktschwarz said,

    July 27, 2023 @ 3:34 pm

    Smith Carolina’s economy
    the story o f the Atlantic exchange
    theRice Coast
    the Mew World

    I'm guessing these typos weren't in the actual dissertation, but were added just now in retyping the paragraphs?

    [myl: No, those were OCR errors in the Proquest document, which would have started with a scan. I corrected a few dozen others, but missed those.]

    Additional linguistic note: according to Edda Fields-Black's site, she started studying that part of Africa in the first place out of interest in the origins of the Gullah spoken by her grandparents.

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