Review of In the Shadow of Slavery: Africas Botanical Legacy in the Atlantic World by Judith A. Carney and Richard Nicholas Rosomoff University of California Press

In the Shadow of Slavery: Africa’s Botanical Legacy in the Atlantic World.  By Judith A. Carney and Richard Nicholas Rosomoff. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009. ISBN: 9780520257504

When I lived in Mexico City in 1999-2000, one of my greatest joys was drinking agua de Jamaica (hibiscus tea) as part of my late afternoon lunch.  Given its name, Agua de Jamaica was clearly from the Caribbean.  But none of my friends in Mexico City knew much beyond that about it.  Moreover, even though I had just finished several years of graduate courses on Latin America that focused on the Columbian Exchange, the importance of the transatlantic and transpacific commodity trades, and the slave trade, it never crossed my mind that hibiscus, and hence the tea I was drinking, played an important part in this process.  Judith A. Carney and Richard Nicholas Rosomoff’s In the Shadow of Slavery successfully seeks to reconceptualize the Columbian Exchange by putting greater weight on African plants, animals, and culture.  It does so by adopting a couple of new approaches.  First, it focuses on the transatlantic slave trade as a central pathway for the introduction of African crops and livestock as well as African cultural approaches to using them.  Second, it redirects our attention from large scale export crops such as sugar, wheat, and coffee – which clearly deserve the attention that they have received – to those plants and animals like the aforementioned hibiscus that Africans and their descendants adopted for subsistence purposes in predominantly tropical and semi-tropical areas.  Finally, it shines a light on the ways in which plants and animals from Asia and the New World – bananas and peanuts being only two of many examples – were reimagined and put to new uses as they passed through the prism of African folkways.

The book begins with an overview of the plants and animals that Africans have domesticated before discussing the ways in which Africa served of central importance to “the vast trading networks that connected peoples of the ancient world across land and sea” (27).  Although this is not the most important part of this book, it does provide those who teach world history with a means of contextualizing the central role that Africa played above and beyond the slave trade.  The expansion of Dar al-Islam across much of northern Africa (and into sub-Saharan Africa as well) not only prevented Europeans from trading directly with Asia, it also served to introduce Asian food crops into Africa and Europe (and eventually the Americas).  This was especially the case for Asian rice, citrus fruits, and sugar.  What is often missed is that the spread of Dar al-Islam also served to spread African food crops – especially sorghum and pearl millet – into the Middle East.  Of equal importance was the monsoon exchange across the Indian Ocean, which began as early as 3000 B.C.E.  In addition to sorghum and millet, African cowpeas, hyacinth, tamarind, pigeon peas, okra, and castor beans found their way to South Asia.  The two most notable crops that found their way from Asia into Africa via this route were the taro root, the banana, and plantain, the latter of which is closely related to the banana and is used mostly for cooking in the Americas.  Finally, it was the establishment of sugar plantations based on slavery in the Canary Islands and the Madeiras that served as models for New World and as points of departure for Christopher Columbus and other early Spanish and Portuguese explorers.

We rightly spend quite a bit of time in our world history classes focusing on the slaves that were forcibly brought to the Americas, but we focus much less on the fact that the majority of the provisions used to keep these slaves alive during the middle passage were grown in Africa by Africans.  In addition, slavers quickly discovered that it could be counterproductive to introduce slaves to a new diet while undergoing the stress of their journey to the Americas; hence they tried to buy as much locally provisioned food as possible.  They also discovered that adding extracts from the kola nut to fetid water made the water more palatable (if not healthier to drink).  Furthermore, foods from the Americas, especially manioc and maize, were also quickly adopted.  Manioc kept well in tropical environments and maize could be grown during the “hungry season” (55).

One thing that I did not realize  was the central role that female African slaves played in preparing food for the ship’s slaves during the middle passage.  Given that the number of slaves greatly outnumbered the crew and that the crew needed to focus on nautical tasks, ship captains made sure to purchase enough female slaves to handle food processing and preparation duties.  This was especially the case given that many of the foodstuffs that they were working with were native to Africa. Carney and Rosomoff argue that these women were the crux of four things  necessary for the establishment of African foodways into the Americas: 1) seeds of African plants, 2) people who knew how to grow, process, and prepare them, 3) people who, given the option, would prefer these particular foods prepared in these particular ways, and 4) an environment conducive to growing these and other similar foods.

It is in considering the unique environment that slaves (and their masters) encountered in the Americas that In the Shadow of Slavery is at its best.  The vast majority of slaves ended up in tropical and semi-tropical environments, both of which contained microenvironments conducive to the cultivation of their traditional foods.  According to Carney and Rosomoff, “The botanical heritage of the African tropics, combined with that of Amerindians, laid the foundation for an experimental tradition that enabled slaves to confront a radically changed world that cared little whether they lived or died” (102).  In fact, slaves and their masters both relied upon African expertise in tropical and sub-tropical cultivation methods.  This was most true in the Caribbean where the sugar industry used up most of the arable lands and where Africans were forced to produce for their own subsistence.  In time, the privilege of the independent production of subsistence goods became, in the eyes of slaves, a right.

I  am still trying to decide if I will use this book in my world history and/or upper division courses on Latin America.  I am sure that it would be a difficult book for an introductory level course, yet it does such an excellent job of placing Africa and Africans in their rightful place in the broader scheme of the history of the world that it would be a shame not to use it.  Regardless, I did use the book as a major source on African Foodways in the Americas for our campus’s Soul Food Dinner presentation.

Reviewed by Andrae M. Marak, Governors State University
Edited by Martin Pflug

(c) The Middle Ground Journal, Number 5, Fall, 2012. See Submission Guidelines page for the journal’s not-for-profit educational open-access policy. [Originally published on the St. Scholastica website]