Brown Rice in Maranhão and the Larger Atlantic

Sunday, January 10, 2010: 8:50 AM
Manchester Ballroom F (Hyatt)
Walter W. Hawthorne , Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI
With African slaves and their Portuguese masters in eighteenth-century Maranhão, Brazil, as the subject of my paper, I critique the “black-rice debate.”  That debate centers on the degree to which Africans from Upper Guinea transferred technologies necessary for the development of rice cultures in the Americas.  As it turns out, a majority of Maranhão’s colonial population was from Upper Guinea between about 1770 and 1800, and the mainstay of the region’s economy was rice.  So the region is a perfect testing ground for arguments on all sides of the debate. I argue that there was both change and continuity in the nature of rice production on both sides of the Atlantic.  Over its long history, rice agriculture in Africa and the Americas responded to changes in consumer preferences; shifts in rainfall patterns; innovations in planting, processing and shipping; and increases in the numbers of people enslaved in Africa and shipped to the Americas. Moreover, in Brazil and Maranhão rice agriculture owed much to the inputs of multiple people—Africans, Europeans and American Indians. But no matter where they farmed, people drew on their own traditions, applying where appropriate and when they were able time-tested and unaltered knowledge, techniques and technologies—especially to crops that were familiar to them. Second, I argue that proponents of the black rice thesis have not delved adequately how Maranhão’s plantation system gave male and female slaves different opportunities to shape rice production, processing and cooking.  Indeed, I demonstrate that the labor that Upper Guinean females performed in Maranhão owed much more to knowledge acquired on the Upper Guinea coast than did the labor that males performed.