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It was then brought to Trinidad by formerly enslaved people called Merikins — a variant of "Americans" — where it thrived even as it vanished from U. It is a seed that followed the slave trade, and its repatriation now may help fill in a critical missing link in Southern, African and Trinidadian foodways.


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The rice belongs to the African genus called Oryza glaberrima, of which there may be 10, known varieties, according to molecular biologist Isaac Bimpong Kofi of AfricaRice Center. In contrast, there are more than 40, varieties of the Asian Oryza sativa , which most of the world knows and eats. Originally called "red bearded upland rice" — and now dubbed Merikin Moruga Hill Rice — this strain gets its name from a reddish husk festooned with a "beard" of spiky plant hairs that protect it from pests and birds. What makes this rice so special is how and where it grows. Rice loves water and thrives in coastal plains and marshes.

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But this strain can happily thrive upland, on higher, drier land — requiring, as the Pennsylvania Mercury put it in , "no other watering but what they receive from the clouds. Upland varieties of rice piqued the interest of many Americans in the late s because it was thought they might compete with "swamp" rice and counter the mosquito-borne malaria infections that swelled in the coastal plains and swamps there every summer. The red bearded variety came to America on a ship from West Africa. One of its biggest champions was President Thomas Jefferson, who sent the seeds to Charleston and Georgia.

Shields unearthed a letter Jefferson wrote in in which he expressed hope that, if the upland rice "answered as well as the swamp Rice, it might rid them of that source of their summer disease.


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In South Carolina, plantation owners who had already made fortunes growing Asian rice were indifferent to the new strain, according to Shields , who is a professor at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. But for enslaved Africans, it was a different story. It "is probable that Africans recognized the seed, familiar from the markets of Guinea and Sierra Leone," Shields writes. On plantations of the Southeast, enslaved Africans grew the rice in their own backyard gardens, where they raised crops to supplement their often-meager provisions.

Deep Roots Across the Atlantic: Rice and Race in Africa and the Americas – BlackPast

In exchange for their freedom, some enslaved Africans on the sea islands of Georgia volunteered to fight for the British and against their owners during the War of In the British settled these newly freed people in southern Trinidad, where they brought their favorite cultivars and called themselves Merikins.

In the Caribbean, the Merikins went on growing the rice, and it was adopted into the local cuisine. In the United States, however, the red bearded rice was displaced by more prolific Asian varieties and slowly went extinct — so thoroughly extinct that excavation and surveying over the last 40 years has not turned up a single seed or grain.

The best of the glaberrimas practically grow themselves. They even do well "floating where roots do not contact soil. In , Morean decided to take a trip to American libraries to research hill rice.


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  • Deep Roots: Rice Farmers in West Africa and the African Diaspora by Edda L. Fields-black!
  • But the libraries of Charleston, Atlanta and New Orleans, where he conducted research, contained no mention of the hill rice at all. Carney is widely known for a luminous masterwork called Black Rice: The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in The Americas that explores the critical role Africans played in the rice production that led to such enormous wealth in antebellum South Carolina. It's hard labor.

    Edda Fields-Black. 2015. Deep Roots: Rice Farmers in West Africa and the African Diaspora

    The young people don't want to do it. That included Marquetta L. In contrast, Gullah cuisine prepares rice so that every grain is separate, like individual blossoms. Roberts is determined to bring the rice back, and says that once it makes it through quarantine into the U. The Carolina Gold Rice Foundation and Clemson University are now collaborating, spearheaded by Shields' research and documentation, as well as the skills of horticultural scientist Brian Ward of Clemson University Extension in Charleston.

    One of the upland bearded varieties is now growing in experimental plots in Texas, South Carolina and Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts.

    Interest in Orzya glaberrima is growing. In Africa, several organizations, including AfricaRice , are crossing upland varieties of African rice with Asian rice to produce hardier strains. Academic journal article African Studies Quarterly.

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    Edda Fields-Black. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press. Part history, anthropology, linguistics, and travelogue, Fields-Black's study of rice cultivation in West Africa is as fertile as the paddies cultivated during her fieldwork. This excellent interdisciplinary research study contains personal asides that make relatable the centuries-old, arduous labor processes.

    Deep Roots is essential for understanding West Africa over the past three millennia. The book also gives perspective on the Atlantic slave trade, with specific attention to rice production in the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia. First published in , Deep Roots now appears in paperback. The study, built upon decade-long research, explores the Rio Nunez region, where coastal peoples "were overwhelmingly 'stateless' or lacking in centralized political authority" p.

    Europeans largely bypassed this stateless area for commercial centers elsewhere along the coast; they thus left few written records before the s. Traders preferred the stability and ease of commerce within cities possessing centralized political authority. Yet the rice produced in the Rio Nunez area became key to feeding the slaves and traders in those commercial outposts.

    Fields-Black traces the "antiquity of coastal dwellers' agricultural technology" through the clever use of 'historical linguistics" p.

    Symphonic Work In Pittsburgh Honors Enslaved Africans On Rice Plantations

    Her astute dissection of linguistic patterns and vocabulary reconstructs the settlement and development of pre-colonial West Africa. She also identifies eighteen distinct microenvironments and eleven ways to irrigate rice fields.

    These microenvironments required specific agricultural knowledge, specialized vocabulary, and unique tools, such as the fulcrum shovel.