New World Crop Exchange in Africa
The Columbian Exchange often refers to the exchange of goods between the Americas and Europe. But the exchange occurred in other areas as well. Maize entered the Middle East by the sixteenth century and became a staple crop later in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The powerful Ottoman Empire traded throughout Asia, Africa, and Europe. As trade increased throughout the world after the sixteenth century, New World food crops spread.
Several New World crops impacted Africa. The tropical regions of Africa lay parallel to those in South America. This made transplanting crops relatively easy. Europeans introduced New World crops into Africa. Out of the approximately 650 cultivated plants in the tropical regions of Africa only 50 originated in Africa. The vast majority were introduced through Asian and European trade.
Why introduce so many crops into Africa? The answer is slavery. As sinister as it seems, in order to ensure healthy slaves, Africans first had to be healthy. One determinant of a region’s health is if the population increases or decreases. When populations decrease, it usually signifies poor nutrition, impacts from natural disasters, or governmental conflicts such as war. Populations increase when food sources are diverse and plentiful.
Europeans and Asians offered tribute to African tribal leaders. Many of the tributes came in the form of plants from the New World or Asia. Maize and manioc were the most important imports. Crops such as peanuts, squashes, tomato, sweet potato, and cacao provided more variety into the African diet. Combined these crops significantly impacted agriculture in Africa.
Beginning in the late-seventeenth and early-eighteenth centuries, the world’s population began to increase. In 1650, the overall estimated population of Africa was 100 million. The population continued to increase; however, the estimated numbers reflect a decrease due to the slave trade. In other words, as the land provided food surpluses it allowed for healthier people. Healthier females menstruated over more years, increasing their years of fertility. When babies were born, more of them lived beyond infancy and into adulthood than before the introduction of New World plants. If it were not for the New World plants introduced through Asian and European trade routes, it is quite possible that the African slave trades—to the Americans and in the Indian Ocean—could not have been sustained.