In 2007, researchers at London's Natural History Museum went into their archives to see if anything in their holdings would be relevant to projects commemorating the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the British slave trade. What, they wondered, could their botanical collections have to do with the history of African slavery?
After some digging came the surprising answer: everything.
The result was "Slavery and the natural world", a groundbreaking programme of public events and educational material that now resides on the museum's website. It explored how travellers moving between Britain, West Africa, the Caribbean and North America drew widely on enslaved African expertise with drugs and foods for the sake of science and profit.
Using original Caribbean plant specimens, such as those brought back by Sir Hans Sloane from Jamaica in 1689 and which remarkably survive to this day, the Natural History Museum told new stories about plants and power in history. Sloane's case is especially illustrative. It is his sample of Jamaican cacao that is usually taken out to highlight a heroic tale of European ingenuity - his legendary invention of milk chocolate. But the museum's programme opted to talk about some of his lesser-known specimens, such as the varieties of peanut used to feed slaves on the Middle Passage, as well as the peas and beans that slaves themselves had grown in their own provision grounds.
A species of kola nut is also preserved in the Sloane Herbarium, and it plays a starring role in Judith Carney and Richard Rosomoff's In the Shadow of Slavery: Africa's Botanical Legacy in the Atlantic World. The Atlantic slave trade, the authors contend, was decisive in the circulation of African plants, creating in the process some of the most lucrative brands in the history of capitalism.
As they point out, the West African kola nut was first domesticated by ancient Africans, taken to improve the taste of fetid water, ingested as a stimulant and - as the nut went west across the Atlantic in slave ships - used in emergent Afro-American religious cultures. The highly caffeinated kola also became a main ingredient in a modern product that one or two readers may have heard of: Coca-Cola.
We're not talking about one or two plants of marginal interest here, but the explosive story of how botanical knowledge and its commercial exploitation profited from some of the most brutal labour regimes ever devised. The authors also argue that Africans in slavery were active agents in circulating African resources to the Americas and subsequently to a wider world: coffee, watermelons, plantains, okra, black-eyed peas and varieties of rice, as well as chickens, sheep and cattle.
Carney and Rosomoff's objective is to overturn the popular stereotype of Africa as a starving continent and correct its exclusion from the history of the Columbian Exchange - the term coined by Alfred Crosby in 1972 to describe the environmental exchange between America and Europe initiated by Columbus' Caribbean landfall in 1492.
They succeed admirably in a series of chapters that deal with ancient African plant and animal domestication; the movement of African plants and animals to the Americas via the slave trade; the subsistence strategies adopted by communities of runaway slaves (known as Maroons) in the Americas; the "Africanisation" of plantation food systems; the agricultural legacies of slave gardens; and the relationship between food and memory in the African diaspora. The "botany" in the book's subtitle is thus vernacular rather than technical, but this is precisely what makes its analysis so valuable.
Beautifully illustrated, it pieces together fragments of evidence, ranging from historical geography to deft use of oral history to propose answers to teasing puzzles of circulation. Caribbean travellers often remarked, for example, on the presence of "Guinea grass" growing in the West Indies, on which livestock grazed. But how did this grass find its way to the New World? The planter Bryan Edwards thought its transplantation accidental: its seed, having been transported to feed birds, was scattered by chance in the Caribbean islands. More likely, the authors contend, such grasses reached America via animal hoofs, and their bedding and feed. Even more striking are the oral histories of Maroons that speak of African women secretly concealing rice grains in the hair of their children to ensure they would have a means of subsistence on arriving enslaved in the Americas.
Carney and Rosomoff's volume now takes its place as essential reading for anyone trying to understand the long-ignored interaction between environmental change, global commerce, natural knowledge and slavery.
In the Shadow of Slavery: Africa's Botanical Legacy in the Atlantic World
By Judith A. Carney and Richard Nicholas Rosomoff University of California Press, 280pp, £19.95 ISBN 9780520257504 Published 29 January 2010