In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Rice in the Atlantic World

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Africa
  • Brazil and the Caribbean
  • Contemporary Research
  • Consumption Patterns

Atlantic History Rice in the Atlantic World
Daniel C. Littlefield
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 October 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0183


Rice is perhaps the most important food crop in the modern world. In the first decade of the 21st century it ranked second in production following maize and preceding wheat. However, while both maize and wheat are used for purposes other than human consumption, this is not so much the case for rice. It is the dietary staple of most of the peoples of Asia and for many in the Middle East, southern Europe, western Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean, and the United States. It has many varieties and diverse preparations. It is also versatile in the ways it can be grown: ranging from dry, upland cultivation, sown broadcast and dependent on rainfall to marshland or swampland cultivation, transplanted as seedlings, and subject to regulated flooding. Numerous variations on these practices exist between the extremes. Asian rice (Oryza sativa) is the most widely grown, but African rice (Oryza glaberrima) retains social, cultural, agronomical, and gastronomical importance in those places in western Africa where it is raised, even though Asian rice has displaced or supplements it in many regions. African rice is characterized by erect or compact stalks (or panicles) with red or rose-colored grains and Asian by bent or leaning panicles with yellow or white grains. Native peoples in North America collected a so-called wild rice, but it is related to the species Zizania, more akin to oats than to Oryza. There are, however, uncultivated varieties of Oryza in Africa and South America also denoted as wild rice, with grains of various colors, including black. European overseas expansion and the rise of Atlantic slavery spurred the transfer of crops and peoples between the Old World and the New World. Rice was one of the crops. Africans conceivably brought African rice to 16th-century Brazil, where it was added to the varieties of rice consumed there. However, Asian rice became the staple that powered the economy in several locations in Brazil and on the North American coast. In South Carolina it created the greatest per capita wealth among the white population in England’s mainland colonies; and during the late 18th century the colony’s economy arguably had the fastest growth rate in the world. In the 19th century, the largest and richest slaveholders in the United States cultivated this grass: and while it was eclipsed by cotton, rice retained extraordinary regional worth and significance. It was shipped to Europe, where, at least in western Europe, it had the status of a minor grain widely used by poor people as a substitute starch when other grains failed. Consequently, the value of American produce related inversely to the quality of European harvests. However, rice became an essential component of the European diet in times of want. The vast majority of Africans brought to lowland South Carolina and Georgia during the 18th century came to cultivate rice, and this region largely remained rice country in the 19th century. A significant number (if not the majority) of Africans in both North and South American rice-growing regions came from African areas where rice also grew; and so the trade in rice helped fuel the movement of enslaved peoples (from rice-growing and other African regions) that was so consequential for the history, culture, and economy of the modern world. These peoples had an important influence on New World rice cultivation; but the precise extent of that influence is disputed.

General Overviews

The works cited provide a survey of rice cultivation from historical, economical, and cultural standpoints and cover the globe in their consideration of the geographical regions where rice is grown. Many books cover Asian rice, and a conscious effort is made in this section to include those that recognized the variety of rice types, the methods of cultivation, and the spread of rice around the world. In particular, all of these works reference African as well as Asian rice; and some note indigenous, uncultivated varieties in South America. Gupta and O’Toole 1986; Maclean, et al. 2002; and International Rice Research Institute 1985 (cited under Society) are works sponsored by the International Rice Research Institute, established in 1960 by the Ford Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation, which fund economic and scientific studies of rice production in an attempt to increase its yield and genetic versatility. Gupta and O’Toole 1986 and Catling 1992 give surveys of production focusing on dry rice, in the former work, and wet rice in the latter. Gupta and O’Toole’s book is somewhat wider ranging geographically, but both consider the rice regime at the end of the 20th century: their different emphases make them somewhat complementary. Maclean, et al. 2002 is a comprehensive resource that offers the latest information about rice and is connected to a website that makes this continually updated information quite accessible. Smith and Dilday 2003 collects helpful essays that treat history, genetics, morphology, and marketing (the latter of which is also the subject of Coclanis 1993). Chang 2000 provides a simple historical and botanical survey. Sharma 2010 is strong on history and culture, and Knapp 1899 represents a historical snapshot from the 19th century.

  • Catling, David. Rice in Deep Water. London: Macmillan, 1992.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-349-12309-4

    Concerned with rice grown by submergence and discusses various forms of “Deepwater Rice Agroecosystem[s],” including rivers, floods, and the chemical composition of natural waters. It considers the environment and farmers and farming methods in India, Southeast Asia, and western Africa. A second part considers the plant itself, including its origin, types, and nutritional value. A third section considers various regions and the rice connected with them. A fourth reports on current research for improving production.

  • Chang, Te-Tze. “Rice.” In The Cambridge World History of Food. Edited by Kenneth F. Kiple and Kriemhild Coneè Ornelas, 132–149. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

    Summarizes the history and botanical origin and evolution of rice, including both Asian and African varieties, and discusses its importance in sustaining human life. Traces its geographical dispersion, ecogenetic diversification, cultural practices and exchanges, methods of cultivation, nutritional considerations, and production and improvement in the 20th century. Has an extensive bibliography.

  • Coclanis, Peter. “Distant Thunder: The Creation of a World Market in Rice and the Transformations It Wrought.” American Historical Review 98.4 (October 1993): 1050–1078.

    DOI: 10.2307/2166598

    Recognizing that rice is relatively less important in Western societies than in Eastern ones, it looks at the production of the crop from a Western perspective “because the evolution of the market for rice in the West offers insight into the expansion and elaboration of capitalism, the most important economic development in the last five hundred years” (p. 1051). The author then develops this insight, making connections between East and West.

  • Gupta, P. C., and J. C. O’Toole. Upland Rice: A Global Perspective. Los Baños, Philippines: International Rice Research Institute, 1986.

    A good companion to David Catlin’s study on wet rice, in that it focuses on upland or dry rice cultivation and covers Asia, Africa, and Latin America. It looks at cropping systems, landscape and soil qualifications, disease environments, and crop improvements, including advances in farming equipment and the economics of production.

  • Knapp, S. A. The Present Status of Rice Culture in the United States. Washington, DC: USDA, 1899.

    An introductory bulletin published at the end of the 19th century that assesses the prospects of rice cultivation in the United States, which is its primary concern; but it also refers to types and uses of rice and the ways it is grown in Africa, Asia, Europe, the Pacific Islands, and Central and South America.

  • Maclean, Jay L., D. C. Dawe, Bill Hardy, and Gene P. Hettel, eds. Rice Almanac: Source Book for the Most Important Economic Activity on Earth. Wallingford, UK: CABI, 2002.

    Third edition of a resource first published in 1993 to furnish general information about the origin, growth, production, and ecosystems of rice. The authors range far and wide in their consideration of the various topics and across all the continents where rice is grown. It is connected to Riceweb, which includes the contents of the almanac plus new and updated information about rice, including additional rice literature and links to other rice-related websites around the world.

  • Sharma, S. D., ed. Rice: Origin, Antiquity and History. Enfield, NH: Science Publishers, 2010.

    DOI: 10.1201/EBK1578086801

    Considers the history of rice in Asia, Australia, Europe, Africa, the United States, and Hispanic America, considering social and cultural practices and offering regional contrasts. It makes reference to modern marketing practices and plant breeding. Most of the essays refer to Asia.

  • Smith, C. Wayne, and Robert H. Dilday, eds. Rice: Origin, History, Technology, and Production. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2003.

    A wide-ranging and useful collection of essays covering rice from its earliest domestication to modern systems of marketing. Its primary focus is on developments in the United States, but it looks at rice’s origins in Asia and Africa and contains useful charts that list cultivated and noncultivated varieties there and in Latin America. Variously considers the plant’s morphology, physiology, genetic transformations and mutations, chemical composition, and global production.

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