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You are here: Home / Plants and Crops / Milho, makka and ya mai: early journeys of Zea mays in Asia Printer Friendly Page
plants and crops
Chapter 3: Mahindi and milho in Africa
View:  Introduction | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | Conclusions | References

Maize was cultivated in Africa by the mid-1500s, but the dates and circumstances of the early introductions of maize into Africa are not known. Examination of words for maize in the many African languages and dialects indicates that maize came to Africa directly across the Atlantic but also by way of Egypt and Arabia (40). Names for maize in northern and central Africa include maheende, mahindi, and mase, which probably are imitations of the Caribbean word maize that was adopted by Columbus (41). The Portuguese word milho for maize survives as mielie or mealies in languages of sub-Saharan Africa, where maize was introduced by Portuguese traders.

Confusing Synonyms for Maize

Early Portuguese accounts and those of other European travellers to Africa are an important source of information on the introduction of maize and other American food crops. 16th and 17th century records contain references to maize under a number of names, including variations of mais or mehiz, Indian corn, and Turkish wheat or Guinea wheat. Early references are sometimes ambiguous because terminology for cereal grains was imprecise. In particular, the English word "corn" could refer to a wide variety of cereal grains, and variations of the Portuguese name milho for maize also could refer to millet (Eleusine, Pennisetum, and others) or sorghum (Sorghum bicolor). The Thesouro da Lingua Portugueza of 1871-1874 listed milho zaburro and milho grosso as 19th century synonyms for Zea mays, although milho zaburro is currently used by the Portuguese to refer to sorghum or millet (42).

Early Maize in West Africa

The earliest reference to maize on the western coast of Africa is an ambiguous report of milho zaburro, which could indicate maize or sorghum, by the Portuguese writer Valentim Fernandes in 1502 (43). In 1526, Al-Hassan Ibn Mohammed Al-Wezaz, also known as Leo Africanus, wrote of his travels in the region between the rivers of Gambia and Senega, " Their chiefe sustenence is zaburro, otherwise called Ghinie-wheate or maiz, which they sow after the inundation of their rivers, casting some quantity of sand thereupon to defend it from the heat, which otherwise would scorch the ground too excessively" (44). The Muslim traveller also reported "maize or Ghiny-wheat" as a food for slaves near the Congo River, and saburro on Saint Iago in the Cape Verde Islands on the west African coast (45). Sometime between 1535 and 1550, an anonymous Portuguese pilot saw what was probably maize on the Cape Verde Islands, the Island of Sao Tome, and other Portuguese settlements along the western coast of Africa; he stated that the grain was the size of a chickpea, and was known as mehiz in the West Indies (46). In 1593, Richard Hawkins described maize in the Cape Verde Islands "the bread which they spend in these ilands, is brought from Portingall and Spaine, saving that which they make of rice, or of mayes, which we call Guynne-wheate (47).

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Maize and the Slave Trade

During four voyages to the western coast of Africa in 1605-1612, Dutch trader Pieter Van Der Broecke reported that Angola was a "fertile land with all sorts of mantimentous namely mile masse or Turkish wheat" which the translator notes were Dutch names for maize in the 17th and 18th centuries (48). Van der Broecke also noted the abundance of pineapples, another plant native to the Americas. The French slave trader Jean Barbot wrote a lengthy account of his travels on the western coast of Africa in 1678-79 and 1681-82 with numerous observations of maize as a subsistence crop from Senegal to Gabon and in the Congo-Angola region. Barbot noted that maize ears were roasted in the embers as a dish for the upper ranks and that maize grains were parched on hot stones and were also ground and boiled to prepare bread called kankies (cakes). Barbot observed native rituals and other practices associated with maize, including a "ceremony of prayer to the fetish, in order to bring rain upon the maize, which greatly needed water"; officers of the army wearing shields decorated with maize and hats decorated with maize cobs; and women using maize straw to make hampers, baskets, and other utensils, which they ornamented and decorated with cowrie shells (49). Barbot noted the use of maize as a travel provision for the native army, and also purchased maize on the Gold Coast as provision for his slave ship (50).

Early Maize in Mozambique

Early reports of maize on the eastern coast of Africa are centered on regions near the island of Mozambique which was a major way station for the Carreira da India, the Portuguese route between Lisbon and Goa on the western coast of India. Maize was reported as a staple food in the Portuguese community in Mozambique in 1561 (51). In 1601, English Captain James Lancaster landed on the coast of Africa adjacent to the island of Mozambique where he "took three or foure barkes of Moores., laden with millio (a possible reference to maize), hennes, and ducks, with one Portuguese boy, going for the provision of Mozambique" (52). When his fleet was stranded at Mozambique island in 1619, Portuguese Leguate (1891) Captain Ruy Freye de Andrada sent a ship to the island of Sao Lourenco (now Madagascar) "so that it might take in a supply of meat, rice and Indian corn, which they did in great abundance and with great dispatch" (53). French traveller Francois Leguat in 1691 reported that Indian corn grew Francois Leguat very well on the Island of Mauritius (now Reunion) to the east of Madagascar (54). In the mid-18th century the Franciscan priest Remedius Prutky and a Monsieur de Gentil noted that "Indian corn" or "maize" was plentiful on the island of Mauritius and that the inhabitants used maize as food for themselves and for their slaves, as barter for wheat, and as feed for the hogs and poultry they raised for the ship trade (55). By the mid-1600s, maize also was being grown at Mombasa in Kenya and at other Portuguese trade settlements scattered along the eastern coast of Africa (56).

Early Maize in Abbysinia (Ethiopia and Eritrea)

Following its introduction into Spain by 1495, maize spread rapidly throughout the Mediterranean coast along the well-established trade routes between Christian Europe and Muslim North Africa, Turkey, and the Middle East. Grigg (57). stated that the Turks brought maize to Egypt in 1517, but provided no historical details. In the narrative of his travels in Africa published in 1553, the Portuguese Joao de Barros reported zaburro (a possible reference to maize) on the north coast of Africa (58). The muslim traveller Al-Hassan Ibn Mohammed Al-Wezaz wrote in 1526 of Ethiopia, "the countrie. bringeth forth barley and myll [for it aboundeth not greatly with other sortes of grain] and likewise taffo da guza (Eragrostis tef), another good and durable seed: but there is mill, and zaburro [which we call the graine of India, or Ginnie wheat] great plenty " (59). Further evidence for the early cultivation of maize in Ethiopia is provided by the journal of Father Francisco Alvarez, a member of the 1520-1527 Portuguese embassy to the Coptic Christian regions of the Abyssinian highlands (now Ethiopia and Eritrea). After leaving the port of Masawa on the western coast of the Red Sea, Alvarez described monasteries with fields of "Indian corn" and gardens with "trees of all kinds, both of Portugal and India ". At monasteries at Bisam and elsewhere, the monks ate bread "of maize and barley, and other grain which they call taffo, a small black grain " and "in this country they make bread of any grain, as with wheat, barley, maize, pulse, peas, lentils, small beans, beans, linseed, and teff " (60). Alvarez appears to have distinguished maize, as Indian corn or milho zaburro, from millets (Eleusine species) to which he gave the local names of mashela and dagousha. In 1623 botanist Casper Bauhin reported maize in Ethiopia (61), as did Prutky in 1751, "Ethiopia is full of the grain known in Europe as maize" and "for want of teff they make do with maize flour" for preparation of bread (62). The preparation of bread from a mixture of maize and other grains was also noted by John Covel, British chaplain at Constantinople, during a stop on the coast of Tunisia in 1669, "There was also store of bread to be bought. They make some of it of pure good wheat, most of it of millet, some of what we call Turkish wheat, much of barley flour" (63).

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