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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 6: Maize in the southeast Asian archipelago and Australia
View:  Introduction | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | Conclusions | References

Maize was being cultivated in the southeast Asian archipelago by the 1600s, and is likely to have been introduced by the Portuguese who established trade settlements at Melaka on the island of Sumatra in 1511, on the island of Timor in 1516, and elsewhere. The basis of Portuguese trade in this region during the 16th and 17th centuries was the exchange of cotton textiles from ports on the eastern coast of India for spices and aromatic woods from the islands of present-day Malaysia and Indonesia (157). In the early 18th century, after the Portuguese lost dominance of trade among the islands, British trader Alexander Hamilton wrote that "as a monument of their (Portuguese) grandeur then, their language goes current along most of the sea-coast at this time" (158). On his travels from 1854 to 1862 among the islands of Indonesia, British naturalistsuch as ngo te vang, khao sali, and baogour Alfred Russel Wallace noted that the Malay-speaking natives used a number of Portuguese words, including the Portuguese name milho for maize, without "the least notion that these words belong to a European language" (159). In contrast, the Portuguese name milho for maize does not appear to have survived on the southeast Asian mainland among numerous local names for maize, such as ngo te vang, khao sali, and baogour (160).

Portuguese Trade

Few 16th and 17th century European travellers to the spice islands of Malaysia and Indonesia reported American crop plants. From 1500 to 1521, Portuguese agent Duarte Barbosa made relatively detailed observations of agriculture on the coast of India and as far eastward as Melaka and the Philippine Islands, but made no mention of American crop plants (161). Pineapples were reported by Antonio De Morga in the Philippine islands in1609, by Francois Leguat on the island of Java in 1697, by Allen Catchpoole on the island of Pulo Condore in 1702, and by Alexander Hamilton on Sumatra by 1723 (162).

Dampier on Maize in Timor

At the turn of the 18th century maize began to appear in the literature of travel and exploration of the southeast Asian archipelago. From 1686 to 1708 the buccaneer and British navy privateer William Dampier made four voyages to southeast Asia. Dampier saved his extensive journals of navigation and natural history and his collections of dried plant specimens from storm and shipwreck by preserving them in lengths of bamboo sealed with wax (163). On their 1686 voyage across the southern Pacific Ocean from Mexico to the island of Guam, Dampier's pirate crew came near starvation, "we had not sixty day's provision, at little more than half a pint of Maiz a day for each man, and no other provision, except three melas of salted jew-fish; and we had a great many rats aboard, which we could not hinder from eating part of our Maiz" (164). At numerous islands throughout the archipelago Dampier reported pineapple and tobacco and, to a lesser extent, guava, papaya, and sweet potato. Dampier wrote of the natives of Timor in 1699, "Their common subsistence is by Indian corn, which every man plants for himself. They take but little pains to clear their land; for in the dry time they set fire to the withered grass and shrubs, and that burns them out a plantation for the next wet season. What other grain they have besides Indian corn, I know not. Their plantations are very mean; for they delight most in hunting" (165). In Timor 150 years later, Wallace wrote "maize thrives in all the lowlands, and is the common food of the natives as it was when Dampier visited the island in 1699" (166).

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Wallace on Maize in Timor

In 1703, British trader Catchpoole reported maize and chili pepper on the island of Pulo Condore near the coast of Vietnam (167). In 1770, botanist Joseph Banks observed that the natives of Java grew maize and the natives of Timor and nearby islands were required to provide maize for provisioning the Portuguese and Dutch settlements (168). At Guam in 1781, Spanish Captain Francisco Antonio Maurelle procured more than 200 bushels of maize for ship provisions (169). By 1828, when British agent John Crawfurd ended his 20 years' travels throughout the islands of southeast Asia, he wrote that "The Zea maiz of botanists is at present well known and much cultivated in all the islands of the Asiatic Archipelago, taking among several corns the next rank to rice" (170). During the search for birds and beetles he chronicled in The Malay Archipelago (171)., Wallace described the adaptability of maize to agriculture in the islands. Maize agricultural systems ranged from the scattered plots of the sago palm-harvesters of Seram and shifting cultivation of head-hunter Dyack tribes of the interior of Borneo, to the gardens of the Malay coffee planters of the volcanic plains of Sulawesi and irrigated mountainside terrace gardens of the Hindu Balinese.

No Maize in Early Records of Northern Australia

Although Portuguese settlements on the island of Timor were less than 300 miles from the northwestern coast of Australia, there is no historical record that Portuguese traders or settlers introduced agriculture to the Australian coast during the 16th and 17th centuries. Malaysian fisherman were another potential means of introduction of American crop plants to Australia, and in 1803 explorer Matthew Flinders found Malaysian fishing boats at Caledon Bay on the northwestern coast (172). Unfortunately, there are few sources of information on agriculture of the aborigines of the northern Australian coast before British exploration. From 1642 to 1644 the Dutchman Abel Tasman led two exploratory voyages to Australia, including various regions of the northern coast. Although Tasman's original journals were lost, an abridged version of his first journal has survived. In a handwritten manuscript copy of the journal with English translation, Tasman states that in Australia "people have no knowledge of tobacco or of smoking tobacco" but it is not clear from the text to which part of the country he is referring (173). Two hundred years later, to explore regions of the country unknown to Europeans, the German Ludwig Leichhardt crossed the continent from Brisbane on the east coast to Port Essington (present-day Darwin) at the northwestern tip of the Northern Territory. In 1845, among aborigines some distance inland from the northwestern coast, Leichhardt found abundant evidence of Malaysian influence, including water buffaloes, rice, tobacco, and clay pipes for smoking tobacco (174). Leichhardt, however, made no mention of cultivation of maize by the aboriginal tribes he encountered in the northwest. Thus, despite the proximity of Portuguese settlements in Indonesia, there appears to be no direct evidence for introduction of maize to Australia before its documented introduction by the British settlement fleet in 1788.

Early Success of Maize at Sydney

During his first (1768-1771) and second (1772-1775) Pacific voyages, Captain James Cook explored the coasts of New Zealand, Australia, and nearby islands. In January 1788, a British fleet of eleven ships arrived at Port Jackson (present-day Sydney) to establish a permanent settlement and penal colony. In March of the same year, Philip King founded a second settlement on remote Norfolk Island, which was intended as a supply base for British ships (175). Maize and wheat were planted immediately at both settlements, and by June 1788 at Sydney "Indian corn, and English wheat" promised "very fair" (176). In 1791, however, Captain Arthur Phillip wrote to Joseph Banks, who was the botanist on Cook's first voyage, that maize stood the Australian drought conditions better than wheat. Thus, 351 acres of maize would be planted at Sydney compared to 44 acres of wheat, and the soldiers at the garrison had planted six acres of maize for their own provisions (177). On Norfolk Island, King reported that maize cultivation was successful, and by 1791 the island settlement was exporting maize to the mainland (178).

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