African Origins of Sesame Cultivation in the Americas



Contributions from Africa to crop introduction in the Americas have received insufficient recognition. A cultural, ecological, economic, geographical, and historical study of the transfer of sesame from Africa to the New World, this chapter surveys knowledge about sesame in the American colonies concerning medicine, myth, magic, culinary, and industrial use. African and New World usage by subsistence farmers was strikingly similar. Preference for mucilaginous foods, shown here, is widespread throughout Africa. A benefit already known by enslaved Africans, their masters in the American colonies eventually recognized the mucilage properties of the leaves and its value in treating summer dysentery. On both continents, according to folk belief, sesame has attributes as a good luck plant.

Sesame is a valuable crop introduced to Africa from Asia long ago. Language reveals important clues about transmission routes in the absence of written textual evidence. Surviving traces of African languages and customs in modern African-American and Caribbean material culture vis-à-vis sesame appear with culinary and healing traditions of Africa and the African diaspora. Eyewitness reports, including correspondence of Thomas Jefferson, provide firsthand data, supplementing herbarium specimens and limited, widely scattered published passages about the dynamic nature of contributions by African-born slaves in the dissemination and use of sesame in the Americas.


Benne Gullah-Geechee Kongo Vanglo Wangila West Africa 



Completion of this research has required a decade and a half of persistent searching because the sources assembled here are extremely scarce, and widely scattered. Encouragement from archivists and librarians aided the completion of this manuscript. P. R. Begley, Reference Services, South Carolina Department of Archives and History, Columbia, SC, supplied some local references (June 1995) that helped launch this investigation. M. B. Cadoree Bradley, Reference Specialist, Science, Technology and Business Division, Library of Congress, dipped deeply and unstintingly into the library’s rich resources to locate some well-hidden references that answered specific questions about the transfer of African sesame names and practices. C. Ehret, Professor of History, UCLA, provided indispensable aid with linguistic analysis. P. F. de Moraes Farias, Centre of West African Studies, University of Birmingham, settled the location of Gao, in West Africa. A. P. Clark, US National Herbarium Smithsonian Institution; K. D. Perkins, University of Florida Herbarium Gainesville; and T. van Andel, Netherlands Centre for Biodiversity Naturalis, Leiden, provided specimen information. I am grateful to S. Alpern, D. Austin, J. Carney, L. J. G. van der Maesen, Y. Scheven, and R. Voeks for comments on draft versions of this manuscript.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Research Associate, Missouri Bot GardSt. LouisUSA

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