Introduction and Diffusion of New Crops


  In the words of Wickens, Spain received (apart from a legendary high culture), and what she in turn transmitted to most of Europe, were all manner of agricultural and fruit-growing processes, together with a vast number of new plants, fruit and vegetables that we all now take for granted.[1] These new crops included sugar cane, rice, citrus fruit, apricots, cotton, artichokes, aubergines, saffron... whilst others, previously known, were developed further.[2] To these can be added roses and peaches, strawberries, figs, quinces, spinach, and asparagus, hemp, the mulberry and the silk worm.[3]  Muslims also brought to that country rice, oranges, sugar cane and cotton;[4] sub-tropical crops such as bananas and sugar cane were grown on the coastal parts of the country,[5] many to be taken to the Spanish  colonies in the Americas subsequently. Also owing to the Muslim influence, a silk industry flourished, flax was cultivated and linen exported, and esparto grass, which grew wild in the more arid parts, was collected and turned into various types of articles.[6] In Sicily , Lowe holds, practically all the distinguishing features of Sicilian husbandry were introduced by the Muslims: citrus, cotton, carob, mulberry, sugar cane, hemp, date palm, saffron... the list is endless.[7] `It would make a whole book, and not the least interesting,’ Carra de Vaux  insists, on the history of flowers, plants and animals that had come from the Orient , and which are used in agriculture, pharmacy, gardens, luxury trade, and arts.'[8] Carra de Vaux lists tulips (Turkish: tulpan,), hyacinths, narcissi of Constantinople, Lilacs, jasmine of Arabia, and roses of Shiraz and Ispahan; peaches of Persia, the prunes of Damascus , and figs of Smyrne. Also listed are the sheep of `Barbary', goats, Angora cats, Persian coqs; products used for dyeing.[9] De Vaux then dwells on what he sees `one of the great glories' of the Arab world: the pure blood Arab horse, stressing the Arab care and expertise.[10]


Agents of such diffusion were many and diverse. Muslim rulers, such as Abd Errahman III (912-961), promoted the culture of the sugar cane, rice, and the mulberry.[11] The Yemeni  element, benefiting of long learned know how and skills in their country of origin, as they settled in Spain, brought with them their irrigation techniques, laws and administration, and also new crops and systems of more intensive land use.[12] Watson  also speaks of thousands of mostly unknown individuals from many levels of society who moved plants over shorter or longer distances for many different reasons. Whether `Great or humble, they unwillingly collaborated in a vast undertaking that was to enlarge considerably the range of useful plants available over a large part of the known world. They also prepared the stage for still further migration of these same plants in the early modern era.’[13] 


Crucial to such a diffusion was the frontier-less, unified land of Islam, which allowed crops (rice, hard wheat, sugar-cane, watermelon, spinach, lemons, citruses…) to be taken from India and Persia to the Near East and North Africa, and to Europe. Many crops were probably found on the Indian sub-continent, such as the province of Sind, where the Muslims had a foot-hold.[14] Oman may have been a halfway-house in which new plants were acclimatised before being passed farther to the north and, of course, further west.[15] The eastern part of the Islamic world was thus `the gateway’ through which passed on their westward journey all the crops, with the exception of the tropical ones, then across the Maghreb, into Spain, and Sicily , and from one Mediterranean island to another.[16]


The progress of a number of crops in their journey West can be looked at. Chalots, first, which derive their name from Ascalon (Cepa Ascalonia), and were imported during the crusades.[17] Spinach was imported first to Spain, where it was largely witnessed in the 11th century, from whence it was diffused to the rest of Europe.[18] It was one of the earliest such crops to be received into Europe, but it did not appear until the 13th century when it seems to have made rapid progress.[19] Aubergines, which spread into Italy in the 14th century, came from Muslim Spain.[20]Sorghum, too, is mentioned in Italy by the late 12th and 13th centuries, by which time it had arrived in the south of France.[21]  Sour oranges and lemons appear to have spread slowly through parts of Italy and Spain in the 13th and 14th. Hard wheat probably appeared in the 13th.[22] The Romans had imported rice but had never grown it on a large scale, and it was the Muslims who started growing it on irrigated fields in Sicily  and Spain, whence it came to the Pisan plain (1468) and Lombardy (1475).[23] Other crops which the Muslims either introduced or intensified, include the mulberry tree and saffron; the first was necessary for silk worm husbandry and industry; the second, appreciated in cooking, and also in the medical sciences.[24]


  Greater information on the passage of crops from Islam to Western Christendom , and their impact on both farming and local manufacturing, can be gleaned by looking at the particular instances of sugar and cotton.

The Muslims developed the cultivation of sugar on a large scale.[25]By the 10thcentury sugar cane was cultivated all over North Africa (as in other places east), from where, it crossed into Spain.[26]There it was cultivated and sugar produced according to all crafts of the trade.[27]Then the Muslims acclimated the crop in Sicily .[28]The name `massara’ which is given to sugar mills in Sicily is of course of Arabic origin. Before the crusades, parts of the West, thus, already had sugar production. Early in the crusades, the Europeans took over regions where sugar was produced, such as Tripoli, the first place where they came across the crop, and where they enjoyed it with delight.[29]Other Eastern regions where the crusaders came across the crop include Tyre; Sidon; and Acre. William of Tyre speaks enthusiastically of the great sugar plantations of Sur.[30] When the Crusaders took possession of the country, they were very careful to maintain production which brought them considerable wealth, such as the Lord of Tyre, who enriched himself thanks to his sugar plantations.[31] The Syrians were great experts at refining the product through an elaborate process to extract sugar.[32]The Crusaders followed exactly the same processes and methods as the Muslims, and adapted the same terminology in the manufacturing process, using massara to describe their mills.[33] At Tyre, this industry was so prosperous that Frederick II  asked for workers to be sent to Palermo as the local Sicilians had lost the skills; the request was made to the Marshall Ricardo Filangieri.[34] At Acre itself, Muslim prisoners were used for the making of sugar.[35]After the fall of the Latin  states in the East, the plantations and production of sugar were transferred to Cyprus.[36]The land became covered with sugar cane plantations, especially around Baffo and Limisso, under the direct control of the local rulers themselves.[37] The Cornaro, an illustrious Venetian family, possessed in the Limisso region vast plantations, whilst the Knights of Rhodes possessed vast farms on the Colossi lands.[38]Here, again, it was Muslim craftsmen, Syrian specialists, who were imported to Cyprus to advise on sugar production.[39] Between the years 1400 and 1415, about 1,500 Muslims were captured by the Cypriots from the Sultan of Egypt ; the King of Cyprus refused to return these on the grounds that they were essential for the cultivation of sugar cane.[40] Muslim expertise also spread elsewhere. Marco Polo mentions Egyptian technical consultants teaching their methods of sugar refining to the Chinese  in the second half of the 13th century.[41]

    The progress of cotton, Watson  observes, owes mainly to the fact that wealthy people copied what had become the manner of dress of many Egyptians.[42] The fashion set by the rich was sufficiently widespread, and hence the demand for cotton was great enough to induce some landowners and peasants to experiment with its cultivation.[43] Thus cotton moved from Egypt  farther west, across North of Africa into Spain and to successive Mediterranean islands.[44] Manufacture of cotton was first introduced into Europe by the Spanish  Muslims during the rule of Abd Errahman III.[45] One of the most valuable Spanish applications of cotton was in the production of cotton paper.[46] Xativa, as already noted, was the centre of the paper industry in Spain. The adoption of cotton as a material for the fabrication of this article of commerce is said to be due to `the practical genius’ of the artisans of Xativa, who produced great quantities of paper, much of which, in texture and finish will compare not unfavourably with that obtained by the most improved process of modern manufacture.[47]From Spain, cotton manufacture spread across Europe between the 12th to the 15th century as far as England , particularly in the form of fustian, a cheap cotton cloth with a linen warp, which derives its name from the Cairo  suburb of Fustat.[48]


The dependency upon Islamic skills in these agro-industries is most particularly obvious. Any loss of Muslim expertise in one part of Western Christendom  drives the rulers to urgently request for expertise from anywhere Muslims could be found. Hence, in Sicily , following the upheavals that affected the island in the mid to late 12th century,[49] the skills of growing henna, indigo and refining sugar had disappeared as Muslims took flight from the land they cultivated and some left the island altogether. Frederick II , for instance, had to send to the Levant for `duos hominess qui bene sciant facere zuccarum’ (two men who can manufacture sugar).[50] Similarly, in the Christian kingdom of Valencia , it seems that the farming of both cotton and sugar cane had disappeared after conquest of the place from the Muslims in 1238, and following the dispersal of its Muslim population, since Jaime II sent to Sicily for `duos sclavos sarracenos quorum alter sit magistro cotonis et alter de cannamellis’ as well as for the seeds of cotton and sugar cane.[51] In Spain, the Muslims, until their expulsion in the early 17th century, surely met the demands and needs of specialised crops, and the effects suffered by Spanish  faming following such expulsions are widely acknowledged.[52]


  Understandably, many crops (and techniques and skills associated with them), that began their life in Europe, found their way to the European colonies of Spain and Portugal . Silk production was taken from Grenada to Mexico by Hernan Cortes, and was developed there by the Viceroy Antonio de Mondoza, who himself came from Grenada.[53] Many other sub-tropical crops such as bananas and sugar cane grown on the coastal parts of Spain also found their way there.[54] Pacey notes, that it was the organization of the sugar plantations which was novel at this time, and both cultivation methods and cane processing technology used by Europeans in Madeira and later on the Caribbean islands had been acquired from the Islamic world, and from Sicily .[55] Morocco  had an important sugar industry during the 15th century, and the north Moroccan  town of Ceuta was invaded by the Portuguese in 1415, just a few years before the colonization of Madeira began, and Morocco was probably one source of information concerning sugar technology, such as cane crushing mills.[56]The plantations on Madeira proved to be highly lucrative, and exports to Europe expanded fast. By 1493 there were eighty `factory managers' responsible for sugar production on the island.[57] 


  The Islamic direct transfer of crops to Africa is enlightening in many respects. The spread of Islam on the continent caused the converted to begin to wear clothes-as religion enjoined, which in turn stimulated the growth of cotton in many places to meet fast rising demand.[58]It was the Muslims who introduced sugar cane into Ethiopia, and who made the East African island of Zanzibar famous for its high quality sugar.[59] Other crops were diffused by the Muslims on the continent in medieval times as reported by both Muslim travellers and by the Portuguese later in the 15thcentury.[60] It is almost certain that in medieval times West Africa received other than cotton and sugar cane, colocasia, bananas, plantains, sour oranges and limes, Asiatic rice and varieties of sorghum, which were all decisive in impact since the range of crops previously available was extremely limited.[61] Most of the crops were probably brought from the Maghrib over the caravan routes which crossed the Sahara.[62] There is also linguistic evidence pointing to a Muslim introduction for a number of crops; the names of several of the new crops in the languages of the interior of West Africa seem to be derived from Arabic names.[63] Mauny notes that before agriculture became established in this region, gathering of wild fruit, leaves and roots were main products for subsistence.[64]  Many of the indigenous crops also gave little nutrition in relation to the amount of land or labour required.[65]The transformation of modes of living following such transfers was, thus, far reaching. 


Finally, it is worth highlighting that the crops introduced by the Muslims had major impact on the local economies to this very day. It had been said, Sarton , insists, that the gardens and orchards of Spain were the best part of her Islamic heritage,[66]whilst Gabrieli notes that the crops which the Muslims introduced remain up to the present day one of the foundations of the Sicilian economy.[67]The new plants also created many changes in consumption and land use.[68] These plants  became the sources of new fibres, foods, condiments, beverages, medicines, narcotics, poisons, dyes, perfumes, cosmetics, and fodder as well as ornamental objects.[69]

[1] G.M. Wickens: What the West borrowed; op cit; at p. 125.

[2] M. Watt: The Influence; op cit pp 22-23.

[3] F.B. Artz: The Mind; op cit; pp 149-50.

[4] A. Pacey: Technology , op cit p. 15.

[5] E. Levi Provencal: Histoire de l'Espagne Musulmane; op cit; p.283.

[6] W. Montgomery Watt: The Influence, op cit, pp 22-3.

[7] A. Lowe: The Barrier and the Bridge, Published by G. Bles, London, 1972; p. 78.

[8] Baron Carra de Vaux : Les Penseurs de l'Islam, op cit; vol 2,  at p. 306.

[9] Ibid. pp 309-19.

[10] Ibid. pp. 329-36.

[11] J.W. Draper: History; op cit; Vol II; p.386.

[12] T. Glick: Irrigation. In A. Watson : Agricultural Innovation; op cit; p. 80

[13] A.M. Watson : Agricultural innovation; op cit; p.89-90.

[14] Ibid. p.79-80.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid. p.80.

[17] J. Andre: l’Alimentation et la Cuisine a Rome; Paris; 1961; p. 20.

[18] M. Rodinson: Les Influences de la Civilisation Musulmane sur la Civilisation Europeene Medievale dans le Domaine de la Consommation et de la Distraction: l’Alimentation; in Convegno Internationale: op cit;  pp. 479-99. p.484.

[19] Crescentiis bk vi 55; 103 in A. Watson : agricultural; op cit;  pp. 81-3.

[20] D. Bois: Les Plantes almentaires chez tous les peoples et a travers les ages; vol1; Paris; p. 355.

[21] Crescentis bk iii 7; V.Niccoli: Saggio storico; Turin; 1902; p. 189; J.J Hemardinquer: l’Introduction du Mais; 1963; pp. 450-1 in A.M.Watson : Agricultural; op cit; p. 81-83

[22]G. Alessio: Storia linguistica; 1958-9; pp. 263-5; M. Gual Camarena:  Vocabulario del commercio medieval; Tarragona; 1968; p. 422; in A. Watson : Agricultural; op cit;  pp 81-3.

[23] R.J. Forbes: Studies, op cit, p. 49.

[24] P.Guichard: Mise en valeur; op cit; p. 178.

[25] W. Heyd: Histoire; op cit; p.684

[26] R.Dozy: Le Calendrier de Cordoue de l’Annee 961; Leyden; 1873; p. 25; 41; 91.

[27] Ibn al-Awwam: Livre de l’Agriculture ; Trad Clement Mullet; Paris 1864. I; 365 and ff; and preface; p. 26.

[28] M. Amari: Storia dei Musulmani in Sicilia; op cit; II; p. 445.

[29] Alb. D’Aix; ed Bongars; p. 270. in W. Heyd: Histoire du commerce; op cit; p.685.

[30] Historia, XIII, 3; in medieval French translation in Paulin Pari’s edit., vol I, p. 480. The Sur of William of Tyre is Tyre. See also E. Dreesbach:  Der Orient ;  (Dissertation); Breslau; 1901; pp. 24-8.

[31] Burchard  in W.Heyd: Histoire; op cit; p. 686.

[32] Alb. D’Aix; ed Bongars; p. 270. Jacques de Vitry; p. 1075; 1099. in W. Heyd: Histoire du commerce; op cit; p.685.

[33] Taf and Thom., II; p. 368; Strehkle, in W.Heyd: Histoire;  p. 686.

[34] Huillard-Breholles, Hist.Dipl. Friderici II; Vol 5; pars 1; p.574. in W.Heyd: Histoire; p. 686.

[35] Michelant-Reinaud: Bibliotheque des Croisades; IV; p. 126 in W. Heyd: Histoire; op cit; p. 686.

[36] See Herquet: Konigsgetalten des hauses Lusignan; Halle; 1881; pp 165-70.

[37] Sanuto Diari; X; 106; Mas latrie: III; 27; 88 in W.Heyd: Histoire; op cit;  p. 687.

[38] Ibid.

[39] E. Ashtor; 1981: 105 in J.L. Abu-Lughod: Before European Hegemony.p.246.

[40] A. Watson : Agricultural; op cit;  Note 20; p. 211.

[41] J.L. Abu-Lughod: Before European Hegemony.p.246.

[42] A.M. Watson : Agricultural innovation; op cit; p.102.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Ibid.

[45] J.W. Draper: History; op cit; Vol II; p.386.

[46] Ibid.

[47] S.P .Scott: History; op cit; vol ii;  P. 387.

[48] T.K Derry and T.I Williams: A Short History; op cit; P. 98.

[49] See N. Daniel: The Arabs ; op cit; pp. 148 fwd; for the relentless depredations suffered by the Muslims, and their forced emigration from their lands and farms.

[50] Historia diplomatica v 573; 575 in A. Watson : Agricultural; op cit; Note 2; p. 185.

[51] J.E. Martinez Ferrandon: Jaime II de Aragon; 2 vols; Barcelona ; 1948. Vol II; pp. 19-20.

[52] See for instance, H.C. Lea: The Moriscos of Spain; Burt Franklin; New York; 1968 reprint; p.379; S.P. Scott: History; op cit; vol 3; p. 320; S. Lane-Poole: The Moors in Spain; Fisher Unwin; London; 1888. pp.279-80.

[53]R de Zayas: Les Morisques et le Racisme d'Etat; Les Voies du Sud; Paris, 1992. p.200.

[54] E. Levi Provencal: Histoire, op cit, p.283.

[55] A. Pacey: Technology  in world Civilization, op cit; p.100.

[56] Ibid.

[57] Ibid.

[58] V. Monteil: Le Cotton chez les Noirs, in Bulletin du Comite d’Etudes Historiques et Scientifiques de l’A.O.F. IX (1926); pp. 585-684;  R.Mauny: Notes historiques autour des principales plantes cultivess en Afrique occidendate; in Bulletin de l’Institut Francais d’Afrique Noire; Xv (1953); pp. 684-730;  pp. 698 ff.

[59] A. Pacey: Technology , op cit, p. 15.

[60] A. Watson : Agricultural; op cit; p. 81.

[61] Ibid.

[62] Ibid. p.82.

[63] J.M. Dalziel: The Useful Plants of West Tropical Africa; London; 1948; pp. 122; 305-6 etc.

[64] R. Mauny: Tableau geographique de l’Ouest Africain au Moyen Age; Dakar; 1961; pp. 228-33.

[65] A.M. Watson : Agricultural Innovation; op cit; pp 81-2.

[66] G. Sarton : The Appreciation; op cit;  p.131.

[67] F. Gabrieli: Islam in the Mediterranean World; in The Legacy of Islam: 2nd ed. Ed J. Schacht with C.E. Bosworth. Oxford Clarendon Press, 1974. pp 63-104, at P. 76.

[68] M. W. Dols: Herbs; in Dictionary of Middle Ages; op cit;  vol 6; pp. 184-7;  p. 186.

[69] Ibid. at pp. 185-6.