"... common Western misperceptions ... saw Africa as a fertile, untapped continent; Africans as untapped labor ready to work for low wages; and oil palms as a natural and largely wasted resource. Beyond indulging in racist caricatures, Europeans and Americans misread oil palms as evidence of Africa’s natural bounty—trees planted by God in a garden of Eden—rather than as signs of intensive agricultural activity in the recent past. Across Africa’s Atlantic littoral, centuries of slaving, warfare, disease, migration, and a changing climate had radically modified demography and land-use patterns, creating new villages and palm groves and leaving others abandoned. Settlers and traders weren’t stepping into a primordial forest, but a landscape with a long history of human occupation." (Oil Palm, p. 43).
Oil Palm: A Global History
by Jonathan E. Robins. (Published 2021)
“Defining slavery in the historical record isn’t straightforward. Like societies around the world, African societies practiced many forms of 'unfreedom' and dependency. Reports from Europeans 'anxious to eliminate slavery, and not always familiar with the intricacies of local usage,' tended to use the word 'slave' as a catchall. People who would be better described as pawns, serfs, or servants all fell under the same 'slave' label.” (p. 52)
“Before abolition, most palm oil rode along with the slave trade in the most literal sense. A surviving freight bill for the Hawke offers one example: the vessel loaded 359 captives at Gallinhas and Bassa and discharged 328 survivors at Dominica in 1777. On the return trip to Liverpool, the vessel brought back six puncheons of palm oil.” (p 75)
|A 19th century ad for palm-oil candles, showing the relationship to both slave and free African labor. (p, 82)|
"Africa’s palm groves reflected generations of farming and management of the landscape. They were neither completely natural nor entirely human built, but rather emerged as 'a cultural creation and a lived environment.'” (p. 120).
"Food technologists created flaky pastries that stayed tender and crisp for days; powders that stirred into coffee as 'cream;' boxed biscuit and cake mixes that lasted for months on shelves—just add milk and eggs. Instant noodles ready with a cup of hot water; peanut butter that you never, ever have to stir oil back into: these were the miracles of modern convenience food, made possible by refining, fractionating, and hydrogenating fats like palm oil. ... No one ever bought a stick of palmitin or a jar of diglycerides in a supermarket, but they ate them nonetheless in packaged foods." (p. 197)
|Palm oil: used in a Snickers Bar and so many other foods!|
Beyond food safety issues, the ecological role of palm plantations concerns many analysts. They worry about the destruction of wild animals, about an endless cycle of pests and pesticides, and about issues of deforestation. Oil palms: are they a sustainable crop or a source of environmental and habitat destruction? Also, as in the past, concern arises over mistreatment of laborers and displacement of traditional farmers from lands being converted to oil-palm cultivation.
Globalization is the final topic of the book Oil Palm. The author writes:
"Palm oil rode on earlier waves of globalization, back to the first casks shipped from Africa half a millennium ago. Long-distance trade linked Africa’s oil palms with industries and ecologies across the globe in the nineteenth century. The colonial plantation complex sent capital, people, and plants shuttling around the globe, along with palm oil and kernels. The recent era of globalization is in some ways a return to form for the oil palm industry, after a postcolonial interlude dominated by development-minded states. In this new political and economic context, old plantation firms became multinational agribusinesses; the roles once filled by 'coolie' labor were taken up by undocumented migrants. Capital poured into tropical regions as raw materials flowed out." (p. 245).
Jonathan E. Robins has written a very readable book, which looks at the oil palm from a remarkably varied number of viewpoints -- history, nutrition, globalization, politics, labor issues, and many more. Above all, he shows the importance of this often-overlooked commodity on modern life. What an interesting book is Oil Palm!
Review © 2021 mae sander,