How the popularity of peanuts spurred slavery and upended agriculture

Award-winning journalist Jori Lewis, a former EHN contributor and researcher based in Dakar, Senegal, has just published Slaves for Peanuts: A Story of Conquest, Liberation, and a Harvest that Changed History.

Lewis presents 19th century Senegal at a time of turmoil. It explores how French colonialism and the demand for peanut oil in Europe created a peanut boom with lasting repercussions on Senegalese agriculture and reinforced a system of slavery that persisted long after France l banned in the territories it held.

EHN spoke with Lewis about his book and his writings on agriculture and the environment in Senegal today.

How was groundnut traditionally grown in West Africa and how did it become a major export crop to Europe?

The peanut originated in South America, where it evolved and spread across the continent. It was probably brought back quite early by the Spanish and Portuguese conquistadors to Europe, and from Europe to Africa. Groundnut was grown on a small scale and in vegetable gardens with other food supplements…so not on the same scale as cereals like millet or folio in Senegal, but probably grown like okra or cowpea.

It developed once there was a demand for peanut oil in Europe during the industrial revolution. They needed oil to maintain their machines and steam engines. Before oil, they also needed oil for lighting. And, of course, they were killing whales for oil. A society that kills large marine mammals for oil obviously needs a lot of oil. But then the main driver became the soap industry. Peanut oil has very similar chemical properties to olive oil and could be substituted up to a certain percentage in the Marseille’s soap.

In the 19th century, the Wolof kingdom of Kajoor, between Dakar and the French coastal archipelago of Saint Louis, became the center of the groundnut boom and needed more and more people to work the land as demand grew. was increasing. Explain the connection between the peanut boom and slavery.

Kajoor’s sandy soil environment was perfect for groundnut. I knew there had been a more robust peanut economy there for a long time; Kajoor peanuts were so popular in Europe. Was it the peanut that created the expansion of slavery? In West Africa, there were people who were born slaves. But there was a demand for labor in Kajoor, and that brought people enslaved by the war. Why was there war? Partly because of economic developments linked to the European presence and capitalism.

The person who becomes an important vehicle for telling this larger story is Walter Taylor, a missionary in St. Louis who founded a haven for slaves and had to deal with colonial authorities turning a blind eye to slavery to protect economic interests. , even though France abolished slavery in 1848. How did you realize that Taylor had the potential to carry a lot of history?

I had read a book about slavery in the 19th century, and there was a brief reference to a Sierra Leonean Protestant missionary named Walter Taylor, who established a haven for runaway slaves in St. Louis. I discovered that this black missionary from a territory under British control had 20 years of letters with the direction of the mission in Paris.

Although Taylor worked, in a way, for the colonial enterprise, he had an equally interesting history as a black man in a white-dominated colonial system, as an English speaker in the French-speaking world, and as a that son of freed slaves who’d grown up in a community of people who had been freed. I became a bit obsessed with his story.

There was a movement of inland slaves trying to get to Saint Louis as a kind of promised land. But the process of claiming freedom was administratively difficult. Runaway slaves who arrived had to register with the city and say, “I declare that I have the right to my freedom. But then they had to wait three months. And during those three months, a slave owner could come and claim that person.

The court preferred that people not bring these cases to court, so that a slave master could find the person and say, “I can leave you alone if you pay for your freedom.” But who has so much money? Then Walter Taylor had the idea of ​​making a collection in the church. He realized that there was an opportunity to evangelize among this group, which was open to the mission because it had helped them.

Taylor was trying to build a career in the mission. He needed converts. But as someone who grew up in a community of liberated people, I think he really cared about them and their stories resonated with his on a deeper level.

Another strong but contrasting character to Taylor is Lat Joor, the damel, or king, of Kajoor. What was his story?

Lat Joor became a damel, was expelled by the French, and then returned through questionable methods and betrayals. He sought influence to keep his throne. He thought for a while that the French might be a tool to help him do this – before he started to understand, as perhaps all colonized people will eventually understand, these people aren’t there to help you , they are there to take your land.

Lat Joor had many slaves. I found letter after letter in which he wrote to the [colonial] governor or commander to say, “Please give me back my slave. But Lat Joor is an epic and heroic figure in Senegalese history because of his resistance to colonization. I think my book shows that this resistance has not always been direct. There was collaboration before there was resistance.

You write about wanting to ensure that the voices of slaves and others who are not well represented in the historical record are part of this book – a difficult task. How did you find their stories?

I wanted to include female voices and others who weren’t part of the elite. I also wanted to include the voices of the slaves. I found stories in mission records and court records, stories of how they became slaves and how they became free. Trying to tell this story from that perspective was really important to me, especially because sometimes an approach to African folk history tends to create hero stories as a fix – a very sensitive fix – to hundreds of years denigration of African culture and history. But I also wanted to show the whole story, to say that we have complicated stories about people who aren’t just good or bad, because we’re all complex characters with different motivations, who at different points in time err on the side of good or evil.

What is the conversation in Senegal today about sustainable agriculture and food sovereignty?

I see Senegalese agriculture developing, trying to resemble American or European agriculture. The same ideas of industrialized agriculture predominate. There are some small moves here, but what Senegal probably needs is extreme regenerative agriculture, and I don’t particularly see that happening. I see the agriculture industry is largely business as usual — fertilizers, pesticides. Modernize. It’s something you hear often, which means becoming like the industrialized agriculture of America, Europe, China or even India. All have their imprimatur on the way Senegal envisions its agricultural system.

The baobab makes many appearances in your book. You also wrote a nice essay on the baobab recently for Emergence Magazine. What does this mean to you?

The baobab is so ubiquitous in the history and understanding of Senegal. But at the same time, it’s so in danger. When I travel to Senegal, I think of all those lost trees and how much history they represent, because baobabs are long-lived, almost like redwoods. It’s even hard to fix our imagination on what it means to be in the presence of a millennial or two thousand year old tree, isn’t it?

Our human living memory is only 110 years old. But the baobab — how long does the living memory of this tree last? It’s amazing to imagine the number of changes humanity has gone through in these 2,000 years.

Thinking about this long view of history brings out the role of climate, which also lurks in the background of your book and invites us to reflect on our current condition.

In a few chapters I mention a period called the “hunger years,” brought on by cyclical drought. People were subject to the vagaries of the natural environment that drove them to make political or economic decisions. You would see more conflicts sometimes, people migrate to the city. It’s really interesting to get an overview of the story and see how the climate is its own character in the book.

Today we are so isolated, especially in America. But even in Senegal, a certain class of people is really isolated from the reality of the climate. What is the long term impact? We just keep cutting things back, not paying attention to what the signals are telling us.

The climate is one of them, but our political decisions are more often than not what determines access to food, security, water, all of that, which brings us back to Slaves for Peanuts. Unknowingly, the French soap consumer was leading to continued enslavement in Africa. It is important to understand how our choices impact the larger system, the larger world.

Lewis’s book is published by The New Press and available from independent booksellers and online sellers large and small.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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