The legume’s history in West Africa is intimately linked with conquest.
Slaves for Peanuts: A Story of Conquest, Liberation, and a Crop That Changed History Jori Lewis The New Press (2022)
The peanuts we devour today, seeds of the legume Arachis hypogaea, originated in South America and spread around the world because of the peanut’s popularity as a snack and a source of oil. But as with many commodities, their expansion is also a story about the conquest of land and of humans.
In Slaves for Peanuts, environmental journalist Jori Lewis reveals how the rise of the peanut crop was intertwined with slavery, abolition and religious conquest in West Africa during French colonization in the nineteenth century. To unearth this history, Lewis pored over archival documents, newspapers and botanical manuscripts stored in Senegal, Gambia and France, along with oral histories and the lyrics of griots — singers revered as historians and poets in West Africa. Her drive to tell the stories of people excluded from history books stems, at least in part, she writes, from her own curiosity as an African American whose ancestors were enslaved.
The hard facts of the material are made lively through a few main characters and Lewis’s imagery as she traverses the land where the dramas of the book unfolded. “We traveled like the people whose steps we were retracing might have in the nineteenth century, in our horse cart that clip-clopped on a dirt trail toward the horizon,” she writes.
The modern peanut dates back more than 10,000 years, to the lowlands east of the Andes Mountains, where it derived from a hybridization of two older types of peanut — possibly thanks to a chance pollination by a bee. By the time Christopher Columbus landed in the New World, people across South America were cultivating peanuts. As waves of European conquerors and clergy arrived on the continent, some returned with peanut plants as gifts for royalty waiting to learn what goods they might gain from foreign lands. It isn’t clear when A. hypogaea reached West Africa, but Lewis suggests that the crop could have been flourishing in the region by the end of the sixteenth century. The peanut succeeded in its new home thanks to the climate and the farmers’ familiarity with another crop that produces small, edible seeds in the ground: the Bambara groundnut, Vigna subterranea.
When the transatlantic slave trade began to wind down in the first half of the nineteenth century, French officials living in colonial outposts in what is now Senegal focused on the peanut in their search for alternative sources of revenue. Demand for vegetable oil and soap was rising in Europe, and peanuts offered a low-cost resource as long as ample supplies could be provided for a low price. Key to this was the availability of free human labour.
Lewis delves into the powerful kingdom of Kajoor, which by 1850 was producing the majority of Senegal’s peanut exports. Its peanuts were often grown by people enslaved by Africans, despite France’s formal proclamation that it would end slavery in its colonies. A series of loopholes and justifications allowed the practice to continue. For example, France determined that slavery was permissible if enslaved people were classed as ‘domestics’ or ‘servants’. French officials in the late nineteenth century wrote to their superiors in Europe about the “delicate question of captives”, Lewis reports. One official warned: “If you suppress the supply of these captives to the colonies, you will destroy farming everywhere and in short order.” He grotesquely argued that captive people had volunteered for servitude and that it would be “inhumane” to grant them freedom.