the rise and fall of West Africa’s palm oil empire


For 1000’s of years, the oil palm – indigenous to West Africa – has had an intimate relationship with individuals. An explosive enlargement of oil palm groves all through western and central Africa within the wake of a dry interval round 2,500 years in the past enabled human migration and agricultural improvement; in flip, people facilitated oil palm propagation via seed dispersal and slash-and-burn agriculture.

Archaeological proof reveals that palm fruit and their oil already fashioned an integral a part of West African diets 5,000 years in the past.

Except for “royal” oil palm plantations, established within the 18th century for palm wine within the Kingdom of Dahomey, all of West Africa’s oil palms grew in wild and semi-wild groves.

Ladies and kids collected free fruits from the bottom, whereas males harvested fruit bunches by climbing as much as the highest of the palms. The fruit was then processed into palm oil by girls, via a time-consuming and labour-intensive course of involving repetitively boiling and filtering the contemporary fruits with water. Comparable strategies are nonetheless extensively used all through West Africa.

Ladies put together palm oil in Cote d’Ivoire.
Picture by SIA KAMBOU/AFP by way of Getty Pictures

Whereas pure pink palm oil was derived from the palm fruit’s fleshy outer mesocarp, girls additionally, usually with the assistance of youngsters, cracked the palm kernels to make brown, clear palm kernel oil.

Palm oil was, and stays, a key ingredient in West African delicacies, together with the straightforward dish of boiled yam, palm oil and Kanwa salt, and Banga soup.

All through West Africa, palm oil was additionally utilized in cleaning soap making; at this time Yoruba black Dudu-Osun cleaning soap is a trademark Nigerian model. Within the Benin Kingdom, palm oil was utilized in road lamps and as a constructing materials within the king’s palace partitions. It additionally discovered a whole bunch of various ritualistic and medicinal makes use of, specifically as a pores and skin ointment and a standard antidote to poisons. As well as, the sap of oil palms was tapped for palm wine, and palm fronds supplied materials for roof thatching and brooms.

Early Nineteenth-century increase

Palm oil has been identified in Europe for the reason that fifteenth century. It was Liverpool and Bristol slave merchants who, within the early Nineteenth century, started larger-scale imports. They had been accustomed to its a number of makes use of in West Africa and had already been shopping for it commonly as meals for slaves being shipped to the Americas.

With the abolition of the slave commerce to the Americas in 1807, British West Africa merchants turned to European markets and pure assets as commodities, specifically palm oil. On the time, the principle sources of fat and oils in northern Europe had been animal-based – reminiscent of lard or fish oils -– merchandise for which it may very well be a problem to safe common provides. There was a prepared marketplace for palm oil.

Igbo males within the Oil Rivers space of present-day Nigeria convey calabashes stuffed with palm oil to promote to a European purchaser, c. 1900.
Picture © Jonathan Adagogo Inexperienced / The Trustees of the British Museum, CC BY NC SA

Palm oil was used as an industrial lubricant, in tin-plate manufacturing, street-lighting, and because the fatty semi-solid for candle making and cleaning soap manufacturing. Breakthroughs in chemistry, within the 1820s facilitated a change to large-scale, industrial cleaning soap manufacturing.

Ever bigger portions of palm oil – growing from 157 metric tonnes per 12 months within the late 1790s to 32,480 tonnes by the early 1850s – had been dropped at the UK by small-scale West African merchants.

The commerce was not for the faint-hearted. Annually, merchants would spend as much as six weeks travelling in small schooners to one of many many buying and selling stations on the West African coast. There have been a number of dozen buying and selling stations within the Oil Rivers space of at this time’s Niger Delta -– the heartland of the West African palm oil commerce.

European merchants lived and traded fully on deserted crusing ships. This was partly to try to keep away from lethal illnesses, reminiscent of malaria and yellow fever, but in addition as a result of native authorities didn’t allow them to construct on land. Inland commerce was managed tightly by native brokers and village chiefs.

European merchants gave these brokers European items reminiscent of cooking utensils, salt and fabric. Then the merchants waited on board their ships for them to return, generally for months at a time. Lots of the African brokers had been themselves former slave merchants. The slave commerce within the Niger Delta didn’t instantly cease with abolition however continued alongside the palm commerce till the 1840s. Palm brokers and European merchants continued to make use of the identical community and system developed for the slave commerce.

Whereas ready, the European merchants’ coopers would assemble giant casks to carry palm oil.

It was largely West Africa’s current wild and semi-wild groves that furnished European demand. Within the hinterland of the Oil Rivers and plenty of different areas, there was an abundance of untamed oil palm that may very well be harvested. Some planting did happen; the Krobo in southeastern Ghana, the place fewer oil palms had been rising naturally, started systematic cultivation in response to European demand.

In Dahomey, too, extra plantations had been arrange. Some components of southeastern Nigeria centered a lot on the manufacturing of palm oil that they grew to become fully reliant on yam imports from additional north. Nevertheless, there was no large-scale, radical transformation in land administration, possession or ecology.

The rise in oil palm brokers

West African producers efficiently responded to rising European palm oil demand via the modification and enlargement of current small-scale manufacturing strategies.

Younger males did the harmful work of harvesting contemporary fruit bunches. In palm oil processing one other, far much less labour-intensive technique, developed. Contemporary fruit was left to ferment after which stamped on in giant pits dug within the floor, or generally in previous canoes. The ensuing oil was a lot dirtier and inedible. It additionally fetched decrease costs, however the brand new method enabled a lot larger-scale manufacturing than earlier than.

There was loads of work in transporting palm oil, carrying calabashes crammed with oil alongside forest paths to the closest river and dealing on canoes. This introduced some money revenue for younger males, but it surely was typically older, already wealthier males, and specifically chiefs, who had been capable of revenue most from “pink gold”, via the labour of their wives and slaves and from management of commerce.

It was via brokerage that the majority wealth and energy may very well be gained, and native energy buildings had been deeply enmeshed with commerce in palm oil. A very highly effective dealer right now was William Dappa Pepple, the amanyanabo (king) of Bonny (in at this time’s southeastern Nigeria) from 1837 to 1854.

Colonial takeover

Within the late Nineteenth century, chemists found that hydrogenation may very well be used to course of vegetable oils into margarine. Margarine performed an more and more necessary position in supplying fat for the eating regimen of Europe’s rising city working class. Whereas the amount of imports of West African palm oil into the UK levelled off between the 1850s and Nineties, large-scale manufacturing of this new edible product stimulated renewed demand for palm oil within the early twentieth century.

Between 1854 and 1874, France and Britain had already began to create formal European colonies in Senegal, in Lagos, and within the Gold Coast. British West Africa finally included Sierra Leone, the Gambia,the Gold Coast, and Nigeria (with the British Cameroons).

Within the Thirties, British West Africa exported round 500,000 tonnes of palm produce yearly. Palm produce continued to play a big position in West African rural economies, however native management of the commerce eroded beneath colonial administration; the alternatives for wealth and energy palm oil had supplied native individuals had been not out there.

Furthermore, because the colonial powers continued increasing their attain elsewhere within the tropics, a game-changing improvement was slowly starting: the rise of the oil palm plantation.

Inside just a few quick a long time, expanses of Southeast Asian forest had been cleared, creating a quick monitor to industrial-scale monoculture plantations, thus ending West Africa’s place as the worldwide hub of palm oil manufacturing.

A model of this piece was initially printed on China Dialogue


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