‘Slaves for Peanuts’ gets to the troubling roots of a beloved snack

  • Journalist Jory Lewis’s book, “Peanut Slaves: A Story of Conquest, Liberation, and a Crop That Changed History” tells the stories of “people forgotten by history and shunned by the present.”
  • The book highlights how the commercial trade in peanuts in Senegal was driven by European expansion and relied on unfree labour.
  • The distortion of Senegal’s land by the peanut trade portends the damage that commercial monoculture continues to inflict today.
  • “Slaves for Peanuts” is published by The New Press, a non-profit organization, and is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and bookshop.org.

How do we tell the stories of people forgotten by history and avoided by the present? Journalist-turned-author Jory Lewis asks in the introduction to her first book, Peanut Slaves: A Story of Conquest, Liberation, and a Crop That Changed History. Lewis’ account of the peanut trade in Senegal in the second half of the nineteenth centuryThe tenth The century is filled with such stories, from a “Negro” French missionary to a defiant Senegalese leader.

By tracing their life stories, Lewis creates a perspective from which to view European colonial expansion in West Africa. The book shows how the commercial trade in peanuts took root after slavery was officially ended by continuing to rely on the labor of unfree humans.

Lewis also details how the rising Western nations have associated themselves with this humble nut of the earth. Peanuts weren’t just food; Peanut oil was lard and lubricant. British Railways, the backbone of the Industrial Revolution, required 13,000 tons of grease every year. French soap makers were increasingly turning to the idea of ​​replacing olive oil with peanut oil. This demand led to a boom in peanut cultivation in Senegal. The West African country has been one of the world’s largest producers of peanuts for more than a century, although it lags behind today’s major exporters.

Peanut Slaves: A Story of Conquest, Liberation, and a Crop That Changed History
Cover of “Peanut Slaves: A Story of Conquest, Liberation, and a Crop That Changed History” by Jury Lewis, which tells the stories of “people forgotten by history and shunned by the present.” Image courtesy of The New Press.

Most of the current groundnut production in Senegal occurs in the central and western regions. But when farms first took control of the country in the middle of 19The tenth In the 20th century, the Kajur Kingdom, a kingdom breakaway from the Golov (Wolof) Empire, emerged as the center of the peanut trade. Its territory extended south of the Senegal River to what is now Dakar. Saint-Louis, a group of islands near the mouth of the Senegal River, and Gorée, off the coast of Dakar, were the first outposts of the French Empire in the region. French attempts to expand into the African mainland brought them frequent conflict with the rulers of Kajur damil.

Slavery was outlawed on French soil in 1848, yet the illegal human trafficking across the Atlantic continued. Other forms of slavery – for example, when warring groups took captured enemies as slaves – continued to exist on the African mainland, including in Kajur.

Lewis chronicles “an active business in peanuts and people.” Not only did commerce coexist; They were intertwined. Even when humans were not physically bought and sold, they remained constrained by an exploitative system geared toward maximizing peanut production regardless of the human cost. The growing hunger for peanuts in faraway lands ensured a continuing demand for the labor of the most marginalized workers.

According to a legend discovered by Louis, a French merchant said to a local chief, “Keep your slaves, they are our fellow men, but I will give you anything you want from Europe for peanuts.” In other words, Europeans were interested in peanuts, not how they were produced.

The Senegalese leader saw an opportunity. Instead of selling slaves, they could be employed in peanut farming.

Lewis questions the intersections of capitalist trade and slavery but also the precarious position of evangelicals at this time, personified in the image of Walter Taylor. Taylor was born in the 1840s in Freetown, in what is today Sierra Leone, to parents who were rescued from a slave ship off the coast of West Africa, and moved to St. Louis as a young man. He established a refuge for fugitive slaves for those who fled from their African masters to French soil in search of freedom. Yet, as Lewis asks, “What is freedom, after all, in a place where you have no status, no clan, and no access to land?” Many of these liberated men and women ended up doing labor that in some respects resembled slavery.

Map of Senegal showing Kajour.
Kajoor, a breakaway kingdom of the Jolof Empire, emerged as a hub for the peanut trade in the mid-19th century, its territory extending south of the Senegal River to what is now Dakar.

In a webinar hosted by the Metcalf Institute, Luis Moises Velasquez told Manoff that she was in love with Taylor. Lewis revealed that he wasn’t initially supposed to be in the book at all. Taylor’s position as a member of the educated “little elite” makes him a wizard and a complex character to craft a narrative about slavery. But the author found a collection of his correspondence with the Evangelical Missionary Society in Paris that allowed it to express Taylor in his own voice.

Louis relied heavily on archives in France and Senegal, but she did not limit herself to only these. “I used everything I could find,” she explained in the webinar, including oral accounts from the Kajur kingdom. Lewis did not set out to write an academic thesis. It is a drawback and an advantage at the same time. The demands and rebukes of academia do not hamper the narration. It is an opportunity to embody the vivid details of people who have become invisible on the given date. “People whose history is seldom recorded because they were not warriors, princes, or learned clergy.”

Even warrior kings can receive a brief interest in bringing back the Western novel. A contemporary of Taylor, Lat Jour Ngoni Latir Job, the daughter of the Kajur kingdom, was a feisty leader who led a years-long opposition to French expansion. A clear manifestation of these ambitions is a railway project linking Dakar with Saint Louis. In her book, Lewis reveals the complexity of Lat Gore’s interaction with the colonists, from his pleas to French officials to return his slaves, to his refusal to let the “peanut train” trample his land. The Senegalese leader saw it as a channel for French domination.

It was also a harbinger of environmental destruction. The land deformation of Senegal caused by the peanut trade portends the damage that commercial monoculture is causing worldwide. Lewis tells us, “The places where they thrived were not always the most ecologically suitable places for their cultivation, what was crucial was the presence of trading posts and enslaved workers.”

Writer and journalist Jory Lewis.
Writer and journalist Jory Lewis. Image courtesy of The New Press.

Settlements and fields replaced forests, and old trees were cut down to build shelters and kiosks along the railway route. Peanut farming was not only fed on forest lands; People displaced by the slave trade, torn apart by their lands and traditional ties, began again to claim the land. Lewis describes it as “borrowing a few years of fertility from hundreds of years of tree growth, to create their own fields, houses, and villages.”

The impoverishment of the land was not without consequences. The groundnut crop withered, and the oil content in it decreased, which contributed to the decline of Kajur as a major groundnut-growing region. Lewis writes evocatively, infusing her prose with surprising imagery, even when describing a slow-moving environmental crisis. She writes, “So many consumed their fields from the inside out that the lightweight soil, bare of trees and shrubs, flew into the sky when a strong wind blew.”

Lewis does not uncritically link the decline of peanuts to the failure of peanut farmers. Instead, it found that it had failed in the new system of production that farmers were subject to and had learned to navigate.

Some of the book’s central themes – eg, the link between capitalism and unfree labor in the African context, and the reasons for the decline of peanuts – are ripe for further research. Although Taylor makes a cute and interesting companion, and Lewis faithfully follows his journey to the end, the reader wonders about the fate of Moussa Sidibe, introduced on the book’s opening page, who escaped slavery and ended up in the asylum run by Taylor. Lewis’ work criticizes the lack of scholarship that focuses on the history of people like Sidibe and arouses appetite for it.

Banner photo: A handful of peanuts. Kurt Karenmark/World Bank image via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

peanut slaves Published by The New Press, a non-profit organization, and available in hard copy on AmazonAnd the Barnes and Noble And the Bookshop.org.

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