In this illustrated report, we explore how the Organic Seed Alliance is working with local farmers, scientists, and chefs to adapt crops to new environments—and the changing climate.
April 12, 2022
Peanuts are a key ingredient in many of America’s quintessential snacks. Yet few of us know that the ordinary peanut has a turbulent history linked to the slave trade and to colonization on the African continent.
Jori Lewis, an American journalist who has lived in Dakar for the past 10 years, has reported on Senegal’s agricultural sector throughout her career. In her debut book, Slaves for Peanuts: A Story of Conquest, Liberation, and a Crop That Changed History, she unearths the stories of African kingdoms and colonial settlements, showing how demand for peanut oil in Europe drove the expansion of the peanut trade in Senegal in the 19th century and ensured that slavery and indentured labor in West Africa would continue long after the Europeans had abolished it.
The book’s engaging narrative, based on meticulous archival research, is told in rich detail through the eyes of West African men and women—from missionaries to rulers to peanut growers and slave traders. Lewis doesn’t shy away from complexity. She shows how enslaved people often escaped their captors and struggled to get their “freedom papers,” only to be returned by European authorities. She also describes the ways that a safe house run by a Black missionary from Sierra Leone—himself deeply enmeshed in the Europeans’ civilizing mission—offered enslaved people a chance at freedom.
Civil Eats spoke with Lewis, whose book hits shelves this month, about how peanuts became a tool for colonial expansion, how the colonial approach to peanut farming destroyed some of Senegal’s prime cropland, and why the nut is so popular in the U.S.
Why did you decide to write a book about peanut cultivation in West Africa?
I came to Senegal in 2011 on a two-year fellowship from The Institute of Current World Affairs. The project I pitched was on food security in West Africa. I’d been to Senegal before, and it was a country I felt was really manageable [to report on]. It’s small but has a strong democratic tradition. It’s easy to get around, not as difficult as many other countries in terms of bureaucracy, and people are pretty easy to get a hold of. My interest in food security was also about understanding how the agricultural economy works. I had done reporting on Senegal’s fishing industry and on rice cultivation. I ended up spending a lot of time in this area called the Peanut Basin, which is three hours south of Dakar.
When I first moved to Senegal, I understood that peanuts were a huge part of the economy, and that they had also influenced how the cultural economy has been structured. I remember reading a book about the Muslim brotherhoods, which were organized around peanut agriculture. So, I ended up regularly going to check out what was going on in the Peanut Basin, seeing how people were cultivating, what shifts were happening, observing the market going up and down. I was interested in thinking about this particular place and why the peanut had so much power here. When I finished my fellowship, I decided to stay. Fairly soon after that, I started thinking about writing this book.
Your book centers on the connection between European colonialism and slavery in French West Africa, which continues after it had been banned by France. How did peanuts fit into the European ambitions for expansion? Why was this crop so pivotal?
In the early 19th century, Europeans were established in coastal West Africa, but had not formally colonized large parts of the interior. They were mostly practicing mercantile capitalism. They set up in coastal villages and islands and traded with people from the interior. And for a long time, that trade was [indirectly] linked to the slave trade.
By mid-century, there was a slow-down in trade and the merchants established in West Africa were looking for new objects of commerce; they settled on peanuts. The colonial authorities also had commercial interests—many came from large trading families—so that became their rationale for pushing into the interior. There was also the burgeoning logic of colonial domination. The French weren’t just thinking, “we can grow nice peanuts here, so we should dominate Senegal.” They were thinking, “we should secure our economic and political interests here” because of the imperialist logic that was becoming widespread. So, as time went on, the French attempted to expand their empire. That led to a union between the commercial interests and the colonial political interests. The peanut trade, despite its dependence on slave labor, was an integral part of that union.
Were peanuts present in West Africa before the Europeans arrived?
The peanut [which originated in Bolivia] had been grown in West Africa for hundreds of years—though not on any grand scale. Our best guess is that Portuguese explorers and merchants brought it there. And the Portuguese were already exploring [and extracting resources from] Senegal in the mid-15th century. I spent a lot of time trying to trace how the peanut might have moved, from either the Caribbean or from Brazil to Cabo Verde or to Spain and then down to what’s now Guinea Bissau. The historical records are difficult to pin down because there was a plant that grew in a similar way called the bambara groundnut. And the peanut in various West African languages sometimes had similar names.
You tell the story of the rise of peanuts in West Africa through Walter Taylor, a Protestant missionary. He was a Black man from Sierra Leone who later became a French citizen and who, in addition to evangelizing, ran a shelter for formerly enslaved people out of his own home. What role did missionaries play in Europe’s conquest and pillage of West Africa, and how did they influence the growth of peanut production?
During my research, I came across one reference to this mission for runaway slaves. I had never heard of it before, although I knew there was a French Protestant church in Dakar. And when I went to France, I found 20 years of correspondence between Taylor and the director of the Paris Evangelical Missionary Society. And I realized that I could use Taylor’s voice to tell the story. I wanted, as much as possible, to privilege the voices from below and the history from below— the history compiles the voices of commoners, peasants, and sometimes the enslaved. It’s a voice that is difficult to unearth because it is not often captured in archives or even epic poems. For me, it was preferable to tell the story from Taylor’s point of view rather than from that of some French merchant’s. I became so enmeshed in his own personal story and in the end, it resonated with me in so many ways.
His character represented the very idea of colonialism. It was clear to me that for all his good points, he was very much involved in the “civilizing mission” of the Europeans. He was a man of his time, which doesn’t excuse anything, of course. Being from the Liberated African community of Sierra Leone with a British surname, he aspired to a type of excellence that he was conditioned to believe was the best route for both him and other newly freed, liberated [Black] men and women he was helping in Senegal. You get the sense that he really cared for them, that he wanted the best for them. And he thought that what was best . . . was to collaborate.
You write extensively about Kajoor [also known as Cayor], the African Wolof kingdom on the mainland just south of Saint Louis.
Kajoor was at the center of the peanut trade. It was premium peanut-growing land. But the Peanut Basin of today is not the Peanut Basin of the 19th century. That intrigued me. To think that there once was this fertile place where the best peanuts were grown, the capital of the peanut, and now it’s no longer relevant. Today, the Peanut Basin is in a region called the Saloum, and this has been the case since maybe the 1920s.
In the Senegalese National Archives, I saw all these letters from Lat Joor, the [king] of Kajoor, talking about his runaway slaves. I knew that not all of these slaves who were running away from Lat Joor were connected to peanuts. But I wanted to understand why there was still so much slavery in this place. [Lat Joor is also known for battling the French and opposing their expansion efforts. He’s considered a national hero in Senegal.]
In the book, you describe how slavery was prevalent in West African societies, practiced by tribes and kingdoms and wealthy families, before the arrival of Europeans. Can you talk about how Europeans used those structures to fuel their colonial ambitions and the peanut trade?
There was slavery everywhere [in the world] and it existed on a continuum. In this particular part of West Africa, there existed many extremely hierarchical societies and they included people who were enslaved. That enslavement had different types of functions, different types of durations, and different levels of integration. And that’s fundamentally one of the biggest differences between African slavery and slavery in America, where integration was much less likely. There are, of course cases, many cases, of people in America buying their freedom, and then maybe eventually buying the freedom of their children. That did happen, but it was less likely. And even though it’s controversial to say, not every place in the United States was a plantation with 500 slaves who were dying every day. There were also family farms with one or two slaves who did have closer relationships with the people who had enslaved them. These types of paradoxes existed in both places.
In West Africa, it was possible and much easier to buy yourself out of slavery and to integrate. Still, because West African societies were hierarchical, being formerly enslaved was a difference that was known about you. It meant you could make money and acquire land, but you couldn’t get married to certain people or do certain other things.
There was a system in place in West Africa for the acquisition of slaves, usually through wars in which they would be taken as hostages and ransomed off, and sometimes kept as laborers. At the beginning of the transatlantic slave trade, the Europeans mobilized those networks. So, the people who normally would be ransomed off instead found themselves on slave ships heading to Brazil, Havana, or Virginia. Of course, once there was demand for enslaved people, the system mobilized itself to enslave more. [Even though the French empire had abolished slavery,] as peanut production ramped up in the 19th century, so did the demand for more labor and a push to put even more land into production. Many of the peanut farm laborers were enslaved or in various states of indenture and the Europeans turned a blind eye to this and even returned runaway slaves to their owners, essentially supporting the perpetuation of slavery.
Why was this pattern of turning a blind eye to the continued use of slave labor so pervasive and so convenient for the Europeans?
The Europeans’ territorial control was limited. And they were afraid of wide-scale rebellion [among African leaders who depended on slave labor]. For example, as the region around Dagana [in northern Senegal] was annexed and came under direct French administration—meaning the French were going to have to impose their own rules—many of the herders and farmers in the region started to migrate to Mali. Slavery was not the only reason they were moving. But in their reports, the French administrators were worried about finally having control of a territory and having all its people leave. They worried about not having enough labor to produce the peanut crop. So, they tried to negotiate this line. At the same time, they also created a rhetoric about their concern about slavery. It was like [spin]. It took me a while to start reading the documents in a way to integrate the kind of hypocrisy that was present.
The French described their railroad project to export peanuts from Kajoor as a mechanism to fight slavery. Was that, partly, their justification for building it?
The explicit reason for that particular project, known as “the peanut train,” was to bring “civilization” to the region. As the track and stations were built, they were annexed and became French land, where the French should have imposed their own laws by freeing runaway slaves who managed to arrive there. But the French were loath to do so. That situation feels like America in Afghanistan. Whenever you have an occupation, you can tell people what to do and maybe when you have enough firepower, they listen to you the moment you’re there. But if you don’t convince them in other ways to collaborate with you through various corrupt means, your occupation doesn’t work.
When the rail line was finally built, it led to more peanut production and even more enslaved people being brought into the area to raise those crops. Eventually, the French occupied the entire region. Was there was any silver lining to the arrival of the railroad?
When I was working on this book, I considered the peanut to be its own character. This is the peanut’s dramatic arc. The peanut is this tool for colonial expansion, but it paradoxically also becomes an instrument for certain people to become free. It was similar in America as well, with kitchen farms for slaves, where they could sell [food] on the side and gain a little money. But because peanuts were grown at such scale and people were selling them for a meaningful amount of money, some were able to buy their own freedom more quickly than before. And because there was this peanut rush, they could move to other places and acquire land to grow peanuts and would have a way to support themselves. The [enslaved people] often hailed from societies where even if they wanted to be free, they wouldn’t have access to land and wouldn’t be able to support themselves. And in Kajoor, as the peanuts continued to grow in demand, more people could use them as a tool for their own freedom. That’s one of the surprising arcs of the peanut’s story.
After the railroad was built through Kajoor, how did the pressure to expand peanut production impact that region?
As production expanded in Kajoor, there was also an expansion of an extractive form of agriculture. There was less crop rotation, fewer fallow periods. Many trees were cut down to clear land and grow more peanuts. It was a burgeoning monoculture. All this reduced the primary productivity of the land over time. It was a short-sighted extraction. In addition, because farmers became indebted, they were getting junk seeds from merchants and that led to peanuts of lesser quality. It was a gradual decline.
Today, the landscape of Kajoor feels bereft of life. Some people there still grow peanuts, but it’s on a much, much smaller scale. In fact, when you drive through the area, it feels devastated. It doesn’t seem fertile at all. Over the years, there has been even more deforestation, leading to problems with water erosion. When it rains it squalls, hard and fast. And because of deforestation, the erosion caused by these violent rains is significant. Such man-made disasters have changed the topography and economics of Kajoor.
Today, the U.S., China, and India dominate the peanut trade. Do peanuts still fuel the economy and the culture in Senegal?
Senegal is number six in world production and number four in world peanut exports. Granted, it’s producing just 3 percent of world’s production [China is churning out 36 percent], but I still think it’s pretty extraordinary that this country that is slightly smaller than South Dakota is growing such a large amount of peanuts. From talking to people on the ground, I know that the peanut is still grown on a wide scale in many regions in Senegal. It’s traded mostly to China and India, which are top producing countries but don’t have enough peanuts [for the people there].
Peanuts are a quintessentially American food; people love peanut butter, roasted peanuts, and peanut candy. And peanut consumption has risen dramatically in the U.S. during the pandemic. How did peanuts become so popular here?
In West Africa, people don’t eat peanuts the way we eat them in the U.S. They don’t eat peanut butter sandwiches, oh no! Senegalese people like savory sauces. In the book, I briefly focus on the peanuts’ rise, mostly to explain why this man—Samuel Cobb—was importing peanuts from West Africa where Walter Taylor was the accountant. He was selling peanuts from Senegal to foreign nut and fruit sellers in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia—places along the Eastern Seaboard where there was a burgeoning desire for peanuts for newly popular leisure activities such as baseball, theater, and the circus.
Another strange part of this story is that many of New York’s earliest peanut grinders were Italian. Italians in the late 19th century weren’t particularly well thought of, so maybe they were less afraid to touch the peanut? Peanuts suffered from a reputation as “slave food,” because initially Black people in the South were the only ones eating them. I have seen a few recipes for peanut-based dishes in old Southern cookbooks, but guess who was cooking for the Virginia housewife? So, the peanut had this bad reputation and after the Civil War, and Thomas Rowland, a white man from Virginia, made it his mission to increase the cultivation and popularity of this nut. It eventually became much more popular thanks to these new entertainment forms for the masses.
Agriculture is usually controlled by white men and done for the benefit of white men. Your book talks about how Europeans often believed that African farmers didn’t know much about peanut cultivation. Do you see this narrative repeating in Africa today?
There’s an inability in the Western context to believe in, for lack of a better word, Indigenous knowledge. As a result, there are all these efforts to reinvent the wheel even though we could sometimes just talk to the people who are already growing these crops and dealing with these systems to understand how they measure the world around them. There’s often a lot of lip service to this question of Indigenous knowledge, but it’s almost never put into practice.
And yet, even in Africa, people grow things differently now. I mentioned in my introduction that great grandfather was growing a number of diverse crops on his land, and then everyone pulled them out and started growing just one or two crops. And that’s happening everywhere now, this movement away from holistic systems designed to be sustainable and to help farmers with various needs. In the past, the peanut was grown on a small scale, alongside millet, tomatoes, okra, and cow peas. People were growing everything they needed to live. But that now rarely happens. There are all these efforts to “modernize agriculture” — that’s the catchphrase you hear in development circles in Africa—and Senegal is not immune to that trend
Are there other places in Africa with similar trajectories, where the Europeans used their trade and political powers for expansion? Is this still happening?
The story of Senegal doesn’t exist in isolation, it’s just one adaptation that the people of Senegal had to make when faced with the [trade and expansion] needs of the French. The peanut story is analogous and happening at the same time as the rise of palm oil culture. Of course, palm oil grows naturally in West Africa and there’s a whole tradition associated with it. It had a similar trajectory to the peanut and the British exploited it for the same reasons . . . the soap industry, the Industrial Revolution. There are many iterations of this principle. Essentially, the Europeans, and later the Americans and the Asians, absorbed what they could from Africa. Using trade is, of course, the playbook of every diplomatic mission. The Americans and the Chinese are always promoting their own trade. This is par for the course. This is the way foreign powers exert influence.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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