As he offered a sacrifice of new yam and palm-oil to his ancestors he asked them to protect him, his children and their mothers in the new year.
In his masterpiece tale of imperialism and resilience, Things Fall Apart, Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe invoked palm oil as a powerful symbol of West African cultures, ecologies, and politics. Discussed as a source of food, medicine, wine, domesticity, kinship, and collective wisdom, the African oil palm, along with the staple yam, fuse the ancestral socioecological connections that order village life and politics in the novel. In an oft-cited passage demonstrating the prominence of orality in Igbo culture, Achebe quipped, “proverbs are the palm oil with which words are eaten.”Footnote 2 A landmark in modern African literature and postcolonial critique, Things Fall Apart relies on palm oil to conjure indigenous West African cosmologies linking ancestors and environments.Footnote 3 While Achebe’s magnum opus revolves around just one African nation – the Igbo, concentrated in the Niger Delta in South-Central Nigeria – its treatment of palm oil as a ubiquitous and versatile cultural, nutritional, and economic resource holds true for a multitude of peoples and landscapes in West and Central Africa, and beyond. The tree Western scientists call the African oil palm emerges from complex cultural and environmental histories on the African continent.
Weaving primary accounts with botanical and ecological analyses, this chapter demonstrates how oil palm cultures, landscapes, and commerce emerged in western Africa and eventually helped to integrate an Atlantic World. It details human-oil palm relationships in West and Central Africa over the previous five thousand years, and applies complexity sciences to understand the formation and proliferation of complex, biodiverse groves permeating more-than-human communities and secondary forests. It places palm oil and kernels as early goods of trade on the inter-biome routes and later with European ships journeying down African coasts, and describes how palm oil supported the transatlantic slave trade as both sustenance and medicine. Finally, it culminates by following the oil palm’s diffusion throughout the Caribbean and the mainland American tropics during European colonial expansion. Tracing the longue durée of African oil palms and their transatlantic dispersal, this chapter reveals how a promising model of human-environmental collaboration and ingenuity became subsumed in the transatlantic slave economy and its horrendous crimes against humanity.
Native to West Africa, the African oil palm now flourishes on much of the continent south of the Sahara. Its range extends from approximately 16° North near St. Louis, Senegal, around the Gulf of Guinea, and southeastward through the equatorial rainforests of the Congo. From there sparse, isolated colonies dot East Africa until approximately 20° South on the island of Madagascar. The densest groves of African oil palms roughly correspond with the lowland forest zones of West and Central Africa, from contemporary Sierra Leone into the Congo, between approximately 7° North and 7° South (Figure 2.1). The palm thrives in optimal conditions of at least 2,000 mm (80 in) of annual rainfall evenly distributed throughout the year, mean temperatures between 22° and 33° C (72°–90° F), 5–7 hours of sunlight per day, in altitudes below 300 meters, and in alluvial soils overlaying clays. Nevertheless, the tree adapts in less productive states to areas experiencing seasonal drought, lower temperatures, less sunshine, altitudes up to 1,300 meters, and other soil types.Footnote 4
Various sources and methods confirm the oil palm’s long history in western Africa. The palynological record places the African oil palm in West Africa over the past several million years.Footnote 5 Archaeobotanical findings suggest West Africans cooked with palm oil no later than five thousand years ago.Footnote 6 Linguistic analyses indicate early and widespread human use of the African oil palm and its products, especially in its densest concentrations across West and Central Africa.Footnote 7 Those and other analyses associate early oil palm groves with human communities, hunting camps, and migratory routes in West Africa’s Gulf of Guinea region. As humans harvested palm fruit and processed oil from its mesocarp, they derived and distributed viable seeds, thereby propagating the palm through mutually beneficial, socioecological processes. Scientists thus recognize groves of oil palms growing in forested areas as evidence of prior human settlement.Footnote 8
The oil palm requires high levels of sunlight and moisture, and therefore thrives neither under the shade of rainforest canopy nor in the drier savanna. Botanists and archaeologists have therefore deduced that the species emerged from the forest-savanna ecotone, along riparian openings, and in and around gallery forests. To transition from those liminal landscapes and into the rainforest biome, where it now flourishes, the African oil palm relied yet again on human intervention.Footnote 9 Beginning around seven thousand years ago, the advent of polished stone tools allowed West Africans to clear rainforest quickly and efficiently, which they transformed into mosaics of mixed polycultures.Footnote 10 Using a swidden-fallow system of shifting cultivation, farmers cleared rainforest to plant impermanent fields of food crops, in West Africa based primarily on varieties of yams (Dioscorea spp.). Following a brief period of cropping – usually no more than three harvests – cultivators would abandon the swidden, allowing it to regenerate into secondary forest during a cycle of fallow.Footnote 11
As farmers on West Africa’s savanna ecotone began clearing forest for planting they often spared productive African oil palms, prized for cooking oils, wines, construction materials, and many spiritual and medicinal applications.Footnote 12 This process likely began as the simple “protection” of oil palms and gradually developed into something botanists could consider “arboriculture.”Footnote 13 After one or two harvests of yams (or other vegetables), farmers would leave the field fallow, allowing the soils and forest biodiversity to rejuvenate. In low-intensity swidden regimes fallow periods would ideally last fifteen to twenty years. Where human populations were relatively dense, such as southeastern Nigeria, pressures on the land were greater and fallow periods were much shorter, sometimes as little as three years. In any case, oil palms would thrive and propagate as a pioneer species in the opened canopy.Footnote 14
Returning to clear secondary growth forests, farmers would spare oil palms yet again, selecting the most productive or otherwise preferred palms to grow above yams and other food crops. In areas allowing longer fallows, a few tall palms would remain productive, but without sustained management by humans the reemerging secondary forest would eventually suppress the development of dense groves. In systems of shorter fallows, dense and productive groves could form, providing an array of beneficial resources from only minimal human efforts at cultivation. Processing the fruit into oils served also to produce and distribute seeds in and around villages and dooryard gardens, which could develop eventually into biodiverse groves predominated by oil palms. Following those patterns, West and Central African communities variously transformed tracts of rainforest into oil palm-tuber agroecologies and dense biodiverse groves of African oil palms and other species.Footnote 15 Dutch agronomist Anton Zeven classified seven types of African oil palm groves, depending on densities of palms per hectare. These are, moving from least to most dense, secondary rainforest with oil palms; palm bush; dense palm grove / farmland with palms; thinned grove; sparse grove; village grove; and peasant’s plantation.Footnote 16 While Zeven derived his categories from observations in the mid-twentieth century, the resulting typology is nonetheless steeped in premodern systems of human-oil palm collaboration and proliferation.
Though farmers only rarely planted African oil palms in those traditional systems, uncultivated groves produced sufficient yields without a burdensome investment of time and effort, thereby precluding any need for full domestication.Footnote 17 Ethnographies and oral histories collected among Bantu-speakers in the mid-twentieth century nevertheless told of ancestors planting and extending the palm’s range as they migrated south into the Congo, reports corroborated by archaeological and linguistic evidence.Footnote 18 A focus on the question of planting, however, elides the complexity of human-oil palm relationships in western Africa. Botanical evidence suggests that some West African societies distinguished, selected, and managed specific phenotypic varieties of Elaeis guineensis based on communal preferences. Due to variations in the fruit form, harvesters generally prefer the sterile homozygous pisifera and the heterozygous tenera fruits for processing oil, and tap the homozygous dura exclusively for wine.Footnote 19 These management techniques manifest in the genetic composition of the groves. While natural selection would generally favor the homozygote, repeated tapping slows its reproduction and sometimes kills trees, thereby favoring an anthropogenic expansion of the heterozygote in managed groves.Footnote 20 Surveys of emergent palm groves in the mid-twentieth century found high proportions of tenera palms, from 20 to 50 percent of the stands, in eastern Nigeria, the Seles region of Angola, and the Kasai province of present-day Congo.Footnote 21 Such managed groves endure in western Africa as a “specialized though casual system of tree cropping.”Footnote 22Recent investigations in the Upper Guinea forest region by Fraser, Leach, and Fairhead found a connection between palm oil processing, “sacred agroforests,” and anthropogenic soil, or “dark earths.”Footnote 23 They identified “palm oil production pits” as central loci for the formation of dark earths, where charred palm kernels and other organic materials enriched soils for use in fields of vegetables and trees. Once left fallow those fields gradually morphed into biodiverse groves of palms and other forest species.
These anthropogenic landscapes – patches of AfDEs [African dark earths] and anthropogenic vegetation – are permeated with symbolic significance because they are the ongoing outcome of inhabitation trajectories begun by ancestors, continuing to the present day. They are not simply areas of improved soils and anthropogenic […] agroforests, but the relics of old towns, villages, kitchens, graveyards, and initiation society areas, many of which were inhabited by direct ancestors of current inhabitants.Footnote 24
The socioecological morphology and dispersal of African oil palm landscapes therefore resist rigid scientific classifications that insist on separating “wild” natures from domesticated human societies. Unable to disentangle a purely “natural” provenance or habitat from anthropogenic influence, botanists describe western Africa’s oil palm groves with equivocations such as “semi-wild,” “semi-domesticated,” and most frequently, “subspontaneous.”Footnote 25 As such, the compositions and distributions of African oil palm landscapes remain simultaneously biological, physical, and social. Western Africa’s ancestral oil palm ecologies therefore represent compelling exemplars of what Sarah Whatmore deems hybrid geographies – fluid socioecological assemblages formed from the coalescence of plants, people, technologies, and cultures.Footnote 26 And as products of relationships benefiting both humans and plants, those traditional landscapes emerge from interactions ecologists describe as “mutualism.”Footnote 27
In contrast to competition, mutualistic interactions rely on forms of cooperation to provide “mutual aid” for distinct species in a given ecosystem.Footnote 28 Mutualism occurs when each of the interacting organisms receive a net gain (despite any detriments) from their interactions.Footnote 29 Just when and where mutualism occurs is subject to interpretation. As ecologist Judith Bronstein explains, “Humans are undeniably attracted by the idea of cooperation in nature. For thousands of years, we have been seeking explanations for its occurrence in other organisms, often imposing our own motivations and mores in an effort to explain what we see. Spectacular natural history stories abound; some of them are even true.”Footnote 30 As I lay out this true story of human-oil palm cooperation, I strive to offer a balanced and holistic environmental analysis that avoids the pitfalls of both anthropomorphism – attributing human characteristics to plants or other non-humans – and anthropocentrism – inappropriately privileging human agency at the expense of non-human influence. Rather than a binary of either-or, oil palm landscapes proliferate via coalitions of both-and.
Traditional oil palm landscapes benefit humans (in the form of nutrition and domesticity) and palms (in the form of seed dispersal and enhanced growing conditions), while incurring only minimal costs to the interacting species (harvesting and management in the case of humans) and the multiscalar ecosystems, from local to global, in which they are embedded. Together, western Africa’s premodern communities of humans and oil palms created collectives of mutual benefit that enhanced the prospects of survival and reproduction for each species. Here the theoretical insights and conceptual tools of complexity thinking become particularly helpful for comprehending such integrated assemblages of people, plants, and biophysical environments. Resulting from the synergies generated through mutualistic interactions, biodiverse groves of oil palms and other plants materialize as emergent properties of complex socioecological systems. I therefore use the term “emergent groves” to describe the biodiverse oil palm assemblages that botanists label “subspontaneous.”Footnote 31 Emergent groves and the values of human-environmental cooperation they represent are key for comprehending the socioecological continuity and change of palm oil landscapes across the Atlantic World.
Along with deliberate planting related to migration, the shifting cultivation of multiple crops – i.e., mixed swidden-fallow polycultures – diffused African oil palm groves across much of the continent, from the tidewater mangrove forests of the Senegambia deep into the Congolese forest zone.Footnote 32 Indigenous African agroforestry systems combined oil palms with varieties of yams, pearl millet (Pennisetum glaucum), African rice (Oryza glaberrima), plantains (Musa spp.), cocoyam or taro (Colocasia esculenta), various legumes, and occasionally livestock in vigorous polycultures.Footnote 33 Pearl millet was historically the most important crop in the drier savannas at the northern margins of the oil palm belt, but moving toward the Atlantic and into the wetter areas of the Senegambia, millet gives way to rice cultivation. Both systems complemented staple starches with scattered groves of oil palms.Footnote 34 In parts of tropical Africa isolated from trypanosomiasis (sleeping sickness), such as the Jos Plateau of Northern Nigeria, farmers practiced oil palm silvopastoralism by grazing livestock such as goats, cattle, and sheep beneath oil palms and other tree crops, and applied manure to regenerate soil and fertilize palms and other plants.Footnote 35
African oil palms were most abundant, however, as part of the oil palm-yam complex beginning just south and east of the rice belt running from Lower Guinea across the derived savannas of the Dahomey Gap and through the Niger Delta.Footnote 36 From there oil palm cultivation extended deep into the Central African rainforests where swidden farmers spared and managed palms within their plots of yams, cocoyams, plantains, legumes, and other crops, and where dense rainforest alternated with emergent oil palm groves.Footnote 37 Long disparaged by some Western scientists and environmentalists as “slash-and-burn,” ecological research since the mid-twentieth century has demonstrated the efficacy of such ancestral systems, linking traditional swidden-fallow landscapes with enhanced floral and faunal biodiversity, higher returns on labor investment, food security, nutritional balance, and overall resilience and reliability, especially when compared to monocultures.Footnote 38 Throughout western Africa, oil palm agroforests helped to nourish human communities by contributing to food security and balanced diets, complementing carbohydrate-rich tubers and grains with fats, provitamin A carotenoids (mainly α- and β-carotenes), and vitamin E.Footnote 39 The source of fats is particularly important within the broad swath of sub-Saharan Africa where the voracious tsetse fly (Glossina spp.) and the trypanosomiasis pathogens it carries make livestock husbandry virtually impossible.Footnote 40
In complement to African foodways, the African oil palm and its many versatile products have long filled medicinal, spiritual, and domestic needs. Diverse groups of West and Central Africans valued the palm for its fruits, oils, fibers, heart, and sap, which when fermented provides a popular wine. The oil palm also provided various raw materials valuable in West African domestic life. People commonly use its oils for illumination; fronds for thatching and basketry; stalks as walls and fencing; fibers for “cabbage,” woven mats, cordage, garments, and fish traps and lines; and miscellaneous biomass from empty fruit bunches, shells, and fronds as fuel, garden mulch or fertilizer, and as a base for soaps.Footnote 41 Ethnopharmacologists list a range of uses of palm oil including as a topical ointment, analgesic, and vulnerary treatment, and as a remedy for cancers, headaches, and rheumatism. A modern compilation of common names for Elaeis guineensis on the African continent lists 332 distinct appellations, indicating widespread and multiethnic affinity for the palm.Footnote 42
Numerous communities and linguistic groups across West and Central Africa integrated the oil palm into their ecological, spiritual, and economic systems, thereby reinforcing its prevalence and productivity within the cultural landscapes of western Sub-Saharan Africa. A selection of some of the more populous and influential groups linked to the palm illustrates its profound cultural and historical significance on the continent. Pointing out cultural groups and their ancestral relationships with the oil palm also allows us to make connections with African-descended communities and ecologies in the New World.
Drawing on more than two thousand years of cultural history, West Africa’s Yoruba-speaking peoples regard the oil palm as the “tree of life,” and consider the palm and its products spiritually potent and fundamental in their cosmology.Footnote 43 Yoruba religious cultures revere a pantheon of deities known as the òrìşàs, as well as a sacred system of Ifá divination, both of which employ palm oil and kernels as fundamental sacraments.Footnote 44 The òrìşàs and their devotees polarize around palm oil. Some, especially the temperamental gatekeeper Esu, relish the oil in ritual offerings, while others, including the powerful creator of humans Ọbàtálá, refuse it as taboo.Footnote 45 In Ifá divination rituals first witnessed by Europeans in the seventeenth century, Yoruba clergy toss exactly sixteen palm kernels on an ornate tray to discern the fortunes of supplicants.Footnote 46 Women remain the central arbiters of these spiritual traditions, as they account for the majority of traditional religious leaders throughout Yorùbáland.Footnote 47 For the Yoruba, palm oil represents the nourishing “blood of the Earth.”Footnote 48 Palm oil is essential in the preparation of many ritual and mundane foods, as well as ọsẹ dúdú, a powerful black soap used in practical and ritual cleanses.Footnote 49 In an extensive survey of the use of plants in Yoruba society, ethnographer and polyhistor Pierre Verger cataloged the practical and spiritual applications of the oil palm. In his compilation of 447 “medicinal and magical formulae,” 58 (or roughly 13 percent) employed seeds, fronds, fibers, or oils from the African oil palm, and he recorded 31 distinct names for varieties of the palm in the Yoruba language.Footnote 50 Those 31 designations indicate an extraordinary ethnobotanical intimacy between the Yoruba and the African oil palm.
Aja groups, speakers of Gbe languages including the Ewe and Fon peoples, have long histories of palm oil production as well as cultural and commercial exchange with the Yoruba, especially the sub-group of Fon speakers known for their nineteenth-century kingdom of Dahomey in contemporary Benin.Footnote 51 Aja groups share the Yoruba’s profound affinity for the oil palm, as evidenced by its integration in their spiritual practices.Footnote 52 Captain Thomas Phillips described an offering of palm oil and other goods to Hu, a Fon vodun (deity) of the sea, ordered by the King of Ouidah in the 1690s.Footnote 53 Devotees of the vodun Sakpata have used palm oil in ritual cleansings for centuries, and Europeans traveling through Ouidah in the early eighteenth century described a palm kernel divination ritual called Fa similar to its Yoruba counterpart Ifá.Footnote 54 Cohabitation with the African oil palm helped to define Aja settlement patterns into the twentieth century, with one African historian noting the “cluster[s] of hamlets generally scattered in the bush of wild oil palm trees.”Footnote 55
Communities in and around the Niger Delta, notably the Igbo and their Nri Kingdom and the Edo and their Benin Empire, cultivated vast premodern palm agroforests interspersed and rejuvenated with cycles of yam swiddens. Those groups processed palm oils and wines for culinary and other cultural uses, and traded surpluses on the regional and intercontinental markets.Footnote 56 In a review of African plant origins, archaeologist Thurstan Shaw surmised, “there is probably a quite simple explanation for the density of population in Iboland [sic] – the antiquity and effectiveness of yam cultivation and the exploitation of the oil palm.”Footnote 57 After Europeans began sailing down the West African coasts and up the Niger Delta in the fifteenth century, Igbo, Edo, and proximate groups became prominent suppliers of palm oil in transatlantic markets.Footnote 58
Human use of the African oil palm was widespread, too, in premodern Central Africa. Beginning up to three thousand years ago, the Bantu expansion brought metal tools and shifting cultivation to the region’s vast rainforests.Footnote 59 Swiddens of yams and other crops were followed by relatively long periods of regenerative fallow, encouraging nascent stands of oil palms and other plants to disseminate throughout the equatorial forests of the Congo Basin.Footnote 60 Archaeobotanical and linguistic evidence place palm oil as a key cultural resource for proto-Bantu groups over at least the past two thousand years.Footnote 61 Bantu-speakers and others living in and around present-day Angola relied on the oil palm for fruit, cooking oils, wines, ointments, soaps, textiles, lubricants, lamp oil, and a flour ground from its kernels.Footnote 62 Operating in the sixteenth century, Portuguese merchant Duarte Lopes documented several uses for palm fruit in the Kingdom of Kongo, including as a bread made from ground kernels, a type of butter, and as a medicinal unction mixed with an aromatic sandalwood powder.Footnote 63 Portuguese officer and historian Captain António Cadornega considered the oil palm “the most useful tree in the Kingdom of Angola,” and devoted an entire chapter of his seventeenth-century tome to its cultivation and various uses.Footnote 64
Each of those West and Central African cultures, and many others, divided forms of labor related to the oil palm among gendered distinctions. Men and boys typically managed landscapes and harvested fruit, using climbing belts to ascend palms reaching up to 30 meters (98 feet), while processing palm oil was traditionally the domain of women, who used two general methods for extracting the oil.Footnote 65 Pounding fruit with a wooden mortar and pestle was most common, but some women used their feet to trample fruit in canoes or special wooden troughs to press the oil from the fruit.Footnote 66 Their surpluses supplied markets throughout western Africa as well as inter-biome trade routes across the continent. Palm oil, kernels, and other produce thus enhanced many women’s social and economic power and prospects while helping to integrate a continental economy.Footnote 67
Archaeological and historical evidence places palm oil and kernels in the West African and trans-Saharan trades that linked the Senegambia and the Niger Delta with the Maghreb and the Nile.Footnote 68 Archaeologists unearthed remains of oil palm nuts dating to 5,300 ybp along the Nile near Khartoum, suggesting to some that the climate in that area was wetter 2,500 years ago, to others that oil palm nuts were a well-traveled early commodity.Footnote 69 Writing in the fifth century BCE, Greek historian Herodotus claimed that Egyptians used palm oil in their embalming processes.Footnote 70 While nineteenth-century archaeological findings at Abydos appeared to corroborate his claim, subsequent analyses disagreed.Footnote 71 Trade networks and migrations had carried the oil palm across the continent as far as Kenya, Madagascar, and the Zanzibar archipelago by the tenth century, and likely much earlier.Footnote 72
Sundiata, legendary king of the Mali Empire in the thirteenth century, moved the seat of his domain to Niani in the extreme northeast of contemporary Guinea. Aside from political and military reasons for the move, the new capital sat along the rainforest ecotone and therefore within source areas of kola nuts, gold, and palm oil, all vital inter-biome trade items of the day.Footnote 73 It was along that zone of ecological transition where numerous Arab travelers encountered the African oil palm in their medieval journeys through West Africa, beginning with geographer al-Dimashqi in the ancient kingdom of Samaqanda (in present-day Senegambia) in the early fourteenth century.Footnote 74 Modern botanists suspect that the oil palm spread to the easternmost reaches of the continent aboard Arab caravans.Footnote 75 While never reaching the economic significance of gold or iron, palm products did contribute to the development and integration of precolonial western African societies and commerce, linking the forest zone with more arid regions across the continent, over the past several millennia.Footnote 76
Europeans encountered the African oil palm and its products during their first forays down West African coasts. Venetian sailor Alvise da Ca’ da Mosto, in service to Henry the Navigator from 1455 to 1457, journeyed south of the Senegambia to the mouth of the Geba River in contemporary Guinea-Bissau where he witnessed Africans drinking palm wine “as sweet as the sweetest wine in the world” and cooking with “a marvelous” palm oil. He documented “a species of tree bearing small red fruits with black eyes in great quantity,” and admired “a kind of oil, used to season their foods, with three properties: the scent of violets, the flavor of our olive oil, and a color like saffron, but more polished.”Footnote 77
Various traveler’s accounts collected by German-Portuguese publisher Valentim Fernandes show the African oil palm deeply integrated into West African societies from the Senegambia to Sierra Leone around the turn of the sixteenth century.Footnote 78 In one of these accounts, Portuguese traders witnessed an elaborate Banyun (or Bainuk) religious ceremony involving both palm oil and palm wine near the Cacheu River.Footnote 79 Connected to those early traders, a class of Afro-Portuguese go-between merchants, known as lançados, emerged to mediate commerce between European ships and African producers. Human chattel, kola nuts, and palm products were among their earliest and most prominent currencies, ensuring access for European traders and markets for African producers.Footnote 80 By the 1480s Portuguese merchant-explorers had begun procuring captives along the Bight of Benin, also a site of intense palm oil production and trade.Footnote 81 At the rise of the intercontinental slave trade, first to Europe and later to the Americas, palm oil had become a primary commercial medium linking Europeans and West Africans.
Following the European encounter with the Americas in 1492, the African continent entered into an integrated network of Atlantic exploration and trade. Between 1506 and 1508, Portuguese explorer Duarte Pacheco Pereira documented a Luso-African trade in “slaves, cotton textiles, animal skins, and palm oil” linking the Niger Delta town of Warri on the Forcados River with São Jorge da Mina Castle on the Gold Coast in contemporary Ghana.Footnote 82 Working in Angola and the Congo during the 1570s and 1580s, Duarte Lopez documented the Portuguese trades in “ivory, wax, honey, palm oil, and negro slaves” that moved between São Tomé and the Gabon estuary near the equator.Footnote 83 A report from Portuguese colonizer and transatlantic slave trader Garcia Mendes Castelo Branco confirms a recurring palm oil trade on the Bight of Benin in the 1570s. “With our friend the King of Arda, near the Mina Coast, we send to trade for slaves, ivory, cotton textiles, palm oil, and many vegetables like yams and other foodstuffs. Every year one or two ships leave this port filled with those goods.”Footnote 84 Castelo Branco goes on to list six more monarchs, from the Mina Coast to the Niger Delta, participating in a by then bustling Luso-African palm oil trade.
By the mid-sixteenth century, the transatlantic slave trade had come to dominate traffic between the Old and New Worlds. Ships and crews trafficking in humans became primary vectors in the Columbian Exchanges of biota and ideas, disseminating countless crops, weeds, pathogens, and animals throughout the Atlantic World.Footnote 85 Palm oil was ubiquitous in that system. The major ports of slave embarkation roughly corresponded with the premodern distribution of African oil palm landscapes, and from its beginnings, the transatlantic trades in human chattel integrated palm products into their commercial networks (Figure 2.1).Footnote 86 Though palm oil had earlier symbolized African cultural-environmental ingenuity and innovation, in the slave trade it facilitated the cruel bondage and suffering of those caught in its grip.
Uses of palm oil in the transatlantic slave economy were quite diverse. Portuguese slave traders in Angola as well as their English counterparts at Cape Coast typically mixed palm oil into the rations fed to captives in coastal holding sheds, often called barracoons.Footnote 87 Slave factors on the African coasts fortified and promoted human chattel by rubbing their bodies with palm oil before offering them for sale to ship captains. The glistening unguent worked to conceal some of the exhaustion and abuse suffered during their apprehension and confinement.Footnote 88 Following purchase, palm oil was sometimes part of a gruesome branding procedure.Footnote 89 As a Dutch surgeon reported in 1692, “The slaves that were taken were made to kneel, twenty or thirty at a time; the right shoulder was greased with palm-oil, and it was branded in the middle with an iron.”Footnote 90 An account from Dahomey in the mid-nineteenth century shows that vile practice continued even after the official prohibition of the transatlantic trade.Footnote 91
Palm oil accompanied enslaved Africans on board ships bound for the New World. From the sixteenth century, slave ships routinely stocked African palm oil and peppers, especially melegueta (Aframomum melegueta), to flavor and enrich the various gruels that sustained human cargoes through the Middle Passage.Footnote 92 Flemish botanist Carolus Clusius described palm oil as a seasoning aboard Portuguese slave ships departing São Tomé in 1598.Footnote 93 A century later, British slaver Thomas Phillips spiced gruels fed to captives aboard his ship “with a little salt, malagetta, and palm oil, to relish.”Footnote 94 By then he could point to many options for procuring palm oil. One could find “some” in Cape Coast, “but it is cheaper at [Ouidah], tho’ the island of [São Tomé] is the cheapest place, and where there is most plenty of it.”Footnote 95
A widespread assumption that familiar diets improved captives’ chances of survival on the Middle Passage reinforced the practice of provisioning slave ships with African foods and flavors.Footnote 96 Preferred foods varied by region of embarkation, according to the general geographies of dominant staple crops. Alexander Falconbridge, a British surgeon charged with overseeing the health of captives aboard slave ships explained, “Yams are the favourite food of the [Igbo or] Bight [captives], and rice or corn, of those from the Gold or Windward Coasts; each preferring the produce of their native soil.”Footnote 97 Regional differences reflected not only local preferences but also commercial availability.Footnote 98 Moving from north to south respectively, rice prevailed in the Senegambia and Upper Guinea, millet and maize held sway near the Gold Coast, yams dominated from the Bight of Benin to the Niger Delta, and Luso-Brazilian slaving outfits in Angola and elsewhere in Central Africa preferred manioc.Footnote 99
Native to the Americas, maize (Zea mays) and manioc (Manihot esculenta and Manihot spp.) reached African shores aboard Portuguese ships sometime in the sixteenth century. Portuguese slavers were provisioning ships with maize at São Tomé by 1534, and by the end of the century the grain was already becoming a foodstaple on the Gold Coast. Manioc arrived sometime after the mid-sixteenth century, and by the early seventeenth, had become abundant in West Central Africa and on São Tomé.Footnote 100 As a tropical root tuber, manioc grows remarkably similar to the West African yam, but is more adaptable, drought-tolerant, and durable. By the late sixteenth century, both maize and manioc flour had become principle victuals aboard slave ships, and thereafter spread throughout Africa where farmers readily adapted the crops to diverse landscapes.Footnote 101 Their swift integration into African agroecologies and economies speaks to the resourcefulness and dexterity of African farmers as well as the magnitude of the multidirectional exchanges within the Atlantic World, even in its earliest stages.Footnote 102Before the 1730s, slave ships would sometimes procure provisions in one area before buying human captives in another. Nevertheless, African food crops always formed the basis of slave sustenance on the transatlantic journey, supporting the establishment of “a significant export-oriented commercial agriculture […] in sub-Saharan Africa long before the nineteenth century.”Footnote 103 Seventeenth-century journals from French slave traders working the Niger Delta region, at the heart of West Africa’s oil palm-yam belt, underscore how traffickers considered regional foodstuffs crucial to profits.
A ship that takes in five hundred slaves, must provide above a hundred thousand yams; which is very difficult, because it is hard to stow them, by reason they take up so much room; and yet no less ought to be provided, the slaves there being of such a constitution, that no other food will keep them; Indian corn, [fava] beans, and [manioc] disagreeing with their stomach; so that they sicken and die apace.Footnote 104
Following that line of thinking, French Dominican friar and Caribbean sugar planter Jean Baptiste Labat suggested that investments in palm oil and other foodstuffs could ensure a profitable return on a slave ship.
If the company was willing to spend extra for six barrels of lard, and two or three hundred pounds of palm oil to add to the salt that seasons the vegetables, it can ensure that its cargo of slaves arrives to the West Indies intact. This small additional expense is hardly considerable, and would be amply rewarded by the good condition of the slaves when we sell them.Footnote 105
Of course those expectations were rarely realized, and even when using regional foodstuffs to feed captives, slaving operations often lost as much as half of their human cargo to inhumane conditions. After carefully provisioning their ship, French slavers James Barbot and John Grazilhier reported, “All the ships that loaded slaves with the Albion Frigate at Kalabar lost, some half, others two-thirds of them, before they reached Barbados; […] so that above fifty percent of the capital was lost.”Footnote 106 The widespread commitment to African staples and seasonings nevertheless ensured that palm oil and other African products regularly traversed the Middle Passage. An order from Danish authorities in 1725 dictated the “weekly allowance for each slave consisted of 1/2 lb. pork, 2 qts. beans, 2 qts. barley, 2/3 qt. millet, 1/4 pint brandy, 2 oz. tobacco, 1 pipe, 1/8 pint palm oil”Footnote 107 A “bill for refreshments” tendered to the slave ship Fredensborg listed twenty-six jars of palm oil for its journey from the Gold Coast to the Danish West Indies.Footnote 108 Brazilian trafficker Bento de Arousio de Souza traded for sixty-five enslaved Africans and their provisions, including “80 chests of corn, 50 pounds of malaguetta, 4 bushells of salt, 30 gallons of palm oil” on the Gold Coast in 1724.Footnote 109 British “sea-surgeon” Thomas Aubrey suggested that sailors pass cups of palm oil and pepper during all meals and allow captives to partake as much as they like. Failure to do so he warned could result in loss of appetite, sickness, and often death.Footnote 110 No matter the region, no matter the associated foodstaples, slaving operations from the Senegambia to Angola regularly seasoned their concoctions with peppers and palm oil making those African products indispensable throughout the vast geographies of the transatlantic slave trade.Footnote 111In addition to its nutritional value, palm oil served various medicinal purposes in the transatlantic slave economy, and not just for Africans. French slaver John Barbot claimed the oil was
much recommended throughout all Europe for obstructions, fractures, windy and cold humours. The natives use it much, with almost everything they eat, as we do butter; and most days rub and anoint their bodies with it, to render the skin softer and shining, and the body stronger.Footnote 112
A Danish priest stationed at Ghana’s Christiansborg Castle in the early eighteenth century extolled the homeopathic and healing properties of palm oil.
[Palm oil] may, in truth, be called the most excellent medical agent in the country. The Negroes smear it over their entire bodies daily, […] and because of that their bodies stay flexible and supple until an advanced age. When it comes to bruises, scratches, blows, or cuts, as well as sores caused by the so called [Guinea] “worm” – from which boils break on many (persons), […] and cause great pain – nothing is better than a salve of palm oil. And when you become accustomed to eating it, it keeps your stomach in a very good and healthy condition; so we can reasonably consider it a great gift from God.Footnote 113
Admiring West African medicinal prowess, Rask concluded that “[Africans] are much better suited than we are, as regards their health care.”Footnote 114Dutch slavers mixed palm oil with beans to treat dysentery, and an English slave ship captain recommended palm oil as a treatment for dreaded smallpox.Footnote 115
The negroes are so innocent to the small-pox, that few ships that carry them escape without it, and sometimes it makes vast havoc and destruction among them; but though we had 100 at a time sick of it, and that it went through the ship, yet we lost not above a dozen by it. All the assistance we gave the diseased was only as much water as they desired to drink, and some palm oil to anoint their sores, and they would generally recover without any other help but what kind nature gave them.Footnote 116
A ship’s medicine chest should only contain anti-scorbutics and anti-venerics. Should the slave fall victim to the (endemic) illnesses of the land, such as worms, etc., a couple of female slaves can be allowed to take over, after we have supplied them with mallaget and piment, palm oil, and citrons, from which they can prepare (African) medicines, and the sick will feel well afterward.Footnote 118
Commanding the final legal slaving operation to leave Liverpool in 1807, English Captain Hugh Crow defended the conditions on his ship in part by claiming his crew “allowed [captives] to use palm oil, their favourite cosmetic.”Footnote 119 Finally, as their ships approached New World shores, sailors would routinely rub enslaved bodies with palm oil yet again to disguise the suffering of the Middle Passage and prepare them for sale.Footnote 120
Thus palm oil – used to sustain, brand, promote, heal, and finally commodify human chattel – followed the transatlantic slave economy through Africa, at sea, and on arrival in the Americas. These accounts show how European traffickers relied on Africans and their botanical-pharmacological knowledges to prevent, diagnose, and treat disease. The slavers merely supplied Africans with basic materials from their homelands to prepare and administer their own treatments. In this way, the transatlantic slave trade appropriated African agricultural and medical knowledges and practices to maintain human cargoes and generate profits.Footnote 121
While transatlantic slavers procured palm oil and other provisions for their maritime operations, planters in the New World sought native and exotic trees and plants to feed and heal the workers enslaved on their stolen grounds. Colonial documentation, along with contemporary linguistic and ethnographic evidence, links the diffusion of the African oil palm in the early modern Neotropics with the transatlantic slave economy. From the mid-seventeenth century, colonial documents referred to palm oil in the West Indies, framing the palm and its oil as unequivocally African. Sugar planter Richard Ligon described a “Negro-oil” in Barbados in the 1640s, a curious remedy that “when they feel themselves ill, they call for some of that, and anoint their bodies, as their breasts, bellies, and sides, and in two days they are perfectly well.”Footnote 122 Irish naturalist Hans Sloane identified Ligon’s unguent as palm oil, and himself observed African oil palms in Jamaica two decades later. He used the passive voice to claim the palm “was brought over with some others from Guinea in tubs water’d by the way, and then planted by Colonel Colbeck in his plantation.”Footnote 123 By the end of the century Thomas Phillips discussed selling West African palm oil on Barbados, suggesting it had become integrated into local economies.Footnote 124
African oil palms grew on at least one English plantation in Antigua by 1729, presumably as a source of subsistence and medicine for the laborers enslaved there.Footnote 125 Writing in the 1760s on the nearby island of St. Kitts, Scottish planter and physician Dr. James Grainger recommended “if [newly arrived slaves] have brought with them any palm oil, they should be permitted to anoint their bodies therewith.”Footnote 126 His medical opinion demonstrates how colonizers appropriated African knowledge and practices to at once subjugate and sustain enslaved workers in the New World.Footnote 127 It also offers up, rather curiously and without clarification, the possibility that enslaved Africans sometimes crossed the Middle Passage and arrived in the Caribbean with palm oil, and perhaps other personal possessions, of their own.
Dutch botanist Nikolaus Jacquin bestowed the palm with its scientific binomial in 1763 based on observations, not in its native Africa, but rather on Martinique in the French Antilles. Having never visited Brazil he could claim, “nowhere in the Americas have I seen this plant growing wild.”Footnote 128 He identified the origin of the palm as “Guinea” – hence its Latin name – and claimed it was by then distributed throughout the Americas; yet he remained silent on the peoples or processes responsible for its diffusion. Five years later, Philip Miller claimed in the eighth edition of his Gardener’s Dictionary that African oil palms were “first carried from Africa to America by the negroes. […] Now the trees are in plenty in most of the [West Indies], where the negroes are careful to propagate them.”Footnote 129 Despite its otherwise vile and bigoted predispositions, Edward Long’s colonial narrative detailed the extensive culinary and medicinal uses of palm oil in Jamaica, effectely ceding the island’s palm oil economy to Afro-descendants.”Footnote 130
Drawing on extensive fieldwork in Haiti and Cuba around the turn of the nineteenth century, French physician and botanist M. E. Descourtilz wrote that the “Avoira de Guinée […] grows spontaneously in Africa and Cayenne [French Guiana], and is cultivated in the Antilles.” People throughout the Caribbean, he claimed, used its oils for cooking and food preparation, as a fuel, and as a versatile medicine. The physician endorsed palm oil as a soothing emollient and as a remedy for ear infections, rheumatism, ringworm, enteritis, and dysentery, as well as a palliative for infants and post-partum mothers served in a broth of chicken or beef.Footnote 131 Reverend Abiel Abbot wrote of 100 “Guinea palms” yielding wine and “palm oil, which constitutes an important article in African commerce, and African food” on a sugar plantation in Camarioca, Cuba, in 1828. The 170 enslaved Africans and their Creole children held at the mill, he claimed, “prefer it to butter.”Footnote 132
Known in Cuba as corojo de guinea, African oil palms have long been incorporated in Afro-Cuban religious expressions and continue to flourish there, notably in Havana’s Parque de la Fraternidad Americana that flanks the National Capitol Building.Footnote 133 Elsewhere in the circum-Caribbean, including Dominica, Guadeloupe, Puerto Rico, Suriname, Trinidad, Venezuela, and Garifuna Central America, emergent African oil palms continue to grow in small but intriguing numbers, and ethnographic, botanical, linguistic, and historical analyses confirm centuries of management and use by Afro-descendants and others.Footnote 134
Socioecological networks of people, plants, and power proliferated the African oil palm through the forests and villages of western Africa over the past several millennia. Agrarian communities across the continent cooperated in complex agroecological systems to generate cultural-environmental change and abundance. With the arrival of Europeans and the advent of Atlantic economies, palm products and related knowledges played fundamental and tragic roles as accessories to the transatlantic slave trade. As sailors, ships, captives, and colonizers traversed the Atlantic beginning in the late fifteenth century, the African oil palm and its products diffused throughout the Caribbean and South America as early African contributions to the Columbian Exchange. Frenetic, fluid, and relational networks distributed botanical species and associated knowledge systems to lay the socioecological foundations of the Atlantic World. By focusing on relationships, we see how African botanical and medicinal knowledges supported both the transatlantic slave economy and African resilience; how palm products served to both enforce and alleviate human suffering; and how people of both African and European descent are implicated in the diffusion of palm oil, of systematic torture, and of resistance. Yet despite the widespread distribution of the palm and its products in Atlantic economies, written evidence of the African oil palm’s arrival in Brazil, like other Atlantic outposts, remains fragmentary and often ambiguous. The next chapter nevertheless pieces together the diffusion of Elaeis guineensis and other botanical forms from Africa to Brazil to reveal some of the intertwined cultural, ecological, and economic processes that coalesced to shape the early modern Atlantic World.