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Drawing on rare customs records, ship manifests, travelers’ accounts, periodicals, and other primary documents, this chapter places Salvador as an Atlantic hub for the consumption and distribution of African products—especially palm oil. Along with colorful textiles, peppers, kola nuts, and other African imports, African palm oil helped materialize the various Afro-Brazilian cultural expressions developing among Bahia’s growing Afro-descendant majority. That urban market for palm oil imported from Africa contrasted in some ways with the rural networks of domestically produced oil, yet as this chapter lays out, those markets developed in complement, rather than competition. This chapter demonstrates how “legitimate” palm oil trades served to reinforce, rather than replace, the transatlantic slave economy through its “clandestine” period in the mid-nineteenth century. Analyzing these various trades collectively and as they intersected in Bahia, this chapter details how exchanges of goods and ideas energized Afro-Brazilian cultures and economies, led to the expansion of palm oil landscapes in both western Africa and Bahia, and helped to assemble and invigorate an Atlantic World.
The book concludes with a forward-looking epilogue summarizing the multiscalar complexity and potentials of Bahia’s Afro-Brazilian dendê economy. It recognizes the fundamental influence of Afro-descendants in shaping New World societies and environments just as it presents new possibilities for abundant socioecological futures. Emerging from an African diaspora of people, plants, places, and power, dendê provides a model for encouraging and enjoying convivial relationships among and within more-than-human communities and biodiverse, productive agroecosystems. It argues for the power of inclusive histories and geographies to enact more viable, equitable, and decolonial futures, and highlights current efforts toward social and environmental justice emanating from the region.
Through a close reading of primary and rare historical sources, this chapter demonstrates how diverse communities transferred, adapted, and blended botanical species and knowledges to forge innovative “Creole” landscapes and societies in Brazil and beyond. It places the African oil palm within Atlantic networks of botanical and intellectual exchange to examine its arrival and establishment in Bahia. The chapter concludes by discussing the roles of Afro-descendant people and ecologies within palm oil landscapes and cultures in Brazil.
This introductory chapter unpacks and integrates the study’s key concepts, theories, and fields to situate the analyses laid out in subsequent chapters. It devotes detailed attention to the inextricable and co-constitutive relationships linking societies, environments, and power. It connects Afro-Brazilian cultures with the myths of racial democracy that helped to shape their emergence in the twentieth century. It discusses concepts of cultural landscapes within economies of transatlantic exchange, and links theories of relational power with Afro-Brazilian resistance and environmental change. It frames the colonial plantation and its monocultures as the ongoing socioecological framework of coloniality, in contrast to the complex biodiverse palm oil landscapes of Northeast Brazil. Along the way, the chapter introduces the real and conceptual places involved in the study, and their interrelations, especially Bahia, the Atlantic World, and the African diaspora. It concludes with a discussion of methods and methodology and an outline of the book’s structure.
Blending colonial archives and travelers’ accounts with ethnography, landscape observations, and geospatial analysis, this chapter reconstructs the historical-geographical and political-ecological development of Bahia’s palm oil landscapes. After examining the biogeographical dimensions of Bahia’s Atlantic coasts, it lays out the agroecological contexts that welcomed and established the African oil palm. It then situates those changing landscapes within geographies of resistance—socioecological strategies of survival and fulfillment that remain embedded in the contemporary region. Emerging from transatlantic assemblages of biota, knowledge, and environments, Bahia’s palm oil landscapes coalesced to create and sustain novel cultures, ecologies, and economies. While Afro-descendants emerge as principal agents in its development, humans cooperated within biodiverse socioecological networks, leveraging their environmental knowledges to help establish and proliferate Bahia’s Afro-Brazilian landscape. These relationships amplify our comprehension of the African diaspora and the Atlantic World by revealing multispecies collaborations and landscapes of resistance in the colonial Americas.
Drawing on probate inventories and other archives, agronomic reports and publications, Brazilian census data, and ethnography, this chapter analyzes the long march of modernization in Bahia’s dendê economy. It begins by detailing the remarkable preindustrial development achieved by rural agrarian communities with virtually no support or recognition from elite planters or public officials. It then demonstrates how government agronomists, unable to recognize the ancestral wisdom and resilience embedded in Bahia’s dendê economy, began working to impose “order and progress” on the Dendê Coast. Yet despite the drastic power imbalances and capitalized markets working in its favor, Brazil’s top-down campaign of palm oil modernization produced unexpected and mixed results. Rather than simplified, modern monocultures and hierarchical economies of scale, Bahia’s dendê landscapes, cultures, and economies (re)emerged as complex, contested, and fluid socioecological assemblages.
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 biodiverse palm groves permeating 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 provision and medicine. It culminates by charting the oil palm’s diffusion throughout the Caribbean and the mainland American Tropics during European colonial expansion. Charting the longue durée of African oil palms and their transatlantic diffusion, 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.
This chapter examines probate inventories and other primary documents to chart the integration of Bahia’s dendê economy within the post-abolition transitions of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It reconstructs four socioecological processes fundamental in that synthesis: the expansion of dendê cultures and landscapes in and around nineteenth-century Salvador; the interactive emergence of transatlantic economies, landscapes, and religions on the bay island of Itaparica; the persistent proliferation of dendê landscapes despite official disregard and illegibility; and the complementary intensification of dendê and cacao production on the post-abolition Southern Coast. This chapter demonstrates how networks of people, plants, places, and power interacted across time and space to assemble and reproduce a transatlantic dendê economy combining nourishment, ecology, and spirituality.
Behind the social and environmental destruction of modern palm oil production lies a long and complex history of landscapes, cultures, and economies linking Africa and its diaspora in the Atlantic World. Case Watkins traces palm oil from its prehistoric emergence in western Africa to biodiverse groves and cultures in Northeast Brazil, and finally the plantation monocultures plundering contemporary rainforest communities. Drawing on ethnography, landscape interpretation, archives, travelers' accounts, and geospatial analysis, Watkins examines human-environmental relations too often overlooked in histories and geographies of the African diaspora, and uncovers a range of formative contributions of people and ecologies of African descent to the societies and environments of the (post)colonial Americas. Bridging literatures on Black geographies, Afro-Brazilian and Atlantic studies, political ecology, and decolonial theory and praxis, this study connects diverse concepts and disciplines to analyze and appreciate the power, complexity, and potentials of Bahia's Afro-Brazilian palm oil economy.
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