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

A handful of peanuts.

A handful of peanuts. Image by Curt Carnemark / World Bank via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

  • Journalist Jori Lewis’s “Slaves for Peanuts: A Story of Conquest, Liberation, and a Crop That Changed History,” tells the stories of “people that history forgets and the present avoids.”
  • The book sheds light on how the commercial trade in peanuts in Senegal was driven by European expansion and drew on unfree labor.
  • The mutilation of Senegal’s lands resulting from peanut commerce foreshadows the damage that commercial monocultures continue to inflict today.
  • “Slaves for Peanuts” is published by The New Press, a nonprofit, and available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and bookshop.org.

“How do we tell the stories of people that history forgets and the present avoids?” journalist-turned-author Jori Lewis asks in the preface to her debut book, Slaves for Peanuts: A Story of Conquest, Liberation, and a Crop That Changed History. Lewis’s account of Senegal’s peanut trade in the second half of the 19th century is peopled with such stories, from a “negro” French evangelist to a defiant Senegalese chief.

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

Lewis also details how ascendant Western nations got hooked on this humble nut of the earth. Peanuts weren’t just food; peanut oil was lard and lubricant. The British railway, the backbone of the Industrial Revolution, required 13,000 tons of grease every year. French soap-makers were increasingly warming to the idea of substituting olive oil with peanut oil. This demand spurred a boom in peanut cultivation in Senegal. The West African nation has been one of the world’s leading peanut producers for more than a century, though it lags behind major exporters today.

Cover of Jori Lewis’s “Slaves for Peanuts: A Story of Conquest, Liberation, and a Crop That Changed History,” which tells the stories of “people that history forgets and the present avoids.” Image courtesy of The New Press.

Most of Senegal’s current peanut production occurs in its central and western regions. But when plantations first took hold in the country in the mid-19th century, Kajoor, a breakaway kingdom of the Jolof  (Wolof) Empire, emerged as a hub for the peanut trade. Its territory stretched south of the Senegal River to what is now Dakar. Saint Louis, an island cluster near the mouth of the Senegal River, and Gorée, off the coast of Dakar, were the region’s first outposts of the French empire. French attempts to expand on the African mainland brought them into frequent conflict with Kajoor’s rulers, called damel.

Slavery was outlawed in French territories in 1848, yet the illicit trafficking of humans across the Atlantic persisted. Other forms of bondage — for example, when warring groups took captured enemies as slaves — continued to exist on the African mainland, including in Kajoor.

Lewis chronicles a “brisk business in peanuts and people.” The trades didn’t just coexist; they were intertwined. Even where humans were not physically being bought and sold, they were still shackled to an exploitative system geared toward maximizing peanut production no matter the human cost. The growing hunger for peanuts in faraway lands ensured that the labor of the most marginalized workers was still very much in demand.

According to a legend unearthed by Lewis, a French merchant told a local chief, “Keep your slaves, they are our fellow men, but I will give you anything you want from Europe for peanuts.” Put another way, Europeans were interested in peanuts, not so much in how they were produced.

The Senegalese chief saw an opportunity. Instead of being sold, slaves could be put to work growing peanuts.

Lewis interrogates the intersections of capitalist commerce and slavery but also the precarious position of evangelists at this time, encapsulated in the figure of Walter Taylor. Born in the 1840s in Freetown, in what is today Sierra Leone, to parents rescued from a slave ship off the coast of West Africa, Taylor moved to Saint Louis as a young man. He founded the Refuge for Fugitive Slaves for those who escaped their African masters to the French territory in search of liberty. 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 freed men and women ended up taking up work that, in some aspects, resembled slavery.

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

In a webinar hosted by the Metcalf Institute, Lewis told Moises Velasquez-Manoff she was enamored with Taylor. Lewis revealed that he was initially not supposed to be in the book at all. Taylor’s position as a member of an educated “petite elite” makes him fascinating and a complicated character to anchor an account about slavery. But the author stumbled upon a trove of his correspondence with the Paris Evangelical Missionary Society that allowed her to render Taylor in his own voice.

Lewis relied extensively on archives in France and Senegal, but didn’t limit herself to just these. “I used everything I could find,” she explained in the webinar, including oral histories from the Kingdom of Kajoor. Lewis didn’t set out to write an academic thesis. It is both a handicap and an advantage. The demands and reprimands of academia don’t bog the narrative down. It’s an opportunity to flesh out in lively detail persons rendered invisible in the prescribed history. “People whose histories were rarely recorded since they weren’t warriors or princes or learned clerics.”

Even warrior kings can receive short shrift in Western retelling. Lat Joor Ngooné Latyr Joob, the damel of the Kingdom of Kajoor, a contemporary of Taylor, was a feisty leader who led a years-long opposition to French expansion. A conspicuous manifestation of these ambitions was a railway project that would connect Dakar to Saint Louis.  In her book, Lewis lays bare the complexity of Lat Joor’s interactions with the colonizers, from his entreaties to French administrators to return his slaves, to his refusal to let the “peanut train” trample upon his lands. The Senegalese leader saw it as a conduit for French domination.

It was also a harbinger of environmental destruction. The mutilation of Senegal’s lands resulting from peanut commerce foreshadows the damage inflicted by commercial monocultures the world over. “Where it flourished was not always places that were most ecologically suited for its cultivation, what was crucial was the presence of trading posts and enslaved labor,” Lewis tells us.

Author and journalist Jori Lewis. Image courtesy of The New Press.

Settlements and fields replaced forests, ancient trees were logged to build shelters and kiosks along the railway route. It wasn’t just peanut cultivation eating into forestland; people displaced by the slave trade, torn from their traditional lands and ties, started anew by claiming land. Lewis describes it as “borrowing a few years of fertility from hundreds of years of tree growth, to create fields, houses, and villages of their own.”

The impoverishment of the earth was not without consequence. Peanut harvests shriveled, and the oil content of the nuts fell, contributing to the decline of Kajoor as a prime peanut-growing area. Lewis writes evocatively, peppering her prose with striking imagery, even when describing a slow-moving ecological crisis. “Many consumed their fields from the inside out until the lightweight soils, bereft of trees and shrubs, flew up into the sky when a stiff wind blew,” she writes.

Lewis does not uncritically link the degeneration of peanuts to the failings of the peanut growers. Instead, she finds them to be failures of a new production system that farmers were subject to and learning to navigate.

Some of the book’s central themes — for example, the link between capitalism and unfree labor in the African context, and the reasons for the peanut’s decline — are ripe for further investigation. Though Taylor makes for an agreeable and intriguing companion, and Lewis faithfully follows his journey to the end, the reader is left wondering about the fate of Moussa Sidibé, introduced in the book’s opening page, who fled bondage and ended up in the refuge run by Taylor. Lewis’s work critiques the absence of scholarship that centers the history of people like Sidibé and whets the appetite for it.

Banner image: A handful of peanuts. Image by Curt Carnemark/World Bank via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Slaves for Peanuts is published by The New Press, a nonprofit, and is available in hard copy on Amazon, Barnes and Noble and bookshop.org.