The ‘peanut slaves’ get to the troubled roots of a lovely breakfast.

  • Journalist Jury Lewis’s “Peanut Slaves: The Story of Victory, Freedom, and a Crop That Changed History”, “Tells the stories of people who are forgotten by history and avoided by the present.”
  • This book sheds light on how the peanut trade in Senegal was driven by European expansion and attracted to free labor.
  • The devastation of Senegal’s land as a result of the peanut trade predicts the damage that commercial monocultures are inflicting today.
  • “Slaves for Peanuts” is published by The New Press, a non-profit, and is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and

“How can we tell stories of people forgetting history and avoiding the present?” Jury Lewis, a journalist-turned-author, asks in the preface to her first book, Peanut Slaves: The Story of Victory, Freedom, and a Crop That Changed History. Lewis’s account of Senegal’s peanut trade in the second half of 19Th The century is full of such stories, from a “Negro” French evangelist to a deviant Senegalese chief.

By tracing the stories of his life, Lewis creates a paradigm through which to see the European colonial expansion in West Africa. This book explains how the peanut trade took root after the formal abolition of slavery, attracting the labor of non-free people.

Lewis also explains how the rising Western nations were connected to this weak nut of the earth. Peanuts were not the only food. Peanut oil was pork fat and greasy. The British Railways, the backbone of the Industrial Revolution, needed 13,000 tons of fat each year. French soap makers were heating up the idea of ​​replacing olive oil with peanut oil. This demand has led to an increase in peanut cultivation in Senegal. The West African country has been one of the world’s leading peanut growers for over a century, although today it lags behind the major exporters.

Jury Lewis’s cover of “Peanut Slaves: The Story of Victory, Freedom, and a Crop That Changed History”, which “tells the stories of people whom history forgets and the present avoids.” Photo courtesy of The New Press.

Most of Senegal’s current peanut production is in its central and western regions. But when tree planting began for the first time in the country in the mid-19’s.Th In the twentieth century, the Khajuraho, a breakaway empire from the Julov (Wolof) Empire, emerged as the center of the peanut trade. Its area south of the Senegal River now extends to Dakar. St. Louis, a cluster of islands near the mouth of the Senegal River, and Gauri on the shores of Dakar, were the first outposts in the region of the French Empire. French attempts to spread on African soil brought them into constant conflict with the Khajuraho rulers, who are said to be. damel.

Slavery was outlawed in French territories in 1848, but human trafficking continued across the Atlantic. Other forms of slavery – for example, when warring factions enslaved captured enemies – existed on African soil, including the Khajuraho.

Lewis recounts the history of a “peanut and fast business people.” Trade did not just coexist. They were interconnected. Even where human beings were not physically bought and sold, they were still trapped in an exploitative system that was ready to maximize peanut production regardless of human cost. The growing appetite for peanuts in remote lands ensured that the labor of the most backward workers was still in great demand.

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

The Senegalese leader saw an opportunity. Instead of selling, slaves could be used to grow peanuts.

Lewis questions the crossroads of capitalist trade and slavery, but at the same time the precarious position of evangelists is wrapped up in the form of Walter Taylor. Born in Freetown, now Sierra Leone, in the 1840s, Taylor moved to St. Louis as a teenager to rescue his parents from a slave ship off the coast of West Africa. He founded a refuge for French fugitives seeking independence from their African masters. Yet, as Lewis asks, “What is freedom, after all, in a place where you have no status, no tribe, and no access to land?” Many of these free men and women began working, which in some respects resembled slavery.

Map of Senegal showing Khajur.
The Khajuraho, a separate kingdom of the Julov dynasty, emerged as a center for the peanut trade in the mid-19th century, extending south of the Senegal River to what is now Dakar.

In a webinar hosted by the Metcalf Institute, Lewis told Moises Velasquez-Manoff that she was delighted with Taylor. Lewis revealed that initially it should not have been in the book at all. As a member of an educated “little elite”, Taylor’s status makes him an enchanting and complex character who can create an account of slavery. But the author stumbled upon a repository of his correspondence with the Paris Evangelical Missionary Society, which allowed him to present Taylor in his own voice.

Lewis relied heavily on the archives of France and Senegal, but did not limit himself to them. “I used everything I could find,” he explained in the webinar, including the oral history of the Khajuraho kingdom. Lewis did not intend to write an academic thesis. This is both a disability and an advantage. The demands and reprimands of educational institutions do not affect the narrative. This is a chance to bring out the people in vivid detail that are hidden in the due date. “People whose histories are rarely recorded because they were not warriors or princes or scholars.”

Even warlords can make a small difference in Western retailing. Lat Joor Ngooné Latyr Joob, Daimler of the Kajur kingdom, a contemporary of Taylor, was a good-natured leader who opposed French expansion for years. A clear manifestation of these ambitions was a railway project that would connect Dakar to St. Louis. In his book, Lewis illustrates the complexity of Late Jورr’s dealings with the colonists, from his requests to the French authorities to return his slaves to his refusal to trample the “peanut train” on his land. ۔ The Senegalese leader saw this as a path to French domination.

It was also a catalyst for environmental catastrophe. Senegal’s land degradation as a result of the peanut trade predicts damage from commercial monocultures around the world. Lewis tells us, “The places where it flourished were not always the most environmentally friendly for its cultivation. What mattered most was the presence of trade posts and slave labor.”

Author and journalist Jury Lewis.
Author and journalist Jury Lewis. Photo courtesy of The New Press.

Settlements and fields replaced forests, and ancient trees were used to build shelters and huts along the railway tracks. Peanut farming was not the only food in the forest. The people who were displaced by the slave trade, separated from their traditional lands and relatives, started anew by claiming land. Lewis explains that “by borrowing a few years of fertility from hundreds of years of tree growth, to build their fields, houses and villages.”

Poverty on earth was not without consequences. Peanut crops dried up, and the oil content of the nuts decreased, leading to the decline of the area as a major groundnut growing area. Lewis writes provocatively, presenting his prose with astonishing imagery, even when describing a slow-moving environmental crisis. “Many people ate their fields from the inside out, even without light soil, trees and bushes, and when the wind blew, they flew to the sky,” she writes.

Lewis does not unequivocally link the decline of peanuts to the failures of peanut growers. Instead, she sees them as a failure of a new production system that farmers were subject to and were learning to navigate.

Some of the book’s main themes – for example, the relationship between capitalism and free labor in the African context, and the reasons for the decline of peanuts – are ready for further investigation. Although Taylor makes an acceptable and interesting companion, and Lewis faithfully follows his journey to the end, the reader is amazed at the fate of Musa Siddiqui, who is introduced on the opening page of the book. , Who escaped from slavery and took refuge. Taylor Lewis’s work criticizes the lack of scholarship that focuses on the history of people like Sidibé and increases the appetite for it.

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

Peanut slaves Published by The New Press, a non-profit, and available in hard copy. Amazon, Barnes and Noble And

Agriculture, book reviews, books, conservation, environment, environmental journalism, food, forced labor, governance, history, international trade, law, slavery, social conflicts, trade


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