Oil Palm: A Global History | Jonathan E. Robins

The two main fields of reference of Jonathon Robins’ new book, Oil palm: a global history, are immediately revealed in its title: the history of commodities and global history. This work fits within the historiographical genre famously inaugurated by Sydney W. Mintz in 1985 1. It is not by chance that Robins, associate professor of History at the Michigan Technological University, investigated the history of another commodity, cotton (in the British Empire), before dealing with palm oil. Furthermore, the title indicates that the main character of the book is not the commodity itself but the tree producing it. In sum, it tells «the story of how humans used and lived with oil palms» 2. Surely this choice is also due to the fact that the oil palm tree, differently from the cotton plant for example, gives birth to more than one commodity: indeed, palm kernel oil played almost as fundamental a role in the globalization of palm products as the much more renowned palm oil (palm wine, on the other hand, never developed an appeal outside of African domestic markets).

The book is organized in three parts. The first is a longue durée history of oil palm in African societies. Chapter one presents the oil palm tree and its prehistory, describes its uses, and stresses the importance of human activity in the creation and proliferation of oil palm landscapes. Conversely, Europeans looked at the tree as a wild one and as a kind of natural wealth. The second chapter deals with European encounters with the tree, from the fifteenth century onwards. It was the slave trade that created the first market for palm oil outside of Africa, with slavers using it to feed and heal captives during the Atlantic crossing. Chapter three covers the history of palm oil in Africa in the nineteenth century, with a particular focus on the slow and contradictory transition from slave trade to palm oil exports. The ultimate aim of this dense chapter is to show how «land tenure, social status, gender roles, technology, politics, and landscapes all changed in response to the export industry» 3 . Chapter four describes the rise in the use of palm oil in the industrializing world. The author clearly explains how neither palm oil nor palm kernels were indispensable to the industrial revolution but rather served as cheap substitutes: initially for soap and candles; then for lubricators and in tin manufacturing; and finally, from the beginning of the twentieth century, as a source of fat in the food industry.

This first part provides a fundamental introduction to the book, whereas the second and third parts, which deal with the globalization of palm products, are the most innovative and indeed contain the bulk of the author’s archival research. In this sense, the book is actually a history of palm oil in the twentieth century. Indeed, Robins takes over from where historian Martin Lynn left off: in 1997, the latter published a history of trade and agriculture in West Africa, showing that for many parts of the region «the nineteenth century was the century of palm oil» 4.

The second part of the book is a colonial history of palm oil. Chapter five reviews the various attempts made by European colonial empires to seize control of the African palm groves and enhance their productivity. The following chapter aims to cover the same period, examining how Africans dealt with the introduction of new processing machines and the amelioration of vegetal materials via plant selection by the colonial governments. Ultimately, the bulk of both internal and external demand was still being met by smallholders using “traditional” tools. Chapter seven explains how European capitalists came to establish oil palm plantations in Sumatra and in the Malay peninsula, where they could control labor and land on a scale that was unimaginable in colonial Africa. Chapter eight deals with the post-World War II period, and namely with the increased efforts made by colonial powers both in Asia and in Africa to develop palm oil production. Robins argues that the main recipe for post-war development plans became the socalled “Nucleus Estate-Smallholder” (NES) model, which combined a small plantation and a highly efficient factory with smallholder cultivation – this without transforming farmers into wage laborers.

The third part of the book is a history of palm oil in the late twentieth and the beginning of the twenty-first century. Chapter nine describes the emergence of today’s potentially unlimited global market for palm oil (whether it takes the form of fuel or food) and the concurrent appearance of consumer concerns. These have included both human health and environmental impacts; some concerns seem to have cloaked self-interest (e.g. the 1980s campaign of the US soybean lobby) while others were more genuine (e.g. the recent concerns of environmental activists). The following chapter analyses the costs and benefits on the production side, by examining the most representative cases in Southeast Asia, Latin America, and West Africa. On the whole, this chapter offers an explanation as to how one and the same plant produced different outcomes depending on political context. The last chapter makes the case that the neoliberal turn constituted a fundamental cesura in the history of oil palm. Robins argues that after the post-war NES interlude, the colonial-like plantation – based on total control of land and labor– once again became the most widespread unit of palm oil production, this thanks to the deregulation and liberalization of the market.

The book is also the story of a reversal, one which to some extent recalls the vicissitudes of another commodity: rubber5. Originally produced and sold in West Africa, today most palm oil is exported from Southeast Asia. The African continent has become a net importer. However, Robins successfully highlights the continuities within this reversal, especially in the way of thinking about labor and land. His continuous demonstration of how labor and environmental history are deeply intertwined in the history of palm oil is one of the greatest achievements of the book.

Equally, it is striking to what extent the palm oil industry has changed in comparison to those of other commodities – perhaps not so much in its production process, but certainly in its uses. In this sense, Robins’ attention throughout the volume to the role played by consumers in the history of palm oil globalization is necessary and rich in insights. Moreover, differently from other “global” commodities, palm oil, while was widely employed in sectors as varied as food industry, soap and cosmetics manufacturing, and fuel production, remains largely invisible. «The fact that palm oil is perceived as being in things, rather than as a thing in its own right», as Robins astutely puts it, has historically been one of the main reasons for consumer concerns6. I will return to this point at the end of the review. What palm oil instead shares with other commodities is the fact of simultaneously being both a means of sustenance and a means of exploitation: this tension – between the vital role played by oil palm in sustaining millions of producers and the violence and dispossession that surrounded it – comes out very clearly in the book.

Concerning this same tension, Robins stresses that the producers were not passive recipients of developmental measures, but rather took them as opportunities. In this regard, the global perspective of the book imposes certain constraints, ones that prevent the author from thoroughly delving into the various ways in which producers worked both with and against European interventions. However, Robins is fully conscious of the inherent limits of a global perspective. Overall, the book is an ambitious attempt at synthesis which does not sacrifice complexity: taking the main arguments of the last chapter just as an example, Robins here makes clear that «not all palm oil is the direct product of deforestation», that «not all reforms were bad for small farmers», and also that not all smallholders were «environmental guardians»7.

It must nonetheless be noted that while Robins visited archives across four continents (in the UK, the US, Ghana, and Malaysia), his primary sources are mostly “anglophone”. This predominance is somewhat regrettable, but it is also largely to be expected insofar as the British Empire was the main exploiter of palm oil production. Moreover, whenever possible, Robins widens his gaze and opens up comparisons with other contexts, putting forward convincing theses, even on less documented cases. The only exception is perhaps Robins’ argument that the NES constituted the template for palm oil production after World War II, which seems valid with regards to British Africa and Southeast Asia, but is somewhat “imposed” onto the context of French West Africa. Indeed, the Institut de recherche sur les huiles et les oléagineux (IRHO), charged with planning the post-war development of palm oil in French West Africa, explicitly aimed to create vast industrial plantations that were directly inspired by those realized in Asia during the interwar period8. That being said, Robins depicts a global tendency and the case of French Africa (which was quite peripheral within the palm oil industry), rather than confuting him, simply calls for further clarification: were the French “late” in comparison? Were they keener to intervene more directly in the West African countryside?

Indeed, as is typically the case with good books, after having finished them, the reader finds themselves with new questions. For instance, one feels the need to know more about how work was differently gendered in the different regional contexts in which the production of palm oil was established, during its different periods and at different scales. Similarly, one hopes that further scholarship will investigate how local populations entered the highest ranks of the sector, i.e. uncover who the local large producers and the big traders were and are, both before and after the neoliberal turn. Indeed, after having learnt so much from this welcome widening of perspective, it will perhaps now again be useful to return to local case studies.

Furthermore, the focus on a single commodity also sheds new light on colonial history. Concerning the beginning of the twentieth century, there is a particular lack of explanations as to why so much initiative in Africa was taken up by private enterprises. While it is clear why British and French officials were wary of seizing too much land and recurring to violence, it still remains to be clarified why this was not the case for the Germans in Cameroun. Moreover, the fact that “lighter” kinds of public interventions involving oil palms (such as taxation, public works, scientific research, incentives to mechanization, regulations on agricultural techniques exc.) did not occur roughly until the 1930s seems to suggest that colonial administrations and private companies did not look at palm oil with the same interest. Finally, if some colonial governments afterwards adopted «coercive and counterproductive paths» 9 this does not mean that coercion was always counterproductive, as the Asian case witnesses. In sum, further research is needed to answer the question of why some forms of colonial coercion worked in certain contexts but not in others.

To conclude, this book, as is well known, was published following a period during which palm oil was at the centre of both environmental activism and consumer concerns, essentially in the so-called global North. That palm oil is a burning topic is also demonstrated by the quantity of publications that have appeared between the printing of Robins’ book and the writing of this review10. In addition to being much needed, then, this global history stands out for its clearness and its smoothness of reading. Furthermore, Robins does not refrain from personally engaging with the palm oil issue. For instance, he stresses a few times that neither boycotts nor blind consumption will help producers nor the environment. Instead, Robins concludes that today’s advantage consists in the amount of information available on palm oil: however, it is important to make good use of it11. In this regard, Robins’ book is surely an important source of awareness, one which invites the wider public (from scientists to consumers) to go back to the history of such a contested but widespread, infamous but invisible, commodity. In sum, it should be hoped that Oil palm: a global history is circulated as widely as possible.


1 MINTZ, Sidney W., Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History, New York, Viking, 1985. For a recent overview on the history of commodities see BECKERT, Sven, BOSMA, Ulbe, SCHNEIDER, Mindi, et al., «Commodity Frontiers and the Transformation of the Global Countryside: A Research Agenda», in Journal of Global History, 16, 3/2021, pp. 435-450.

2 ROBINS, Jonathan, Oil palm: a global history, Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 2021, p. 1.

3 Ibidem, p. 74.

4 LYNN, Martin, Commerce and economic change in West Africa: the palm oil trade in the nineteenth century, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1997, p. 4.

5 See DEAN, Warren, Brazil and the struggle for rubber: a study in environmental history, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1987.

6 ROBINS, Jonathan, op. cit., p. 261.

7 Ibidem, pp. 247, 252.

8 MICHAUX, Robert, Les palmeraies modernes d’Extrême-Orient, in Semaine du palmier à huile et du cocotier, Paris, IRHO, 1943, pp. 23-58. An indicator of this difference can be found in the choice of the kind of factory, too: whereas the Nigerian Pioneer mills were small and mostly owned by Nigerian individuals, the mills envisaged by the IRHO were huge and likely run by private French companies. Different was the case of the development plans of independent Côte d’Ivoire, mentioned as well by Robins, and which indeed included both industrial plantations and so-called plantations villageoises, which however became relevant only in the 1970s and in particular in the 1980s: NAÏ NAÏ, Serge, CHEYNS, Emmanuelle, RUF, François, «Adoption du palmier à huile en Côte d’Ivoire», in OCL, 7, 2/2000, pp. 155-165.


Giovanni Tonolo – PhD researcher at the History department of the European University Institute (Florence). He graduated at both the Scuola Normale and the Università di Pisa. His dissertation deals with the history of palm oil development in Dahomey/Bénin in the twentieth century, with a particular focus on its social and environmental outcomes. In 2020 he was a doctorant visiteur at the department of history and archaeology of the Université d’AbomeyCalavi. URL: http://www.studistorici.com/progett/autori/#Tonolo

Referências desta Resenha

ROBINS, Jonathan E. Oil Palm: A Global History. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2021. Resenha de: TONOLO, Giovanni. Diacronie. Studi di Storia Contemporanea, v.52, n.4, p.276-282, 2022. Acessar publicação original [DR/JF]

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