Peanuts and world affairs

The surprising consequences of peanuts in West Africa

The resurrection of the Carolina African Runner peanut prompted me to look into the history of the peanut in West Africa, because that's where the Carolina African Runner came from. This is a bit of what I found, based mostly on papers by George E. Brooks and Stanley B. Alpern.

The resurrection of the Carolina African Runner peanut has been greeted with joy throughout the land. 1 That it came to America with enslaved people from West Africa is undisputed; few people, however, seem interested in what peanuts were doing in West Africa in the first place, given that their ancestral home is in South America. I decided to dig a little deeper.

Early days

It was the Portuguese who brought the peanut to Africa from Brazil, probably some time in the 1600s. The first reliable record is from the 1650s, by G.A. Cavazzi da Montecuccolo in what is now Congo or Angola. 2 By the late 1600s writers noted three kinds of undergound beans on the Gold Coast. One of these, W. Bosman wrote, "have been known to us but a few Years, and are called Angola Beans, by reason they were transplanted from thence to this place. They are a very agreeable sort of Food, if fryed, as we commonly do Ches-nuts." The other two were probably Bambara groundnuts and tiger nuts (Cyperus esculentus), but this just raises the difficulty of being certain what European explorers were writing about.

Whenever peanuts arrived, there were already two "groundnuts" in Africa. One was the Bambara groundnut (Vigna subterranea), the other was Kersting's groundnut (Macrotyloma geocarpum, formerly Kerstingiella geocarpa). Both are endemic to Africa and were cultivated before the arrival of the peanut. Indeed the Bijago word for Bambara groundnut -- mancarra -- became the adopted word for peanut in Portuguese territories, where the Portuguese word -- amendoim -- is seldom used, which probably adds to the confusion.

Regardless of when and where the peanut arrived, it is very likely that the pre-existence of these other groundnuts predisposed local people to adopt peanuts. And adopt them they did.

Out of Africa

The first movement of peanuts out of Africa was along with enslaved people and slave traders to the Caribbean and the American South, almost as soon as they had been observed in the Gold Coast. These were the ancestors of the Carolina African Runner, and they are unlike any varieties in South America.

The big thing that the Portuguese did for the peanut and West Africa was to bring different varieties from South America, mostly from Brazil. As a result, different kinds of peanut from scattered locations found themselves in the same place. And while peanuts are mostly self-pollinating -- meaning that by and large seeds give rise to plants that are genetically the same as their parents -- crossing does occasionally occur. If the varieties that crossed were from different places, one would expect the offspring of those crosses to be different from either parent and quite possibly to show new and desirable qualities. And that's what happened. West Africa is a secondary centre of peanut diversity because the Portuguese brought all those different varieties together.

Peanut exports

The true export trade, which started in the early 1800s, marked a shift in the economies of West Africa, and possibly the start of the modern economic era there. It also helped to established French dominance in the area.

Cultivation began along the Gambia river in the early 1830s and spread rapidly to Senegal and Portuguese Guinea in the early 1840s. The first exports from The Gambia were to the West Indies in 1829 and 1830, and totalled about 100 baskets. By 1835, 47 tons were leaving from The Gambia. Ten years later it was 3534 tons.

The initial bulk market for peanuts from West Africa was Great Britain, but from 1837 to 1841 Americans dominated the market. For some reason, the British and French didn't eat peanuts. Sure, they indulged children with monkey nuts at the zoo, but Americans of all ages liked to eat peanuts, particularly roasted.

This was at around the same time as the first imports from the American South reached the northeast of the country. There, the better class of people disdained the peanut, partly because they were thought of as "slave food". Later, according to one history, peanuts were "synonyms of circus rowdyism ... obstreperousness, and festive occasions of the protelariat". But the proletariat had to be served, and snobbishness wasn't going to hold back Yankee traders, who could source nuts much more cheaply in West Africa than in America.

The traders also quickly realised that nuts travelled much better in their shells than out. Provided that they were well dried, the spongy shell prevented a lot of moulding and spoilage, so that even though nuts in their shells take up twice the space of shelled nuts, the better condition of the nuts when they arrived made it worth shipping them that way. 3

The American trade ended in 1842, when duty was slapped on imports to protect American growers. The trade picked up briefly during the Civil War, when southern nuts were unable to reach northern eaters, but never really resumed.

In tariffs we trust

Tariffs, in fact, had a huge impact not only on peanuts but on the subsequent history of West Africa. While Americans were keen on eating peanuts, for most of Europe the main value of the peanut was as a lubricant oil and as a raw ingredient for industry, to make soaps and candles. The French in West Africa had started to see the economic potential of peanuts (and palm oil) even before the British, but French olive growers persuaded the government to place high import duties on imported oils. Merchants from Bordeaux and Marseilles, however, were interested in other sources of oil. They sent out exploratory voyages in the late 1830s, which persuaded them of the value of peanuts and palm oil. The merchants petitioned for a reduction in the tariff on peanuts.

In 1840, the government duly cut the tariff by 80% -- but only on whole peanuts in their shells, not on peanut oil pressed in Africa. This protected the oil processors in France -- and deprived countries in Africa of the opportunity to add value to their commodities. And, of course, as the amount of peanut imports went up, so the processors became wealthier and even stronger supporters of the tariff.

In 1842, total exports to Britain and to France were roughly equal, around 11,000 tons. Ten years later, France was importing 114,000 tons to Britain's 9,800 tons.

Growing pains

Where were all these peanuts coming from? Sengalese traders -- many of them the offspring of Africans and Europeans -- were the main stimulants of production. And the stimulation was astonishing. In the wake of the French revolution in 1848, for example, imports in 1849 were half what they were the year before. Farmers along the Gambia cut back, and in 1850 there was a great shortage of nuts. The following year -- 1851 -- farmers produced a record crop, 40% higher than the previous high in 1848.

This amazing increase depended entirely on African growers to produce the crop -- essentially still a new and unfamiliar one to most of them, even if they had grown the "other" groundnuts -- and on African middlemen to organize the harvest and onward transport. One could make a good case that necessity was the mother of invention, because the establishment by the British of the fort at Bathurst (today Banjul, capital of The Gambia) at the mouth of the Gambia river in 1816 essentially closed the river to slavers. That wasn't a problem for the slavers, who routed their caravans elsewhere. But it was a hardship for the people along the Gambia, who had every incentive to develop new sources of income.

Much of the crop was grown by migrant labourers who travelled 500 or 600 miles to the peanut-growing areas -- often guided there by the same people who had formerly trafficked in slaves. The migrants paid a small rent to the local chief and were allowed to cultivate with his protection for two or three years. They generally left when they had earned enough to make it worth returning home where, one can assume, they spread the glad tidings of profitable work and persuaded others to migrate in search of economic advantage.

Not all the farmers came of their own accord though. Caravans continued to arrive from the interior with slaves, but instead of being sold into the trans-Atlantic trade, many were bought -- by Africans and by French colonists -- to work peanut plantations.

Of course, we know nothing about either the original development of the West African complex of peanut varieties or about how seeds were selected for growing the huge amounts of peanuts. Were farmers selecting new varieties, deliberately or unconsciously? In Guinea, according to a report in 1900, "new seeds had to be imported every two or three years to maintain crop yields due to the degenerating effects of mold on peanuts grown in the wet, clayey soils". The African runner varieties -- which are known to be more susceptible to fungal diseases -- might have been failing to produce, but equally one might expect that there would be selection for resistant varieties. And where were these new seeds coming from? Elsewhere in Africa, or back in South America? 4

French domination

Most of the nuts were being grown along the Gambia, nominally controlled by the British, but the French and their Senegalese middlemen had many ways of avoiding British duties. Furthermore, the French imposed an extra tariff on peanuts carried in non-French ships, which effectively kept everyone else out. As George Brooks comments:

In practice, no matter where they might be grown, or what the nationality of the trader who first purchased them from an African producer, West African peanuts ended up shipped to France in a French vessel.

By June of 1860 the Governor of Senegal was able to note French dominance in the region:

One fact is immediately apparent. It is that French commerce is entirely pre-dominant in this part of Africa; even at the Portuguese establishments and the English establishments in The Gambia the French flag is almost the only one seen. The same may be said for as far as Sierra Leone.

This is not pure French chauvinism. The Governor of The Gambia, George Abbas Kooli D'Arcy, made an almost identical observation at the same time:

The fact is isolated in colonial history, but, while I write, I count thirty tricolours, six stars and stripes and but one union jack flying in the port of Bathurst.

By 1863, 300 vessels a year were trading between West Africa and France, far exceeding British interests. One historian was absolutely explicit:

It was the peanut that allowed French commerce to surpass its rival in the entire zone that extended from Senegal to Sierra-Leone, it was the peanut that prompted metropolitan commercial houses to interest themselves in this region.

George Brooks concludes his survey of the consequences of the commercialization of peanuts in West Africa the same way:

The commercial hegemony which was achieved on the Upper Guinea Coast by the 1860s would be transformed into a colonial hegemony in the decades following. French imperialists owe a special debt to arachis hypogaea [sic] -- and to African enterprise.

And now ...

All credit, then, to the Africans who selected and grew peanuts in West Africa and the American South, and to the people who are resurrecting African peanuts now. All credit to the peanut too, on which empires were built and bits of empire destroyed.

  1. That it might not actually be the ur-peanut of the American South, only a churl would care about. 

  2. There may have been an earlier sighting, in 1608, but that cannot be confirmed. 

  3. I've been unable to discover what happened to the shells. Quite possibly they were burnt as fuel. 

  4. Stanley B. Alpern, who did so much to establish that the movement of crops to Africa as a result of the Columbian exchange and before went way beyond cassava and maize, wryly notes "a general disinclination of historians to dig deeply into botany". I can only agree. 

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