Oil palms are ubiquitous—grown in nearly every tropical country, they supply the world with more edible fat than any other plant and play a role in scores of packaged products, from lipstick and soap to margarine and cookies. And as Jonathan E. Robins shows in Oil Palm: A Global History (UNC Press, 2021), sweeping social transformations carried the plant around the planet. First brought to the global stage in the holds of slave ships, palm oil became a quintessential commodity in the Industrial Revolution. Imperialists hungry for cheap fat subjugated Africa's oil palm landscapes and the people who worked them. In the twentieth century, the World Bank promulgated oil palm agriculture as a panacea to rural development in Southeast Asia. As plantation companies tore into rainforests, evicting farmers in the name of progress, the oil palm continued its rise to dominance, sparking new controversies over trade, land and labor rights, human health, and the environment. By telling the story of the oil palm across multiple centuries and continents, Robins demonstrates how the fruits of an African palm tree became a key commodity in the story of global capitalism, beginning in the eras of slavery and imperialism, persisting through decolonization, and stretching to the present day.
Jonathan E. Robins is Associate Professor of Global History at Michigan Technology University. He earned his PhD in history at the University of Rochester in 2010 and taught at Morgan State University before joining the faculty at Michigan Tech in 2012. He studies the histories of commodities and how they've reshaped societies, industries, and our planet. His first book, Cotton and Race Across the Atlantic, was published by the University of Rochester Press in 2016.
Kathryn B. Carpenter is a doctoral student in the history of science at Princeton University. She is currently researching the history of tornado science and storm chasing in the twentieth-century United States. You can reach her on twitter, @katebcarp.