Peanuts, the crop that changed history

Author from Springfield takes readers with her to Senegal and the history of slavery

Slaves for Peanuts – A Story of Conquest, Liberation, and a Crop that Changed History, The New Press, 2022. 381 pages, $21.99.

Jori Lewis grew up in Springfield, graduated from Springfield High School in 1996, and is now the author of Slaves for Peanuts – A Story of Conquest, Liberation, and a Crop that Changed History, an historical narrative that explains the development of the peanut industry in Senegal and its impact on slavery.

Lewis went to Senegal in 2011 for a writers' fellowship. She had been writing about agriculture and the environment for such publications as Discover Magazine. The fellowship focused on studying food security. She quickly realized that peanuts were not only the main agricultural product of the area, but also had been the base of colonization of Senegal, the reason for the country's relationship with France and America, and an impetus for the rise of slavery.

Lewis immerses the reader into a world many may not know – the western region of Africa in the Gambia area, Sainte Louis, Sierra Leone, the Senegal River, the island of Goree and ports along the Atlantic coast where slave ships sailed in or out. Lewis covers the history of the area, its people, the slave trade and much more, spanning the time from the early 1840s through the early 1900s. We meet people from various tribes, influential leaders, French traders and many more.

There are beautifully written passages, like this on the ocean: "the relentless sun, the horizon dominated by the blue ocean, whose waves crashed on the golden shores and sparkled like shattered glass." Or a village – "whitewashed walls of houses topped with burnt orange roof tiles," and the people – "traders in majestic, flowing boubous in...brightest white and deepest indigo;...women...with twisted scarves in intricate designs around their heads...the sounds of the tam-tam."

Throughout the book, Lewis takes us from the sparkling sea and water marshes to the dry, caked earth and sand dunes, past camel caravans and peanut fields.

Lewis traces the history, beginning with the influence of France, which controlled Senegal. In 1834, Matthew Forster, a London trader with holdings in Gambia, sent a sample of peanut oil to Robert Martin, an abolitionist and author of The History of British Columbia, saying instead of Africa "producing human flesh for sale...another precious commodity, vegetable oils" should be produced.

In fact, oil was in need especially during the Industrial Revolution. People were bathing more often. This was a change from Elizabethan times when people wanted crusty skin to close pores from bad vapors. Bathing was almost nonexistent, as it was believed the practice would open one's pores to infection.

Oil was needed to make soap. And, in France, closely tied to Senegal, a new type of oil – one that wouldn't turn soap yellow but keep it white, was in demand. Peanut oil became the object of commerce for the French merchants who supplied France with the needed oil. Lewis explains that even though France abolished a slave trade as early as 1848, this didn't mean slavery ended. With the need for more oil, the demand for labor expanded, and thus led to more people in the area being forced into slavery. Africans owned Africans.

America, too, after the Civil War, became more reliant on peanuts. Although a "peanut eater" was often used as a slur especially against African Americans, that reputation changed with the advent of an increased interest in entertainment. Both baseball games and circuses were the perfect venues to sell peanuts. Although the southern states grew peanuts, most were used for their own consumption. Gambia in Africa became the sole exporter of peanuts. Again, the increase in the need for peanuts and peanut oil added to the need for more labor.

Lewis traces the history and development of the African area, peanut production in many parts of the world, changes and practices of the slave trade, the frequent, devastating outbreaks of yellow fever, and the hardscrabble life of so many working the peanut fields and trying to survive harsh weather and difficult situations.

Much of the narrative focuses on the life of Walter Taylor, an African-born, French-trained minister, who became a popular and influential missionary in Senegal. He harbored runaway slaves and converted many native people to Christianity. We also meet Lat Joor Joob, the damal (leader) of Kajoor who owned slaves and fought unsuccessfully against the French when a railroad was planned through his kingdom.

Lewis, who lives most of the time in Senegal, recently visited Springfield and spoke about her book, an almost eight-year journey of research and writing. She accessed archives in France, Senegal and Boston; she learned Portuguese and some Wolof to be able to understand sources. Having taken French in high school and college helped her read some of the French documents. She has written an interesting book that presents a new view of slavery – all due to the little snack enjoyed by many.

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