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, 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 and across the tropics. 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 labour 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 an associate professor of history at Michigan Technological University.
"Robins eloquently weaves together a wide range of themes – economic history, colonial history, agricultural history, environmental history, gender history, the history of science and technology, and others beside – and demonstrates how the global circulation and cultivation of the oil palm plant has transformed lives and livelihoods for countless people living across the globe."
– Stuart McCook, author of Coffee is Not Forever: A Global History of the Coffee Leaf Rust
"Robins' book is a superb historical exposé of how a particular tree species from West Africa and the oil derived from its fruits have become such an astoundingly pervasive feature of the modern world. This is the kind of global history we need more of, one that highlights the connections not only between different parts of the world but also between people, plants, and the wider ecosystems of which they are a part."
– Corey Ross, University of Birmingham
"This book is a big, ambitious history of palm oil, truly global, which speaks to current environmental and social issues and is written in a crisp, engaging style."
– Michitake Aso, author of Rubber and the Making of Vietnam: An Ecological History, 1897–1975