History Palm Oil in African and Europe

Elaeis guineensis (Palm Oil) was classified by Nicolaas Jacquin in 1763. While it can now be found in many parts of the world besides West Africa, most notably South-East Asia and South America, it is clearly of African origin.

Palm oil is an important source of vitamins, particularly vitamin A, in the West African diet. Its culinary use in West Africa is long established; archaeological evidence suggests that West Africans used palm oil in their cooking some 5,000 to 6,000 years ago. It also used for lighting and as a bodily ointment, while the palm tree itself provides material for building, particularly roof thatching, and for brushes, as well as being the source of palm wine.

It entered the global economy in the 1500s aboard ships engaged in the transatlantic slave trade. During the deadly “middle passage” across the Atlantic, palm oil was a valued food that kept captives alive. Traders also smeared captives’ skin with palm oil to make them “look smooth, sleek, and young” before sending them to the auction block.

By the mid-1600s, Europeans were rubbing palm oil on their own skin, too. European writers, learning from African medicinal practices, claimed that palm oil “does the greatest cures upon such, as have bruises or strains on their bodies.” By the 1790s, British entrepreneurs were adding palm oil to soap for its reddish-orange color and violet-like scent.

After Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807, traders sought out legal products. In the following decades Britain slashed tariffs on palm oil and encouraged African states to focus on producing it. By 1840, palm oil was cheap enough to completely replace tallow or whale oil in such products as soap and candles.

As palm oil became increasingly common, it lost its reputation as a luxurious good. Exporters made it even cheaper with labor-saving methods that allowed palm fruit to ferment and soften, although the results were rancid. European buyers, in turn, applied new chemical processes to strip away foul odors and colors. The result was a bland substance that could be freely substituted for more expensive fats and oils.

By 1900, a new industry was gobbling up all kinds of oils: Margarine was invented in 1869 as a cheap alternative to butter. It soon became a mainstay of working-class diets in Europe and North America.

Palm oil was first used to dye margarine yellow, but it turned out to be a perfect main ingredient because it stayed firm at room temperature and melted in the mouth, just like butter.

Margarine and soap magnates such as Britain’s William Lever looked to Europe’s colonies in Africa for larger quantities of fresher, edible palm oil. However, African communities often refused to provide land for foreign companies because making oil by hand was still profitable for them. Colonial oil producers resorted to government coercion and outright violence to find labor. They had more success in Southeast Asia, where they created a new oil palm plantation industry. Colonial rulers there gave plantation companies nearly unlimited access to land. The companies hired migrant workers from southern India, Indonesia and China.

The oil palm itself also adapted to its new locale. While scattered palms grew to towering heights on African farms, in Asia they remained short in tight, orderly plantations that were easier to harvest efficiently. By 1940, plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia were exporting more palm oil than all of Africa.