Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Jonathan E. Robins's "Oil Palm: A Global History"

Jonathan E. Robins is associate professor of history at Michigan Technological University.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Oil Palm: A Global History, and reported the following:
Dropping in at page 99 of Oil Palm puts the reader in the thick of the oil palm’s encounter with European colonialism—or rather, encounters between colonizers and the people living with oil palms in the tree’s native range in western Africa. French colonizers had big plans for the oil palm, the plant that produces palm oil, but they ran into many obstacles, not least from colonized people themselves. The failure of colonial experiments in Africa ultimately led to the development of oil palm plantations in Southeast Asia, where today’s oil palm industry is concentrated.

There’s a lot of history in earlier chapters that explains how we get to the events on page 99 [inset, left], and a lot of changes in the chapters that follow. But the page does touch on two key themes of the book. First is the notion that oil palms were wild, forest trees, most of which went wasted by Africans. The first half of the book, where page 99 falls, attacks this idea and the misguided, racist policies that grew out of it.

The second theme is power. On page 99 we see anecdotes about communities defending their rights to palm trees in the face of colonial land-grabs. The page closes with the failure of a machine that was supposed to replace human labor. As later chapters show, the success of oil palm as a crop and the distribution of the wealth it produced always hinged on power: who could control land, and how much influence individuals had over their own labor power.
Learn more about Oil Palm: A Global History at the University of North Carolina Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue