Home Restaurant ‘Slaves for Peanuts’ Tells the Tragic Story Behind America’s Favorite Snack

‘Slaves for Peanuts’ Tells the Tragic Story Behind America’s Favorite Snack

There was slavery everywhere [in the world] and it existed on a continuum. In this particular part of West Africa, there existed many extremely hierarchical societies and they included people who were enslaved. That enslavement had different types of functions, different types of durations, and different levels of integration. And that’s fundamentally one of the biggest differences between African slavery and slavery in America, where integration was much less likely. There are, of course cases, many cases, of people in America buying their freedom, and then maybe eventually buying the freedom of their children. That did happen, but it was less likely. And even though it’s controversial to say, not every place in the United States was a plantation with 500 slaves who were dying every day. There were also family farms with one or two slaves who did have closer relationships with the people who had enslaved them. These types of paradoxes existed in both places.

“Many of the peanut farm laborers were enslaved or in various states of indenture and the Europeans turned a blind eye to this and even returned runaway slaves to their owners, essentially supporting the perpetuation of slavery.”

In West Africa, it was possible and much easier to buy yourself out of slavery and to integrate. Still, because West African societies were hierarchical, being formerly enslaved was a difference that was known about you. It meant you could make money and acquire land, but you couldn’t get married to certain people or do certain other things.

There was a system in place in West Africa for the acquisition of slaves, usually through wars in which they would be taken as hostages and ransomed off, and sometimes kept as laborers. At the beginning of the transatlantic slave trade, the Europeans mobilized those networks. So, the people who normally would be ransomed off instead found themselves on slave ships heading to Brazil, Havana, or Virginia. Of course, once there was demand for enslaved people, the system mobilized itself to enslave more. [Even though the French empire had abolished slavery,] as peanut production ramped up in the 19th century, so did the demand for more labor and a push to put even more land into production. Many of the peanut farm laborers were enslaved or in various states of indenture and the Europeans turned a blind eye to this and even returned runaway slaves to their owners, essentially supporting the perpetuation of slavery.

Why was this pattern of turning a blind eye to the continued use of slave labor so pervasive and so convenient for the Europeans?

The Europeans’ territorial control was limited. And they were afraid of wide-scale rebellion [among African leaders who depended on slave labor]. For example, as the region around Dagana [in northern Senegal] was annexed and came under direct French administration—meaning the French were going to have to impose their own rules—many of the herders and farmers in the region started to migrate to Mali. Slavery was not the only reason they were moving. But in their reports, the French administrators were worried about finally having control of a territory and having all its people leave. They worried about not having enough labor to produce the peanut crop. So, they tried to negotiate this line. At the same time, they also created a rhetoric about their concern about slavery. It was like [spin]. It took me a while to start reading the documents in a way to integrate the kind of hypocrisy that was present.

The French described their railroad project to export peanuts from Kajoor as a mechanism to fight slavery. Was that, partly, their justification for building it?

The explicit reason for that particular project, known as “the peanut train,” was to bring “civilization” to the region. As the track and stations were built, they were annexed and became French land, where the French should have imposed their own laws by freeing runaway slaves who managed to arrive there. But the French were loath to do so. That situation feels like America in Afghanistan. Whenever you have an occupation, you can tell people what to do and maybe when you have enough firepower, they listen to you the moment you’re there. But if you don’t convince them in other ways to collaborate with you through various corrupt means, your occupation doesn’t work.

When the rail line was finally built, it led to more peanut production and even more enslaved people being brought into the area to raise those crops. Eventually, the French occupied the entire region. Was there was any silver lining to the arrival of the railroad?

When I was working on this book, I considered the peanut to be its own character. This is the peanut’s dramatic arc. The peanut is this tool for colonial expansion, but it paradoxically also becomes an instrument for certain people to become free. It was similar in America as well, with kitchen farms for slaves, where they could sell [food] on the side and gain a little money. But because peanuts were grown at such scale and people were selling them for a meaningful amount of money, some were able to buy their own freedom more quickly than before. And because there was this peanut rush, they could move to other places and acquire land to grow peanuts and would have a way to support themselves. The [enslaved people] often hailed from societies where even if they wanted to be free, they wouldn’t have access to land and wouldn’t be able to support themselves. And in Kajoor, as the peanuts continued to grow in demand, more people could use them as a tool for their own freedom. That’s one of the surprising arcs of the peanut’s story.

Peanuts at the station in Senegal. Public domain photo by François-Edmond Fortier (1862-1928).

After the railroad was built through Kajoor, how did the pressure to expand peanut production impact that region?

As production expanded in Kajoor, there was also an expansion of an extractive form of agriculture. There was less crop rotation, fewer fallow periods. Many trees were cut down to clear land and grow more peanuts. It was a burgeoning monoculture. All this reduced the primary productivity of the land over time. It was a short-sighted extraction. In addition, because farmers became indebted, they were getting junk seeds from merchants and that led to peanuts of lesser quality. It was a gradual decline.

Today, the landscape of Kajoor feels bereft of life. Some people there still grow peanuts, but it’s on a much, much smaller scale.  In fact, when you drive through the area, it feels devastated. It doesn’t seem fertile at all. Over the years, there has been even more deforestation, leading to problems with water erosion. When it rains it squalls, hard and fast. And because of deforestation, the erosion caused by these violent rains is significant. Such man-made disasters have changed the topography and economics of Kajoor.

Today, the U.S., China, and India dominate the peanut trade. Do peanuts still fuel the economy and the culture in Senegal?

Senegal is number six in world production and number four in world peanut exports. Granted, it’s producing just 3 percent of world’s production [China is churning out 36 percent], but I still think it’s pretty extraordinary that this country that is slightly smaller than South Dakota is growing such a large amount of peanuts. From talking to people on the ground, I know that the peanut is still grown on a wide scale in many regions in Senegal. It’s traded mostly to China and India, which are top producing countries but don’t have enough peanuts [for the people there].

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