Jonathan Robins – Historian

Jonathan Robins

Historian of commodities, food, and global environmental history

Conference:”Raw and Refined: Commodities, Processing, and Global Perspectives”

‘The Raw and the Refined: Commodities, Processing, and Power in Global Perspective’ – Keynote Lecture Date2 September 2021, 4.30pm – 5.30pm Keynote Lecture for the 2021 Commodities of Empire Workshop ‘The Raw and the Refined: Commodities, Processing, and Power in Global Perspective’ Visit this link to register for the public keynote presented by Dr. Erika Rappaport titled “Tate and State,” on the history of sugar and decolonization.

Hot industries in cold places

Oil palm is arguably the most important tropical tree crop. A few decades ago, the title would have gone to rubber, a tree that is well-commemorated in Britain’s Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. A decent specimen grows in the Palm House, though the tree is not a palm at all. (For a history of the Palm House, see Kate Teltscher’s Palace of Palms) The oil palm is harder to appreciate at this site, where cold weather means it has to grow indoors.Continue reading “Hot industries in cold places”

Palm oil and soap marketing

This image didn’t make the cut for Oil Palm: a Global History, but it’s remarkable for three reasons. First, it actually (or at least attempts to) depicts a West African person. Most Palmolive advertising pointed to a fictive Egyptian origin for palm oil, erasing West Africans from the commodity chain (see ad at bottom of this post for an example). Second, it (attempts to) show an oil palm—but probably not the right species. Most soap ads featured familiar coconut palms, and coconutContinue reading “Palm oil and soap marketing”

Incredible hulks

The second in a series of palm oil photos that didn’t make the cut for Oil Palm: a Global History. This is the clearest photo of a hulk I’ve been able to locate. Unfortunately it’s still pretty boring. But these “hulks” played a vital role in turning southeastern Nigeria into the world’s biggest exporter of palm oil in the second half of the nineteenth century. Until the 1850s, most foreign traders bought palm oil while “coasting,” or in land-based “factories.” “Coasting” shipsContinue reading “Incredible hulks”


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