Jonathan Robins – Historian

Jonathan Robins

Historian of commodities, food, and global environmental history

Hot industries in cold places

The African Oil Palm (Elaeis guineensis) in Kew’s Palm House doesn’t look very impressive. It’s crammed in a bed with other palms, without much of a trunk visible. Scars from pruned branches are visible in the photo the right, along with the sharp spines that line palm fronds. On the upper walkway in the Palm House, you can see a bit of the oil palm’s crown. It doesn’t stand out from the other palms. I can’t blame the botanists for it–the treeContinue 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”

Making palm oil

This is the first in a series of images that didn’t make it in my new book, Oil Palm: a Global History. This photo was taken in the early twentieth century and printed on a postcard sold in the Gold Coast (today, Ghana). The back of the postcard unfortunately says nothing interesting. The photo shows a group of men, women, and children pounding out oil palm fruit in an earthen pit. Several young oil palms fill the background. This technique was commonContinue reading “Making palm oil”


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