Jonathan Robins – Historian

Jonathan Robins

Historian of commodities, food, and global environmental history

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”

Oil Palm: a Global History coming June 2021

My new book on the global history of the oil palm industry has a cover and a release date! Look for it in June 2021, from the University of North Carolina Press. Preorder now to take advantage of a 40% discount off the list price! Tracing the history of the oil palm tree out of its homeland in Africa, the book explores the origins of world trade in palm oil, the role of palm oil in industrialization, and the development of aContinue reading “Oil Palm: a Global History coming June 2021”


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