Oil Palm: a Global History

Errata: early printings of the book shipped with an error on page 262. The text should read “240 million tons of vegetable oil by 2050,” rather than “240 million tons of palm oil.” This error was corrected June 2021 in ebooks and will be corrected in later printings. Graph 9.1 (page 200) should be disregarded; click here to see a corrected version.

Winner of the 2022 American Historical Association’s Jerry Bentley Prize for the best book in world history and the 2022 Henry A. Wallace Award for the best book on any aspect of agricultural history outside the United States.

Oil palms are ubiquitous—grown in nearly every tropical country, they supply the world with more edible fat than any other plant and play a role in scores of packaged products, from lipstick and soap to margarine and cookies. And as Jonathan E. Robins shows, sweeping social transformations carried the plant around the planet.

First brought to the global stage in the holds of slave ships, palm oil became a quintessential commodity in the Industrial Revolution. Imperialists hungry for cheap fat subjugated Africa’s oil palm landscapes and the people who worked them. In the twentieth century, the World Bank promulgated oil palm agriculture as a panacea to rural development in Southeast Asia and across the tropics. As plantation companies tore into rainforests, evicting farmers in the name of progress, the oil palm continued its rise to dominance, sparking new controversies over trade, land and labor rights, human health, and the environment.

By telling the story of the oil palm across multiple centuries and continents, Robins demonstrates how the fruits of an African palm tree became a key commodity in the story of global capitalism, beginning in the eras of slavery and imperialism, persisting through decolonization, and stretching to the present day.

Available now from University of North Carolina Press


2022: Case Watkins, Agricultural History 96 (3): 453-455. https://doi.org/10.1215/00021482-9825340.

“Few crop plants get as much ink as the African oil palm. As the “most widely consumed fat on the planet,” its palm oil is probably also the most contentious (1). Despite its ubiquity in both our markets and our debates, Oil Palm by Jonathan E. Robins shows us just how much our discussions were missing. With insight and nuance, the book provides a sweeping global, environmental, economic, and political history of Elaeis guineensis Jacq.—from its ancient emergence in West Africa to its vast and destructive agro-industrial plantations across the twenty-first-century tropics. The tome immediately stands as the standard historical reference on the African oil palm, and yet it does so much more.”

2022: Bee Wilson, “The Irreplacable,” London Review of Books, 44 (12), June 2022.

“Robins, whose research is so exciting that for a few weeks after reading his book I could hardly talk about anything else, documents the ‘remarkable reversal’ by which a crop native to Africa became one mainly produced in South-East Asia, so that Africa now ‘imports ten times more palm oil than it exports’.”

2022: Julie Weiskopf, H-Africa, June 2022.

Oil Palm defies easy summary or categorization, touching as it does on so many different locales and topics. Its wide-ranging nature is certainly an asset when considering the book for use in the undergraduate classroom. It could easily be adopted for classes focused on African environmental history, African colonial history, commodity history, consumption history, the global Industrial Revolution, imperialism, or development. Just as important, the chapters are a digestible length (the average is twenty-three pages) and—especially in the first two parts—written in a lively manner.

The book delivers what it promises: a world history of how humans have lived and used oil palms. It is a story not only dependent on political, economic, and scientific power but also on the whims of consumers and priorities of laborers. In the end, it is a global story well worth telling.”

2021: Mae’s Food Blog: The Oil Palm and History, 27 November 2021.

 (The first review I saw in the wild, from a Michigan food blogger. Thanks for the close reading and thoughtful review!) “Jonathan E. Robins has written a very readable book, which looks at the oil palm from a remarkably varied number of viewpoints — history, nutrition, globalization, politics, labor issues, and many more. Above all, he shows the importance of this often-overlooked commodity on modern life. What an interesting book is Oil Palm!

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