The introduction of the Groundnut to The Gambia
Cultivation on a larger scale began before 1830 in Senegambia, mostly as insurance against failure of the millet harvest, because of it's resistance to drought. The first small exports from Senegambia to Europe were reported from the year 1830. There fallowed a boom in exports when the potentials for peanut oil was realized. I industrializing Europe there now was an ever-growing demand for lubricating oils. Further, oils were needed in the production of soap, as there at the same time was massive campaigning for new standards of hygiene. And of course, vegetable oils were needed for cooking.
There was, however, an immediate response amongst the African growers and traders. Relying on existing infrastructure, local traders (Wolof and others), soon were to build up of a system of middle men and an advanced transport system. Production and trade thus expanded rapidly.
Americans, using the peanut for direct human consumption, were the main importers in the first decade of oversea trade. The Americans, however, had a domestic groundnut production, which they were eager to protect. After 1842, therefore, responding to a protective US import tax on peanuts, US imports dropped markedly until the civil war cut off producers in the south. Large scale shipments to France began in the 1840s. Also this was at first halted by a protective tax (to protect the olive oil industry), but the tax was abolished in 1840.
French tax policy became trend setting for the peanut export of the whole region. Taxes were heavily reduced (1840) on unpeeled nuts imported on French vessels. This prevented the establishment of an oil processing industry in Africa and made the French the main trading partner in the region (thereby "preparing" their political dominance, as France already had serious interests in the region). New French import taxes on other oil-plants (flax, sesame and poppy seeds) further boosted the import of peanuts from the Guinea region.
While the French adopted peanut oil for increasing industrial processes (and for cooking purposes), the British adopted palm oil as the most important industrial oil. As these agricultural products grow respectively in the dry savanna and the moist savanna/rain forest regions, French and British possessions and settlements in these different regions turned in to more hardened patterns.
From The Gambia, peanut export production spread rapidly to the coastal and riverine areas of Senegal, Guinea Bissau, Guinea and northern Sierra Leone. Most important for this rapid spread were the African and Eurafrican traders (especially those with French connections), introducing peanuts and promoting trade. The spread to southern Sierra Leone and Liberia went slower as the climatic conditions were less favorable. Here, further, production of palm oil was of greater importance.
Thus, the French managed to outmaneuver the British on the coast because of their Senegalese pioneer traders, tax policy, support and intervention by the French navy. The commercial hegemony established in the 1860s could be turned into a political hegemony. In that way, the introduction of the groundnut and its overseas trade contributed decisively to how the European were to partition Western Africa.
In The Gambia, the groundnut continued to play a lead role in its economic history up till today. This not so much for its nutritional value, but for its export value. This also is the case in most Sahel countries, from Senegambia in the west to Chad in the east.
Brooks (1975), Peanuts and Colonialism: Consequences of the commercialisation of peanuts in West Africa, 1830-1870, in "Journal of African History, vol. 16, no. 1, pp. 29-54.
Carney (1986), The social history of Gambian rice production: an analysis of food security strategies, PhD thesis, Michigan State University, Ann Arbour.
Fyhri (1998), The Gambia: The complexity of modernising the agricultural Sector in Africa, thesis in geography, University of Oslo. Available in our library!
Weil (1984), Slavery, groundnuts, and European capitalism in the Wuli kingdom of Senegambia, 1820-1930, in "Research in Economic Anthropology," vol. 6, pp. 77-119.