The 19th Century Boom: Palm Oil’s Emergence

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Harvesting palm oil fresh fruit bunches. Photo by: Sawit Fest 2021 / Arie-Basuki

PALMOILMAGAZINE, JAKARTA – Palm oil gained prominence in Europe during the 15th century, but large-scale imports by slave traders in Liverpool and Bristol didn’t commence until the 19th century. These traders, accustomed to the application of palm oil in West Africa, regularly purchased it as food for the slaves they transported to America.

Notably, Pauline observed that palm oil found its way to Martinique through the slave trade, as recorded by French botanist Nikolaus Joseph von Jacquin in his work “Selectarum Stirpium Americanarum Historia” (1763), where it was referred to as Elais Guineensis Jacq.

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With the abolition of slavery in America in 1907, British traders in West Africa redirected their focus to Europe, particularly in the trade of natural resources, with palm oil emerging as a coveted commodity. At the time, animal fat served as the primary source of fat and oil in Northern Europe, but obtaining routine supplies proved challenging. Hence, palm oil became a highly sought-after commodity, earning its reputation as the “lubricant of the industrial revolution” in the early 19th century.

Also Read: Palm Oil: A Tropical Treasure with Global Impact and Unique Qualities

Palm oil found various industrial applications, serving as a lubricant in tinplate industries and as semi-solid fat for candle and soap production. The chemical breakthroughs, notably pioneered by Michel Eugène Chevreul in 1823, facilitated large-scale soap production across industries. Additionally, the discovery of a new technique to bleach red palm oil in 1836 further enhanced its appeal as a material for soap production.

Many used palm oil – escalated from 157 metric tons (MT) per year by the late of 1790s to be 32.480 MT by the early of 1850s – it was taken to England by small scale – trades in West Africa, such as, John Johnson Hamilton which after that he is known as “palm oil ruffians”.

The trade was not for the weak. Once a year, the traders – mostly as young worker had to get cold – spent their days for about six weeks to travel by small boat to one of many trade stations in the coast of West Africa. There were dozens of trade stations around Oil Rivers in Delta Niger – where it was palm oil trade center in West Africa.

West African small scale – traders brought tons of palm oil to England. It had long and dangerous journey. It was the young workers. They had to live and fully trade in many former big ships to avoid diseases, such as, malaria and yellow fever. They had to wait in their ships until palm oil buyers come from the production regions in many remote areas.

It was different from big scale – concession industries in Southeast Asia. Most of palm oil in West Africa was produced from the wild and semi-wild forests. In some regions, such as, Oil Rivers in Nigeria, many wild palm oil trees were harvested. Some plantings were taken as the response to the demands from Europe but there was not big transformation about area cultivation or ecology.

Palm oil trade history also delivered deeper understanding about how palm oil has become the essential commodity in industrial and trade history globally. (*)

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