Palm Oil’s Industrial Past Illuminates its Ubiquity Today

The following is a guest blog post by Jonathan E. Robins, author of Oil Palm: A Global History. 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.

For over a decade, we’ve seen panicked headlines about palm oil: it’s in thousands of everyday products, and the industry that makes it is destroying tropical forests. But the extensive use of palm oil in industry isn’t a recent phenomenon. As Oil Palm: a Global History shows, this oily stuff has very useful properties—but the story of why it’s so pervasive today lies in a history of colonialism, economic policy, and cultural choices.

Palm oil has been a staple food for thousands of years in western Africa, where the African oil palm tree originated. The first steps in palm oil’s commodity career began in the 1500s, when European ships began exporting small quantities alongside ivory, spices, and dyewoods. This trade was soon eclipsed by the inhumane traffic in slaves, and palm oil became an important input in the slave trade itself. Palm oil lamps illuminated slaving forts; casks of oil fed captives during the “Middle Passage”; a humiliating burnishing with oil prepared captives for the auction block.

Three samples of unbleached palm oil from different parts of West Africa. Author photo, 2021.

Leftover casks of palm oil soon found a new market in Europe as skin cream—a use taken directly from African medicinal practices. Palm oil’s reddish-orange color and violet scent were both assets to soap makers accustomed to working with pale, foul-smelling tallow.

The Industrial Revolution created huge demands for oils to make soap, candles, lubricants, tinplate, and more. As the price of palm oil fell following Britain’s 1807 abolition of the slave trade and the subsequent growth in “legitimate trade” with Africa, industrialist found that palm oil could directly replace tallow in soap, candles, and other booming industries.

A cake of “Olva” soap, circa 1920. The now-faded color came from unbleached palm oil. Science Museum Group, Y1987.263.44, Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0 license.

In some roles, like tinplating, palm oil worked better than tallow. It could withstand higher temperatures, and smelled much nicer as it floated over vats of molten tin. Blended with tallow, palm oil made excellent axle grease, too—so good it was in use until 1940, long after petroleum lubricants arrived on the market.

Palm oil has another important quality: it melts in our mouths. When churned with milk, it made something that looked and felt a lot like butter. As fraudsters discovered in the 1870s, palm oil could give adulterated butter or the newly-invented (and widely maligned) “oleomargarine” a convincing butter-yellow color. 

Palm oil was useful stuff. But it wasn’t essential in any of these industrial roles: it was a cheap substitute for something else. This is precisely why palm oil is so widely used today.

African agronomic and social systems could produce palm oil relatively cheaply during the nineteenth century. But palm oil got even cheaper when oil palm plantations opened in British and Dutch colonies in Southeast Asia around 1900. By 1940, this region exported palm oil more than all of Africa combined. 

The plantation system improved the natural productivity of the oil palm, and combined it with cheap land and cheap, disciplined labor (both available thanks to colonial regimes). While the politics and economics of these plantations changed a great deal with the end of colonial rule after the Second World War, the basic framework of the colonial plantation survived. It underpins the palm oil industry today.

A worker inspects large palm fruit bunches on a Sumatran plantation. A.A.L. Rutgers, Investigations on Oilpalms(1922), plate 14.

For much of the twentieth century, palm oil lost market share to even cheaper rivals, especially petroleum. A fierce lobbying campaign waged by soybean interests in the 1980s help drive palm oil and other allegedly unhealthy “tropical fats” out of major food industries in the US and Europe.

This 1942 Shell ad promoted a new petroleum substitute for palm oil in tinplating. Author’s collection.

Yet palm oil came roaring back in the 1990s. Why? It was a basic case of supply and demand. Thanks to World Bank-sponsored projects and renewed investment in private-sector plantations, there was a lot of palm oil on the market. The demand side was multifaceted: consumers had already turned against animal fats like whale oil and tallow, and the trans-fat laden hydrogenated oils that had replaced those fats (and palm oil) now came under attack from medical experts. Consumers were also demanding “greener” detergents and lipsticks, wary of petroleum products. 

Manufacturers could blend different fats to get the right properties in food, soap, cosmetics, and other products. But palm oil was there, it did the job, and it was cheap. It stayed cheap as plantation companies covered more and more land with oil palm monoculture. Recent biofuel policies have created a seemingly-endless market for palm oil as biodiesel, fueling even more plantation growth.

Palm oil is not a magical substance. Biodiesel and all the other uses for the stuff hinge on its cheapness—a cheapness that owes much to the devaluation of nature, the appropriation of land, and the exploitation of labor found in plantation systems. Until those conditions change, the plantation system that produces so much of it will continue to grow unchecked.

Jonathan E. Robins is associate professor of history at Michigan Technological University.