Slaves for Peanuts

A Story of Conquest, Liberation, and a Crop That Changed History

A stunning work of popular history—the story of how a crop transformed the history of slavery

“Lewis’s work fuses powerful storytelling and authoritative historical research, and she is adept at framing local events against a global backdrop.” —the Whiting Award Committee on Slaves for Peanuts

Americans consume over 1.5 billion pounds of peanut products every year. But few of us know the peanut’s tumultuous history, or its intimate connection to slavery and freedom.

Lyrical and powerful, Slaves for Peanuts deftly weaves together the natural and human history of a crop that transformed the lives of millions. Author Jori Lewis reveals how demand for peanut oil in Europe ensured that slavery in Africa would persist well into the twentieth century, long after the European powers had officially banned it in the territories they controlled.

Delving deep into West African and European archives, Lewis recreates a world on the coast of Africa that is breathtakingly real and unlike anything modern readers have experienced. Slaves for Peanuts is told through the eyes of a set of richly detailed characters—from an African-born French missionary harboring runaway slaves, to the leader of a Wolof state navigating the politics of French imperialism—who challenge our most basic assumptions of the motives and people who supported human bondage.

At a time when Americans are grappling with the enduring consequences of slavery, here is a new and revealing chapter in its global history.

Praise

“Within these pages, you’ll encounter plagues and palace intrigues, adventures and misadventures, kingmakers and kingbreakers, fortunes won and lost—all wrapped around the mighty peanut! In well-researched, engaging prose, Jori Lewis unravels the intimate connections between this major export crop, enslavement, and abolition on Senegambian soil. The wars fought over it, and the history that surrounds it. This work is an important contribution to African historiography.”
—Sandra Jackson-Opoku, author of The River Where Blood Is Born and co-editor of Revise the Psalm
Slaves for Peanuts is a revelation. With elegant prose and engaging details, Lewis uncovers a vital history that promises to transform our understanding of slavery and colonialism. Though focused on a single crop, this terrain is vast and deep. I highly recommend this outstanding work. ”
—Imani Perry, Hughes-Rogers Professor of African American Studies, Princeton University, and author of Breathe
Slaves for Peanuts is an extraordinary and often tender work of meticulous research that spans time and continents, an insightful and captivating narrative of how slavery in Africa supported industrialization in the West, and how enslaved people took back their freedom. I am in awe of the authoritative care with which Jori Lewis lays out the entangled relationships between white supremacy, capitalism, food, and the indefatigable human agency. A must-read that illustrated the long-standing history of the many ways in which the African continent has been for centuries paying the price for the comforts of the Global North.”
—Anna Badkhen, author of Fisherman’s Blues
“Astute and distressing. . . . This informative and compassionate account unearths a little-known chapter in the history of slavery and European imperialism.”
Publishers Weekly
“[Slaves for Peanuts] unearths the stories of African kingdoms and colonial settlements, showing how demand for peanut oil in Europe drove the expansion of the peanut trade in Senegal in the 19th century and ensured that slavery and indentured labor in West Africa would continue long after the Europeans had abolished it.”
Civil Eats
“The geopolitical game Lewis describes in Slaves for Peanuts is an old one, and one essential to the formation of the modern world.”
Africa Is a Country
“In this whirlwind tour with the yellow-blossomed peanut across the Atlantic world, journalist Jori Lewis skillfully unveils the intertwined and troubling trajectory of plants, people, slavery, and colonialism. Slaves for Peanuts is a broad, complex, and unexpected environmental history vibrantly told.”
—Tiya Miles, professor of history, Harvard University, and author of All That She Carried
“Jori Lewis’s superbly readable book does more than bring life to something we all too often ignore: the history of slavery in Africa. She has also found a sort of African version of the Underground Railroad. And all of this is connected to an everyday food whose history we seldom think of.”
—Adam Hochschild, journalist, historian, lecturer, and bestselling author of King Leopold’s Ghost
“Jori Lewis has achieved the nearly impossible task of educating us about peanuts, a vegetable juggernaut that has changed the world, while recounting stories of slavery and freedom, all presented with extraordinary nuance and humanity. Slaves for Peanuts is a triumph of deep research and engaging writing.”
—Andrés Reséndez, professor, department of history, University of California, Davis, and author of The Other Slavery
“In this magnificently researched, beautifully told narrative history, Jori Lewis brings the roiling story of slavery and liberation in West Africa to life. By combing through stacks of archived documents on three continents, she masterfully weaves a rich tale of African kingdoms and European ‘civilizers’; of unbathed Englishmen and mystical priestesses; of camel caravans and railroad bandits; of imperial decrees, epic poems, and forests in the mist. At the center of it all stands the towering figure of an African protestant pastor and liberator; and, not far away, the fertile soils that would send the humble, mighty peanut to distant shores, and into history.”
—Sandy Tolan, professor of journalism, USC Annenberg, and bestselling author of The Lemon Tree
Slaves for Peanuts plumbs a fascinating and disturbing slice of history, shining a light on another glaring example of Western hypocrisy and oppression.”
NPR Books
Slaves for Peanuts is a valuable addition to agricultural and West African history.”
Nature

News and Reviews

Guernica

Read an outtake from Jori Lewis’s Slaves for Peanuts published in Guernica.

Civil Eats

Read an interview with Jori Lewis about Slaves for Peanuts in Civil Eats.

Publishers Weekly

Read a review of Slaves for Peanuts in Publishers Weekly.

Goodreads Reviews