With increased transatlantic trade beginning in the fifteenth century, peanuts moved with merchants from South America to West Africa. Traders along the West African coast spread peanut cultivation further inland as part of growing Atlantic trading circuits. By the early nineteenth century, peanut cultivation in Africa and the Americas remained limited in scope. Soap and candle manufacturers in the United States crushed peanuts to extract oil as a base for their products. At the same time, French companies increasingly turned to peanut oil as an alternative to olive oil. By the turn of the twentieth century, industrial equipment for farming and processing peanuts increased the commercial possibilities. Peanut oil became a base for various products, and peanuts featured increasingly in food production.
In the 1830s, West African producers first exported peanuts from Gambia and to a lesser extent Sierra Leone. American and British companies purchased the peanuts from merchants who developed relationships with peanut traders along the coast. By the second half of the nineteenth century, French merchants established themselves as the primary buyers of West African peanuts. The exports increased significantly in the beginning of the twentieth century with colonial rule and the mechanization of peanut processing. African producers increased their production by cultivating new lands, organizing more laborers, and developing transportation infrastructure to connect peanut farms to French merchants. The French colonial authorities developed the port at Dakar, Senegal and extended the railway into peanut cultivation areas.
The below scatterplot contains a point for every recorded export of peanuts in the African Commodity Trade Database (ACTD):
Frankema, Ewout, Jeffrey Williamson and Pieter Woltjer. “An Economic Rationale for the West African Scramble? The Commercial Transition and the Commodity Price Boom of 1835-1885.” The Journal of Economic History 78, no. 1 (2018): 231-267.
Hovering over one of the points will show the place of export, type of commodity, year, and quantity exported. You can also zoom into and drag the visualization with your mouse.
The scatterplot demonstrates significant export increases after 1900. Senegal and Nigeria feature as the two places with the highest annual export totals. The below sections compare the export trends in both colonies.
By the nineteenth century, French trading companies dominated the coastal trade in Senegal. Although peanuts did not feature as an important export commodity at first, they became significant for French merchants in the second half of the century. The French government began establishing administrative towns and trading depots along the Senegalese coast and into peanut growing areas. In 1895, the French government consolidated control over the colony and remained in control until Senegalese independence in 1960.
The below bar graph shows the annual export of peanuts from 1880 until 1940. Hovering over one of the bars will show the precise quantity of exports along with the year.
The bar graph demonstrates the significant increase in peanut exports beginning in the early twentieth century. Less than 1,000 metric tons circa 1900, peanut exports ballooned to 9,526 metric tons in 1919. In the following decade, exports leveled off at approximately 4,000 metric tons until a subsequent spike in 1936 and 1937 when exports reached almost 8,000 metric tons.
During the colonial period, Nigerian peanut exports totaled about half of Senegalese exports. The ACTD, though, does not show peanut exports before the colonial period. While a portion of southern Nigeria was declared a colony as early as 1886, the northern and southern parts of the colony were not combined by the British administration until 1914. At that time, very few peanuts were exported. Over the ensuing decades, peanut exports increased substantial amounts.
The below bar graph shows the annual export of peanuts from 1912 to 1947. Hovering over one of the bars will show the precise quantity of exports along with the year.
In the 1920s, annual peanut exports rose to a consistent 2,000 metric tons per year. This export amount remained fairly steady through the following two decades with two peaks in the mid 1930s and mid 1940s. In 1937, peanut exports reached 4,058 metric tons and eventually surpassed that amount ten years later when exports exceeded 6,000 metric tons.
The Senegalese and Nigerian peanut exports resemble one another during the colonial period. Although exports from Senegal increased earlier than those from Nigeria, both colonies exported consistent amounts by the 1920s.