ASEH 2018 twitter presentation on oil palm in Asia

The graduate student caucus of the American Society for Environmental History (ASEH) organized a pre-conference on twitter to highlight academic contributions at the conference, and to provide an opportunity for those unable to travel to Riverside, CA to participate by sharing their own work and commenting on presentations. I was fortunate to be able to travel this year, but enjoyed the opportunity to develop an abbreviated Twitter version of my talk, which focused on the origins of the plantation oil palm industry in Southeast Asia in the first half of the twentieth century.

You can see my presentation here. Be sure to check out other online and in-person presentations under the #ASEH2018 and  hash tags.

The tweet format raises challenges for historians accustomed to delivering a 15-minute talk (roughly a 2000 word paper). I don’t claim to have mastered the format (see Alan MacEachern’s excellent presentation!) but it was a great tool for focusing a presentation on a set of key concepts.

“Not a blade of grass left standing”

“Not a blade of grass left standing.” This wasn’t a  description of an environmental calamity, but rather the sales pitch for Gramevin, the trade name for a herbicide sold by Shell Chemicals. Commercial plantations in Southeast Asia were the target audience, and the grass in  question–lalang (Imperata cylindrica)–was a constant enemy of planters. The grass was entirely the result of planters’ strategy of totally removing  natural forest cover to establish plantations. Without tree cover, the grass spreads aggressively and forms thick root mats that make cultivation difficult.

Gramevin is 2,2-Dichloropropionic acid. Moderately toxic to humans, but not a major concern for birds or aquatic life. (

Lalang Oil was developed and marketed by Shell, but I haven’t found out what it was made of yet.


For your salad and your skin?


It’s difficult to imagine a vegetable oil bottle offering a recipe for homemade cosmetics today. The line between “food” and “cosmetics” is well-defined in contemporary consumer culture, even if many of the ingredients are the same. Early cottonseed oil marketers didn’t want to leave any potential market untapped: this advertisement, circa 1895, encourages homemakers to pour oil on salads, and also mix it with sperm whale oil, and petroleum wax (“white wax”) to make a moisturizing cream. This sort of do-it-yourself advertising was abandoned by the early 1900s, as marketers separated branded food products from branded soaps and cosmetics, even if both were made in the same factory, with the same ingredients.

EDIT: As I considered this post, I realized that there really is a lively history of off-label use in American consumer culture. Think Coke as a rust-remover, or tennis balls in a clothes dryer. When was the last time you used duct tape on an actual duct? The thing that is unusual is corporate advertising that actually encourages alternative uses.

“A monstrous anachronism”?

Peter T. Bauer’s The Rubber Industry: a Study in Competition and Monopoly (1948) (review: is regarded by many historians of colonial economic history as a brilliant application of neoclassical theory to the realities of agricultural development in the tropics. Bauer demonstrated that smallholders in Malaysia were more efficient in producing rubber (Hevea brasiliensis) than large plantations, and that policies designed to support plantation agriculture were not only inefficient, but actively harmful to rural populations engaged in smallholder commodity production.

Bauer’s contemporaries were not as enthusiastic. This morning I was reviewing notes from a 2016 visit to the UK National Archives, and came across P. Selwyn’s report on Bauer’s work for the British Colonial Office in West Africa in the late 1940s ( Bauer advocated a return to free trade for Britain’s colonial empire, decrying colonial and nationalist ideas for planned development. Selwyn thought Bauer was “a monstrous anachronism,” blind to the particularities of colonial capitalism.

Selwyn noted that in many countries, “the automatic working of Mr Bauer’s and Adam Smith’s ‘hidden hand’ have not prevented the emergence of extremes of wealth and poverty – and a poverty which becomes more rather than less acute.” Bauer’s report on West African trade was effectively a piece of neoclassical propaganda: “when he is faced with allegations of exploitation of peasant producers by traders he finds many reasons for doubting whether these can be true, but when … he is faced with allegations of corruption and tyranny by petty Government officials, he is far more ready to believe them.”

Selwyn also had harsh words for Dudley Seers (a founding father of development economics) and C.R. Ross, who had just completed a report on Ghana’s development plan. Seers is remembered today as an early opponent of crude neoclassicism in development economics, but Selwyn was no fan. He argued that the Seers and Ross report “can do positive harm, since it can encourage Governments to put a strait-jacket on the expansion of the economy under the misguided impression that they are protecting it from inflation.”

In effect, Selwyn anticipated the nationalist development discourse of the independence era in Africa, which decried neoclassical gradualism as a plot to keep Africa poor.



IJAHS review of Cotton and Race

Writing in the new issue of the International Journal of African Historical Studies, Alex Borucki says Cotton and Race across the Atlantic is “commodity studies at its best,” with “solid foundations built by different theoretical approaches on how to examine a different set of sources in different contexts of production and exchange in Europe, Africa, and North America. And the book is a pleasure to read for non-economic historians, like myself,interested in the large legacy of slave trading and slavery in the Atlantic World.”

IJAHS  Vol. 50, No. 2 (2017) Book Reviews

JBS review of Robins, Cotton and Race

In a new review forthcoming in the Journal of British Studies, Steven Toms says Cotton and Race across the Atlantic is “an absorbing interplay of economics and politics straddling three continents at the height of the age of imperialism,” and “a valuable contribution to the history of cotton, not just of the commodity, but also of the social relations surrounding its cultivation and production.”


Vegetable oil: more important than steel?

This experiment in research blogging has slowed down quite a bit, in part because I haven’t been able to do much new research. Getting back into a  research routine after a summer spent on other projects is taking time.

Today’s accidental find is the USDA’s Inventory of Seeds and Plants Imported, a register of specimens sent to the USDA by scientists, farmers, officials, and travelers all over the world. The Inventory records a surprising number of oil palm seeds (African and American). The image above comes from a 1916 issue, and tries to explain why the USDA is interested in various oil-bearing tree crops that had no commercial future in the US. (Oil palms can grow in Florida, but even in 1916 the economics were clearly not favorable.)

I haven’t identified the chemist quoted, but it’s a great example of the optimism scientists felt about vegetable fats as food, fuel, plastics, and a host of other materials in the early 20th century.