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.

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.

The perils of borrowing citations (or: did ancient Egyptians really use palm oil?)

I admit to having read articles and books for the sole purpose of looking at their bibliography.  It’s easy to borrow a few citations from those who have done similar work before, especially if you need to fill out a section of background information. Problems arise when we don’t actually read the sources, however.

Example A: Friedel, C. “Sur des matières grasses trouvées dans des tombes égyptiennes d’Abydos.” Comptes rendus hebdomadaires des séances de l’Académie des sciences 124 (1897): 648–53.

In dozens (probably hundreds, at this point) of articles, poor Charles Friedel is identified as “MC Friedel.” The “M” that appears before “C. Friedel” in the article stands for monsieur. The citation for MC Friedel appears in the Cambridge World History of Food entry for “Palm Oil,” and I suspect that it where most of the copycats have taken it from.
Getting the name wrong is not, in and of itself, a serious problem. The bigger issue is that scholars have been mindlessly repeating a “fact” associated with this citation without bothering to read the original article. In 1897, Friedel conducted a chemical analysis of two jars containing organic matter that were excavated from a tomb in Abydos, Egypt. Friedel’s chemical analysis led him to conclude that one jar contained palm oil, and that the other contained beef or mutton tallow. The fats were badly degraded, and he inferred their original composition based on the proportion of residual fatty acids.
Is it possible that ancient Egyptians used palm oil imported from central or western Africa as a cosmetic (the likely use of the jars)? Certainly! All sorts of exotic luxuries from around the Old World turn up in Egyptian tombs. Were Egyptians regularly importing palm oil from tropical Africa, as many authors who cite this article infer? Maybe.
As Dr R. Montgomerie notes in his 2012 thesis, there is a great deal of debate over whether the substance found in Abydos was actually palm oil. Many fats contain palmitic acid, which was the indicator Friedel used to make his determination. Palm oil may have been used in lamps for illumination, and Herodotus and Diodorus are reputed to have identified it as an oil used in mummification (though I think the text is ambiguous… Greek scholars are welcome to weigh in here).
If palm oil were only used in cosmetics and mummification, we could treat it as a luxury good, likely traded on a small scale over great distance. If it were burned in lamps, however, we would expect a much larger volume of trade. That possibility raises major questions: Where were the oil palm trees? Who produced the oil? What were did they trade it for in Egypt?
Recent testing using state-of-the-art tools by Dr Stephen Buckley at York University identified date palm oil in a cosmetic jar from the Abydos excavations. Date palms grow in Egypt; oil palms do not. The composition of the two fats is very different (date palm kernel oil does not appear to contain substantial amounts of palmitic acid.) More work is needed to clarify the status of palm oil in the ancient world: testing Friedel’s jars (if they still exist?) would be a good start.
In short: authors would be wise to cite Monsieur C. Friedel’s 1897 paper with caution. Palm oil was probably traded up the Nile, but there is still no strong evidence showing that it was a major article of commerce in the ancient world.

Wartime fat shaming (1917)

Image result for world war II rationingHere’s another story from the Cornell University Archives. Faculty at the NY State College of Home Economics worked closely with the federal Food Administration to develop and manage food rationing during the First World War.

Home Economists taught people how to use underutilized foods, but in calling on citizens to “do their fair share” in rationing, they inadvertently turned America’s housewives into an army of informants. Mrs Devereux, of New York City, complained that her neighbors were too fat and didn’t deserve ration cards: “The over-heavy fed person (and he is numerous) could be sharply reduced in quantity and compelled to live on his own flesh, until he is in a normal condition.”

Another woman, writing from Florida, alleged that German agents were under orders “to buy and eat and hoard all the wheat they possibly can.” The letters offer a worrying vision of self-radicalization. Women (and a few men) suggested all sorts of inventive ways to spy on, shame, cajole, and punish their neighbors for not rationing food effectively. Letters started to arrive within a few weeks of the declaration of war in April 1917.

(box 17, folder 41, NY State College of Home Economics records, Cornell University Archive)

An Englishman’s list of unappetizing food (1839)

Cornell’s archive holds notes from the Herrington Food Science lectures, c. 1951-1961, which were part of a basic course in the history of nutrition for undergraduates.

The professor quoted an obscure treatise on egg incubation by William Bucknell for its description of food in Europe. Up to a third of Englishmen, according to Bucknell, “subsist almost entirely, or rather starve, upon potatoes alone, another third have in addition to this edible, oaten or inferior wheaten bread with one or two meals of fat pork or the refuse of the shambles per week …”

Bucknell said continental Europeans ate far worse fare: “Fish, soups made from herbs, a stuff called bread, made from every variety of grain, black, brown and sour such as no Englishman would eat; olives, chestnuts, the pulpy saccharine fruits, roots, stalks and leaves, not infrequently the barks of trees, sawdust, blubber, train oil with frogs and snails, make up a good part of the food of the greater portion of the population of Europe.”

Not bad! (Except for the tree bark, sawdust, blubber, and train oil)