Palm oil and deforestation in SE Asia

In a new article, Peter Guest examines one of the most dangerous trends in oil palm cultivation: the explosion of smallholder cultivation alongside large-scale plantations and processing mills. Guest visits the front lines of the oil palm frontier in Sumatra, where large and small plantations are encroaching on sensitive forest ecosystems.

Peter Guest: “Last stand at Leuser –  A unique Indonesian ecosystem lies in the path of the palm oil industry, which must ceaselessly expand to sate the bottomless appetite of the global consumer goods sector”

Guest interviewed me in November to discuss the history of palm oil in the global food supply.


“Fatter Cows, Slimmer Women”

That was how Newsweek described the work of the Cornell University nutrition program in a 1953 article. I’m reviewing notes I took last summer at the Cornell archives, where I was fortunate to be working as the College of Human Ecology Dean’s Fellow. My goal was to trace changing ideas about fat in the American diet, and this article is a perfect illustration of the post-1945 faith in scientific progress. The author praised Cornell’s dairy barns, in which animals were “chock-full of superior feed laced with antibiotics,” and described Dr. McCay’s “Golden Triple Rich Bread,” a wheat bread supplemented with soy flour to provide added protein. Another Cornell professor offered a formula for losing weight, which he tested on Cornell’s co-eds: 90g protein, 80g fat, and 80g carbohydrates daily. Clearly the Atkins diet is nothing new. The proportions of nutrients probably didn’t matter as much as the fact that this diet only amounted to 1400 kcal – not nearly enough to maintain weight in an active adult.

Recipe to bake your own Cornell bread

Source: “Nutrition program at Cornell: Fatter Cows, Slimmer Women,” Newsweek, 13 April 1953. Clipping in box 45, folder 1, 23/2/749, NY State College of Agriculture – Home Economics collection, Cornell University Archives.


American exodus, viewed from Africa

In Cotton and Race across the AtlanticI wrote about several attempts to transplant African Americans to Africa. The idea of emigration is an old one, dating a century beyond the well-known antics of Marcus Garvey and his “back to Africa” movement. Historians have written a lot about African American emigration movements, but relatively little is known about how Africans viewed these movements.

A fragmentary letter held by Ghana’s Public Records and Archives Administration in Accra hints that some Africans were excited by the prospect of building ties with the African diaspora in America. On June 17, 1912, Christian Jacobson wrote to Sir Emmanuel Mate Kole, the Konor (king) of Krobo (southeastern Ghana today) about one emigration proposal:

“The Negroes in America had formed a trade relation now between the West Africa, and they are opening a factory there – They desire our Brothers or people in Africa also to go in [with?] them Company and reap [missing text] profit from our own Soil [missing].”

I don’t know anything abut Christian Jacobson, but his diction suggests that he was Ghanaian, rather than Danish. Jacobson tried to get Mate Kole to buy 25 shares of this American company. He insisted this as a legitimate business: “They have go their own Steamers and everything for the business and there is no fear of doing anything with them.”

I don’t know if Mate Kole invested or not, but he would have been wise to stay away. The company in question was the Akim Trading Company, the brainchild of “Chief Sam.” Chief Sam duped hundreds of African Americans into buying shares in his company. A few dozen set sail for Ghana with Chief Sam in 1914, but found that the “Chief” had no power to give free land to American settlers as he had promised.

Read more about Garveyism and emigration (and see a photo of Chief Sam) here:


Christian Jacobson to Mate Kole, 7 June 1912, SC 17/192, PRAAD-Accra.

Semhar Negasa, “Chief Alfred Sam,”

The “Special Relationship” in Action

In 1943, the allied powers met at Hot Springs, Arkansas, to discuss the future of food and agriculture in the post-war order. I’m going to spend more time researching this event, but in the meantime, enjoy a brief excerpt from a British report on the conference which illustrates how British politicians thoroughly enjoyed playing the new superpower–the USA–against a traditional “great power,” France.

WP (43) 275, 28 June 1943, War Cabinet, “Food Conference,” memorandum by the Sec of State for Foreign Affairs.

Appendix, Mr Law’s report. “There was to be one official language—English. This provoked a characteristic protest from the French, who demanded that French should be adopted, in accordance with precedents, as a second official language. The proposition was turned down by the Conference. It was, however, only the first of a series of clumsy and childish manoeuvres designed to assert the rights of France as a Great Power. These tactics failed in all respects save one: they succeeded in irritating the Americans to the point of frenzy.”

From CO 852/503/12, TNA (UK).

Don’t miss these American political cartoons about the conference:

Trophy shots


This photo caught my eye last year. It was in a photo book from the 1924-1925 British Empire Exhibition, at Wembley. The photo caption unfortunately doesn’t offer any information about the exhibit. Are these men’s portraits “anthropological specimens” juxtaposed with the animal specimens mounted next to them?

I think was from CO 1069/73, UK National Archives.

Filthy Lucre

This snippet found in the Ghanaian national archives in Accra didn’t seem to warrant a full-blown research article, but I thought it was funny enough to transcribe.

A medical officer in colonial Gold Coast wrote an article titled “Filthy Lucre” for the colony’s 1920 annual report (ADM 5/1/77, PRAAD-Accra). He wrote that “the native African is often pocket-less and much given to using his mouth as a receptacle for all sorts of things,” a situation “fraught with serious pathological possibilities.” Sampling ten notes, the author found no evidence of “faecal pollution,” but he did identify a motley array of bacteria, molds, and yeasts. A few mites and mite eggs were also found. Despite these rather innocuous results, he wrote: “it can scarcely be questioned therefore that, given the opportunity, [paper notes] might convey the fungi of skin affections, the virus of exanthems normally spread by scales of desquamated skin, the eggs of intestinal parasites, the spores of pathologenic bacteria, and itch mites or other similar vermin. Many a ‘travelled shilling’ must meet with ample opportunity.”

A quick Google Scholar search shows plenty of recent research into “dirty money,” like this 2010 article: Tagoe et al., “A study of Bacterial Contamination of Ghanaian Currency Notes in Circulation.”

The contrast between crisp ATM notes and well-circulated small bills in Ghana is striking, and I’m not surprised that people are grossed out – but it’s definitely an aesthetic problem. Perhaps another reason to expect more mobile and e-currency adoption in the near future?


This website is under construction. I want it to serve two purposes: to share my published academic research with a wider audience, and to invite fellow historians and the public to engage with my in-progress work. I will be posting extracts from archives, notable quotes, data sets, and other materials in coming weeks. Stay tuned!