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'Slaves for Peanuts' weaves a complex story crossing time and oceans

The Free Press

One of the pleasures of reading is discovering unfamiliar history and geography.

Jori Lewis' debut book, Slaves for Peanuts: A Story of Conquest, Liberation, and a Crop That Changed History, offers myriad discoveries. With a focus on a discrete period, primarily the latter half of the 19th and early 20th centuries, and a discrete geography — Saint Louis, Senegal, south along the West African coast to Freetown, Sierre Leone — Slaves for Peanuts weaves a complex story crossing time and oceans.

Lewis is an award-winning journalist focusing on agriculture and environment. In addition to publishing in a range of journals, she received a prestigious Whiting grant. She divides her time between Illinois and Senegal.

Worldwide peanut consumption is enormous. Americans alone devour over 1.5 billion pounds of peanut products annually. Senegal has been one of the world's top peanut producers for more than a century. Lewis, who descends from American slaves and had a great-grandfather who grew peanuts in Arkansas, discovered that peanut cultivation in Senegal was intimately tied up with colonialism and slavery in that region.

As Lewis set out to give voice to those who were enslaved, she encountered difficulties.

"There is a fundamental silencing of Indigenous voices in the colonial archives, which privilege those of European officials," she writes. "And many of the available epic poems or oral histories that have been passed from generation to generation often tell stories of society's elites — the kings, nobles, warriors, and important religious leaders. Women rarely feature, and the enslaved almost never."

Lewis has more than diligently accessed griots and combed through archives, but there are inevitable holes. To circumvent them, Lewis unspools her narrative through individual stories, the history of peanuts as a cultivated crop, the important role of Islam in this part of Africa, France's relationship to slavery and colonialism, and the railroad — which French officials literally "railroaded through" to the detriment of local society.

The first individual profiled is Walter Taylor (1840s-1899). His parents were freed "from the belly of a Portuguese slave ship" and were returned to Africa by the British Navy patrolling for illegal cargo after Britain abolished slavery in 1807. Lewis provides fascinating details on the 100,000 enslaved people "freed" by British patrols. Some went into the British military — voluntarily or involuntarily — some became indentured servants to the West Indies, still others created settlements of freed slaves in Sierra Leone.

Walter Taylor grew up in a Sierra Leone farming community, where the Anglican church had aggressive missionaries whose aim was to stamp out local religious practices and culture. He received an Anglican education and became a schoolmaster. Imprisoned for three months for "stealing" a book, he had to leave. By about 1867, he was in Gorée as an accountant in the peanut trade. Gorée is the small island off Dakar notorious for its Door of No Return through which millions of African people sailed into bondage across the Atlantic.

Taylor ultimately joined a French Protestant mission in Saint Louis, a series of islands at the mouth of the Senegal River, and the seat of the French colonial governor, a French military base, and a mercantile hub for Europeans and local, mixed-race merchants. Saint Louis was unusual, Lewis writes, in that it was "to be a free city where no slaves would exist and where slaves could also find their liberty. It was to become a refuge," not only for people enslaved due to the peanut trade, but also for people enslaved by local Africans — kings, aristocrats, and religious leaders.

By dint of perseverance, Walter Taylor became a leader in the mission, where he provided a safe haven for escaping slaves. His tireless efforts to liberate his fellow Africans during his lifelong travels between Senegal and Sierra Leone form the backbone of the book.

Taylor's story is entangled with French colonialism, and the French government's complicity in slavery in this part of the world. While France proudly declared it had abolished the trade, it turned a blind eye to Africans being enslaved in the immensely profitable peanut business, Lewis writes. The racism suffered by Walter Taylor was emblematic of French occupation.

Lewis also profiles the independent African kingdom of Kajoor, and a succession of its leaders, including Lat Joor, Walter Taylor's contemporary, who tried unsuccessfully to oust the French in 1883. Lat Joor's trials and tribulations, woven throughout the book, provide rare insight into local 19th century royalty in this part of Africa.

Lewis also gives a history of the peanut plant, which likely originated in present-day Brazil. By the time it was under aggressive cultivation in 19th-century Senegal, the West's hungry maw insisted on profits over techniques such as crop rotation and other essential agricultural practices.

Slaves for Peanuts plumbs a fascinating and disturbing slice of history, shining a light on another glaring example of Western hypocrisy and oppression. The book is illustrated with extraordinary photographs, many from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It also provides extensive endnotes and an index.

Although Lewis tells eye-opening stories, at times I found the book hard to follow. This was likely due to the many pieces of narrative Lewis ambitiously weaves together, and to the lack of connective tissue from the scant historical record. Lewis knows this. At the outset she asks: "How do we tell the stories of people that history forgets and the present avoids?"

Lewis has much to teach us. Once Walter Taylor's mission closed its doors to runaway slaves, the real bottom line emerges. She writes: "The truth was that the missionary enterprise without the refuge for runaway slaves did not work. What use was it to evangelize in an area where slavery was still an active open secret?'

Martha Anne Toll is a DC based writer and reviewer. Her debut novel, Three Muses, won the Petrichor Prize for Finely Crafted Fiction and is forthcoming from Regal House Publishing in September 2022.

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