Igbo names and spellings for various settlements
Abakaliki is Abankaleke; Afikpo is Ehugbo; Awgu is Ogu; Awka is Oka; Bonny is Ubani; Enugu is Enugwu; Ibusa is Igbuzö; Igrita is Igwuruta; Oguta is Ugwuta; Onitsha is Onicha; Owerri is Owere; Oyigbo is Obigbo... any more will be added.

Friday, April 17, 2020

Palm Oil

A palm oil factory photographed by Jonathan Adagogo Green likely in either Opobo or Bonny, c. late 19th century. British Museum.

The palm oil industry grew after the sixteenth century as a provisional source for the growing international and slave trade. After the palm oil industry replaced the slave trade from roughly around the 1840s, the southern Igbo area became the biggest producer of palm oil in the world by the 19th century, accounting for over one-third of West African palm oil exports by the colonial era. Palm oil also dominated the economies of other areas of the Niger Delta, such as the Urhobo and Isoko areas.

Palm oil demand grew from many tons of oil being imported by Europeans from Calabar and Bonny in the late 18th century to the 1860s when Liverpudlians were importing 26,000 tons of palm from the Bight of Biafra, the area that made up two-thirds of Britain's palm imports. James Welsh, the captain of an English trading vessel in Benin in 1588, reported buying, among items like cotton cloth, elephants teeth, and pepper, palm oil. Palm oil was used in the production of goods such as candles, soap, and for lubricating machines.

Palm oil (Elaeis guineensis) originated in West Africa and had been used as a food staple that had been cultivated for over a thousand years. The two kinds of oil come from the pericarp, the soft outer covering, and the akụ, kernel, which became useful after the late 19th century due to the industrial revolution in Europe.

"At the Akquete [Akwete] Market" by Jonathan Adagogo Green, an Ibani (Bonny) photographer, 1895-1905. British Museum. The Ndoki town of Akwete, in Ụ̀kwà, was a commercial centre for the palm industry where coastal traders and later Europeans bought palm oil.

Coastal states like Bonny and Opobo that traded with Europeans directly and other areas like Abö got their supply of palm oil mostly from the palm oil-rich areas around today’s Abia State and Imo State. There was palm oil intended for local consumption from local rotational markets and the palm oil for the long-distance trade handled by merchants. The currency was different types of ego igwè, iron, copper, bronze, and brass money. The Ngwa people were the primary producers of palm oil and traded in the Ukwa and Echie area, from which coastal traders bought most of their oil.

"Interior of palm oil factory, Old Calabar", c. 1890. Palm oil from the Igbo area and other parts of the Niger Delta and Cross River area, through Calabar, Bonny, Opobo, and other ports, lubricated the machinery of the industrial revolution in Europe. New York Public Library.

Women were initially the primary producers of palm oil in domestic settings while men later came to be the ones who traded it as its economic importance grew. The job of climbing and cutting trees was done only by men. Men who married many wives had an advantage in the palm oil economy as they could use their wives labour. The production and trade in the kernels used for medicine and cosmetic reasons was controlled by women. After the growth of the palm oil export trade, palm oil was produced in large pits known as ikwè akwụ which, for larger production, replaced wooden mortars, ikwè, and allowed for multiple men to pound palm fruits. Manpower was hired for the work and, in some places, slave labour was used. Most of the oil palm trees were owned by the community.

An Igbo man pounding palm nuts in an ikwè akwụ. Photograph via P. A. Talbot, 1926. Google digitalisation.

Apart from other parts of tropical Africa such as the Belgian Congo, the palm oil industry took off in other areas where the oil palm was newly introduced, particularly in Malaya and Sumatra. Today, Indonesia and Malaysia, with environmental issues as a consequence, are the primary producer of palm oil. It was partly through the British tussle with coastal traders over the palm oil industry in particular that the area was made a protectorate which became (a part of) the British controlled Southern Nigeria.

Sources: Gloria Chuku (2005). Igbo Women and Economic Transformation…, p. 48–54.; Birgit Müller (1985). Commodities as Currencies…; M. A. Sowunmi (1985). The Beginnings of Agriculture in West Africa…. Current Anthropology.

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