Oil Palm

A Global History

By Jonathan E. Robins

432 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 20 halftones, 3 maps, 4 graphs

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4696-6289-3
    Published: June 2021
  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-6288-6
    Published: June 2021
  • E-book EPUB ISBN: 978-1-4696-6290-9
    Published: May 2021
  • E-book PDF ISBN: 979-8-8908-6019-4
    Published: May 2021

Flows, Migrations, and Exchanges

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Awards & distinctions

2022 Jerry Bentley Prize, American Historical Association

2021 Henry A. Wallace Award, Agricultural History Society

Oil palms are ubiquitous—grown in nearly every tropical country, they supply the world with more edible fat than any other plant and play a role in scores of packaged products, from lipstick and soap to margarine and cookies. And as Jonathan E. Robins shows, sweeping social transformations carried the plant around the planet. First brought to the global stage in the holds of slave ships, palm oil became a quintessential commodity in the Industrial Revolution. Imperialists hungry for cheap fat subjugated Africa’s oil palm landscapes and the people who worked them. In the twentieth century, the World Bank promulgated oil palm agriculture as a panacea to rural development in Southeast Asia and across the tropics. As plantation companies tore into rainforests, evicting farmers in the name of progress, the oil palm continued its rise to dominance, sparking new controversies over trade, land and labor rights, human health, and the environment.

By telling the story of the oil palm across multiple centuries and continents, Robins demonstrates how the fruits of an African palm tree became a key commodity in the story of global capitalism, beginning in the eras of slavery and imperialism, persisting through decolonization, and stretching to the present day.

About the Author

Jonathan E. Robins is associate professor of history at Michigan Technological University.
For more information about Jonathan E. Robins, visit the Author Page.


"Robins, whose research is so exciting that for a few weeks after reading his book I could hardly talk about anything else, documents the ‘remarkable reversal’ by which a crop native to Africa became one mainly produced in South-East Asia."—London Review of Books

"Oil Palm raises important new questions and avenues for environmental historians. . . . [and] offers a firm foundation for the future intertwining of commodity and ecology in environmental history. . . . As a work of commodity, colonial, or world history, the book excels."—H-Environment

“Through . . . Robins’s excellent storytelling and supplementary materials, we learn about oil palm’s role in almost all major events in modern world history. . . . There is plenty in this book to discover, even for someone who may consider themselves a scholar of the commodity.”—Agricultural History Review

“Engaging. . . These chapters are packed with fascinating detail.”—H-Africa

"Robins eloquently weaves together a wide range of themes--economic history, colonial history, agricultural history, environmental history, gender history, the history of science and technology, and others beside--and demonstrates how the global circulation and cultivation of the oil palm plant has transformed lives and livelihoods for countless people living across the globe."--Stuart McCook, author of Coffee is Not Forever: A Global History of the Coffee Leaf Rust

“Robins' book is a superb historical exposé of how a particular tree species from West Africa and the oil derived from its fruits have become such an astoundingly pervasive feature of the modern world. This is the kind of global history we need more of, one that highlights the connections not only between different parts of the world but also between people, plants, and the wider ecosystems of which they are a part.”—Corey Ross, University of Birmingham