A postcard celebrating Senegal’s peanut trade

Jori Lewis’s book about the simple peanut began simply, with an image both familiar and foreign. When she first visited Senegal’s peanut farms, they looked so much like her family’s Arkansas lands, and yet nothing about the industry — long a staple of Senegal’s $25-billion economy — looked familiar. Peanuts in Senegal were picked by hand, as they had been for centuries. But when one peanut farmer was discriminated against in his village because he was descended from slaves, Lewis went digging. The result is Slaves for Peanuts, a masterwork of narrative nonfiction.

The book tells the story, in part, of the rise of the peanut, which rose like so many other familiar products we rarely think to examine: because of European demand for commercial goods made accessible through slave labor. The book is also the story of the complicated work of abolition — a close examination not of political decrees and fiery rhetoric that often come to mind with the word “emancipation” but of a more subtle movement of time, a shift from one moment to the next, in which complicated sets of humans did what humans have always done: tried to adapt their lives and material circumstances to shifting political winds.

One man who adapted well was Charles Heddle, a mixed-race merchant raised in Scotland who became the richest man in Africa, Black or white, thanks to peanut oil. With such a rich history to recover, Lewis ultimately cut Heddle from her book; in this excerpt for The Cutting Room, she shares Heddle’s story.

In Senegal, such adaptation meant, among other things, that French abolition did not always bring freedom, and that, as in so many places, economic interests set the course of so many lives, whatever word one might use to describe the labor extracted from them. There are individual lives and grand narratives uncovered by Lewis’s painstaking years of work in cross-continental archives, where the voices of those people she — and we — most want to hear are so often silenced. As she puts it, “The distance of a century reveals only flickering, spectral forms. How do we tell the stories of people that history forgets and the present avoids?”

Lewis’s book is a tour de force of history and imagination — and, above all, of witnessing.

— Jina Moore for Guernica

Charles Heddle’s house and farm sat atop a mountain high above Freetown, with a thickset woodland flourishing at its back, and its front commanding a view of the city below, the harbor, and the ocean stretching out to the horizon. The mountain residence had numerous advantages over the lower city, where the heat and humidity predominated; here, visitors could feel the release of a cool ocean breeze called “the doctor,” all while being surrounded by the trills of green and purple hummingbirds, and the sweet smells of acacia trees in bloom. The property once belonged, in turn, to several high government officials and the colonial governor, but Heddle, a mixed-race merchant, acquired the property in 1859. The house was built in a curious style, with its “winding outside staircase, projecting eaves, and strange sloping roof,” according to one former British inhabitant, who said the effect was like “the imitation Swiss cottages you see at watering places.”

The Heddle house was a regular way station for British explorers heading out or coming back from their travels into the interior of the continent. William Balfour Baikie, a Scottish military doctor and naturalist who started a trading post on the Upper Niger River in the late 1850s, stayed with Heddle on occasion. And when writer and naturalist William Winwood Reade traveled to West Africa in the 1860s, determined to find the source of the Niger River, he told his family, friends, and colleagues to write to him care of Charles Heddle, Esq., in Freetown. One of those correspondents was Charles Darwin, with whom Reade shared his musings on sexuality and animal husbandry, many of which were included in Darwin’s The Descent of Man.

Reade described his host Heddle as the “leading” merchant of Freetown, but the explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton (who brought versions of The Arabian Nights and the Kama Sutra to the nineteenth-century British public) called the man King Heddle — a literary exaggeration, of course, but one that had cause. Heddle had wharves and warehouses, townhouses and trading posts. And, most of all, he had influence. When the colonial governor needed to know what local merchants thought of a tariff or a law, he knew that he could ask Heddle. If he needed an intrepid merchant to go negotiate a treaty with a nearby kingdom, he knew Heddle could do that, too.

Since Heddle had arrived in Sierra Leone in the late 1830s, he had amassed a fortune that made him the richest man in West Africa, Black or white. In 1871, he retired to a chateau in France, one of two that he bought with his fortune, and married a trophy wife some fifty years his junior. His wealth had been built on many streams — real estate, shipping, investments — but the activity at the base of everything, the one from which all others flowed, was his trade in peanuts.

* * *

Charles Heddle was born in 1812 on the island of Gorée. His father, John, a military doctor from Scotland’s Orkney Islands, was posted to the island during the Napoleonic Wars. John Heddle already had a wife and family back in Scotland, but when he came to Africa, he attached himself to a local woman, a practice common among European traders and military men. Sophy Boucher, the woman in question, would have been called a signare by some or a country wife by others. She was probably mixed-race herself, the daughter of some other trader or military man from France. She and John would go on to have several children; Charles was the last of them, born not too long after his father’s death.

The child was sent to Scotland, first to live with an uncle and then to enroll in boarding school. Charles Heddle came back to Africa in 1834 after finishing his studies; instead of returning to Gorée, he moved to Bathurst, a British settlement at the mouth of the Gambia River, where he would work with a British merchant house that was showing a new interest in peanut oil and in the places where the peanut plant might be grown.

The merchant who sold Heddle his trading posts in a riverine zone north of Freetown in the late 1830s must have thought he was pulling a good one over on the young trader, who was fresh off the boat from the Gambia. Europeans had been buying timber in this area for many years, but after decades of unchecked logging, not much timber was left, and not much trade. With the forest already cut and cleared, it would be easier for him to do what he wanted to do, which was to encourage farming on a large scale.

From his time on the Gambia River, where he and his colleagues had been persuading local farmers to grow peanuts, he knew that supply could follow demand. The records do not tell us how he did it. Did he set up a model farm of his own in a field cleared of tree stumps and rocks? Did he share peanut seeds with would-be farmers? Did he visit the kitchen gardens of nearby villages and point to the peanuts possibly already growing there, telling the villagers that he would buy all that they could grow? Whatever his method, it succeeded — far beyond what anyone might have thought was likely at the time. His neighbors did, indeed, follow his lead, and they transformed the region into a peanut-growing zone. By the mid-1840s, the peanut trade in the area was brisk, and it was drawing the attention of merchants and politicians in England, France, and even the United States.

Jori Lewis’s first book, Slaves for Peanuts, is out today from The New Press.

Jori Lewis

Jori Lewis writes about the environment and agriculture, mostly from the Global South. In 2018, she received the prestigious Whiting Creative Nonfiction Grant for her first book, Slaves for Peanuts. She is also a contributing editor with Adi Magazine, a literary magazine covering global politics. Jori Lewis splits her time between Illinois and Dakar, Senegal.

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