Peanuts and economic dependence in French West Africa

The expansion of cash-crop production in French West Africa (FWA) was the consequence of the end of slave trade in the French Empire in 1848 and the economic transformations linked to the Industrial Revolution. The main cash-crops developed on a regional scale were peanuts, palm-oil and kernels, karité oil and other commodities such as gum, wax, gold and hides. The transportation and telecommunications revolution (steam shipping, railways, telegraph) during the second half of the nineteenth century supported the expansion of colonial empires where commodities played a key role  in the new economic structures (Curry-Machado, 2013).

In FWA, cash-crop development involved the mass production of peanuts (“arachides”) which were exported to metropolitan industrial centres such as Marseilles and Bordeaux where they were transformed into soap, wax, fodder and other industrial applications. At the same time, important quantities of West African peanuts –mainly from Gambia- reached the United States where they were mainly consumed in the great east coast port-cities of New York and Boston (Brooks, 1975).

The climatic and geological conditions of Senegal favoured the expansion of this cash-crop production. The combination of elevated-average temperatures along the year (27.0) and a constant wet season (from June to October) favoured the growth of peanut-kernels (Peterec, 1967). In the inner regions where these crops were cultivated (Thiès, Sine-Saloum, Kaolack, Casamance, Senegal Valley) the rains were combined with irrigation that permitted the expansion of agriculture. That was an important feature as the extensive agriculture model developed in colonial FWA was mainly based on the non-wage labour of a slave workforce.


In the 1840s, some French merchants from Bordeaux initiated this agrarian enterprise along the Senegal Valley and the Thiès region, which was then extended to the Sine-Saloum region, Gambia and the Casamance. Local producers rapidly started to cultivate peanuts due to the interest of the European traders and the possibility of securing substantial profits. The new colonial agrarian structure combined traditional features with capitalist elements based on the market economy. The main agricultural productive unit was kinship-based involving family labour, with all the members participating. Each rural Senegalese family was given some land to cultivate that was classed as community property. In this arrangement, each peasant had the duty to conserve and improve the lands for the benefit of the whole community. Hence, agricultural labour in Senegal had not only economic but also social and ethical significance which led to the creation of myths about “agricultural heroes” related to natural spirits (Fall, 2011).

The second type of agricultural production centres were the Muslim agricultural communities (dara) where former slaves and young African men (talibés –disciples) were gathered in order to serve the social and religious leader, the marabout (cheikh) (Moitt, 1989). This was a strict social regime in which the dara produced peanuts in order to preserve their own status. This type of agricultural organization involved the continuation and extension of indigenous regional hierarchies which was not favoured by the colonial power. Thus, the expansion of cash-crop cultures in this region was accompanied by a struggle between local elites and the foreign economic agents which had an impact on the entire agrarian social structure.

This conflict led to French military campaigns to defeat the local political chiefs in the Upper Senegal, the Cayor and the Sine-Saloum. Once these indigenous elites were defeated, the imperialist agents could operate freely and European traders were able to control the inner markets (Barry and Harding, 1992). Moreover, this socio-political transformation was accompanied by the progressive deterioration of the living conditions of the majority of African rural villages due to their increased food-dependency (Lakroum, 1982). Lands devoted to food crops were replaced by the speculative cash-crop productions as the requirements of external trade assumed increasing importance in the region’s local economies. Moreover, during these decades West African commodities, peanuts, palm-oil, palm-kernels, gum, timber, gold, wax and hides, were exchanged for cheaper metropolitan products such as alcoholic drinks, cotton textiles or canned food. This unequal trade structure led to the economic dependence of these regions and reinforced the political domination of the Imperial powers (Olukoju, 2004).

The First World War caused the first great economic crisis of the colonial system in Senegal and the FWA. The freight crisis caused by the lack of cargo space on ships and the increased navigation risks due to the war extending to the seas, interrupted the export of commodities through the main ports of Dakar and Rufisque. This had a huge impact on the prices paid to producers. In contrast, many colonial companies signed agreements with the colonial administration allowing them to acquire low-cost stocks which were then shipped to Europe on highly armed vessels (Bonin 1987, Coquery-Vidrovitch, 1975).    

During the 1920s, the European post-war recovery demanded a huge quantity of economic resources and colonial territories were crucial to the cheap and fast supply of these products. In France, the Minister for the Colonies Albert Sarraut drew up a recovery plan based on the modernisation of the colonial transport infrastructures. The main objective now was the “effective economic exploitation” of the colonial territories (Coquery-Vidrovitch, 1979).

In Senegal, this programme was mainly used to improve the port infrastructures of Dakar which was modernized and converted into the main exporting port of Senegal in 1924 at the expense of the smaller ports of Rufisque, Saint-Louis and Gorée (Castillo Hidalgo, 2012). The rise of Dakar confirmed the externally-oriented transport infrastructure that included fast connections by railway from the Niger and Mali to Dakar (Debrie 2010). The Niger railway reaching Dakar also led to the colonial development of the regions along the line, with peanuts production notably increasing in these areas. Hence, by the 1930s, much of the Senegalese economy was devoted to the cultivation of peanuts, loaded on wagons destined for Dakar which now emerged as the spearhead of French imperial policy in their West African colonies.


The 1930s witnessed the second great crisis of the colonial period in Senegal. With the global economic meltdown, the international prices of cash-crop productions fell dramatically –to the real values of 1914- and the African rural communities experienced a process of proletarianisation due to a deterioration in their living conditions (Lakroum, 1982, Daumalin, 1992). Thus, it is clear that during this period, the expansion of cash-crop production, rural impoverishment, and the establishment of a colonial, externally-oriented economic system are closely connected in West Africa. Dependence on external trade was a crucial feature of this extractive colonial model, which led to long-term path dependencies based on established transport systems and the consolidation of African elites with vested interests in the agrarian structure created by colonial policies. This was to have consequences that extended beyond the period of formal independence from French colonial rule.

Source for Images:

Archives Nationales du Sénégal (ANS). Fond Cartes Postales « Images et Colonies » 1900-1960 (réalisé sous la direction de M. Adama Aly PAM, 2002)

References cited:

Barry, Boubacar and Harding, Leonhard (coord.) (1992), Commerce et commerçants en Afrique de l´Ouest. Le Sénégal, L´Harmattan, Paris.

Bonin, Hubert (1987), C.F.A.O. Cent ans de compétition. 1887-1987, Economica, Paris.

Brooks, George E. (1975), “Peanuts and Colonialism: Consequences of the Commercialization of Peanuts in West Africa, 1830-1870”, The Journal of African History, Vol.16 (1), pp.29-54.

Castillo Hidalgo, Daniel (2012), «Buques, ferrocarriles y cacant huetes. Modernización de las infraestructuras en el puerto de Dakar y la introducción de Senegal en los mercados internacionales (1857-1936) », Transportes, Servicios y Telecomunicaciones, 23, pp. 130-154.  

Castillo Hidalgo, Daniel (2014), “The Port of Dakar: Technological Evolution, Management and Commercial Activity (1857-1929)”, in Suárez Bosa, Miguel (ed.), Atlantic Ports and the First Globalisation, c.1850-1930, Cambridge Imperial and Post-Colonial Series, Palgrave McMillan, pp. 90-111.

Coquery-Vidrovitch, Catherine (1975), “L´impact des intérêts coloniaux: SCOA et CFAO dans l´Ouest Africain, 1910-1965”, The Journal of African History, Vol.16 (4), pp. 595-621. 

Coquery-Vidrovitch, Catherine (1979), «Colonisation ou impérialisme : la politique africaine de la France entre les deux guerres », Le Mouvement Social, 107, pp.51-76.

Curry-Machado, Jonathan (ed.) (2013), Global Histories, Imperial Commodities, Local Interactions, Cambridge Imperial and Post-Colonial Studies, Palgrave Macmillan.

Daumalin, Xavier (1992), « Marseille, l´Ouest Africain et la Crise », in Courdurie, Marcel et Miège, Jean-Louis (éds.), Marseille Colonial face à la crise de 1929, Chambre de Commerce et d´Industrie Marseille-Provence, Marseille, pp. 168-218.

Debrie, Jean (2010), « From colonization to national territories in continental West Africa : the historical geography of a transport infrastructure network », Journal of Transport Geography, 18, pp. 292-300.

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