“Imbibing the Lesson of Defiance”: Oil Palms and Alcohol in Colonial Ghana, 1900–40

“Imbibing the Lesson of Defiance”: Oil Palms and Alcohol in Colonial Ghana, 1900–40 Abstract This article examines a controversy over oil palm landscapes in colonial West Africa. Oil palms provide two important food products, palm oil and palm kernels, but they are also tapped for palm wine, an alcoholic drink produced from the sap of the tree. In Ghana (the colonial Gold Coast), the preferred wine-tapping method destroyed the tree, leading to conflicts among Ghanaians and with the colonial state over the best uses of oil palm trees. Many Ghanaian elites agreed with colonial officials that felling palms for wine was wasteful, but others defended palm wine as a symbol of resistance to colonialism. Although colonial officials tried to suppress the production of palm wine and spirits distilled from it, their efforts were halfhearted, reflecting skepticism about the environmental and economic cases for protecting oil palms. Felling palms for wine did contribute to the systematic degradation of Ghana’s once dense “palmeries,” but this was a complex transformation rather than a case of reckless overconsumption. INTRODUCTION In 1936 E. Tackie Otoo sent an urgent letter to the British colonial secretary in Accra warning of a “holocaust of life” and a “danger to our industrial existence as a people.” His fears centered on akpeteshie, a spirit distilled from palm wine, the fermented sap of the oil palm tree. Tackie Otoo argued that demand for the drink was driving “the wanton destruction of the Palm Tree at a rate without parallel in the history of this Country,” threatening a tree on which “the industrial life of the people for the most part depends.” Instead of harvesting the fruit of the palm to produce palm oil and kernels, Tackie Otoo’s countrymen were making “unbridled uses [of oil palms] in open defiance of constituted authority.”1 Historians have long recognized the significance of alcohol in the cultural and economic history of Africa.2 In the colonial period, governments saw domestic alcohol production as a threat to state revenue, public health, and effective governance.3 Wine tapping and home brewing also threatened the interests of African elites, who feared that unrestricted access to alcohol would undermine public morality and social order. Tackie Otoo’s letter points to environmental concerns that historians have not yet examined, however. When brewers and distillers used grain or sugar to make alcohol, their actions defied colonial laws. When tappers felled oil palms, they transformed the environment and irreversibly converted natural capital into a consumer good.4 As early as the 1890s, African elites and colonial officials contested the ecological and economic value of oil palm trees, and the rights of individuals to use them. The Ghanaian preference for palm wine tapped from felled trees—coupled with the failure of palm oil exports to keep pace with exports from rivals in Nigeria and elsewhere—meant that Ghana (the colonial Gold Coast) was the center of this debate, although ripples of the controversy were seen across West Africa.5 The initial reaction of British officials was to protect palms from felling, reflecting a global pattern of “imperial ecology” in which conservation measures often served as “a vigorous and militarized instrument of colonial oppression.”6 Oil palms were seen as forest trees, and officials hoped their exploitation for palm oil might encourage Ghanaians to preserve palm groves, instead of clearing them to make wine and to plant other crops. Gold Coast officials ultimately accepted that palm wine was a legitimate use of trees, however, even as Ghanaian elites took a hard line against palm felling.7 While Ghanaians valued oil palms for their material, aesthetic, and spiritual importance, the defense of the trees by elites was primarily a defense of the palm oil export industry, and of a social order in which urban elites and rural chiefs regulated access to land, palm trees, and alcohol. The elites lost this battle, but the long-term decline of Ghana’s palmeries was not a straightforward story of intemperate overconsumption. Natural and human factors intersecting at local, imperial, and global scales shaped the ways in which Ghanaians used oil palms, and in doing so, reshaped their environment.8 A CHANGING INDUSTRY The oil palm (Elaeis guineensis) is native to western Africa, growing in hot high-rainfall areas along the coast and inland near the equator.9 New trees bear fruit after about five years and can live well over a century, reaching more than 20 meters high. Oil palms do not thrive in dense forest, however, and historical observers disagreed about whether the huge “palmeries” they saw between the forests and coastlines of West Africa were natural or anthropogenic in origin. Paleobotanists insist that oil palms exploited climate-induced gaps in the tropical forest several thousand years ago, but historical evidence affirms that human settlers also planted palms and preserved them when clearing forestlands. Some groups intentionally sowed palm kernels before fallowing land, contributing to the growth of “wild” groves.10 West Africans began exporting palm produce on a large scale in the early nineteenth century, competing with other plant, animal, and marine fats in an emerging global market.11 Producing palm oil was a labor-intensive process. After cutting fruit bunches from the tops of trees, workers pounded the fruit and cooked it with water to extract edible “soft” oil. The leftover kernels were often exported to Europe, where a different oil was extracted. By the late nineteenth century, most palm oil exports consisted of inedible “hard” oil, produced with a labor-saving process that allowed fruit to soften naturally, although at the cost of rancid oil.12 This product was adequate for soap and other industrial uses, but by the turn of the twentieth century, buyers in the West began to demand edible palm oil for margarine and other foods. Instead of recognizing the factors that motivated the laborsaving hard oil process, foreign observers like William H. Lever complained about “wasteful, extravagant and costly” techniques that turned potential food into a substance fit for axle grease.13 Lever and other industrialists sought concessions for plantations and mills that could make soft oil cheaply, but they were rebuffed in British West Africa as local elites united with colonial officials to oppose monopolistic concessions.14 Lever turned to the Belgian Congo instead, and in Southeast Asia other investors soon established plantations with a high-yielding variety of oil palm, laying the foundations for the modern oil palm plantation industry.15 Instead of plantations, British administrations in West Africa continued to rely on the smallholder production of palm oil and other cash crops. Without exports to sell, Africans would not buy and pay taxes on imported cloth, liquor, and other goods, undermining the basis of colonial finances. Nigeria, the most important exporter of oil and kernels, enjoyed growing exports throughout the 1900–30 period, despite price shocks and growing competition. The palm-oil industry in Ghana seemed to be in a terminal pattern of decline, however. Initially, colonial officials complained of insufficient use of the palmeries, describing an “enormous waste of produce.” An 1889 report stated, “One walks among the thousands of splendid trees in full bearing with the nuts falling off ungathered.”16 In Ghana, alternative products like rubber and gold drew labor away from the palmeries, and the adoption of cocoa from the 1890s onward was an even stronger disincentive to invest land and labor in oil palms.17 Exports of palm produce fell dramatically from 1900 to 1940 while cocoa exports surged (figure 1). Gold Coast officials warned farmers against putting their “eggs in one basket” by specializing in cocoa, but they understood that the decline of the palm oil industry was “entirely due to the success of cocoa, in which the labour is less arduous and the returns greater.”18 Figure 1. Gold Coast palm produce exports and spirit imports, 1895–1940. *Figure for 1934. Year  Palm oil exports (tons)  Palm kernel exports (tons)  Spirit imports (imp. Gallons)  Palm produce as share of agricultural exports (% value)  1895  16,931  17,136  1,128,036  n/a  1900  17,030  12,811  1,043,734  45.51  1905  6,422  9,781  1,044,427  22.54  1910  8,216  14,182  1,459,350  21  1915  1,330  4,064  1,503,262  1.95  1920  2,530  7,664  179,597  3.09  1925  1,423  6,569  943,468  1.82  1930  489  5,470  479,999  1.11  1935  410  6,492  87,860*  0.93  1940  547  5,959  45,000  1.04  Year  Palm oil exports (tons)  Palm kernel exports (tons)  Spirit imports (imp. Gallons)  Palm produce as share of agricultural exports (% value)  1895  16,931  17,136  1,128,036  n/a  1900  17,030  12,811  1,043,734  45.51  1905  6,422  9,781  1,044,427  22.54  1910  8,216  14,182  1,459,350  21  1915  1,330  4,064  1,503,262  1.95  1920  2,530  7,664  179,597  3.09  1925  1,423  6,569  943,468  1.82  1930  489  5,470  479,999  1.11  1935  410  6,492  87,860*  0.93  1940  547  5,959  45,000  1.04  Sources: Gold Coast Annual Report, 1895–1939; La Anyane, Ghana Agriculture, 203–11; Akyeampong, Drink, Power, and Cultural Change, 85; House of Commons Deb., June 5, 1935, vol. 302, cc. 1848–49; HC Deb., February 4, 1942, vol. 377, cc. 1236–48. As they studied the colony’s forests, officials were displeased to discover that the trees that could be harvested for oil and kernels were being felled to make another commodity, palm wine. Like other palms, wine can be tapped from living oil palms, but in Ghana most tappers cut away roots of oil palms and felled them (figure 2), gathering sap from a hole cut in the trunk over several weeks (figure 3). Ghanaians preferred the taste of wine from felled palms, which was stronger than wine tapped from standing trees. As early as 1909, officials expressed concern about the “great destruction of Oil Palm” to supply growing urban centers like Cape Coast with palm wine.19 Along the coast, felled palms were being replaced with food crops while further inland farmers replaced palms with cocoa, breaking the cycle of forest fallow that had built up the “wild” palmeries. Colonial officials feared that the coastal belt would lose an important export if the palmeries disappeared, and they also noted the possibility of future shortages of palm oil in the local food supply. The Agricultural Department estimated the colony’s domestic consumption of palm oil at no less than a million gallons annually in the 1920s.20 Figure 2. View largeDownload slide The text accompanying this illustration of tree-felling warns that felling gives “a little palm wine” while the character’s “trees rot and his oil palms get fewer.” Credit: Gold Coast Agricultural Development Corporation, Mensah the Oil Palm Farmer (1956), 4. Figure 2. View largeDownload slide The text accompanying this illustration of tree-felling warns that felling gives “a little palm wine” while the character’s “trees rot and his oil palms get fewer.” Credit: Gold Coast Agricultural Development Corporation, Mensah the Oil Palm Farmer (1956), 4. Figure 3. View largeDownload slide Method of collecting sap from a felled trunk to make palm wine. Credit: Paul Hubert, Le Palmier à huile (1911), 77. Figure 3. View largeDownload slide Method of collecting sap from a felled trunk to make palm wine. Credit: Paul Hubert, Le Palmier à huile (1911), 77. The state had an economic interest in the preservation and expansion of oil palm groves, but it was also concerned about the fate of oil palms as part of the ecosystem. As Richard Grove has shown, many British officials embraced a “dessicationist” theory, which held that forest clearing invariably led to declining rainfall and desertification.21 Gold Coast officials pointed to the nearly treeless and dry Accra plain as proof that “uncontrolled deforestation was causing rapid climate change in the form of declining rainfall,” assuming that the state of the region reflected human impacts rather than natural forces.22 An agricultural official explained the dessicationist theory to a king in southeastern Ghana, the Konor of Krobo, in a 1914 letter: the Konor was urged to “instruct all your people to discontinue the practice of felling oil palms,” warning that if the Krobo continued to clear trees for palm wine and cocoa, they would “neither have oil palms or cocoa, as cocoa cannot thrive on a dry country and if all the oil palms are removed the country will soon be useless for cocoa or any other product.”23 Ghanaian elites successfully resisted colonial efforts to impose conservation measures, however. Beginning in the 1890s, they forcefully rejected legislation aimed at limiting rubber tapping and timber harvesting. There was little true wasteland or primeval forest in the coastal belt, but rather a mosaic of farmland, scrub, and forest produced by centuries of shifting cultivation and a changing climate.24 Colonial proposals to create forest reserves invariably meant the seizure of land from communities, even if the land appeared to be wilderness. In Ghana’s indigenous legal systems, all land was owned as individual, family, or chiefly (community) property. One Briton complained, “The native only claims [forest land] when a white man wants it,” but Ghanaian elites decried conservation and concession proposals as nothing less than “British Brigandism.”25 The British system of “indirect rule” in West Africa recognized the local authority of kings and chiefs over many matters in exchange for their cooperation with the colonial administration, and in Ghana this meant upholding indigenous land rights against claims from concessionaires and conservationists alike.26 MANAGING “NATURE’S BOUNTY” Ghanaian elites celebrated the defense of land rights against colonial assaults, but they nonetheless took strong positions against the felling of oil palms for wine on economic and moral grounds. In 1904 an editorialist wrote that felling palms destroyed a “God-given means of wealth.” He warned that “it should surprise no one when in the near future this useful tree becomes as rare as the fan-palm and the Bamboo.”27 Another columnist condemned “the reckless felling of palm oil trees for purpose of making palm wine,” noting that in his neighborhood “as many as 80 to 100 trees are felled [over 125 days] … the proceeds being only £11 only one half of which goes to the owner of the land.” If harvested for oil and kernels, these same trees might have yielded £22.50 worth of palm oil, to say nothing of income from the palm kernels, and of course “the trees would be still standing to yield its product in the following years.”28 With the encouragement of colonial agricultural officials, the Konor of Krobo passed a 1910 bylaw restricting the ability of Krobo farmers to buy forest land, in the hopes that the “Krobo people may be placed in a position to work their oil palm fields they already possess properly, and to avoid waste of forest lands.”29 Writing in 1914 under the pseudonym “Anamaboe,” one editorialist acknowledged “that palm wine is refreshing if not too heavy.” He pleaded for moderation, arguing that the desire to drink should not “deprive us of our money yielding property. We must treat them [oil palms] with a good deal of sense.”30 Another writer, “Africanus,” argued in 1917 that felling trees to “satisfy a temporary crave” was “a suicidal policy.” He blamed British colonialism for recent increases in palm felling: colonial authorities had usurped the regulatory role of chiefs and members of secret societies who controlled fruit harvesting and wine tapping, often with threats of “sanguinary punishment.” The British insisted on penalties “of a more humane character” that were insufficiently harsh to deter palm felling. “Africanus” called for chiefs to pass effective controls, warning, “If we do not legislate ourselves in the manner suggested, the British Government will do so in the not very far future and force us to acquiesce in the new order, willy-nilly.”31 Ghanaian elites shared the colonial government’s concerns about economic diversification, and they saw palm oil as a counterweight to the cocoa industry. “Africanus” argued that the long-lived oil palm was a safer investment than the cocoa tree, which declined in productivity after twenty years. The writer added, “It is possible to overstock the Cocoa market as is the case at present, while the demand for Palm produce is already great and will continue to be even more for many years to come.”32 Another critic noted that the collapse of cocoa prices during the First World War was a dose of hard medicine for cases of “cocoa fever” among Ghana’s farmers: “‘Blacks to go back to their old fashions,’ as the old adage says, Sankonu Wabe meaning, Go back to work your palms.”33 This agitation in defense of oil palms was not confined to Ghana. In Sierra Leone, writers implied that felling trees for wine was a new practice in the area, or one that had previously been rare. One columnist urged readers to “Save the Palms!” in a 1916 editorial. Describing rampant felling “for the purpose of extracting the sweeter kind of palm wine” on the Banana Islands, the columnist asked, “What can have been the matter with the Bananas people? Can they be so blind to their own interests? It is the palm tree that has made Sierra Leone what it is. Let it be destroyed, and the country is soon reduced to starvation.” The writer was sure the government would quickly end “the reckless and foolish career upon which they have embarked.”34 The rhetoric of wine tapping as economic suicide reflected the business interests of the Western-educated coastal elites who penned these pieces. Some were concerned about the social repercussions of palm wine consumption, however. As Emmanuel Akyeampong argued in his groundbreaking 1996 study of alcohol in Ghana, alcohol was important in religious and cultural practice, and its consumption served as a marker of status. Urbanization and the growth of the market economy during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries disrupted the sociocultural framework in which alcohol had traditionally been consumed, giving young men unprecedented opportunities to accumulate wealth—and drink alcohol—without the approval of elders. Ghanaian elites actively campaigned against drinking as part of a wider effort to reassert control over the labor of young men.35 Editorialists disparaged “school boys who have entirely devoted themselves to palm wine and other alcohol drinking,” invoking images of rowdy youths “with the fumes of stale palm wine mounted in the place where his brains would have been.”36 Other West Africans defended palm wine, however. The Gold Coast Nation called on readers to give up “rum and other imported dangerous alcohol drinks,” endorsing palm wine and maize beer (another popular locally made drink) as “inexpensive and non-injurious.”37 At a 1917 meeting of a Gold Coast agricultural club, Mr. La disparaged the “educated native” who “instead of drinking palm-wine (a penny-worth of which will easily quench his thirst or is even sufficient to intoxicate him) … thinks it manly or gentlemanly to take a European drink … which costs at least 3d. for the same effect.” La defended palm wine as part of a cultural patrimony that elites were rejecting in their rush to adopt European ways: “It is their idea that having attended school they are from head to foot whitemen.”38 “Frank Friend,” writing from Sierra Leone in 1911, urged his countrymen to “Give up your cigarettes smoking, civilized drinks &c. These things enervate the African. We have one natural drink, palm wine.”39 These writers rejected the Westernizing tendencies of their fellow elites, instead celebrating the idea of “the unsophisticated native African” living in nature and enjoying “the comparatively harmless juice of the palm.” “The African does not need, and is not put to the trouble of distilling ardent drinks,” argued one writer.40 Writers like “Frank Friend” linked their praise of palm wine to a broader critique of colonialism, seeing it as a project aimed at capturing African land and labor to serve metropolitan industries. Noting the threat that European plantations and concessions posed to land rights, “Frank Friend” warned his countrymen, “Do not idly think the country is being developed for you.”41 In a Gold Coast paper, an editorialist imagined an ancestor who “contented himself with his fill of palm wine, and stretched his half-nude form under the leafy palm tree in the glare of the noonday sun in the days when his Albion visitor cared not or perhaps knew not how to frame bills and promulgate ordinances to divest him of what he justly called his share of Nature’s bounty.” The writer warned that conservation regulations and plantation concessions would cost the youth “even a sip of the palm wine which gladdened the heart of his forefather.”42 In the colonial economy (at least so far as the state saw it), Africans obtained alcohol by exploiting the continent’s natural resources: palm oil was exchanged for liquor. These defenders of palm wine urged their countrymen to take advantage of “Nature’s bounty” instead of selling it away. Ownership of oil palms gave Africans access to food and alcohol, and power to influence the terms of engagement with the colonial system. PROHIBITION AND LANDSCAPE CHANGE Colonial officials and African elites debated the dangers of felling oil palms for wine throughout the first two decades of the twentieth century. The stakes of this debate were raised in 1919, as the victors of the First World War negotiated over the spoils of Germany’s empire in Africa. Germany had dominated the trade in cheap liquor before the war, and missionaries and temperance activists saw an opportunity to impose prohibition in the new mandatory states and across the rest of colonial Africa.43 A treaty signed in 1919 called for the general prohibition of cheap “trade spirits”—mostly German and Dutch in origin—as well as a ban on the local distillation of spirits in Africa.44 Although the treaty threatened to overturn a centuries-old trade in alcohol, some Africans supported the law. Chiefs in Ghana refused to accept outright prohibition of all alcohol, but they argued that a ban on cheap spirits would “undermine those activities of young men that elders found most threatening: binge drinking and womanizing.”45 The treaty had an unintended consequence, however. As drinkers saw the cheapest beverages disappear from the market, they drank more palm wine. The Gold Coast Agricultural Department estimated that palm wine production doubled after the ban took effect, with serious consequences for the region’s oil palm groves.46 The chiefly authorities who were responsible for managing rural land were unable to regulate palm felling. Property rights varied across Ghana, but generally speaking, farmers owned trees they or their ancestors had planted while wild palm groves were managed by chiefs for the community.47 Chiefs collected taxes on palm oil and kernels, and although they also taxed wine tapping, many expressed dismay at losing long-term income when groves were felled for wine. Chiefs found that they had little power to monitor wine tapping in the countryside, and alleged that trees were being felled without proper permissions. King Kojo Nkum begged colonial officials for help in 1922: “I have to inform your Worship that since the prohibition of Rum people have been spoiling many palm trees so much by the felling of them and if I could get the assistance of the Government to either put a stop to such willful acts and order be strictly made to tap the trees in very few numbers, I shall be so thankful as good many of the Chiefs, sub-Chiefs, Odikroes [headmen] and subjects have often made complaints to me about the trees.”48 While Nkum made reference to widespread intoxication in his letter, his main concern was, as one farmer put it, “the damage being done to the ancient Palm-oil and kernel industry in the quest for Palm wine.”49 In Sierra Leone, the Weekly News acknowledged that “the danger in palm wine drinking has grown” since the liquor ban, and that tapping palms was “certainly a menace to the development of the palm industry.” The paper nonetheless argued that it would be unjust to ban palm wine altogether.50 In Ghana, the colonial government loosened some liquor restrictions in the mid-1920s, but the rate of palm felling increased again when more restrictive laws were passed in 1930. These laws targeted the cheapest gin, responding to an outcry among Ghanaian elites against an alleged epidemic of drunkenness. Prices for foreign alcohol soared, just as prices for export commodities collapsed with the onset of the Depression. As liquor imports plummeted (figure 1), more and more Ghanaians turned to their palm trees for alcohol, accelerating the transformation of oil palm landscapes into farmland.51 Colonial officials immediately realized that the ban did not have anything like its desired effect. One reported, “Intoxication, I regret to say, would appear to be on the increase.”52 Palm wine sales were brisk. Over three days in September 1933, police officials counted 890 tins (3,560 imperial gallons) of palm wine being transported into the southeastern city of Koforidua. They estimated that 445 oil palms were felled to make this quantity of wine, yielding £0.15 per tree to share among the tree owner, tapper, and wine seller. An average tree might produce one to three gallons of palm oil annually, with a gallon of top-quality oil fetching up to £0.075 in Accra. The average export price for palm oil in 1933 was only £0.046 per gallon. When the cost of making and transporting palm oil is taken into account, the balance swung strongly in favor of palm wine.53 The 1930 legislation also inspired entrepreneurs to add value to palm wine by distilling it, raising its alcohol content from about 5 percent to 40 percent or higher. Ghanaians accustomed to imported liquor embraced this palm gin, or akpeteshie. Colonial police prosecuted only six cases of illicit distillation or distribution in 1930–31 but counted 558 in 1933–34.54 Records are scanty for this criminal enterprise, but the distillation process probably consumed at least eight gallons of palm wine to make one gallon of palm gin.55 Put another way, a gallon of imported gin was equivalent to the akpeteshie yield of one oil palm. Every gallon of liquor kept out by legislation meant another tree cut down. Unable to stop this booming business, some chiefs embraced it “as a source of wealth,” pocketing taxes on felled trees.56 Although data on alcohol consumption and palm density are incomplete and anecdotal, all observers agree that the rate of palm felling surged in the 1930s. A 1908 estimate suggests that Cape Coast consumed 10 gallons of wine (or 1.25 trees) per capita annually. The 1933 figures from Koforidua indicate an increase to 15 or even 36 gallons per capita, depending on whether the three days counted reflected daily deliveries or weekly marketing. At 15 gallons per capita, supplying the Gold Coast Colony’s 1.7 million people with palm wine in the 1930s would have consumed the equivalent of about 31,875 acres of dense groves annually, although the actual area affected was certainly much higher due to the varying density of palms across the landscape.57 The cumulative effects of the liquor bans, the emergence of the akpeteshie industry, and the broader process of clearing forestland for cocoa and other crops can be seen in colonial surveys of the oil palm region. A map produced in 1921 (figure 4) indicates a “dense” oil palm belt of approximately 4.2 million acres. It is impossible to say how much of this area was covered by palms, but the groves that did exist were often reported to have over 100 trees per acre before the 1920s. By the late 1930s, the “dense” belt was reduced to fewer than 1.9 million acres. More importantly, the average density of groves in the belt was reported to be only 25 trees per acre by 1936.58 A committee tasked with investigating palm felling in 1933 regretted that oil palms “should be sacrificed for immediate gain,” but the committee’s members clearly understood that thinning groves were a direct consequence of the liquor restrictions.59 Figure 4. View largeDownload slide Distribution of oil palms ca. 1921 in Ashanti (north) and the Western, Central, and Eastern Provinces of the Gold Coast Colony (south). The lightest shading indicates areas where oil palms were “growing everywhere”; the two darker shades indicate “dense” and “thick” groves. The white overlay shows the extent of “dense” oil palm groves mapped in the late 1930s. Credit: “Approximate Density of Oil Palms and Shea Nut Trees,” MPG 1/1072, The National Archives (UK); additional data from E. A. Gyasi, “Emergence of a New Oil Palm Belt in Ghana,” Tijdschrift voor economische en sociale geografie 83, no. 1 (1992). Figure 4. View largeDownload slide Distribution of oil palms ca. 1921 in Ashanti (north) and the Western, Central, and Eastern Provinces of the Gold Coast Colony (south). The lightest shading indicates areas where oil palms were “growing everywhere”; the two darker shades indicate “dense” and “thick” groves. The white overlay shows the extent of “dense” oil palm groves mapped in the late 1930s. Credit: “Approximate Density of Oil Palms and Shea Nut Trees,” MPG 1/1072, The National Archives (UK); additional data from E. A. Gyasi, “Emergence of a New Oil Palm Belt in Ghana,” Tijdschrift voor economische en sociale geografie 83, no. 1 (1992). When Ghanaian elites addressed the new problem of akpeteshie, they repeated earlier arguments against palm wine. Temperance crusaders like J. L. Hammond, who identified himself as a “subject of 45, patriotic, sympathetic, farmer … but of poor education,” drew on religious ideas in his 1935 petition asking for government action to stop the “war” on the oil palm, “every part [of which] is useful, and must be deemed sacred.” The self-described “Farmer, Defender of Palm Tree” feared that a sinful taste for strong drink was destroying a God-given resource.60 Tackie Otoo’s letter, quoted at the beginning of this article, focused on linked economic and social dangers. According to Tackie Otoo, his countrymen faced “inevitable doom” when they chose “the made-easy drink as a substitute for the trade spirits.”61 The “made-easy drink” was doubly damaging: oil palm landscapes that might support the palm oil export industry were destroyed while the cheapness of palm wine and akpeteshie gave young men little incentive to labor in the palmeries or in other industries. PROBLEMS WITH THE “PALM WINE PROBLEM” As early as 1923, acting Gold Coast governor J. C. Maxwell surveyed his staff and experts in the United Kingdom about actions to halt palm felling. Experts at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew identified a “palm tree belt” and suggested protecting palms with forest reserves, despite the history of local resistance to such ideas. The Conservator of Forests in Accra liked the idea and asked for a law “making it compulsory on all owners of Oil Palm groves to reserve a maximum of one-third and a minimum of one-fifth of their holdings.” The commissioner for Ashanti seconded the proposal, although much of Ashanti was outside the proposed belt. Officers in districts with high concentrations of oil palms vehemently opposed the plan. The Central Province commissioner warned that reserves would “meet with fierce opposition” from tree owners, although he predicted that chiefs would loyally support whatever decrees the government issued. The Eastern Province commissioner questioned the premise of the discussion, saying he was “not at all sure that imprudent felling of Oil Palm trees does take place in his province.” In his view, “the country is not yet ripe for the adoption of a protective policy.” Throughout the debate, officials recognized that trees in palmeries were owned by Ghanaians, but they nonetheless argued that palms represented a natural resource that the state had an interest in preserving. For his own part, Maxwell was sure that “[t]he African is fully alive to the value of the Palm Tree in districts where he gets a ready sale for the products.”62 Colonial Secretary G. S. Northcote supported forest reserves in principle, but he stressed in a later memo that education was a better course than regulation. Echoing the discourse of the Ghanaian elites, Northcote argued that Ghanaians would eventually learn “their duties toward posterity and of the foolishness of squandering a prospective source of wealth.”63 Faced with similar pressures, French colonial authorities in West Africa banned oil palm felling. One expert scoffed that “the natives do not hesitate to sacrifice” oil palms when they wanted “their favorite drink,” but real enforcement proved impossible.64 The Gold Coast Agriculture Department recognized that palm wine was “a comparatively important source of revenue to the owners [of trees],” concluding that prohibition of palm felling was “impossible and would indeed be unjust.” Still, the department called for “a guiding hand” to protect oil palms “in the interests of posterity.”65 Ultimately the colonial government turned to the tools of indirect rule, encouraging chiefs to establish ordinances and bylaws protecting palm trees. A 1935 law from Dixcove, a town west of Sekondi, was typical: “No person shall fell, injure, or destroy any oil palm tree unless he or she has obtained the permission of his or her chief so to do… . Whenever permission has been obtained to fell oil palm trees for the purpose of making palm wine for sale or private consumption, for every oil palm tree felled unless there is another oil palm tree within five yards thereof two fresh oil palm trees shall be planted by the party felling as aforesaid near the place where the tree was felled.”66 Offenders could be punished with a £5 fine or two months of hard labor, although officials told chiefs that they did not expect laws to be enforced rigorously: “the maximum fine should not as a rule be inflicted,” wrote one officer.67 While officials urged chiefs to plant and protect palms, Governor Guggisberg candidly remarked that bylaws were not “going to do any good in restricting the cutting down of palm trees.”68 In 1930 Governor Slater quoted a French counterpart who asserted, “If you want to restrict the manufacture of palm wine you must have a policeman at the foot of every tree.”69 In addition to regulations on felling and tree-planting mandates, Gold Coast officials tried to teach “more laborious, but less destructive” tapping methods.70 The Agriculture Department brought skilled Mende tappers from Sierra Leone to demonstrate ways to tap the stem and inflorescences of palms without killing the tree, but Ghanaians roundly preferred “the beverage prepared from the felled palms.”71 Some officials resorted to racist stereotypes to explain the preference for felling, such as the district commissioner who declared, “The native I believe prefers cutting down the tree merely because he is too lazy to tap it.”72 Yet besides producing a less desirable wine, tapping live trees required climbing the tree repeatedly to collect sap, a task performed with a sling around the trunk (figure 5). This dangerous and arduous work also left a container full of sap on the tree, creating “a most congenial breeding place” for insect pests.73 Felling a tree was more sensible, at least in places with an abundant supply of palms. Figure 5. View largeDownload slide This photograph, probably taken in Sierra Leone or Nigeria, depicts the climbing method commonly used to ascend oil palm trunks for wine tapping as well as fruit harvesting. The climber carries a container for collecting sap from the stem or inflorescences at the top of the tree, a method that did not kill trees but required frequent trips up the trunk to collect sap. Credit: Mary Kingsley, West African Studies (1899), 63. Figure 5. View largeDownload slide This photograph, probably taken in Sierra Leone or Nigeria, depicts the climbing method commonly used to ascend oil palm trunks for wine tapping as well as fruit harvesting. The climber carries a container for collecting sap from the stem or inflorescences at the top of the tree, a method that did not kill trees but required frequent trips up the trunk to collect sap. Credit: Mary Kingsley, West African Studies (1899), 63. Ghanaian writers like Tackie Otoo argued that the future of the palmeries was grim, thanks to lax enforcement of palm-felling rules: “Today the whole thing looks like getting out of hand.”74 Elite voices like Tackie Otoo’s are loudest in the archive, but their influence on colonial policy and on the actions of their compatriots was limited. In fact, colonial officials who investigated palm felling often found a counternarrative that questioned the ecological, economic, and moral dangers of palm felling. When asked, the king of Teshie insisted in 1908 that only “old fruitless trees” were cut for wine. The influential lawyer John Atta Mills made a similar claim, telling the colonial secretary that felling oil palms had “the effect of improving the growth of both the [surviving] trees and the quality of the nuts produced.” Mills, writing on behalf of the Gold Coast Aborigines Rights’ Protection Society (ARPS), an important group in the fight to defend local land rights from forest reserves and plantation concessions, concluded that felling trees for wine “does little or no harm at all to the palm trees in the [Central] province generally.”75 J. E. Casely Hayford, another prominent lawyer active in the ARPS, insisted in 1912 that farmers were not recklessly clearing forest, but rather selectively protected oil palms to shade young cocoa trees on new farms.76 Rising alcohol prices during the First World War increased pressure on palm groves, but a British expert interviewed by a wartime committee stated that “probably only useless trees” were felled to make wine.77 Agricultural officials generally agreed with this prognosis, and they even suggested in a 1918 report that “palms are usually growing too closely together and if intelligent discretion is shown in thinning them out for this purpose [palm wine tapping] no very serious consequences need be anticipated.”78 After the surge in palm wine consumption that followed the 1919 liquor ban, an official could still report, “People are almost to a man of the opinion that there are already plenty of palms and that such as are cut down will eventually be replaced by natural agencies.” The same writer noted that “the more enlightened chiefs now realise the danger of excessive destruction of their palms,” although he argued that “The people will not see the necessity of further planting whilst the palm oil trade remains in its present inactive condition.”79 As late as 1936, well into the akpeteshie era, the Agricultural Department condoned felling trees for wine, noting that “in many areas the palms grow too profusely and considerable improvement could be effected by fairly drastic thinning.”80 The anthropologist Margaret Field insisted that—at least among her Krobo informants—“Palm trees are never felled solely for the sake of their palm-wine but only when the trees require thinning out. No palm is cut down without a sense of guilt and a ceremonial apology.”81 While she praised Krobo practice, Field did argue that other groups were less scrupulous. She warned of a “serious social problem” in other communities, but the problem was alcoholism, not deforestation.82 Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, officials responded with indifference to a steady stream of complaints about palm felling. They insisted that “The facts that palm wine drinking is reprehensively excessive, or the destruction of palm trees a serious problem, are by no means conclusively established.”83 While the 1930 laws and the spread of distillation undoubtedly increased the rate of palm felling, Gold Coast officials continued to question the social, economic, and environmental cases for palm wine regulation. In a 1931 minute, one official argued, “1) There is practically no definite evidence leading to the supposition that drunkenness from palm wine in the Gold Coast and Ashanti amounts to a definite evil. 2) The same can be said of its effects on the health of the consumers. 3) It is by no means established that it is either necessary or possible to attempt to protect the trees by legislative action.”84 One metropolitan official made the surprising argument that making palm wine and akpeteshie was “simply an offence against the law, and more particularly the public revenue.” He failed to see what the state gained from criminalizing these acts.85 In the mind of the colonial government, the freedom of property owners to use their trees as they wished took priority over concerns about the ecological and social consequences of palm felling and wine drinking. As the Gold Coast attorney general remarked in a 1939 memo, “Palm wine is the national beverage. In the good old days Englishmen were free to brew theirs—beer.”86 Nigeria’s governor remarked that Africans were making alcohol no matter what measures were imposed, and that “a large number of natives, a growing number, are imbibing the lesson of defiance of the law, which in a country like this is a very dangerous lesson.”87 The inability of chiefs and colonial officials to control the use of palms spread across a vast countryside exposed the fragility of colonial rule. By 1933 the Ghanaian members of the Gold Coast Legislative Council unanimously advocated rolling back restrictions on imported liquor in the hopes that Ghanaians would return to foreign gin, stop illicit distillation, and spare their oil palms. Lawlessness in the palm belt was now seen as a greater danger than drunkenness.88 As Akyeampong argues, colonial efforts to suppress akpeteshie turned the drink into a rallying point for the anticolonial movement, creating “a symbol in the struggle of the working classes against the snobbish upper classes, traditional authorities, and the colonial state.”89 Urban consumers embraced akpeteshie as an indigenous drink and asserted their freedom to choose how and what they would drink. For tappers and tree owners, palm wine and akpeteshie were ways of making money outside the colonial export economy. Cutting down a tree was a powerful act of defiance against a colonial state that sought to regulate how Ghanaians used their land. CONCLUSION: FROM EXPORTER TO IMPORTER New tapping methods, forest reserves, local bylaws, and the prosecution of distillers ultimately had little impact on the ways in which Ghanaians used oil palms. Officials dutifully noted concerns about deforestation and desertification through the 1930s, but the logic of “imperial ecology” or “empire forestry” was far from hegemonic in Ghana.90 A 1936 agricultural report neatly captured the government’s understanding of oil palm felling, one that reflected a nuanced grasp of the ways in which political and economic forces influenced human interactions with the environment. Ghanaians would plant oil palms instead of felling them as soon as “the production of palm oil and palm kernels can be made more profitable than producing palm wine. If this can be done the Chiefs and owners of the palms will be loath to allow their palms to be cut down; and instead of the palms decreasing in number an increase could be expected.”91 Economics prevailed over environmental concerns, although colonial officials continued to be skeptical that oil palms were in any actual danger. As late as 1952, officials lamented the effects of wine tapping on trees while paradoxically observing that “many palms in the main belt are not fully utilised [for palm oil].”92 Perhaps the best example of this late-colonial ambiguity was Mensah the Oil Palm Farmer, a 1956 booklet that urged Ghanaians to “Preserve your palm trees for future prosperity.” The titular character is criticized for felling palms for “a little palm wine” (figure 2), but the agricultural officer who intervenes says nothing about palm felling as a definite evil. Instead, he introduces new machines and teaches Mensah to plant new tree varieties that will make palm oil and kernel production more profitable than wine tapping (figure 6).93 Figure 6. View largeDownload slide Colonial officials hoped that improved yields from new farming practices would help convince oil palm owners to harvest their fruit instead of felling palms for wine. Credit: Gold Coast Agricultural Development Corporation, Mensah the Oil Palm Farmer (1956), 20. Figure 6. View largeDownload slide Colonial officials hoped that improved yields from new farming practices would help convince oil palm owners to harvest their fruit instead of felling palms for wine. Credit: Gold Coast Agricultural Development Corporation, Mensah the Oil Palm Farmer (1956), 20. Most Ghanaian farmers in oil palm regions did not follow Mensah’s example. According to geographer E. A. Gyasi, the dense groves of the “old palm oil belt” were practically gone by the 1960s.94 Oral testimony collected in the 1990s reported a consensus among elders that akpeteshie was to blame for the shrinking number of oil palms.95 Contemporary researchers still criticize “destructive” and “clearly wasteful” tapping methods, linking ideas of conservation and development with a lingering notion that alcohol is an inferior use of the tree.96 The decline of Ghana’s palmeries was not simply a case of overconsumption, however. Felling trees for wine was not inherently unsustainable but became so under colonial rule. Denied access to imported liquor by the state and prohibitionist elites, Ghanaians turned the very trees whose fruit paid for those imported drinks into alcohol. Other factors, like the success of a novel introduced tree crop—cocoa—made oil palm an unattractive investment. Farmers kept palms for domestic use but had little incentive to plant or preserve groves that they could not profitably harvest. Felling palms for wine was a significant, if short-lived, source of income, and it was a necessary step in reallocating land for more lucrative crops. Moreover, a growing population and an influx of migrant farmers placed greater pressure on forest regions, limiting the range in which oil palms could regenerate. These political, economic, and demographic pressures were compounded by the climate of Ghana’s oil palm belt, which is in the lower range of the tree’s rainfall requirements.97 Palm felling did have consequences. Southern Ghana did not turn into a desert, as colonial scientists feared, but it lost an export industry. More importantly, the country has struggled since the 1960s to supply itself with edible fat. In 2013 Ghana imported 136,111 tons of refined palm oil, much of it from Southeast Asia. This import dependency is a stark reversal for a country that had been a leading exporter of palm oil a century and a half earlier.98 Felling trees for wine in Ghana thus contributed to another process of landscape change in Malaysia and Indonesia, where oil palm plantations continue to expand at the expense of peatland and forests. A new “oil palm belt” is emerging in Ghana, however, in response to local demand for oil.99 In 1936 a Gold Coast official noted that the wild palmeries (and the rights associated with them) were obstacles to replanting with higher yielding palm varieties. “In Nigeria and Sierra Leone the native cannot be persuaded to destroy the palm,” he remarked. The willingness of Ghanaian farmers to cut down palms, coupled with changes in land tenure brought by the cocoa boom, promised to clear the way for a new kind of oil palm landscape.100 This prediction was premature, but since the 1980s large- and small-scale oil palm plantations have been expanding in Ghana. Planting oil palms, rather than felling them, is now seen as the most serious danger to forests across West Africa. This industry relies on what is, in effect, a new tree: short, fast maturing, and high yielding, commercial oil palm varieties are much more profitable to grow and harvest than their native ancestors. While Ghanaians are rapidly adapting to this new industry, they continue to value the fruit of “wild” palm varieties, and they see palm wine as a legitimate use of both wild and plantation palms, especially when trees are too tall to harvest easily.101 The versatility of the tree means that, as one British official put it, “practically every man has a public-house in his own back garden.”102 Jonathan Robinsis author of Cotton and Race across the Atlantic: Britain, Africa, and America, 1900–1920 (University of Rochester Press, 2016) and is assistant professor of global history at Michigan Technological University. Notes Thanks are due to Mr. Bright Botwe and the rest of the PRAAD Accra branch staff for their patient assistance locating and retrieving records. Early versions of this article were presented at the 2015 Commodities of Empire workshop and the 2016 African Studies Association conference, and participants at both events gave valuable feedback. I am especially grateful to Lisa Brady and the journal’s anonymous readers for their careful criticism and helpful suggestions. 1. E. Tackie Otoo to colonial secretary, May 27, 1936, CSO 8/3/3, Public Records and Archives Administration Department, Accra (hereafter cited as PRAAD-Accra). 2. For an introduction, see Lynn Pan, Alcohol in Colonial Africa (Helsinki: Finnish Foundation for Alcohol Studies, 1975); Deborah Fahy Bryceson, Alcohol in Africa: Mixing Business, Pleasure, and Politics (Portsmouth: Heinemann, 2002). 3. Emmanuel Akyeampong, Drink, Power, and Cultural Change: A Social History of Alcohol in Ghana, c. 1800 to Recent Times (Portsmouth: Heinemann, 1996); Simon Heap, “Those That Are Cooking the Gins: The Business of Ogogoro in Nigeria during the 1930s,” Contemporary Drug Problems 35 (2008): 573; Chima J. Korieh, “Alcohol and Empire: ‘Illicit’ Gin Prohibition and Control in Colonial Eastern Nigeria,” African Economic History 31 (2003): 111–34. 4. See Akyeampong, Drink, Power, and Cultural Change, 25. Felling was not exclusive to Ghana; see, for example, Paul Hubert, Le palmier à huile (Paris: H. Dunod et E. Pinat, 1911), 79–81. 5. The British Gold Coast was composed of the Gold Coast Colony, Ashanti, the Northern Territories, and after 1918, the east bank of the Volta (part of former German Togoland). I use “Ghana” to refer to the entire colonial state, but most of the article concerns the Gold Coast Colony proper. 6. Peder Anker, Imperial Ecology: Environmental Order in the British Empire, 1895–1945 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001); quote from Richard H. Grove and Toyin Falola, “Chiefs, Boundaries, and Sacred Woodlands: Early Nationalism and the Defeat of Colonial Conservationism in the Gold Coast and Nigeria, 1870–1916,” African Economic History 24 (1996): 1. See discussion in Thaddeus Sunseri, Wielding the Ax: State Forestry and Social Conflict in Tanzania, 1820–2000 (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2009), xvi–xxi; Karen Brown, “‘Trees, Forests and Communities’: Some Historiographical Approaches to Environmental History on Africa,” Area 35, no. 4 (December 1, 2003): 344–45; see also Gregory Barton, Empire Forestry and the Origins of Environmentalism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002); William Beinart and Lotte Hughes, Environment and Empire (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), chaps. 7, 12; Helen Tilley, Africa as a Living Laboratory: Empire, Development, and the Problem of Scientific Knowledge, 1870–1950 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), chap. 3. 7. As Grove and Falola argue, indigenous elites were the real drivers of forest use in West Africa due to the weakness of the colonial state. “Chiefs, Boundaries, and Sacred Woodlands,” 20. 8. This article follows McCann’s argument that political—rather than natural—factors were most important in shaping the ways in which humans interacted with African environments. (Green Land, Brown Land, Black Land: An Environmental History of Africa, 1800–1990 [Portsmouth: Heinemann, 1999]). The cocoa literature offers a more nuanced discussion of the ways in which human interactions with other organisms, soils, and climates shaped Ghanaian history, especially Joseph Morgan Hodge, “Colonial Foresters versus Agriculturalists: The Debate over Climate Change and Cocoa Production in the Gold Coast,” Agricultural History 83, no. 2 (Spring 2009): 201–20; Corey Ross, “The Plantation Paradigm: Colonial Agronomy, African Farmers, and the Global Cocoa Boom, 1870s–1940s,” Journal of Global History 9, no. 1 (March 2014). 9. R. H. V. Corley and P. B. Tinker, The Oil Palm, 5th ed. (Chichester: Wiley Blackwell, 2015). 10. On anthropogenic groves, see A. C. Zeven, The Semi-Wild Oil Palm and Its Industry in Africa (Wageningen: Centre for Agricultural Publications and Documents, 1967); Donna J. E. Maier, “Precolonial Palm Oil Production and Gender Division of Labor in Nineteenth-Century Gold Coast and Togoland,” African Economic History 37, no. 1 (2009): 7–8; on climate issues, see Jean Maley and Alex Chepstow-Lusty, “Elaeis Guineensis Jacq. (Oil Palm) Fluctuations in Central Africa during the Late Holocene: Climate or Human Driving Forces for This Pioneering Species?” Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 10, no. 2 (2001): 117–20. For descriptions of Ghana’s palmeries, see E. A. Gyasi, “Emergence of a New Oil Palm Belt in Ghana,” Tijdschrift Voor Economische En Sociale Geografie 83, no. 1 (1992): 39–49; James Fairhead and Melissa Leach, Reframing Deforestation: Global Analyses and Local Realities: Studies in West Africa (London: Routledge, 1998), chap. 4. 11. Martin Lynn, Commerce and Economic Change in West Africa: The Palm Oil Trade in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002); Ayodeji Olukoju, “The United Kingdom and the Political Economy of the Global Oils and Fats Business during the 1930s,” Journal of Global History 4, no. 1 (March 2009): 105–25. 12. The “soft” process involved at least three times more labor than “hard” processes. Lynn, Commerce and Economic Change, 49; J. M. Sarbah, “The Oil Palm and Its Uses,” Journal of the Royal African Society 8 (1909): 232–50. 13. Harry Clyde Billows and Harold Beckwith, Palm Oil and Kernels (Liverpool: Birchall, 1913), 7. 14. K. Dike Nworah, “The Politics of Lever’s West African Concessions, 1907–1913,” The International Journal of African Historical Studies 5, no. 2 (1972): 248–64. The Gold Coast government did pass later concession laws, but they failed to attract investment. A. Baron Holmes, “The Gold Coast and Nigeria,” in Tropical Development, 1880–1913: Studies in Economic Progress, ed. W. Arthur Lewis (London: Allen & Unwin, 1970), 172. 15. Anne Phillips, The Enigma of Colonialism: British Policy in West Africa (London: Currey, 1989); for Southeast Asia, see Susan M. Martin, The UP Saga (Copenhagen: NIAS Press, 2004); Thee Kian Wie, “Colonial Extraction in the Indonesian Archipelago: A Long Historical View,” in Colonial Exploitation and Economic Development: The Belgian Congo and the Netherlands Indies Compared, ed. Ewout Frankema and Frans Buelens (London: Routledge, 2013), 41–59. 16. W. F. Hutchinson, “Report of the Commission on Economic Agriculture in the Gold Coast,” 1889, 149–150, ADM 5/3/7, PRAAD-Accra. 17. Polly Hill, The Migrant Cocoa-Farmers of Southern Ghana: A Study in Rural Capitalism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1963); Gareth Austin, Labour, Land, and Capital in Ghana: From Slavery to Free Labour in Asante, 1807–1956 (Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2005); McCann, Green Land, 109–40. 18. Correspondence and memos, ca. 1910–23, ADM 11/1/821; Ormsby-Gore Report, 140, ADM 5/3/24, PRAAD-Accra. 19. H. C. W. Grimshaw, Report 1001/09, August 3, 1909, ADM 11/1/151, PRAAD-Accra. 20. Agriculture Department annual report for 1922–23, 17, ADM 5/1/79, PRAAD-Accra. 21. Grove and Falola, “Chiefs, Boundaries, and Sacred Woodlands”; Richard H. Grove, Ecology, Climate and Empire: Colonialism and Global Environmental History, 1400–1940 (Cambridge: White Horse Press, 1997); see also McCann, Green Land, 57–60. The most important critique of colonial forestry science and policy in West Africa remains James Fairhead and Melissa Leach, Misreading the African Landscape: Society and Ecology in a Forest-Savanna Mosaic (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996). 22. Hodge, “Colonial Foresters,” 202. 23. Acting Director of Agriculture to Sir Emmanuel Mate Kole, Konor of Manya Krobo, April 17, 1914, SC 17/365, PRAAD-Accra. 24. Fairhead and Leach, Reframing Deforestation, chap. 4. 25. Testimony of Mr. Trevor, Minutes of Evidence of the Committee on Edible and Oil-Producing Nuts and Seeds, 1915, Cd. 8428, at 5553; Grove and Falola, “Chiefs, Boundaries, and Sacred Woodlands,” 11. 26. Roger Gocking, History of Ghana (Westport: Greenwood, 2005), chap. 3; for British land policy, see K. D. Nworah, “The Liverpool ‘Sect’ and British West African Policy, 1895–1915,” African Affairs 70, no. 281 (1971): 349–64; Olufemi Omosini, “The Gold Coast Land Question, 1894–1900: Some Issues Raised on West Africa’s Economic Development,” International Journal of African Historical Studies 5, no. 3 (1972): 453–69. 27. Supplement, “River Volta and Croboe District,” Gold Coast Leader, December 24, 1904, 1. 28. “Are We Drifting?” Gold Coast Leader, September 19–26, 1908, 3. 29. Untitled proposal, December 13, 1910, Mate Kole Papers, SC 17/31, PRAAD-Accra. 30. Editorial, Gold Coast Nation, February 19, 1914, 534. 31. “Our Economic Possibilities,” Gold Coast Leader, September 8, 1917, 5. 32. Ibid. 33. The same expression (sankonuabe, Twi) was used to describe a cocoa disease. “Agricultural Mutual Improvement Association,” Gold Coast Nation, April 7, 1917, 5. 34. “Save the Palms!” Sierra Leone Weekly News, April 15, 1916, 8. 35. Akyeampong, Drink, Power, and Cultural Change, chap. 4. 36. Oku Abu, “Friendly Counsel to Drunkards,” Gold Coast Leader, January 23, 1909, supplement; Sierra Leone Times, June 17, 1899, 2. 37. “Notes and Comments,” Gold Coast Nation, September 9, 1915, 1068. Pouring libations and consuming alcohol were at the center of indigenous religious practice in many parts of West Africa. Imported liquor displaced beer, wine, and water in many rituals as early as the seventeenth century. Akyeampong, Drink, Power, and Cultural Change, 6–8, 21–46. 38. “Agricultural Mutual Improvement Association,” Gold Coast Nation, April 7, 1917, 5. 39. “Frank Friend,” Sierra Leone Guardian, April 14, 1911, 6. 40. Gold Coast Leader, April 1907 [day illegible]. 41. “Frank Friend,” Sierra Leone Guardian, April 14, 1911, 6. 42. “The Gold Coast Youngman of Today,” Gold Coast Nation, January 8, 1914, 502. 43. Raymond E. Dumett, “The Social Impact of the European Liquor Trade on the Akan of Ghana (Gold Coast and Asante), 1875–1910,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 5, no. 1 (1974): 69; Virginia Berridge, Demons: Our Changing Attitudes to Alcohol, Tobacco, and Drugs (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 136–37. 44. “Convention Relating to the Liquor Traffic in Africa and Protocol,” American Journal of International Law 15, no. 4 (1921): 322–28. 45. Akyeampong, Drink, Power, and Cultural Change, 68. 46. La-Anyane, Ghana Agriculture, 114. 47. See testimony in “Land Tenure Laws re: Cocoa and Oil Palm,” ADM 11/1/1241, PRAAD-Accra. See also Neal M. Goldman, “Fallible Justice: The Dilemma of the British in the Gold Coast, 1874–1944” (PhD diss., City University of New York, 2016), 481–543; Zeven, Semi-Wild Oil Palm, 99–104. 48. Omanhene Kojo Nkum to DC Winnebah, March 9, 1922, “Palm Oil Records, Oda District,” ADM 36/1/11, PRAAD-Accra. 49. “Anokwalefo,” Gold Coast Independent, October 14, 1922, 467. 50. “The Governor’s Address,” Sierra Leone Weekly News, December 30, 1922, 8–9. 51. Akyeampong, Drink, Power, and Cultural Change, 97. 52. Oda DC to Commissioner, Central Province, May 28, 1930 [illegible], ADM 36/1/11, PRAAD-Accra. 53. The 1933 oil prices were double what they were in 1932, however. Memo from Koforidua, Provincial Communications Office, October 10, 1933, CSO 8/3/3, PRAAD-Accra; Ewout Frankema and Marlous van Waijenburg, Gold Coast Prices Data Set, http://www.iisg.nl/hpw/data.php#africa. 54. Akyeampong, Drink, Power, and Cultural Change, 98. 55. Heap, “Cooking the Gins,” 584. 56. E. Tackie Otoo to Colonial Secretary, May 27, 1936, CSO 8/3/3, PRAAD-Accra. 57. Consumption estimates from J. A. Mills to SNA, October 3, 1908, ADM 11/1/1144; Walker to Eastern Province Commissioner, August 22, 1921, ADM 11/1/1241. Figures assume 8 gallons of wine per tree; population figures from Gold Coast Annual Report for 1934–35. Area figure is for Gold Coast and Ashanti west of the Volta, derived from MPG 1/1072, TNA; Gyasi, “Oil Palm Belt,” 40. 58. A “cultivated” grove at 67 trees per acre was considered ideal in 1908, although groves with over 100 trees per acre were frequently reported. Eric Drabble, “A Short Note on the Possibilities of the Oil Palm in Cultivation,” Liverpool Institute of Commercial Research in the Tropics Quarterly Journal 3, no. 6 (1908): 15–19; Shephard, Report on the Economics of Peasant Agriculture in the Gold Coast (Accra: Government Printing Department, 1936), 78. Gyasi’s review indicates maximum densities of only forty to fifty trees per acre by the 1930s (“Oil Palm Belt,” 42). 59. Director of Agriculture to Colonial Secretary, March 28, 1933, CSO 8/3/3, PRAAD-Accra. 60. While there was an ample stock of local tradition supporting Hammond’s claims about the sacred nature of the oil palm tree, he chose to cite Revelation 7:9, which refers to date palm fronds. J. L. Hammond to Governor, September 25, 1935, CSO 8/3/3, PRAAD-Accra. 61. E. Tackie Otoo to Colonial Secretary, May 27, 1936, CSO 8/3/3, PRAAD-Accra. 62. Acting Governor Maxwell to Duke of Devonshire, July 27, 1923, ADM 36/1/11, PRAAD-Accra. 63. Memo, G. S. Northcote, 1933, in CSO 8/3/3, PRAAD-Accra. 64. My translation. Paul Hubert, Le palmier à huile, 79–81. The French had a temperance agenda but paradoxically hoped to encourage consumption of French wine. See Owen White, “Drunken States: Temperance and French Rule in Côte d’Ivoire, 1908–1916,” Journal of Social History 40, no. 3 (Spring 2007): 663–84. 65. Agriculture Department annual report for 1922–1923, 10, ADM 5/1/79, PRAAD-Accra. 66. Bye law no. 100 F, 1935, Dixcove paramount chief, CSO 8/3/8, PRAAD-Accra. See also Manya Krobo bye-laws, CSO 8/3/6, PRAAD-Accra. 67. Secretary for Native Affairs to Central Province, April 20, 1923, ADM 36/1/11, PRAAD-Accra; see also DC Western Akim to Omanhenes, April 16, 1936, ADM 36/1/11, PRAAD-Accra. 68. Minute, Governor Guggisberg, March 12, 1924, ADM 36/1/11, PRAAD-Accra. 69. R. Slater, “The Gold Coast: Some Facts and Figures,” Journal of the Royal African Society 29, no. 116 (July 1930): 347. 70. Shephard, Peasant Agriculture, 77. 71. Agricultural Department annual report for 1925–26, 9, ADM 5/1/83, PRAAD-Accra; La-Anyane, Ghana Agriculture, 115. 72. H. W. Thomas to Commissioner Central Province, April 22, 1922, ADM 36/1/11, PRAAD-Accra. 73. James Steele, Agricultural Department, to CCP, July 14, 1923, ADM 36/1/11, PRAAD-Accra. 74. E. Tackie Otoo to Colonial Secretary, May 27, 1936, CSO 8/3/3, PRAAD-Accra. 75. Nikotey Mantshe to DC Accra, September 25, 1908, and J. A. Mills to SNA, October 3, 1903, ADM 11/1/1144, PRAAD-Accra. 76. Goldman, “Fallible Justice,” 573. 77. Committee on Edible and Oil-Producing Nuts and Seeds, Minutes of Evidence, Cd. 8248 (London: HMSO, 1916), 124. 78. Agricultural Department annual report for 1918, 13, ADM 5/1/75, PRAAD-Accra. 79. Provincial Superintendent of Agriculture A. B. Culham to CCP, April 10, 1924, ADM 36/1/11, PRAAD-Accra. 80. Agricultural Department report for 1935–36, ADM 5/1/94, PRAAD-Accra. 81. Dr. M. J. Field, report on Manya Krobo land affairs, 1940–41, CSO 21/22/177, PRAAD-Accra. 82. Field, “Agricultural System,” 58. 83. Enclosure, ca. 1929, in file 124a, CSO 8/3/3, PRAAD-Accra. 84. Minute, August 27, 1931, CSO 8/3/3, PRAAD-Accra. 85. Minute, Mr. Thorne (?), “Illicit Distillation of Spirits,” CO 554/89/14; Minute, W. J. A. Jones, September 29, 1931, CO 96/700/6, TNA. 86. Memo, May 17, 1939, CSO 8/3/3, PRAAD-Accra. 87. Cameron to Maffey, July 31, 1934, enclosed in “Palm Oil and Palm Kernels, West Africa,” CO 554/95/16, TNA. 88. Dmitri van den Bersselaar, The King of Drinks: Schnapps Gin from Modernity to Tradition (Leiden: Brill, 2007), 174–84. 89. Akyeampong, Drink, Power, and Cultural Change, 116. 90. Anker, Imperial Ecology; Barton, Empire Forestry, 157. 91. Report, Agricultural Investigation Station, Cape Coast, September 21, 1936, ADM 36/1/11, PRAAD-Accra. 92. Agricultural Department Report for 1951–52, 4, ADM 5/1/163, PRAAD-Accra. 93. Gold Coast Agricultural Development Corporation, Mensah the Oil Palm Farmer (Accra, 1956). 94. Gyasi, “Oil Palm Belt.” 95. Daniel L. Bergert, “Management Strategies of Elaeis Guineensis (Oil Palm) in Response to Localized Markets in Southeastern Ghana, West Africa” (MS thesis, Michigan Technological University, 2000), 82–84; see also Betty Adjei, “The Making of Quality: A Technography Study of Small Scale Palm Oil Processing in Ghana” (PhD diss., University of Wageningen, 2014), 3. 96. Corley and Tinker, Oil Palm, 481; Yavo Eric Norbert Béhi et al., “Le Vin de Palme, Aliment et Source de Revenu Pour Les Populations Rurales en Côte d’Ivoire,” Schweizerische Zeitschrift Fur Forstwesen 153, no. 4 (April 2002): 128. 97. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, “Changes in Shifting Cultivation in Africa,” Unasylva 37, no. 4 (1985); Gyasi, “Oil Palm Belt,” 42. 98. Food and Agriculture Organization Corporate Statistical Database, 2017, http://www.fao.org/faostat. 99. Gyasi, “Oil Palm Belt”; Cyril Kofie Daddieh, “Contract Farming and Palm Oil Production in Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana,” in Living Under Contract: Contract Farming and Agrarian Transformation in Sub-Saharan Africa (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1994), 188–215. 100. Shephard, Peasant Agriculture, 78. 101. Paul S. Huddleston, “Contract Farming in Oil Palm: The Case of Ghana and the Philippines” (PhD diss., University of Western Australia, 2006), 245; Kojo Amanor, Global Restructuring and Land Rights in Ghana: Forest Food Chains, Timber, and Rural Livelihoods (Uppsala: Nordic Africa Institute, 1999), 97. 102. Quoted in Korieh, “Alcohol and Empire,” 121. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Society for Environmental History and the Forest History Society. All rights reserved. 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“Imbibing the Lesson of Defiance”: Oil Palms and Alcohol in Colonial Ghana, 1900–40

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1084-5453
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1930-8892
D.O.I.
10.1093/envhis/emx135
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Abstract

Abstract This article examines a controversy over oil palm landscapes in colonial West Africa. Oil palms provide two important food products, palm oil and palm kernels, but they are also tapped for palm wine, an alcoholic drink produced from the sap of the tree. In Ghana (the colonial Gold Coast), the preferred wine-tapping method destroyed the tree, leading to conflicts among Ghanaians and with the colonial state over the best uses of oil palm trees. Many Ghanaian elites agreed with colonial officials that felling palms for wine was wasteful, but others defended palm wine as a symbol of resistance to colonialism. Although colonial officials tried to suppress the production of palm wine and spirits distilled from it, their efforts were halfhearted, reflecting skepticism about the environmental and economic cases for protecting oil palms. Felling palms for wine did contribute to the systematic degradation of Ghana’s once dense “palmeries,” but this was a complex transformation rather than a case of reckless overconsumption. INTRODUCTION In 1936 E. Tackie Otoo sent an urgent letter to the British colonial secretary in Accra warning of a “holocaust of life” and a “danger to our industrial existence as a people.” His fears centered on akpeteshie, a spirit distilled from palm wine, the fermented sap of the oil palm tree. Tackie Otoo argued that demand for the drink was driving “the wanton destruction of the Palm Tree at a rate without parallel in the history of this Country,” threatening a tree on which “the industrial life of the people for the most part depends.” Instead of harvesting the fruit of the palm to produce palm oil and kernels, Tackie Otoo’s countrymen were making “unbridled uses [of oil palms] in open defiance of constituted authority.”1 Historians have long recognized the significance of alcohol in the cultural and economic history of Africa.2 In the colonial period, governments saw domestic alcohol production as a threat to state revenue, public health, and effective governance.3 Wine tapping and home brewing also threatened the interests of African elites, who feared that unrestricted access to alcohol would undermine public morality and social order. Tackie Otoo’s letter points to environmental concerns that historians have not yet examined, however. When brewers and distillers used grain or sugar to make alcohol, their actions defied colonial laws. When tappers felled oil palms, they transformed the environment and irreversibly converted natural capital into a consumer good.4 As early as the 1890s, African elites and colonial officials contested the ecological and economic value of oil palm trees, and the rights of individuals to use them. The Ghanaian preference for palm wine tapped from felled trees—coupled with the failure of palm oil exports to keep pace with exports from rivals in Nigeria and elsewhere—meant that Ghana (the colonial Gold Coast) was the center of this debate, although ripples of the controversy were seen across West Africa.5 The initial reaction of British officials was to protect palms from felling, reflecting a global pattern of “imperial ecology” in which conservation measures often served as “a vigorous and militarized instrument of colonial oppression.”6 Oil palms were seen as forest trees, and officials hoped their exploitation for palm oil might encourage Ghanaians to preserve palm groves, instead of clearing them to make wine and to plant other crops. Gold Coast officials ultimately accepted that palm wine was a legitimate use of trees, however, even as Ghanaian elites took a hard line against palm felling.7 While Ghanaians valued oil palms for their material, aesthetic, and spiritual importance, the defense of the trees by elites was primarily a defense of the palm oil export industry, and of a social order in which urban elites and rural chiefs regulated access to land, palm trees, and alcohol. The elites lost this battle, but the long-term decline of Ghana’s palmeries was not a straightforward story of intemperate overconsumption. Natural and human factors intersecting at local, imperial, and global scales shaped the ways in which Ghanaians used oil palms, and in doing so, reshaped their environment.8 A CHANGING INDUSTRY The oil palm (Elaeis guineensis) is native to western Africa, growing in hot high-rainfall areas along the coast and inland near the equator.9 New trees bear fruit after about five years and can live well over a century, reaching more than 20 meters high. Oil palms do not thrive in dense forest, however, and historical observers disagreed about whether the huge “palmeries” they saw between the forests and coastlines of West Africa were natural or anthropogenic in origin. Paleobotanists insist that oil palms exploited climate-induced gaps in the tropical forest several thousand years ago, but historical evidence affirms that human settlers also planted palms and preserved them when clearing forestlands. Some groups intentionally sowed palm kernels before fallowing land, contributing to the growth of “wild” groves.10 West Africans began exporting palm produce on a large scale in the early nineteenth century, competing with other plant, animal, and marine fats in an emerging global market.11 Producing palm oil was a labor-intensive process. After cutting fruit bunches from the tops of trees, workers pounded the fruit and cooked it with water to extract edible “soft” oil. The leftover kernels were often exported to Europe, where a different oil was extracted. By the late nineteenth century, most palm oil exports consisted of inedible “hard” oil, produced with a labor-saving process that allowed fruit to soften naturally, although at the cost of rancid oil.12 This product was adequate for soap and other industrial uses, but by the turn of the twentieth century, buyers in the West began to demand edible palm oil for margarine and other foods. Instead of recognizing the factors that motivated the laborsaving hard oil process, foreign observers like William H. Lever complained about “wasteful, extravagant and costly” techniques that turned potential food into a substance fit for axle grease.13 Lever and other industrialists sought concessions for plantations and mills that could make soft oil cheaply, but they were rebuffed in British West Africa as local elites united with colonial officials to oppose monopolistic concessions.14 Lever turned to the Belgian Congo instead, and in Southeast Asia other investors soon established plantations with a high-yielding variety of oil palm, laying the foundations for the modern oil palm plantation industry.15 Instead of plantations, British administrations in West Africa continued to rely on the smallholder production of palm oil and other cash crops. Without exports to sell, Africans would not buy and pay taxes on imported cloth, liquor, and other goods, undermining the basis of colonial finances. Nigeria, the most important exporter of oil and kernels, enjoyed growing exports throughout the 1900–30 period, despite price shocks and growing competition. The palm-oil industry in Ghana seemed to be in a terminal pattern of decline, however. Initially, colonial officials complained of insufficient use of the palmeries, describing an “enormous waste of produce.” An 1889 report stated, “One walks among the thousands of splendid trees in full bearing with the nuts falling off ungathered.”16 In Ghana, alternative products like rubber and gold drew labor away from the palmeries, and the adoption of cocoa from the 1890s onward was an even stronger disincentive to invest land and labor in oil palms.17 Exports of palm produce fell dramatically from 1900 to 1940 while cocoa exports surged (figure 1). Gold Coast officials warned farmers against putting their “eggs in one basket” by specializing in cocoa, but they understood that the decline of the palm oil industry was “entirely due to the success of cocoa, in which the labour is less arduous and the returns greater.”18 Figure 1. Gold Coast palm produce exports and spirit imports, 1895–1940. *Figure for 1934. Year  Palm oil exports (tons)  Palm kernel exports (tons)  Spirit imports (imp. Gallons)  Palm produce as share of agricultural exports (% value)  1895  16,931  17,136  1,128,036  n/a  1900  17,030  12,811  1,043,734  45.51  1905  6,422  9,781  1,044,427  22.54  1910  8,216  14,182  1,459,350  21  1915  1,330  4,064  1,503,262  1.95  1920  2,530  7,664  179,597  3.09  1925  1,423  6,569  943,468  1.82  1930  489  5,470  479,999  1.11  1935  410  6,492  87,860*  0.93  1940  547  5,959  45,000  1.04  Year  Palm oil exports (tons)  Palm kernel exports (tons)  Spirit imports (imp. Gallons)  Palm produce as share of agricultural exports (% value)  1895  16,931  17,136  1,128,036  n/a  1900  17,030  12,811  1,043,734  45.51  1905  6,422  9,781  1,044,427  22.54  1910  8,216  14,182  1,459,350  21  1915  1,330  4,064  1,503,262  1.95  1920  2,530  7,664  179,597  3.09  1925  1,423  6,569  943,468  1.82  1930  489  5,470  479,999  1.11  1935  410  6,492  87,860*  0.93  1940  547  5,959  45,000  1.04  Sources: Gold Coast Annual Report, 1895–1939; La Anyane, Ghana Agriculture, 203–11; Akyeampong, Drink, Power, and Cultural Change, 85; House of Commons Deb., June 5, 1935, vol. 302, cc. 1848–49; HC Deb., February 4, 1942, vol. 377, cc. 1236–48. As they studied the colony’s forests, officials were displeased to discover that the trees that could be harvested for oil and kernels were being felled to make another commodity, palm wine. Like other palms, wine can be tapped from living oil palms, but in Ghana most tappers cut away roots of oil palms and felled them (figure 2), gathering sap from a hole cut in the trunk over several weeks (figure 3). Ghanaians preferred the taste of wine from felled palms, which was stronger than wine tapped from standing trees. As early as 1909, officials expressed concern about the “great destruction of Oil Palm” to supply growing urban centers like Cape Coast with palm wine.19 Along the coast, felled palms were being replaced with food crops while further inland farmers replaced palms with cocoa, breaking the cycle of forest fallow that had built up the “wild” palmeries. Colonial officials feared that the coastal belt would lose an important export if the palmeries disappeared, and they also noted the possibility of future shortages of palm oil in the local food supply. The Agricultural Department estimated the colony’s domestic consumption of palm oil at no less than a million gallons annually in the 1920s.20 Figure 2. View largeDownload slide The text accompanying this illustration of tree-felling warns that felling gives “a little palm wine” while the character’s “trees rot and his oil palms get fewer.” Credit: Gold Coast Agricultural Development Corporation, Mensah the Oil Palm Farmer (1956), 4. Figure 2. View largeDownload slide The text accompanying this illustration of tree-felling warns that felling gives “a little palm wine” while the character’s “trees rot and his oil palms get fewer.” Credit: Gold Coast Agricultural Development Corporation, Mensah the Oil Palm Farmer (1956), 4. Figure 3. View largeDownload slide Method of collecting sap from a felled trunk to make palm wine. Credit: Paul Hubert, Le Palmier à huile (1911), 77. Figure 3. View largeDownload slide Method of collecting sap from a felled trunk to make palm wine. Credit: Paul Hubert, Le Palmier à huile (1911), 77. The state had an economic interest in the preservation and expansion of oil palm groves, but it was also concerned about the fate of oil palms as part of the ecosystem. As Richard Grove has shown, many British officials embraced a “dessicationist” theory, which held that forest clearing invariably led to declining rainfall and desertification.21 Gold Coast officials pointed to the nearly treeless and dry Accra plain as proof that “uncontrolled deforestation was causing rapid climate change in the form of declining rainfall,” assuming that the state of the region reflected human impacts rather than natural forces.22 An agricultural official explained the dessicationist theory to a king in southeastern Ghana, the Konor of Krobo, in a 1914 letter: the Konor was urged to “instruct all your people to discontinue the practice of felling oil palms,” warning that if the Krobo continued to clear trees for palm wine and cocoa, they would “neither have oil palms or cocoa, as cocoa cannot thrive on a dry country and if all the oil palms are removed the country will soon be useless for cocoa or any other product.”23 Ghanaian elites successfully resisted colonial efforts to impose conservation measures, however. Beginning in the 1890s, they forcefully rejected legislation aimed at limiting rubber tapping and timber harvesting. There was little true wasteland or primeval forest in the coastal belt, but rather a mosaic of farmland, scrub, and forest produced by centuries of shifting cultivation and a changing climate.24 Colonial proposals to create forest reserves invariably meant the seizure of land from communities, even if the land appeared to be wilderness. In Ghana’s indigenous legal systems, all land was owned as individual, family, or chiefly (community) property. One Briton complained, “The native only claims [forest land] when a white man wants it,” but Ghanaian elites decried conservation and concession proposals as nothing less than “British Brigandism.”25 The British system of “indirect rule” in West Africa recognized the local authority of kings and chiefs over many matters in exchange for their cooperation with the colonial administration, and in Ghana this meant upholding indigenous land rights against claims from concessionaires and conservationists alike.26 MANAGING “NATURE’S BOUNTY” Ghanaian elites celebrated the defense of land rights against colonial assaults, but they nonetheless took strong positions against the felling of oil palms for wine on economic and moral grounds. In 1904 an editorialist wrote that felling palms destroyed a “God-given means of wealth.” He warned that “it should surprise no one when in the near future this useful tree becomes as rare as the fan-palm and the Bamboo.”27 Another columnist condemned “the reckless felling of palm oil trees for purpose of making palm wine,” noting that in his neighborhood “as many as 80 to 100 trees are felled [over 125 days] … the proceeds being only £11 only one half of which goes to the owner of the land.” If harvested for oil and kernels, these same trees might have yielded £22.50 worth of palm oil, to say nothing of income from the palm kernels, and of course “the trees would be still standing to yield its product in the following years.”28 With the encouragement of colonial agricultural officials, the Konor of Krobo passed a 1910 bylaw restricting the ability of Krobo farmers to buy forest land, in the hopes that the “Krobo people may be placed in a position to work their oil palm fields they already possess properly, and to avoid waste of forest lands.”29 Writing in 1914 under the pseudonym “Anamaboe,” one editorialist acknowledged “that palm wine is refreshing if not too heavy.” He pleaded for moderation, arguing that the desire to drink should not “deprive us of our money yielding property. We must treat them [oil palms] with a good deal of sense.”30 Another writer, “Africanus,” argued in 1917 that felling trees to “satisfy a temporary crave” was “a suicidal policy.” He blamed British colonialism for recent increases in palm felling: colonial authorities had usurped the regulatory role of chiefs and members of secret societies who controlled fruit harvesting and wine tapping, often with threats of “sanguinary punishment.” The British insisted on penalties “of a more humane character” that were insufficiently harsh to deter palm felling. “Africanus” called for chiefs to pass effective controls, warning, “If we do not legislate ourselves in the manner suggested, the British Government will do so in the not very far future and force us to acquiesce in the new order, willy-nilly.”31 Ghanaian elites shared the colonial government’s concerns about economic diversification, and they saw palm oil as a counterweight to the cocoa industry. “Africanus” argued that the long-lived oil palm was a safer investment than the cocoa tree, which declined in productivity after twenty years. The writer added, “It is possible to overstock the Cocoa market as is the case at present, while the demand for Palm produce is already great and will continue to be even more for many years to come.”32 Another critic noted that the collapse of cocoa prices during the First World War was a dose of hard medicine for cases of “cocoa fever” among Ghana’s farmers: “‘Blacks to go back to their old fashions,’ as the old adage says, Sankonu Wabe meaning, Go back to work your palms.”33 This agitation in defense of oil palms was not confined to Ghana. In Sierra Leone, writers implied that felling trees for wine was a new practice in the area, or one that had previously been rare. One columnist urged readers to “Save the Palms!” in a 1916 editorial. Describing rampant felling “for the purpose of extracting the sweeter kind of palm wine” on the Banana Islands, the columnist asked, “What can have been the matter with the Bananas people? Can they be so blind to their own interests? It is the palm tree that has made Sierra Leone what it is. Let it be destroyed, and the country is soon reduced to starvation.” The writer was sure the government would quickly end “the reckless and foolish career upon which they have embarked.”34 The rhetoric of wine tapping as economic suicide reflected the business interests of the Western-educated coastal elites who penned these pieces. Some were concerned about the social repercussions of palm wine consumption, however. As Emmanuel Akyeampong argued in his groundbreaking 1996 study of alcohol in Ghana, alcohol was important in religious and cultural practice, and its consumption served as a marker of status. Urbanization and the growth of the market economy during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries disrupted the sociocultural framework in which alcohol had traditionally been consumed, giving young men unprecedented opportunities to accumulate wealth—and drink alcohol—without the approval of elders. Ghanaian elites actively campaigned against drinking as part of a wider effort to reassert control over the labor of young men.35 Editorialists disparaged “school boys who have entirely devoted themselves to palm wine and other alcohol drinking,” invoking images of rowdy youths “with the fumes of stale palm wine mounted in the place where his brains would have been.”36 Other West Africans defended palm wine, however. The Gold Coast Nation called on readers to give up “rum and other imported dangerous alcohol drinks,” endorsing palm wine and maize beer (another popular locally made drink) as “inexpensive and non-injurious.”37 At a 1917 meeting of a Gold Coast agricultural club, Mr. La disparaged the “educated native” who “instead of drinking palm-wine (a penny-worth of which will easily quench his thirst or is even sufficient to intoxicate him) … thinks it manly or gentlemanly to take a European drink … which costs at least 3d. for the same effect.” La defended palm wine as part of a cultural patrimony that elites were rejecting in their rush to adopt European ways: “It is their idea that having attended school they are from head to foot whitemen.”38 “Frank Friend,” writing from Sierra Leone in 1911, urged his countrymen to “Give up your cigarettes smoking, civilized drinks &c. These things enervate the African. We have one natural drink, palm wine.”39 These writers rejected the Westernizing tendencies of their fellow elites, instead celebrating the idea of “the unsophisticated native African” living in nature and enjoying “the comparatively harmless juice of the palm.” “The African does not need, and is not put to the trouble of distilling ardent drinks,” argued one writer.40 Writers like “Frank Friend” linked their praise of palm wine to a broader critique of colonialism, seeing it as a project aimed at capturing African land and labor to serve metropolitan industries. Noting the threat that European plantations and concessions posed to land rights, “Frank Friend” warned his countrymen, “Do not idly think the country is being developed for you.”41 In a Gold Coast paper, an editorialist imagined an ancestor who “contented himself with his fill of palm wine, and stretched his half-nude form under the leafy palm tree in the glare of the noonday sun in the days when his Albion visitor cared not or perhaps knew not how to frame bills and promulgate ordinances to divest him of what he justly called his share of Nature’s bounty.” The writer warned that conservation regulations and plantation concessions would cost the youth “even a sip of the palm wine which gladdened the heart of his forefather.”42 In the colonial economy (at least so far as the state saw it), Africans obtained alcohol by exploiting the continent’s natural resources: palm oil was exchanged for liquor. These defenders of palm wine urged their countrymen to take advantage of “Nature’s bounty” instead of selling it away. Ownership of oil palms gave Africans access to food and alcohol, and power to influence the terms of engagement with the colonial system. PROHIBITION AND LANDSCAPE CHANGE Colonial officials and African elites debated the dangers of felling oil palms for wine throughout the first two decades of the twentieth century. The stakes of this debate were raised in 1919, as the victors of the First World War negotiated over the spoils of Germany’s empire in Africa. Germany had dominated the trade in cheap liquor before the war, and missionaries and temperance activists saw an opportunity to impose prohibition in the new mandatory states and across the rest of colonial Africa.43 A treaty signed in 1919 called for the general prohibition of cheap “trade spirits”—mostly German and Dutch in origin—as well as a ban on the local distillation of spirits in Africa.44 Although the treaty threatened to overturn a centuries-old trade in alcohol, some Africans supported the law. Chiefs in Ghana refused to accept outright prohibition of all alcohol, but they argued that a ban on cheap spirits would “undermine those activities of young men that elders found most threatening: binge drinking and womanizing.”45 The treaty had an unintended consequence, however. As drinkers saw the cheapest beverages disappear from the market, they drank more palm wine. The Gold Coast Agricultural Department estimated that palm wine production doubled after the ban took effect, with serious consequences for the region’s oil palm groves.46 The chiefly authorities who were responsible for managing rural land were unable to regulate palm felling. Property rights varied across Ghana, but generally speaking, farmers owned trees they or their ancestors had planted while wild palm groves were managed by chiefs for the community.47 Chiefs collected taxes on palm oil and kernels, and although they also taxed wine tapping, many expressed dismay at losing long-term income when groves were felled for wine. Chiefs found that they had little power to monitor wine tapping in the countryside, and alleged that trees were being felled without proper permissions. King Kojo Nkum begged colonial officials for help in 1922: “I have to inform your Worship that since the prohibition of Rum people have been spoiling many palm trees so much by the felling of them and if I could get the assistance of the Government to either put a stop to such willful acts and order be strictly made to tap the trees in very few numbers, I shall be so thankful as good many of the Chiefs, sub-Chiefs, Odikroes [headmen] and subjects have often made complaints to me about the trees.”48 While Nkum made reference to widespread intoxication in his letter, his main concern was, as one farmer put it, “the damage being done to the ancient Palm-oil and kernel industry in the quest for Palm wine.”49 In Sierra Leone, the Weekly News acknowledged that “the danger in palm wine drinking has grown” since the liquor ban, and that tapping palms was “certainly a menace to the development of the palm industry.” The paper nonetheless argued that it would be unjust to ban palm wine altogether.50 In Ghana, the colonial government loosened some liquor restrictions in the mid-1920s, but the rate of palm felling increased again when more restrictive laws were passed in 1930. These laws targeted the cheapest gin, responding to an outcry among Ghanaian elites against an alleged epidemic of drunkenness. Prices for foreign alcohol soared, just as prices for export commodities collapsed with the onset of the Depression. As liquor imports plummeted (figure 1), more and more Ghanaians turned to their palm trees for alcohol, accelerating the transformation of oil palm landscapes into farmland.51 Colonial officials immediately realized that the ban did not have anything like its desired effect. One reported, “Intoxication, I regret to say, would appear to be on the increase.”52 Palm wine sales were brisk. Over three days in September 1933, police officials counted 890 tins (3,560 imperial gallons) of palm wine being transported into the southeastern city of Koforidua. They estimated that 445 oil palms were felled to make this quantity of wine, yielding £0.15 per tree to share among the tree owner, tapper, and wine seller. An average tree might produce one to three gallons of palm oil annually, with a gallon of top-quality oil fetching up to £0.075 in Accra. The average export price for palm oil in 1933 was only £0.046 per gallon. When the cost of making and transporting palm oil is taken into account, the balance swung strongly in favor of palm wine.53 The 1930 legislation also inspired entrepreneurs to add value to palm wine by distilling it, raising its alcohol content from about 5 percent to 40 percent or higher. Ghanaians accustomed to imported liquor embraced this palm gin, or akpeteshie. Colonial police prosecuted only six cases of illicit distillation or distribution in 1930–31 but counted 558 in 1933–34.54 Records are scanty for this criminal enterprise, but the distillation process probably consumed at least eight gallons of palm wine to make one gallon of palm gin.55 Put another way, a gallon of imported gin was equivalent to the akpeteshie yield of one oil palm. Every gallon of liquor kept out by legislation meant another tree cut down. Unable to stop this booming business, some chiefs embraced it “as a source of wealth,” pocketing taxes on felled trees.56 Although data on alcohol consumption and palm density are incomplete and anecdotal, all observers agree that the rate of palm felling surged in the 1930s. A 1908 estimate suggests that Cape Coast consumed 10 gallons of wine (or 1.25 trees) per capita annually. The 1933 figures from Koforidua indicate an increase to 15 or even 36 gallons per capita, depending on whether the three days counted reflected daily deliveries or weekly marketing. At 15 gallons per capita, supplying the Gold Coast Colony’s 1.7 million people with palm wine in the 1930s would have consumed the equivalent of about 31,875 acres of dense groves annually, although the actual area affected was certainly much higher due to the varying density of palms across the landscape.57 The cumulative effects of the liquor bans, the emergence of the akpeteshie industry, and the broader process of clearing forestland for cocoa and other crops can be seen in colonial surveys of the oil palm region. A map produced in 1921 (figure 4) indicates a “dense” oil palm belt of approximately 4.2 million acres. It is impossible to say how much of this area was covered by palms, but the groves that did exist were often reported to have over 100 trees per acre before the 1920s. By the late 1930s, the “dense” belt was reduced to fewer than 1.9 million acres. More importantly, the average density of groves in the belt was reported to be only 25 trees per acre by 1936.58 A committee tasked with investigating palm felling in 1933 regretted that oil palms “should be sacrificed for immediate gain,” but the committee’s members clearly understood that thinning groves were a direct consequence of the liquor restrictions.59 Figure 4. View largeDownload slide Distribution of oil palms ca. 1921 in Ashanti (north) and the Western, Central, and Eastern Provinces of the Gold Coast Colony (south). The lightest shading indicates areas where oil palms were “growing everywhere”; the two darker shades indicate “dense” and “thick” groves. The white overlay shows the extent of “dense” oil palm groves mapped in the late 1930s. Credit: “Approximate Density of Oil Palms and Shea Nut Trees,” MPG 1/1072, The National Archives (UK); additional data from E. A. Gyasi, “Emergence of a New Oil Palm Belt in Ghana,” Tijdschrift voor economische en sociale geografie 83, no. 1 (1992). Figure 4. View largeDownload slide Distribution of oil palms ca. 1921 in Ashanti (north) and the Western, Central, and Eastern Provinces of the Gold Coast Colony (south). The lightest shading indicates areas where oil palms were “growing everywhere”; the two darker shades indicate “dense” and “thick” groves. The white overlay shows the extent of “dense” oil palm groves mapped in the late 1930s. Credit: “Approximate Density of Oil Palms and Shea Nut Trees,” MPG 1/1072, The National Archives (UK); additional data from E. A. Gyasi, “Emergence of a New Oil Palm Belt in Ghana,” Tijdschrift voor economische en sociale geografie 83, no. 1 (1992). When Ghanaian elites addressed the new problem of akpeteshie, they repeated earlier arguments against palm wine. Temperance crusaders like J. L. Hammond, who identified himself as a “subject of 45, patriotic, sympathetic, farmer … but of poor education,” drew on religious ideas in his 1935 petition asking for government action to stop the “war” on the oil palm, “every part [of which] is useful, and must be deemed sacred.” The self-described “Farmer, Defender of Palm Tree” feared that a sinful taste for strong drink was destroying a God-given resource.60 Tackie Otoo’s letter, quoted at the beginning of this article, focused on linked economic and social dangers. According to Tackie Otoo, his countrymen faced “inevitable doom” when they chose “the made-easy drink as a substitute for the trade spirits.”61 The “made-easy drink” was doubly damaging: oil palm landscapes that might support the palm oil export industry were destroyed while the cheapness of palm wine and akpeteshie gave young men little incentive to labor in the palmeries or in other industries. PROBLEMS WITH THE “PALM WINE PROBLEM” As early as 1923, acting Gold Coast governor J. C. Maxwell surveyed his staff and experts in the United Kingdom about actions to halt palm felling. Experts at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew identified a “palm tree belt” and suggested protecting palms with forest reserves, despite the history of local resistance to such ideas. The Conservator of Forests in Accra liked the idea and asked for a law “making it compulsory on all owners of Oil Palm groves to reserve a maximum of one-third and a minimum of one-fifth of their holdings.” The commissioner for Ashanti seconded the proposal, although much of Ashanti was outside the proposed belt. Officers in districts with high concentrations of oil palms vehemently opposed the plan. The Central Province commissioner warned that reserves would “meet with fierce opposition” from tree owners, although he predicted that chiefs would loyally support whatever decrees the government issued. The Eastern Province commissioner questioned the premise of the discussion, saying he was “not at all sure that imprudent felling of Oil Palm trees does take place in his province.” In his view, “the country is not yet ripe for the adoption of a protective policy.” Throughout the debate, officials recognized that trees in palmeries were owned by Ghanaians, but they nonetheless argued that palms represented a natural resource that the state had an interest in preserving. For his own part, Maxwell was sure that “[t]he African is fully alive to the value of the Palm Tree in districts where he gets a ready sale for the products.”62 Colonial Secretary G. S. Northcote supported forest reserves in principle, but he stressed in a later memo that education was a better course than regulation. Echoing the discourse of the Ghanaian elites, Northcote argued that Ghanaians would eventually learn “their duties toward posterity and of the foolishness of squandering a prospective source of wealth.”63 Faced with similar pressures, French colonial authorities in West Africa banned oil palm felling. One expert scoffed that “the natives do not hesitate to sacrifice” oil palms when they wanted “their favorite drink,” but real enforcement proved impossible.64 The Gold Coast Agriculture Department recognized that palm wine was “a comparatively important source of revenue to the owners [of trees],” concluding that prohibition of palm felling was “impossible and would indeed be unjust.” Still, the department called for “a guiding hand” to protect oil palms “in the interests of posterity.”65 Ultimately the colonial government turned to the tools of indirect rule, encouraging chiefs to establish ordinances and bylaws protecting palm trees. A 1935 law from Dixcove, a town west of Sekondi, was typical: “No person shall fell, injure, or destroy any oil palm tree unless he or she has obtained the permission of his or her chief so to do… . Whenever permission has been obtained to fell oil palm trees for the purpose of making palm wine for sale or private consumption, for every oil palm tree felled unless there is another oil palm tree within five yards thereof two fresh oil palm trees shall be planted by the party felling as aforesaid near the place where the tree was felled.”66 Offenders could be punished with a £5 fine or two months of hard labor, although officials told chiefs that they did not expect laws to be enforced rigorously: “the maximum fine should not as a rule be inflicted,” wrote one officer.67 While officials urged chiefs to plant and protect palms, Governor Guggisberg candidly remarked that bylaws were not “going to do any good in restricting the cutting down of palm trees.”68 In 1930 Governor Slater quoted a French counterpart who asserted, “If you want to restrict the manufacture of palm wine you must have a policeman at the foot of every tree.”69 In addition to regulations on felling and tree-planting mandates, Gold Coast officials tried to teach “more laborious, but less destructive” tapping methods.70 The Agriculture Department brought skilled Mende tappers from Sierra Leone to demonstrate ways to tap the stem and inflorescences of palms without killing the tree, but Ghanaians roundly preferred “the beverage prepared from the felled palms.”71 Some officials resorted to racist stereotypes to explain the preference for felling, such as the district commissioner who declared, “The native I believe prefers cutting down the tree merely because he is too lazy to tap it.”72 Yet besides producing a less desirable wine, tapping live trees required climbing the tree repeatedly to collect sap, a task performed with a sling around the trunk (figure 5). This dangerous and arduous work also left a container full of sap on the tree, creating “a most congenial breeding place” for insect pests.73 Felling a tree was more sensible, at least in places with an abundant supply of palms. Figure 5. View largeDownload slide This photograph, probably taken in Sierra Leone or Nigeria, depicts the climbing method commonly used to ascend oil palm trunks for wine tapping as well as fruit harvesting. The climber carries a container for collecting sap from the stem or inflorescences at the top of the tree, a method that did not kill trees but required frequent trips up the trunk to collect sap. Credit: Mary Kingsley, West African Studies (1899), 63. Figure 5. View largeDownload slide This photograph, probably taken in Sierra Leone or Nigeria, depicts the climbing method commonly used to ascend oil palm trunks for wine tapping as well as fruit harvesting. The climber carries a container for collecting sap from the stem or inflorescences at the top of the tree, a method that did not kill trees but required frequent trips up the trunk to collect sap. Credit: Mary Kingsley, West African Studies (1899), 63. Ghanaian writers like Tackie Otoo argued that the future of the palmeries was grim, thanks to lax enforcement of palm-felling rules: “Today the whole thing looks like getting out of hand.”74 Elite voices like Tackie Otoo’s are loudest in the archive, but their influence on colonial policy and on the actions of their compatriots was limited. In fact, colonial officials who investigated palm felling often found a counternarrative that questioned the ecological, economic, and moral dangers of palm felling. When asked, the king of Teshie insisted in 1908 that only “old fruitless trees” were cut for wine. The influential lawyer John Atta Mills made a similar claim, telling the colonial secretary that felling oil palms had “the effect of improving the growth of both the [surviving] trees and the quality of the nuts produced.” Mills, writing on behalf of the Gold Coast Aborigines Rights’ Protection Society (ARPS), an important group in the fight to defend local land rights from forest reserves and plantation concessions, concluded that felling trees for wine “does little or no harm at all to the palm trees in the [Central] province generally.”75 J. E. Casely Hayford, another prominent lawyer active in the ARPS, insisted in 1912 that farmers were not recklessly clearing forest, but rather selectively protected oil palms to shade young cocoa trees on new farms.76 Rising alcohol prices during the First World War increased pressure on palm groves, but a British expert interviewed by a wartime committee stated that “probably only useless trees” were felled to make wine.77 Agricultural officials generally agreed with this prognosis, and they even suggested in a 1918 report that “palms are usually growing too closely together and if intelligent discretion is shown in thinning them out for this purpose [palm wine tapping] no very serious consequences need be anticipated.”78 After the surge in palm wine consumption that followed the 1919 liquor ban, an official could still report, “People are almost to a man of the opinion that there are already plenty of palms and that such as are cut down will eventually be replaced by natural agencies.” The same writer noted that “the more enlightened chiefs now realise the danger of excessive destruction of their palms,” although he argued that “The people will not see the necessity of further planting whilst the palm oil trade remains in its present inactive condition.”79 As late as 1936, well into the akpeteshie era, the Agricultural Department condoned felling trees for wine, noting that “in many areas the palms grow too profusely and considerable improvement could be effected by fairly drastic thinning.”80 The anthropologist Margaret Field insisted that—at least among her Krobo informants—“Palm trees are never felled solely for the sake of their palm-wine but only when the trees require thinning out. No palm is cut down without a sense of guilt and a ceremonial apology.”81 While she praised Krobo practice, Field did argue that other groups were less scrupulous. She warned of a “serious social problem” in other communities, but the problem was alcoholism, not deforestation.82 Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, officials responded with indifference to a steady stream of complaints about palm felling. They insisted that “The facts that palm wine drinking is reprehensively excessive, or the destruction of palm trees a serious problem, are by no means conclusively established.”83 While the 1930 laws and the spread of distillation undoubtedly increased the rate of palm felling, Gold Coast officials continued to question the social, economic, and environmental cases for palm wine regulation. In a 1931 minute, one official argued, “1) There is practically no definite evidence leading to the supposition that drunkenness from palm wine in the Gold Coast and Ashanti amounts to a definite evil. 2) The same can be said of its effects on the health of the consumers. 3) It is by no means established that it is either necessary or possible to attempt to protect the trees by legislative action.”84 One metropolitan official made the surprising argument that making palm wine and akpeteshie was “simply an offence against the law, and more particularly the public revenue.” He failed to see what the state gained from criminalizing these acts.85 In the mind of the colonial government, the freedom of property owners to use their trees as they wished took priority over concerns about the ecological and social consequences of palm felling and wine drinking. As the Gold Coast attorney general remarked in a 1939 memo, “Palm wine is the national beverage. In the good old days Englishmen were free to brew theirs—beer.”86 Nigeria’s governor remarked that Africans were making alcohol no matter what measures were imposed, and that “a large number of natives, a growing number, are imbibing the lesson of defiance of the law, which in a country like this is a very dangerous lesson.”87 The inability of chiefs and colonial officials to control the use of palms spread across a vast countryside exposed the fragility of colonial rule. By 1933 the Ghanaian members of the Gold Coast Legislative Council unanimously advocated rolling back restrictions on imported liquor in the hopes that Ghanaians would return to foreign gin, stop illicit distillation, and spare their oil palms. Lawlessness in the palm belt was now seen as a greater danger than drunkenness.88 As Akyeampong argues, colonial efforts to suppress akpeteshie turned the drink into a rallying point for the anticolonial movement, creating “a symbol in the struggle of the working classes against the snobbish upper classes, traditional authorities, and the colonial state.”89 Urban consumers embraced akpeteshie as an indigenous drink and asserted their freedom to choose how and what they would drink. For tappers and tree owners, palm wine and akpeteshie were ways of making money outside the colonial export economy. Cutting down a tree was a powerful act of defiance against a colonial state that sought to regulate how Ghanaians used their land. CONCLUSION: FROM EXPORTER TO IMPORTER New tapping methods, forest reserves, local bylaws, and the prosecution of distillers ultimately had little impact on the ways in which Ghanaians used oil palms. Officials dutifully noted concerns about deforestation and desertification through the 1930s, but the logic of “imperial ecology” or “empire forestry” was far from hegemonic in Ghana.90 A 1936 agricultural report neatly captured the government’s understanding of oil palm felling, one that reflected a nuanced grasp of the ways in which political and economic forces influenced human interactions with the environment. Ghanaians would plant oil palms instead of felling them as soon as “the production of palm oil and palm kernels can be made more profitable than producing palm wine. If this can be done the Chiefs and owners of the palms will be loath to allow their palms to be cut down; and instead of the palms decreasing in number an increase could be expected.”91 Economics prevailed over environmental concerns, although colonial officials continued to be skeptical that oil palms were in any actual danger. As late as 1952, officials lamented the effects of wine tapping on trees while paradoxically observing that “many palms in the main belt are not fully utilised [for palm oil].”92 Perhaps the best example of this late-colonial ambiguity was Mensah the Oil Palm Farmer, a 1956 booklet that urged Ghanaians to “Preserve your palm trees for future prosperity.” The titular character is criticized for felling palms for “a little palm wine” (figure 2), but the agricultural officer who intervenes says nothing about palm felling as a definite evil. Instead, he introduces new machines and teaches Mensah to plant new tree varieties that will make palm oil and kernel production more profitable than wine tapping (figure 6).93 Figure 6. View largeDownload slide Colonial officials hoped that improved yields from new farming practices would help convince oil palm owners to harvest their fruit instead of felling palms for wine. Credit: Gold Coast Agricultural Development Corporation, Mensah the Oil Palm Farmer (1956), 20. Figure 6. View largeDownload slide Colonial officials hoped that improved yields from new farming practices would help convince oil palm owners to harvest their fruit instead of felling palms for wine. Credit: Gold Coast Agricultural Development Corporation, Mensah the Oil Palm Farmer (1956), 20. Most Ghanaian farmers in oil palm regions did not follow Mensah’s example. According to geographer E. A. Gyasi, the dense groves of the “old palm oil belt” were practically gone by the 1960s.94 Oral testimony collected in the 1990s reported a consensus among elders that akpeteshie was to blame for the shrinking number of oil palms.95 Contemporary researchers still criticize “destructive” and “clearly wasteful” tapping methods, linking ideas of conservation and development with a lingering notion that alcohol is an inferior use of the tree.96 The decline of Ghana’s palmeries was not simply a case of overconsumption, however. Felling trees for wine was not inherently unsustainable but became so under colonial rule. Denied access to imported liquor by the state and prohibitionist elites, Ghanaians turned the very trees whose fruit paid for those imported drinks into alcohol. Other factors, like the success of a novel introduced tree crop—cocoa—made oil palm an unattractive investment. Farmers kept palms for domestic use but had little incentive to plant or preserve groves that they could not profitably harvest. Felling palms for wine was a significant, if short-lived, source of income, and it was a necessary step in reallocating land for more lucrative crops. Moreover, a growing population and an influx of migrant farmers placed greater pressure on forest regions, limiting the range in which oil palms could regenerate. These political, economic, and demographic pressures were compounded by the climate of Ghana’s oil palm belt, which is in the lower range of the tree’s rainfall requirements.97 Palm felling did have consequences. Southern Ghana did not turn into a desert, as colonial scientists feared, but it lost an export industry. More importantly, the country has struggled since the 1960s to supply itself with edible fat. In 2013 Ghana imported 136,111 tons of refined palm oil, much of it from Southeast Asia. This import dependency is a stark reversal for a country that had been a leading exporter of palm oil a century and a half earlier.98 Felling trees for wine in Ghana thus contributed to another process of landscape change in Malaysia and Indonesia, where oil palm plantations continue to expand at the expense of peatland and forests. A new “oil palm belt” is emerging in Ghana, however, in response to local demand for oil.99 In 1936 a Gold Coast official noted that the wild palmeries (and the rights associated with them) were obstacles to replanting with higher yielding palm varieties. “In Nigeria and Sierra Leone the native cannot be persuaded to destroy the palm,” he remarked. The willingness of Ghanaian farmers to cut down palms, coupled with changes in land tenure brought by the cocoa boom, promised to clear the way for a new kind of oil palm landscape.100 This prediction was premature, but since the 1980s large- and small-scale oil palm plantations have been expanding in Ghana. Planting oil palms, rather than felling them, is now seen as the most serious danger to forests across West Africa. This industry relies on what is, in effect, a new tree: short, fast maturing, and high yielding, commercial oil palm varieties are much more profitable to grow and harvest than their native ancestors. While Ghanaians are rapidly adapting to this new industry, they continue to value the fruit of “wild” palm varieties, and they see palm wine as a legitimate use of both wild and plantation palms, especially when trees are too tall to harvest easily.101 The versatility of the tree means that, as one British official put it, “practically every man has a public-house in his own back garden.”102 Jonathan Robinsis author of Cotton and Race across the Atlantic: Britain, Africa, and America, 1900–1920 (University of Rochester Press, 2016) and is assistant professor of global history at Michigan Technological University. Notes Thanks are due to Mr. Bright Botwe and the rest of the PRAAD Accra branch staff for their patient assistance locating and retrieving records. Early versions of this article were presented at the 2015 Commodities of Empire workshop and the 2016 African Studies Association conference, and participants at both events gave valuable feedback. I am especially grateful to Lisa Brady and the journal’s anonymous readers for their careful criticism and helpful suggestions. 1. E. Tackie Otoo to colonial secretary, May 27, 1936, CSO 8/3/3, Public Records and Archives Administration Department, Accra (hereafter cited as PRAAD-Accra). 2. For an introduction, see Lynn Pan, Alcohol in Colonial Africa (Helsinki: Finnish Foundation for Alcohol Studies, 1975); Deborah Fahy Bryceson, Alcohol in Africa: Mixing Business, Pleasure, and Politics (Portsmouth: Heinemann, 2002). 3. Emmanuel Akyeampong, Drink, Power, and Cultural Change: A Social History of Alcohol in Ghana, c. 1800 to Recent Times (Portsmouth: Heinemann, 1996); Simon Heap, “Those That Are Cooking the Gins: The Business of Ogogoro in Nigeria during the 1930s,” Contemporary Drug Problems 35 (2008): 573; Chima J. Korieh, “Alcohol and Empire: ‘Illicit’ Gin Prohibition and Control in Colonial Eastern Nigeria,” African Economic History 31 (2003): 111–34. 4. See Akyeampong, Drink, Power, and Cultural Change, 25. Felling was not exclusive to Ghana; see, for example, Paul Hubert, Le palmier à huile (Paris: H. Dunod et E. Pinat, 1911), 79–81. 5. The British Gold Coast was composed of the Gold Coast Colony, Ashanti, the Northern Territories, and after 1918, the east bank of the Volta (part of former German Togoland). I use “Ghana” to refer to the entire colonial state, but most of the article concerns the Gold Coast Colony proper. 6. Peder Anker, Imperial Ecology: Environmental Order in the British Empire, 1895–1945 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001); quote from Richard H. Grove and Toyin Falola, “Chiefs, Boundaries, and Sacred Woodlands: Early Nationalism and the Defeat of Colonial Conservationism in the Gold Coast and Nigeria, 1870–1916,” African Economic History 24 (1996): 1. See discussion in Thaddeus Sunseri, Wielding the Ax: State Forestry and Social Conflict in Tanzania, 1820–2000 (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2009), xvi–xxi; Karen Brown, “‘Trees, Forests and Communities’: Some Historiographical Approaches to Environmental History on Africa,” Area 35, no. 4 (December 1, 2003): 344–45; see also Gregory Barton, Empire Forestry and the Origins of Environmentalism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002); William Beinart and Lotte Hughes, Environment and Empire (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), chaps. 7, 12; Helen Tilley, Africa as a Living Laboratory: Empire, Development, and the Problem of Scientific Knowledge, 1870–1950 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), chap. 3. 7. As Grove and Falola argue, indigenous elites were the real drivers of forest use in West Africa due to the weakness of the colonial state. “Chiefs, Boundaries, and Sacred Woodlands,” 20. 8. This article follows McCann’s argument that political—rather than natural—factors were most important in shaping the ways in which humans interacted with African environments. (Green Land, Brown Land, Black Land: An Environmental History of Africa, 1800–1990 [Portsmouth: Heinemann, 1999]). The cocoa literature offers a more nuanced discussion of the ways in which human interactions with other organisms, soils, and climates shaped Ghanaian history, especially Joseph Morgan Hodge, “Colonial Foresters versus Agriculturalists: The Debate over Climate Change and Cocoa Production in the Gold Coast,” Agricultural History 83, no. 2 (Spring 2009): 201–20; Corey Ross, “The Plantation Paradigm: Colonial Agronomy, African Farmers, and the Global Cocoa Boom, 1870s–1940s,” Journal of Global History 9, no. 1 (March 2014). 9. R. H. V. Corley and P. B. Tinker, The Oil Palm, 5th ed. (Chichester: Wiley Blackwell, 2015). 10. On anthropogenic groves, see A. C. Zeven, The Semi-Wild Oil Palm and Its Industry in Africa (Wageningen: Centre for Agricultural Publications and Documents, 1967); Donna J. E. Maier, “Precolonial Palm Oil Production and Gender Division of Labor in Nineteenth-Century Gold Coast and Togoland,” African Economic History 37, no. 1 (2009): 7–8; on climate issues, see Jean Maley and Alex Chepstow-Lusty, “Elaeis Guineensis Jacq. (Oil Palm) Fluctuations in Central Africa during the Late Holocene: Climate or Human Driving Forces for This Pioneering Species?” Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 10, no. 2 (2001): 117–20. For descriptions of Ghana’s palmeries, see E. A. Gyasi, “Emergence of a New Oil Palm Belt in Ghana,” Tijdschrift Voor Economische En Sociale Geografie 83, no. 1 (1992): 39–49; James Fairhead and Melissa Leach, Reframing Deforestation: Global Analyses and Local Realities: Studies in West Africa (London: Routledge, 1998), chap. 4. 11. Martin Lynn, Commerce and Economic Change in West Africa: The Palm Oil Trade in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002); Ayodeji Olukoju, “The United Kingdom and the Political Economy of the Global Oils and Fats Business during the 1930s,” Journal of Global History 4, no. 1 (March 2009): 105–25. 12. The “soft” process involved at least three times more labor than “hard” processes. Lynn, Commerce and Economic Change, 49; J. M. Sarbah, “The Oil Palm and Its Uses,” Journal of the Royal African Society 8 (1909): 232–50. 13. Harry Clyde Billows and Harold Beckwith, Palm Oil and Kernels (Liverpool: Birchall, 1913), 7. 14. K. Dike Nworah, “The Politics of Lever’s West African Concessions, 1907–1913,” The International Journal of African Historical Studies 5, no. 2 (1972): 248–64. The Gold Coast government did pass later concession laws, but they failed to attract investment. A. Baron Holmes, “The Gold Coast and Nigeria,” in Tropical Development, 1880–1913: Studies in Economic Progress, ed. W. Arthur Lewis (London: Allen & Unwin, 1970), 172. 15. Anne Phillips, The Enigma of Colonialism: British Policy in West Africa (London: Currey, 1989); for Southeast Asia, see Susan M. Martin, The UP Saga (Copenhagen: NIAS Press, 2004); Thee Kian Wie, “Colonial Extraction in the Indonesian Archipelago: A Long Historical View,” in Colonial Exploitation and Economic Development: The Belgian Congo and the Netherlands Indies Compared, ed. Ewout Frankema and Frans Buelens (London: Routledge, 2013), 41–59. 16. W. F. Hutchinson, “Report of the Commission on Economic Agriculture in the Gold Coast,” 1889, 149–150, ADM 5/3/7, PRAAD-Accra. 17. Polly Hill, The Migrant Cocoa-Farmers of Southern Ghana: A Study in Rural Capitalism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1963); Gareth Austin, Labour, Land, and Capital in Ghana: From Slavery to Free Labour in Asante, 1807–1956 (Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2005); McCann, Green Land, 109–40. 18. Correspondence and memos, ca. 1910–23, ADM 11/1/821; Ormsby-Gore Report, 140, ADM 5/3/24, PRAAD-Accra. 19. H. C. W. Grimshaw, Report 1001/09, August 3, 1909, ADM 11/1/151, PRAAD-Accra. 20. Agriculture Department annual report for 1922–23, 17, ADM 5/1/79, PRAAD-Accra. 21. Grove and Falola, “Chiefs, Boundaries, and Sacred Woodlands”; Richard H. Grove, Ecology, Climate and Empire: Colonialism and Global Environmental History, 1400–1940 (Cambridge: White Horse Press, 1997); see also McCann, Green Land, 57–60. The most important critique of colonial forestry science and policy in West Africa remains James Fairhead and Melissa Leach, Misreading the African Landscape: Society and Ecology in a Forest-Savanna Mosaic (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996). 22. Hodge, “Colonial Foresters,” 202. 23. Acting Director of Agriculture to Sir Emmanuel Mate Kole, Konor of Manya Krobo, April 17, 1914, SC 17/365, PRAAD-Accra. 24. Fairhead and Leach, Reframing Deforestation, chap. 4. 25. Testimony of Mr. Trevor, Minutes of Evidence of the Committee on Edible and Oil-Producing Nuts and Seeds, 1915, Cd. 8428, at 5553; Grove and Falola, “Chiefs, Boundaries, and Sacred Woodlands,” 11. 26. Roger Gocking, History of Ghana (Westport: Greenwood, 2005), chap. 3; for British land policy, see K. D. Nworah, “The Liverpool ‘Sect’ and British West African Policy, 1895–1915,” African Affairs 70, no. 281 (1971): 349–64; Olufemi Omosini, “The Gold Coast Land Question, 1894–1900: Some Issues Raised on West Africa’s Economic Development,” International Journal of African Historical Studies 5, no. 3 (1972): 453–69. 27. Supplement, “River Volta and Croboe District,” Gold Coast Leader, December 24, 1904, 1. 28. “Are We Drifting?” Gold Coast Leader, September 19–26, 1908, 3. 29. Untitled proposal, December 13, 1910, Mate Kole Papers, SC 17/31, PRAAD-Accra. 30. Editorial, Gold Coast Nation, February 19, 1914, 534. 31. “Our Economic Possibilities,” Gold Coast Leader, September 8, 1917, 5. 32. Ibid. 33. The same expression (sankonuabe, Twi) was used to describe a cocoa disease. “Agricultural Mutual Improvement Association,” Gold Coast Nation, April 7, 1917, 5. 34. “Save the Palms!” Sierra Leone Weekly News, April 15, 1916, 8. 35. Akyeampong, Drink, Power, and Cultural Change, chap. 4. 36. Oku Abu, “Friendly Counsel to Drunkards,” Gold Coast Leader, January 23, 1909, supplement; Sierra Leone Times, June 17, 1899, 2. 37. “Notes and Comments,” Gold Coast Nation, September 9, 1915, 1068. Pouring libations and consuming alcohol were at the center of indigenous religious practice in many parts of West Africa. Imported liquor displaced beer, wine, and water in many rituals as early as the seventeenth century. Akyeampong, Drink, Power, and Cultural Change, 6–8, 21–46. 38. “Agricultural Mutual Improvement Association,” Gold Coast Nation, April 7, 1917, 5. 39. “Frank Friend,” Sierra Leone Guardian, April 14, 1911, 6. 40. Gold Coast Leader, April 1907 [day illegible]. 41. “Frank Friend,” Sierra Leone Guardian, April 14, 1911, 6. 42. “The Gold Coast Youngman of Today,” Gold Coast Nation, January 8, 1914, 502. 43. Raymond E. Dumett, “The Social Impact of the European Liquor Trade on the Akan of Ghana (Gold Coast and Asante), 1875–1910,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 5, no. 1 (1974): 69; Virginia Berridge, Demons: Our Changing Attitudes to Alcohol, Tobacco, and Drugs (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 136–37. 44. “Convention Relating to the Liquor Traffic in Africa and Protocol,” American Journal of International Law 15, no. 4 (1921): 322–28. 45. Akyeampong, Drink, Power, and Cultural Change, 68. 46. La-Anyane, Ghana Agriculture, 114. 47. See testimony in “Land Tenure Laws re: Cocoa and Oil Palm,” ADM 11/1/1241, PRAAD-Accra. See also Neal M. Goldman, “Fallible Justice: The Dilemma of the British in the Gold Coast, 1874–1944” (PhD diss., City University of New York, 2016), 481–543; Zeven, Semi-Wild Oil Palm, 99–104. 48. Omanhene Kojo Nkum to DC Winnebah, March 9, 1922, “Palm Oil Records, Oda District,” ADM 36/1/11, PRAAD-Accra. 49. “Anokwalefo,” Gold Coast Independent, October 14, 1922, 467. 50. “The Governor’s Address,” Sierra Leone Weekly News, December 30, 1922, 8–9. 51. Akyeampong, Drink, Power, and Cultural Change, 97. 52. Oda DC to Commissioner, Central Province, May 28, 1930 [illegible], ADM 36/1/11, PRAAD-Accra. 53. The 1933 oil prices were double what they were in 1932, however. Memo from Koforidua, Provincial Communications Office, October 10, 1933, CSO 8/3/3, PRAAD-Accra; Ewout Frankema and Marlous van Waijenburg, Gold Coast Prices Data Set, http://www.iisg.nl/hpw/data.php#africa. 54. Akyeampong, Drink, Power, and Cultural Change, 98. 55. Heap, “Cooking the Gins,” 584. 56. E. Tackie Otoo to Colonial Secretary, May 27, 1936, CSO 8/3/3, PRAAD-Accra. 57. Consumption estimates from J. A. Mills to SNA, October 3, 1908, ADM 11/1/1144; Walker to Eastern Province Commissioner, August 22, 1921, ADM 11/1/1241. Figures assume 8 gallons of wine per tree; population figures from Gold Coast Annual Report for 1934–35. Area figure is for Gold Coast and Ashanti west of the Volta, derived from MPG 1/1072, TNA; Gyasi, “Oil Palm Belt,” 40. 58. A “cultivated” grove at 67 trees per acre was considered ideal in 1908, although groves with over 100 trees per acre were frequently reported. Eric Drabble, “A Short Note on the Possibilities of the Oil Palm in Cultivation,” Liverpool Institute of Commercial Research in the Tropics Quarterly Journal 3, no. 6 (1908): 15–19; Shephard, Report on the Economics of Peasant Agriculture in the Gold Coast (Accra: Government Printing Department, 1936), 78. Gyasi’s review indicates maximum densities of only forty to fifty trees per acre by the 1930s (“Oil Palm Belt,” 42). 59. Director of Agriculture to Colonial Secretary, March 28, 1933, CSO 8/3/3, PRAAD-Accra. 60. While there was an ample stock of local tradition supporting Hammond’s claims about the sacred nature of the oil palm tree, he chose to cite Revelation 7:9, which refers to date palm fronds. J. L. Hammond to Governor, September 25, 1935, CSO 8/3/3, PRAAD-Accra. 61. E. Tackie Otoo to Colonial Secretary, May 27, 1936, CSO 8/3/3, PRAAD-Accra. 62. Acting Governor Maxwell to Duke of Devonshire, July 27, 1923, ADM 36/1/11, PRAAD-Accra. 63. Memo, G. S. Northcote, 1933, in CSO 8/3/3, PRAAD-Accra. 64. My translation. Paul Hubert, Le palmier à huile, 79–81. The French had a temperance agenda but paradoxically hoped to encourage consumption of French wine. See Owen White, “Drunken States: Temperance and French Rule in Côte d’Ivoire, 1908–1916,” Journal of Social History 40, no. 3 (Spring 2007): 663–84. 65. Agriculture Department annual report for 1922–1923, 10, ADM 5/1/79, PRAAD-Accra. 66. Bye law no. 100 F, 1935, Dixcove paramount chief, CSO 8/3/8, PRAAD-Accra. See also Manya Krobo bye-laws, CSO 8/3/6, PRAAD-Accra. 67. Secretary for Native Affairs to Central Province, April 20, 1923, ADM 36/1/11, PRAAD-Accra; see also DC Western Akim to Omanhenes, April 16, 1936, ADM 36/1/11, PRAAD-Accra. 68. Minute, Governor Guggisberg, March 12, 1924, ADM 36/1/11, PRAAD-Accra. 69. R. Slater, “The Gold Coast: Some Facts and Figures,” Journal of the Royal African Society 29, no. 116 (July 1930): 347. 70. Shephard, Peasant Agriculture, 77. 71. Agricultural Department annual report for 1925–26, 9, ADM 5/1/83, PRAAD-Accra; La-Anyane, Ghana Agriculture, 115. 72. H. W. Thomas to Commissioner Central Province, April 22, 1922, ADM 36/1/11, PRAAD-Accra. 73. James Steele, Agricultural Department, to CCP, July 14, 1923, ADM 36/1/11, PRAAD-Accra. 74. E. Tackie Otoo to Colonial Secretary, May 27, 1936, CSO 8/3/3, PRAAD-Accra. 75. Nikotey Mantshe to DC Accra, September 25, 1908, and J. A. Mills to SNA, October 3, 1903, ADM 11/1/1144, PRAAD-Accra. 76. Goldman, “Fallible Justice,” 573. 77. Committee on Edible and Oil-Producing Nuts and Seeds, Minutes of Evidence, Cd. 8248 (London: HMSO, 1916), 124. 78. Agricultural Department annual report for 1918, 13, ADM 5/1/75, PRAAD-Accra. 79. Provincial Superintendent of Agriculture A. B. Culham to CCP, April 10, 1924, ADM 36/1/11, PRAAD-Accra. 80. Agricultural Department report for 1935–36, ADM 5/1/94, PRAAD-Accra. 81. Dr. M. J. Field, report on Manya Krobo land affairs, 1940–41, CSO 21/22/177, PRAAD-Accra. 82. Field, “Agricultural System,” 58. 83. Enclosure, ca. 1929, in file 124a, CSO 8/3/3, PRAAD-Accra. 84. Minute, August 27, 1931, CSO 8/3/3, PRAAD-Accra. 85. Minute, Mr. Thorne (?), “Illicit Distillation of Spirits,” CO 554/89/14; Minute, W. J. A. Jones, September 29, 1931, CO 96/700/6, TNA. 86. Memo, May 17, 1939, CSO 8/3/3, PRAAD-Accra. 87. Cameron to Maffey, July 31, 1934, enclosed in “Palm Oil and Palm Kernels, West Africa,” CO 554/95/16, TNA. 88. Dmitri van den Bersselaar, The King of Drinks: Schnapps Gin from Modernity to Tradition (Leiden: Brill, 2007), 174–84. 89. Akyeampong, Drink, Power, and Cultural Change, 116. 90. Anker, Imperial Ecology; Barton, Empire Forestry, 157. 91. Report, Agricultural Investigation Station, Cape Coast, September 21, 1936, ADM 36/1/11, PRAAD-Accra. 92. Agricultural Department Report for 1951–52, 4, ADM 5/1/163, PRAAD-Accra. 93. Gold Coast Agricultural Development Corporation, Mensah the Oil Palm Farmer (Accra, 1956). 94. Gyasi, “Oil Palm Belt.” 95. Daniel L. Bergert, “Management Strategies of Elaeis Guineensis (Oil Palm) in Response to Localized Markets in Southeastern Ghana, West Africa” (MS thesis, Michigan Technological University, 2000), 82–84; see also Betty Adjei, “The Making of Quality: A Technography Study of Small Scale Palm Oil Processing in Ghana” (PhD diss., University of Wageningen, 2014), 3. 96. Corley and Tinker, Oil Palm, 481; Yavo Eric Norbert Béhi et al., “Le Vin de Palme, Aliment et Source de Revenu Pour Les Populations Rurales en Côte d’Ivoire,” Schweizerische Zeitschrift Fur Forstwesen 153, no. 4 (April 2002): 128. 97. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, “Changes in Shifting Cultivation in Africa,” Unasylva 37, no. 4 (1985); Gyasi, “Oil Palm Belt,” 42. 98. Food and Agriculture Organization Corporate Statistical Database, 2017, http://www.fao.org/faostat. 99. Gyasi, “Oil Palm Belt”; Cyril Kofie Daddieh, “Contract Farming and Palm Oil Production in Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana,” in Living Under Contract: Contract Farming and Agrarian Transformation in Sub-Saharan Africa (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1994), 188–215. 100. Shephard, Peasant Agriculture, 78. 101. Paul S. Huddleston, “Contract Farming in Oil Palm: The Case of Ghana and the Philippines” (PhD diss., University of Western Australia, 2006), 245; Kojo Amanor, Global Restructuring and Land Rights in Ghana: Forest Food Chains, Timber, and Rural Livelihoods (Uppsala: Nordic Africa Institute, 1999), 97. 102. Quoted in Korieh, “Alcohol and Empire,” 121. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Society for Environmental History and the Forest History Society. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)

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Environmental HistoryOxford University Press

Published: Apr 1, 2018

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