Intangible Heritage

The Rise and Fall of the Groundnut Industry

A groundnut oil expeller in one of Pondicherry's defunct mills. This one operated from 1977 until 2012.

Ground­nuts. Pea­nuts. Goo­bers. All dif­fe­rent names for the same plant that has a deep his­to­ry in the sys­tem of colo­nial mari­ti­me tra­de.

Nati­ve to the soils of Sou­th Ame­ri­ca, ground­nut was first encoun­te­red by Euro­peans in the ear­ly 16th cen­tu­ry when they began their explo­ra­tion and conquest of that region. Tra­de rou­tes soon took the hum­ble ground­nut to Euro­pe, Afri­ca, East Asia, and the Paci­fic, but it was not until the end of the 16th cen­tu­ry that ground­nut was intro­du­ced to the Indian Sub­con­ti­nent. Most like­ly, the varie­ties that rea­ched the Mala­bar coast came from Mozam­bi­que, whi­le the varie­ties that rea­ched the Coro­man­del coast came from the Phi­lip­pi­nes. Ground­nut, in Tamil, used to be cal­led mar­nilla kot­tai, whi­ch is thought to refer to the nut’s ori­gin in Manilla. Some tra­ders invol­ved in the indus­try would even pre­fix their name with the word manilla.

The Rise of Culti­va­tion and Pro­duc­tion

Befo­re colo­nial admi­nis­tra­tion effec­ti­ve­ly trans­for­med the local sys­tems of agri­cul­tu­re from sub­sis­ten­ce far­ming to cash crop­ping, the Mus­lim rulers of the Dec­can were encou­ra­ging the com­mer­cial culti­va­tion of ground­nut. The first lar­ge-sca­le culti­va­tion in Tamil Nadu was recor­ded in 1800 by Bri­ti­sh bota­nist Fran­cis Bucha­nan, who noted that in Myso­re, ground­nut was being inter­crop­ped with tur­me­ric. By 1851, the crop was being grown com­mer­cial­ly and pro­fi­ta­bly in the Sou­th Arcot dis­trict (whi­ch encom­pas­sed Pon­di­cher­ry and sur­roun­ding Tamil Nadu from Marak­ka­nam to Thi­ru­van­na­ma­lai to Chin­na Salem to Chi­dam­ba­ram). By 1889, this region was home to more than half of the total acrea­ge of ground­nut far­ming from across Tamil Nadu, Andh­ra Pra­de­sh, and Kar­na­ta­ka.

In Pon­di­cher­ry, the explo­sion of ground­nut was ini­tial­ly met with inade­qua­te sto­ra­ge faci­li­ties. The crop had to be sto­red and dried in pri­va­te homes and gar­dens, cau­sing resi­dents and neigh­bors to com­plain about the smell. In 1889, twel­ve sto­ra­ge ware­hou­ses were construc­ted along the Sou­th Bou­le­vard of the town spe­ci­fi­cal­ly to accom­mo­da­te the gro­wing ground­nut indus­try. Tra­de was ope­ra­ted from within the­se ware­hou­ses, pro­pel­ling Pon­di­cher­ry as the chief expor­ter of ground­nut in Sou­th India.

Fran­ce was the chief Euro­pean reci­pient of Indian ground­nut, and becau­se they hea­vi­ly taxed pro­duct that was grown out­si­de of the Fren­ch colo­nial empi­re, most of their Indian ground­nut came from Pon­di­cher­ry. In 1857, the expor­ted ground­nuts from Pon­di­cher­ry to Fran­ce were valued at 2.2 mil­lion francs. By 1883, this num­ber had jum­ped to 8.4 mil­lion, and by 1891, the export value of ground­nuts to Fran­ce was as high as 12.9 mil­lion francs. In Fran­ce, raw ground­nuts were both used for food consump­tion and mil­led for oil, whi­ch was famous­ly used in the com­po­si­tion of Mar­seilles soap.

Bet­ween 1896 and 1900, howe­ver, the­re was a mas­si­ve dear­th of ground­nuts in Pon­di­cher­ry becau­se of crop disea­se, soil exploi­ta­tion, and land exhaus­tion. One of the chief expor­ting com­pa­nies was hired to deve­lop a new seed varie­ty that would resist the­se effects of degra­da­tion, and a seed from Mozam­bi­que was suc­cess­ful­ly culti­va­ted to reple­ni­sh grow­th. This new crop was named the Coro­man­del pea­nut, whi­ch sub­se­quent­ly domi­na­ted culti­va­tion across India, and the Pon­di­cher­ry region again rose as a pri­ma­ry pro­du­cer of ground­nut. At the height of pro­duc­tion near the end of the 20th cen­tu­ry, ground­nut accoun­ted for 10% of Pondicherry’s total cro­pland, third only to rice pad­dy (60%) and sugar­ca­ne (12%).

Pro­ces­ses of Pro­duc­tion

Ground­nut in Pon­di­cher­ry was grown in two cycles: rain­fed crop, whi­ch was culti­va­ted bet­ween July and Decem­ber, and irri­ga­ted crop, bet­ween Janua­ry and June. All parts of the plant were used pro­duc­ti­ve­ly: the vines were used as fod­der; the shells for ani­mal feed, fire fuel, or packing mate­rial; and the nuts them­sel­ves, of cour­se, for consump­tion and oil pro­duc­tion. Ground­nut oil was the prin­ci­ple bypro­duct of culti­va­tion, and it was tou­ted for its heal­th bene­fits and affor­da­bi­li­ty for the wor­king fami­ly. Befo­re the nuts could be cru­shed for oil, howe­ver, they would be dried in the sun for at least two days, with lon­ger expo­su­re lea­ding to higher oil yields.

Ori­gi­nal­ly, oil cru­shing was done with woo­den rota­ries known as sek­ku, whi­ch were dri­ven by cat­tle. In a lar­ge mor­tar-and-pest­le fashion, the bull would dri­ve a rota­ting club on the insi­de of a ser­ra­ted drum, cru­shing the ker­nels to extract the oil. Later, mil­ls were run with mecha­ni­zed rota­ries, and even­tual­ly steam-powe­red oil expel­lers, whi­ch pro­du­ced up to 50% more oil than tra­di­tio­nal methods.

The Fall of the Ground­nut Indus­try 

Prior to Pon­di­cher­ry inde­pen­den­ce and the mer­ger with India, far­mers would bring their crop direct­ly to the oil mil­ls in town with whi­ch they had esta­bli­shed contracts. By 1965, howe­ver, the Pudu­cher­ry govern­ment had cen­tra­li­zed the tra­de of ground­nut. Far­mers and mil­lers now wor­ked less direct­ly with each other, and ins­tead most sel­lers took their crop to a cen­tra­li­zed dis­tri­bu­tion cen­ter, whe­re mil­lers would make pur­cha­ses at who­le­sa­le pri­ces. This was not an eco­no­mi­cal pro­cess for many small-sca­le far­mers, who even­tual­ly had to give up their ground­nut busi­ness. Addi­tio­nal­ly, increa­sing urba­ni­za­tion, whi­ch drew more wor­kers away from the fields and into the city, as well as a lack of concur­rent moder­ni­za­tion of agri­cul­tu­ral tech­no­lo­gy, contri­bu­ted to the gra­dual decli­ne of ground­nut pro­duc­tion in the region.

Moreo­ver, in the 1990s, forei­gn imports took over India’s oil indus­try. Palm oil and sun­flo­wer oil were mar­ke­ted as heal­thier than ground­nut oil, whi­ch is high in cho­les­te­rol, and sold for half the cost. Within the deca­de, ground­nut ope­ra­tions had near­ly com­ple­te­ly cea­sed. At the height of pro­duc­tion in Pon­di­cher­ry, oil mil­ls had lined the streets in the nor­th­west part of the town, par­ti­cu­lar­ly on what is now Anna Salai and Neh­ru Street. Now, most of the­se mil­ls lay deser­ted, or other­wi­se demo­li­shed and recons­truc­ted for dif­fe­rent com­mer­cial pur­po­ses. The ware­hou­ses whi­ch had been built on the Sou­th Bou­le­vard at the turn of the 20th cen­tu­ry, like­wi­se, are now occu­pied by a fire sta­tion, a sports faci­li­ty, a res­tau­rant, offi­ces, and shops.


The­re is hope, howe­ver, among mil­lers that the ground­nut indus­try may see a rebir­th in the coming years. New know­led­ge, in par­ti­cu­lar, ack­now­led­ges the heal­th bene­fits of ground­nut oil and asserts that it is espe­cial­ly good for peo­ple living in humid, tro­pi­cal cli­ma­tes such as Pondicherry’s. Demand for ground­nut oil seems to be increa­sing and some new small mil­ls have even ope­ned up as the ground­nut tra­de slow­ly begins to resur­fa­ce.

The grea­test iro­ny is that this blog is writ­ten by someo­ne with a pea­nut aller­gy. I only hope to bring remem­bran­ce to the Great Ground­nut His­to­ry that was once an inte­gral part of local natu­ral and indus­trial heri­ta­ge. Though many far­mers and mil­lers have moved on to such crops as sesa­me, the ground­nut roots grow deep into soil of Pon­di­cher­ry.