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.