Tanganyika groundnut scheme

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The Tanganyika Groundnut Scheme was a plan to cultivate tracts of what is now Tanzania with peanuts. It was a project of the British government. It was abandoned in 1951 at considerable cost to the taxpayers when it did not become profitable. Ground nuts require at least 500 mm (20 inches) of rainfall per year; the area chosen was subject to drought.

Objectives[edit]

In 1946, Frank Samuel, head of the United Africa Company, a subsidiary of Unilever, came up with an idea to cultivate groundnuts in the British protectorate of Tanganyika, now mainland Tanzania, for the production of vegetable oil. Britain was still under World War II rationing and short of cooking fats. He suggested the idea to his contacts in the British government.

In April 1946, the British government authorised a mission to visit suitable sites. The team was led by John Wakefield, ex-Director of Agriculture in Tanganyika. After a three-month mission, the team's report was optimistically favourable to the scheme. Wakefield believed that the main reason for the apparent barrenness of the Tanganyika was local primitive farming practices that would be easily solved by Western equipment. The government, with the lead of Minister of Food John Strachey, eventually authorised £25 million to cultivate 150,000 acres (607 km²) of scrubland in six years. They began to recruit men for the "Groundnut Army" and 100,000 ex-soldiers volunteered. The first site selected for cultivation was in Kongwa in the central Tanganyika where locals had already cultivated groundnuts. Strachey chose an old political colleague, Leslie Plummer, to be Chairman of the Overseas Food Corporation.

Cultivation[edit]

The first problem was the lack of heavy equipment to clear the land for cultivation. Eventually, the project managers found some suitable tractors and bulldozers from Canada and bought U.S. Army surplus tractors from the Philippines.

Next, the equipment had to be transported from the port of Dar-es-Salaam to the inland site using the only available transport—a single-track railway with a steam locomotive. Unfortunately, a sudden flood of the Kinyansungwe River wiped out the rail tracks, leaving a dirt road as the only means of transport. African workers went on strike and the British advance team was left with just one cook. They decided to settle in Sagara with George Nestle, a local hunter.

At this stage, the British team finally decided to test the soil. They deemed it suitable despite the large amount of clay. Managers moved to the site in Kongwa and started to build a village, complete with prefabricated buildings. There was no suitable water source nearby.

When the British began to transfer equipment to the site from Dar-es-Salaam on the dirt road, they pushed through the Ruvu River and encountered large numbers of dangerous wildlife, including lions and crocodiles. Tractors were scheduled to arrive by February 1947, but only 16 smaller tractors had reached the site by April. They were not entirely suitable for clearing the local brush and bamboo.

Local large baobab trees were also hard to remove and the task was made more difficult by the fact that one of them was a local tribal jail, another was a site of ancestor worship, and many had bees' nests in their hollow trunks. Some of the workers had to be hospitalised for numerous bee stings. On other occasions, workers had to face angry elephants and rhinos.

The fact that the site was far from easily accessible water sources caused further problems. The water had to be ferried in and poured into a concrete-lined pool. Locals insisted on using it for swimming, despite protests by the European workers.

Eventually, local managers decided to train local workers for the job. Enthusiastic but inexperienced drivers wrecked many of the tractors. When the Colonial Office sent two men to help the locals form their own trade union, the locals decided to go on strike in support of the dockworkers at Dar-es-Salaam and demanded better pay and more food. Increased wages of the workers also contributed to local inflation and villagers did not find enough money for food.

By the end of the summer of 1947, two-thirds of the imported tractors had been rendered unusable. Bulldozer blades that were used to butt ground roots were ruined in a couple of days. The Groundnut Army attempted to use "shervicks"—machines that were part Sherman tanks and part tractors—but they were also wrecked in short order. A more effective method was to link two bulldozers with a long chain that would cut through the brush while the third bulldozer could turn over trees that resisted the chain. With that method, the Groundnut Army could clear 40 acres (160,000 m²) a day. When the workers tried to order a suitable ship's anchor chain from London, the managers in London cancelled the first order because they thought it was a joke.

Only with great difficulty was the Groundnut Army able to plant the first nuts. When the rainy season arrived, some of the workshops and stores were swept away by a flash flood. The number of scorpions also increased. After that, the hot season baked the ground clay into a hard surface that made harvesting the nuts very difficult.

Takeover and railway construction[edit]

In February 1948, the project became the responsibility of the newly formed Overseas Food Corporation. It sent a new leader, Major-General Desmond Harrison, to the site. He immediately tried to install military discipline, which did not endear him to the workers. He eventually concentrated on copious paperwork. Late in the year, he was ordered back home on sick leave for advanced anaemia.

In 1949, the Southern Province Railway was constructed in order to transport the crops.

The original target of 150,000 acres (607 km²) was gradually reduced to 50,000 acres (202 km²). After two years, only 2000 tons of groundnuts were harvested. Later in the project, the Groundnut Army tried to switch to growing sunflowers for their oil, but a heavy drought destroyed the crop.

The government cancelled the project in January 1951. The total cost over the years had risen to £49 million and the land had been ruined in the process, leaving it an unusable dust bowl.

Cultural references[edit]

At the end of the 1950 British comedy film The Happiest Days of Your Life, head teachers Muriel Whitchurch (Margaret Rutherford) and Wetherby Pond (Alastair Sim) discuss which corner of the British Empire they can escape to, and she mentions having a brother who, "grows groundnuts in Tanganyika".

The Eagle of 29 September 1950, in the Dan Dare strip, 'reproduces' the front page of "Daily World Post" of 28 September 1995. The main item is the lack of news from Dan Dare's expedition to Venus. A small item is headed SUCCESS IN EAST AFRICA - PEANUT ARRIVES IN LONDON: "There was a touching ceremony in London yesterday when a whole unblemished peanut was handed to the Minister of Food by a delegation representing equally the native tribes in the groundnut area and the survivors of the Strachey scheme".

In the 1960 James Bond short story Quantum of Solace, the governor of The Bahamas tells Bond the story of a career civil servant named Philip Masters who, after a tragic life, gets "shunted off into the ground-nuts scheme."

In a 1968 BBC news programme featuring listeners' comments on the first broadcast of the Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour film, one listener called in to say that the Beatles' film was "the biggest waste of money since the Groundnut Scheme."[1]

The writer and comedian Spike Milligan referred to the Concorde project as a "flying ground-nut scheme" in a cartoon produced for the satirical magazine Private Eye.

In a 1970 episode of the British sitcom Steptoe and Son, Harold (Harry H. Corbett) points out to an ex-girlfriend that her deceased husband was a "great Tory twit, always sneering about Clem Attlee and the Groundnut Scheme".

See also[edit]

References[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Wood, Alan (1950). The Groundnut Affair. London: Bodley Head. OCLC 1841364.  (A critical account of this project by a British/Australian journalist who worked on the scheme.)

External links[edit]