Anthropology Seminar

Date Thursday 8 October 2020
Time 3:10pm - 4:10pm
Where Room K.G.06 & via Zoom ( Meeting ID: 719 684 2758 / Password: @nthr0 )
Presenter Dr Kate Stevens, Lecturer in History, University of Waikato
Contact Rachel Gosnell-Maddock
Contact email
Admission Cost Free

De/odorizing Pacific history: Scent in the coconut oil industry from the Pacific to Europe

The ability to deodorise agricultural oils, such as coconut oil, was a key factor in their adaptation and expansion as ingredients in food commodities around the turn of the twentieth century. Through this process, these oils became not only deodorised but also increasingly interchangeable. Industrial processing meant that such oils became substitutable triglycerides: coconut oil could replace olive oil, but could itself be replaced by palm and other oils, and consumers were not the wiser. Yet, recent decades have seen a return to oils that smell, particularly in the case of coconut oil.

Recently, consumer interest has grown in coconut oil as a so-­called superfood and as a powerful cosmetic product, linked to the desire to consume more authentic or natural products. In these forms, coconut oil has regained its distinctive scent. This paper similarly re­introduces scent into the history of coconut oil. From eighteenth century encounters, and nineteenth century plantations, to more recent marketing campaigns for scented oils from Tahiti, the presenter argues that smell has been a significant but largely unacknowledged aspect in shaping the changing history of Pacific coconut commodities.

In doing so, the presenter brings recent scholarship on history and anthropology of the senses into dialogue with Pacific studies and environmental history to examine the way the oil’s changing scent reflects its varying uses and value from the Pacific to Europe. These changes are illustrated by two products at either end of the commodity chain, both of which have long local histories but were transformed by colonialism, industrialisation, and global trade: Savon de Marseille and Monoï de Tahiti.


Dr Kate Stevens is a lecturer in history at the University of Waikato. Her research focuses on comparative histories of cultural, environmental, and economic exchange in the colonial and postcolonial Pacific. Prior to joining Waikato, she completed her PhD at the University of Cambridge on British and French colonial criminal justice in the Pacific and worked as a postdoctoral fellow with Prof Judy Bennett examining the history of coconut commodities in the Pacific world. Her current teaching includes courses on Pacific history, global food and commodity history, and histories of the ocean.