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Potatoes and World History

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Who would have thought the lowly potato could have had an impact on global affairs? But, the innocuous spud has influenced population growth, colonization, immigration, and a war.

Origin of Potatoes

We have to dial the clock back about 350 million years to find the ancestors of today’s potato beginning to evolve from a nightshade plant. Today’s taters are related to tomatoes, chili peppers, tobacco, and eggplant. It’s also a cousin of deadly nightshade, known as devil’s herb and death cherries, a plant that contains poisonous alkaloids that can kill humans.

Fast forward to about 13,000 years ago and we find the first people eating potatoes in areas that are now Peru and Bolivia. Those were wild tubers and they contained some toxins called solanine and tomatine.

Native Peruvian potatoes.

Native Peruvian potatoes.

To deal with the nasty stuff, Incas observed that wild animal relatives of llamas licked clay before tucking into the tubers. This coated the stomachs of the animals so the potatoes could pass through the digestive system without causing harm. So the people, learning from the animals, submerged the poisonous plants into a clay slurry before cooking and eating.

Over a period of about 5,000 years, Andean Indians bred a cultivated version of the wild vegetable with the harmful toxins removed.

Charles C. Mann (Smithsonian Magazine) writes that “some of the old, poisonous varieties remain, favored for their resistance to frost. Clay dust is still sold in Peruvian and Bolivian markets to accompany them.”

The Potato Arrives in Europe

When Christopher Columbus stumbled on the Americas in 1492 he started a transatlantic trade that was utterly disastrous for the Indigenous inhabitants. The conquistadors plundered South America of its precious metals and jewels and slaughtered vast numbers of Indians.

As they were busy stealing treasure, you would have thought the unpretentious potato would have escaped their notice. But it didn’t. In the 16th century, the tuber was taken back to Europe, where it flourished. According to the Spanish, a gentleman called Gonzalo Jimenez de Quesada gets credit for the patata revolución.

Farmers found the potato easy to grow and it provided more nutrition per acre of land than cereal crops. It also stored well in cool temperatures.

Despite these advantages, the common folk did not take to the spud. Somehow it developed a reputation for causing all sorts of unpleasant things such as syphilis, sterility, and leprosy. The Roman Catholic Church also put the mockers on the tater, warning people not to eat it because it was not mentioned in the Bible.

Mr. Grumpy Spud.

Mr. Grumpy Spud.

On the plus side, there was a body of opinion that believed it to be an aphrodisiac, but then isn’t everything at some time or another? In The Merry Wives of Windsor, Shakespeare’s eternally randy Falstaff shouts “Let the sky rain potatoes,” and it wasn’t because he was in need of a meal.

The French philosopher Denis Diderot wasn’t a big fan, saying the vegetable caused gas. But, he added “What is windiness to the strong bodies of peasants and labourers?”

Adam Smith, author of The Wealth of Nations of 1776 was much more enthusiastic. He wrote that “No food can afford a more decisive proof of its nourishing quality, or of its being peculiarly suitable to the health of the human constitution.” Eventually, the objections were overcome and potatoes became the staple food of Europe.

King Frederick the Great of Prussia, an enthusiastic supporter of potato farming, inspects a crop.

King Frederick the Great of Prussia, an enthusiastic supporter of potato farming, inspects a crop.

The Potato and Empires

By the 1600s, Europe was in a demographic decline. It was relying on grains that had changed little in thousands of years to feed its population. Sometimes, the crops failed and the result was mass starvation.

In his 1993 book, Germs, Seeds and Animals, historian Alfred Crosby wrote that “Europe could not, with the agriculture it possessed, feed her lower classes and also support the high-flown schemes of her upper classes,” such as the extravagance of the Palace of Versailles.

Healthy potato crop.

Healthy potato crop.

The French historian Fernand Braudel wrote that between 1500 and 1800 his country suffered from 40 nationwide famines. In addition, there were countless local famines and England experienced similar food supply collapses.

And then, the potato arrived.

The lower classes could now be adequately fed by a crop that was more reliable and nutrient-rich than grains. That meant healthier people and a reversal of the population decline. Gwynn Gilford (Quartz) writes that “the potato helped prime the economy with the wealth and manpower needed to fuel the Industrial Revolution.” The continent’s population was about 126 million in 1750; by 1900 it hit 300 million.

However, some historians say that the popularity of potatoes was a response to increased population numbers, rather than a cause of it.

The growing numbers meant that large military establishments could be staffed and fed on spuds. Historian William H. McNeill argued that the European population boom “permitted a handful of European nations to assert domination over most of the world between 1750 and 1950.”

Soldiers and sailors from France, the Netherlands, Britain, and other European nations soon swept across, Africa, Asia, and the Americas. They conquered Indigenous people, took their land, and stole their resources. It wasn’t only the potato that made this possible but it was a major contributing factor.

potatoes-and-world-history

The Potato and Migration

This is where we meet Phytophthora infestans. It’s one of several hundred types of water moulds and it first appeared in Europe in the town of Kortrijk, Belgium in the late spring of 1845.

P. infestans is carried on the wind and it spends its life destroying plants, particularly nightshades. By the time a farmer notices purplish spots on a plant’s leaves, it’s too late. The plant is going to die.

Within a few weeks, the disease was found all over Western Europe and, by September 1845, it had made its way to Ireland.

Historian Cormac Ó’Gráda is author of The Great Irish Famine. He has estimated that in 1845, about 2.1 million acres of land were planted with potatoes. Within two months, as much as a third of the plants had been killed by P. infestans.

Memorial to the victims of the Potato Famine in Dublin.

Memorial to the victims of the Potato Famine in Dublin.

The carnage got worse and did not start to weaken until 1952. By that time, more than a million Irish people had died of starvation. If a catastrophe of that scale were to hit the United States today, the death toll would be about 40 million.

Even more people fled. Two million Irish people migrated from their home country to settle in Canada, the United States, Australia, and other nations. They were joined by other European farmers, although in smaller numbers, whose crops had failed.

P. infestans is a persistent rascal and it’s still around. Today, farmers attack it with advanced chemical warfare, but it keeps coming back, often in a more virulent form.

A blighted and inedible potato.

A blighted and inedible potato.

Potatoes: The Facts

  • The spud is the fourth most cultivated crop in the world after wheat, corn (maize), and rice.
  • On average, each American eats 138 pounds of potatoes a year, but Germans top that with an annual intake of 200 pounds.
  • Most supermarkets carry half a dozen of the 4,000 varieties of potatoes available.
  • Although 75 to 80 percent water, potatoes are rich in vitamins B6 and C, as well as potassium and fibre.
  • An acre of potatoes can deliver between two and four times the food value of grains and does not require much processing.
  • According to The Guinness Book of World Records the heaviest potato ever grown was an almost 11-pound misshapen monster that came out of the garden of Peter Glazebrook in Shepton Mallet, England. That would be enough to make 44 portions of McDonald’s fries. There is a claim that an 18 pound behemoth was grown in England but that was in 1795 before Guinness officials were around to verify the claim.
  • Potatoes are the basic ingredient from which vodka is made.
  • In 1992, U.S. Vice President Dan Quayle was visiting an elementary school in New Jersey when a 12-year-old boy was asked to write “potato” on a chalk board. Quayle “corrected” the youngster by telling him the word has an “e” on the end of it. It doesn’t.

Bonus Factoids

  • In 1952, Mr. Potatohead became one of the first toys for children to be advertised on American television.
  • A strange war was fought in 1778-79 over succession to the Bavarian crown. In what has become known as the kartofelkrieg, the tactics of both sides involved seizing food supplies, primarily potatoes, from their opponents.
  • King Louis XVI was keen to get the French people to accept potatoes as a suitable food. He took to wearing potato flowers in his lapel and his wife, Marie Antoinette, put a small bouquet in her hair. They made the potato fashionable and the rest of the country followed.
Potato flowers.

Potato flowers.

Sources

  • “History of Potatoes.” Vegetablefacts.net, undated.
  • “How the Potato Changed the World.” Charles C. Mann, Smithsonian Magazine, November 2011.
  • “The Global Dominance of White People Is Thanks to the Potato.” Gwynn Guilford, Quartz, December 8, 2017.
  • “Progress of Potato Staple Food Research and Industry Development in China.” Hong Zhan et al., Journal of Integrative Agriculture, December 2017.
  • “The Great Irish Famine.” Cormac Ó’Gráda, Cambridge University Press, 1995.
  • “The Impact of the Potato.” Jeff Chapman, History Magazine, undated.
  • “Potato Fun Facts.” Mobile-Cuisine.com, undated.

© 2020 Rupert Taylor