The tuber that changed the world: a brief history of the potato

Jennifer Musgrave
Bloomington, Indiana, United States

 

“This unassuming tuber held within itself the ability to sustain life and, in its absence, take life away.”

When Christopher Columbus set sail in 1492, he did not know that potatoes even existed. But the Columbian voyages to the Americas would initiate a domino effect allowing this unassuming but life-sustaining tuber to spread from its South American origins to the Old World and by its introduction change the course of history.

The potato originated in South America and was used by Amerindians as a wild and also as a cultivated foodstuff. Many varieties of potatoes had thrived in South America for more than two thousand years before Columbus and the Spanish. Cultivation was especially popular in regions that are now Chile, Ecuador, Columbia, Peru, and Bolivia. From there the practice of cultivating potatoes spread to Central and North America, where before Columbus potatoes had grown wild and had been used for food.1

Evidence for the cultivation and use of potatoes as a native foodstuff is found in archaeological and historical records. A Spanish account of the first European encounters with the potato, written in the 1537 expedition records of Gonzalo Jimenez de Quesada, noted that potatoes and corn were native staple foods. In 1538 Pedro de Cieza confirmed this by recording that dried and boiled potatoes were staples of native peoples all along his exploration routes. Sir Francis Drake wrote that the potato was the staple food in Chile in 1577.2 Archeological evidence of the potato in native life exists in the form of their freeze-dried remains in underground storage containers in the Andes, similar to the storage used by Inuit peoples in North America. William McNeil, in his article “How the Potato Changed the World’s History,” states, “In the high Andes, chuño, in effect, provided the principal fuel of empire, since human muscles did most of the work, and chuño was the indispensable food for labor gangs. Without it, nothing resembling Andean civilization could have arisen, and the Amerindian world would have lacked one of its most impressive, distinctive constituents.” Chuño were potato foodstuffs. McNeil’s argument points out the importance of the potato in Andean society and that its presence in the native diet allowed for the growth of an ancient and powerful civilization.3

The value of native food such as the potato was not lost on Spanish sailors and explorers, who needed to stock their ships with food stores for their sea voyages. Potatoes became an important food on Spanish ships, and were used for some time before adopted into European culture. It is unclear when potatoes were first introduced into European gardens, but it is likely that they were brought by these potato-eating sailors and explorers; and  historical records indicate that they were being produced in Spain by 1570 and in England by 1590. Sweet potatoes, though not technically potatoes, quickly became a specialty item in Spain since they could only be grown in climes similar to that from which they had been “discovered.” The sweet potato became a favorite of the royal and wealthy houses of Europe. King Henry VIII of England was particularly fond of the tubers, believing they had aphrodisiac qualities that would enable him to produce a son and heir. The potato would follow its sweeter cousin, arriving on a ship traveling through the Strait of Gibraltar to Europe and spreading from Spain to Ireland.4

It is unclear which European explorer introduced the potato to Ireland, but Sir Walter Raleigh, Sir Francis Drake, and John Hawkins have all been credited for this. The president of the Royal Society, Sir Robert Southwell, is said to have given his grandfather, Anthony Southwell, via Sir Walter Raleigh, credit for the Irish introduction of potatoes in 1693. Raleigh’s role was reiterated by Dr. Wright of Edinburgh in a 1795 letter to the English Board of Agriculture. However, much myth and legend has surrounded these claims with little  evidence to substantiate them. In contrast to the ambiguous nature of the Raleigh claims, Sir Francis Drake is recorded to have actually brought potatoes on his ships sailing from South America to Europe. Sir Thomas Cavendish also had an influence on potato cultivation in Europe. It is most likely that the potato entered Ireland through trade with Spain in trading ports such as Waterford on Ireland’s southern coast.5

The potato has influenced many regions of the world, from its origins in South America to its adoption by the Chinese during times of political unrest and immigration, and throughout Europe including Spain, Italy, and England. But it was its role in Irish history that launched it to infamous heights.6 K.H. Connell, in his article “The History of the Potato,” relays a quote from Dr. Salaman:

“[F]ar from the potato being forced on the [Irish] people from above, it spread through the entire social organism from below. It had no sponsors. It needed none; arriving at a critical moment in the people’s history it had filled the yawning gap which the wars of the sixteenth century had torn in the tenor of their lives. As soon as the potato was established, the standard of living automatically became fixed at a level commiserate with the energy its production demanded.”7

The potato became the most important cultivated food crop in Ireland, dominating the agricultural landscape and economy. The Irish population became so dependent on the potato that they were quite unprepared when famine struck in the years between 1845 and 1852. During that great famine, one million out of a population of eight million died, and another one million emigrated to other countries such as the United States, forever changing not only Ireland’s but also America’s landscape.8

How did such a disastrous famine ever occur? The practice of mono-crop culture allowed a blight to wipe out entire crops across a large region. In Ireland the blight was caused by a fungus, a strain of oomycete called Phytophthora infestans. 9 Yet disease was not solely responsible for the magnitude of the famine’s deadly reign. It was compounded by those in power continuing to export food to England while the people of Ireland were starving to death. According to Adam Smith, it is not disease but “the violence of government” that causes famine.10 Jonathan Swift shared this view in his satirical work A Modest Proposal, wherein he proposed that the Irish sell their starving children as food to the English elite. This 1729 parody mocked the English lack of aid and continued demands on Ireland more than one hundred years before the great famine. In Ireland in the mid-nineteenth century, it was again poor governance that exacerbated the hardship brought on by disease.11

Today, Ireland and many other regions still cultivate the potato. According to a 1951 article by F.J. Stevenson, “About eight billion bushels of potatoes are produced annually throughout the world, four hundred million of them in the United States.”12 Today those numbers are even higher. Potatoes are used around the world for human and animal consumption in a variety of forms ranging from chips to vodka. The potato is a prime example of how something so small can change the world in drastic ways. For better or worse, it has left an indelible mark on the world’s food cultivation, consumption, and culture.

 

Endnotes

  1. Stevenson, F. (1951). The Potato: Its Origin, Cytogenetic Relationships, Production, Uses and Food Value. Economic Botany, 5(2), 153-171. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org.proxyiub.uits.iu.edu/stable/4252024
  2. Ibid.
  3. McNeill, W. (1999). How the Potato Changed the World’s History. Social Research, 66(1), 67-83. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org.proxyiub.uits.iu.edu/stable/40971302
  4. O’Riordan, T. (2001). The Introduction of the Potato into Ireland. History Ireland, 9(1), 27-31. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org.proxyiub.uits.iu.edu/stable/27724853
  5. Ibid.
  6. Mann, Charles C. (2011). 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created. New York [N.Y.]: Alfred A. Knopf.
  7. Connell, K. (1951). The History of the Potato. The Economic History Review, 3(3), new series, 388-395. doi:1. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org.proxyiub.uits.iu.edu/stable/2599996 doi:1
  8. Ibid.
  9. Mann, Charles C. (2011). 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created. New York [N.Y.]: Alfred A. Knopf.
  10. Thornton, Mark. (2008). What Caused the Irish Potato Famine?. Mises Institute: Austrian Economics, Freedom, and Peace. Web.
  11. Swift, Johnathon. (1729). A Modest Proposal. Grossman Publishers: New York, 1969. Print.
  12. Stevenson, F. (1951). The Potato: Its Origin, Cytogenetic Relationships, Production, Uses and Food Value. Economic Botany, 5(2), 153-171. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org.proxyiub.uits.iu.edu/stable/4252024

 

References

  1. Connell, K. (1951). The History of the Potato. The Economic History Review, 3(3), new series, 388-395. doi:1. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org.proxyiub.uits.iu.edu/stable/2599996     doi:1Kennedy, H. (1932). The Importance of the Potato. Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, 21(84), 567-575. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org.proxyiub.uits.iu.edu/stable/30094936
  2. Mann, Charles C. (2011). 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created. New York [N.Y.]: Alfred A. Knopf.
  3. McNeill, W. (1999). How the Potato Changed the World’s History. Social Research, 66(1), 67-83. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org.proxyiub.uits.iu.edu/stable/40971302
  4. O’Riordan, T. (2001). The Introduction of the Potato into Ireland. History Ireland, 9(1), 27-31. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org.proxyiub.uits.iu.edu/stable/27724853
  5. Stevenson, F. (1951). The Potato: Its Origin, Cytogenetic Relationships, Production, Uses and
  6. Food Value. Economic Botany, 5(2), 153-171. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org.proxyiub.uits.iu.edu/stable/4252024
  7. Swift, Jonathan. (1729). A Modest Proposal. Grossman Publishers: New York, 1969. Print.
  8. Thornton, Mark. (2008). What Caused the Irish Potato Famine?. Mises Institute: Austrian Economics, Freedom, and Peace. Web.

 


 

JENNIFER MUSGRAVE is the owner of Musgrave Publishing, Consulting, and Photography.  She is passionate about writing, history, travel, cultural anthropology, and archaeology.  She blogs at https://thehoosierhistorian.wixsite.com/wanderfull.

 

Summer 2018  |  Hektorama  |  Food