December 17, 2011
One of my chores at Paolino’s Market when I was a kid was to open up fifty-pound bags of potatoes and divide the spuds into ten- and five-pound bags. “Packing potatoes,” as we called it, was a frequent part of the routine in our store, and that was appropriate in its way, because what could be more routine than a potato — one of the most plain, most simple, and least consequential of vegetables.
Or so I thought until I read 1493 by Charles C. Mann, author of 1491.
In this substantial and exhaustively researched volume, Mann describes the impact of the voyages of Christopher Columbus, whom he calls Cristóbal Colón, the name the explorer answered to in Spain. Overall, Mann explains, the impact of those voyages was to globalize life on earth, sending folks traveling to hemispheres they had perhaps only dreamed about and distributing other forms of life, ranging from mosquitoes to horses, from tobacco plants to rubber trees, to spots where they had never existed before — a phenomenon known as the Columbian Exchange. Simultaneously, languages and cultural traditions and man-made products were scattered across the planet. So were doleful phenomena such as malaria and potato blight.
The process that Columbus launched, and personally participated on his first trips across the Atlantic Ocean and back, is so complex and far-reaching, as Mann describes it, that I can’t adequately summarize it here. But the potato is a good example of the upheaval Columbus touched off.
Little did I know last June, when I was watching my cousins hoeing potatoes in their massive garden in Il Valle di Sessa Cilento, that potatoes, which were first domesticated in the Andes, weren’t exported to Europe in quantity until the second half of the 16th century, when some species of them were being cultivated in the Canary Islands and shipped off to the mainland.
The consequences of this, Mann writes, were enormous for a continent that was accustomed to frequent food shortages. In fact:
“Many scholars believe that the introduction of S. tuberosum to Europe was a key moment in history. This is because their widespread consumption largely coincided with the end of famine in northern Europe. (Maize, another American crop, played a similar but smaller role in southern Europe.) More than that, the celebrated historian William H. McNeill has argued, S. tuberosum led to empire: ‘[P]otatoes, by feeding rapidly growing populations, permitted a handful of European nations to assert dominion over most of the world between 1750 and 1950.’ Hunger’s end helped create the political stability that allowed European nations to take advantage of American silver. The potato fueled the rise of the West.”
There is much, much more just to the potato story, including the fact that a blight that also originated in the Andes migrated first to North America and then to Europe in the mid 19th century, causing almost incomprehensible hunger and illness, especially but not solely in Ireland.
Mann discusses the potato itself and its geographical history in minute detail, and he does the same with a broad range of subjects including slavery, the mixing of races in the “new world,” and the impact of world economies — most notably that of China — of the Spanish trade of silver from South America. His discussions frequently extend down to the present day, and this book in general is a valuable aid in understanding how the world evolved from the 15th century to the 21st.