The All-Conquering Potato
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
Martin Luther shook Germany, but Francis Drake calmed it again – he gave us the potato.
- Heinrich Heine
That’s a great line by a great poet, but it’s unfortunately not correct: Francis Drake did not introduce the potato to Germany or anywhere else, though he apparently ate them during this round-the-world voyage.
The potato originated in the New World, and became the agricultural staple of Peru’s highland civilizations including the Incas and other peoples. Spanish colonizers began to cultivate the potato, and at some point brought them to the Canary Islands, an important way-station on the voyage between Spain and the New World. By the early 1560’s, the islands’ agricultural exports to Europe had expanded from sugar and citrus fruits to include potatoes as well. By the end of that decade, potatoes had appeared in Spain, and soon reached England and the Low Countries as well.
Potato acceptance came slowly; corn (the Indians knew it as maize!) spread rapidly across Europe after Christopher Columbus brought it back from the Caribbean. Soon botanists argued fiercely over its origins, with many insisting it had come from Turkey until Pietro Mattioli proved its New World birthplace in 1570. The American Indians’ remarkable bio-engineering provided a wealth of new crops to the Europeans: tobacco, cocoa, chilis, squash, tomatoes, sunflowers, lima beans, peanuts, sweet potatoes, blueberries, strawberries and many more. While the population of the New World died by the millions thanks to newly-introduced diseases (as well as the genocidal policies of their European conquerors), that of the Old World exploded as the new foods suddenly previously marginal lands productive.
While many of the other new crops could be grown immediately in Europe’s soils, the potato proved ill-suited to the continent’s long summer days. High in the Andes Mountains the potato had enjoyed 12-hour (or nearly 12-hour) days year-round. In Europe, the much longer summer days encouraged the plants to pour their energies into leaves and flowers; when the days and nights grew roughly equal in the fall there was little time left to grow tubers. Most of the plants introduced into Europe produced tiny potatoes, perhaps useful for medicinal properties but not as a staple food.
The potato could not be easily made into bread or alcohol. And it also fell outside the traditional three-field rotation of the European farm: grains, fallow, and grazing. To grow them, a farmer would have to radically change his growing pattern. A great deal more labor had to be applied to the potato as well: it grew from tubers rather than seed, something totally unfamiliar to Europeans. Instead of marching across the fields casting seeds, each tuber had to be individually buried in the soil. And then it would have to be dug up again, a much more labor-intensive practice than reaping grain.
Let the sky rain potatoes!
- William Shakespeare
The Merry Wives of Windsor
Shakespeare’s England considered the newly-introduced tuber an aphrodisiac; Falstaff calls for a potato rain as he looks forward to a “cool rut-time” with Mistress Ford. Potatoes remained a curiosity for some decades after their arrival in Europe, often confined to botanical gardens. Yet while some believed that potato-eating would improve sexual potency, a more widespread view held that the tubers spread leprosy.
Steadily, potato growers selected for plants that would thrive in a European climate and by the middle of the 1600’s such plants had become widely available just as Europe’s rural poor found a desperate need for such a crop. The Thirty Years War brought untold suffering to much of Europe, as starvation and then disease followed in the wake of the ravenous armies. Perhaps a third or more of all German perished during the conflict. Armies seized grain stocks, leaving behind worthless paper notices or more often, nothing at all.
The very difficulties involved in harvesting potatoes now proved a blessing to the oppressed European peasantry: a fast-moving army did not have the patience to stop and dig up potatoes. Nor, for that matter, did the local tax collector. Retreating armies might burn ripening wheatfields to deny their yield to the enemy, but this treatment did little to harm the potatoes nestled safely underground. Nor did marching and camping troops spoil them.
Potatoes apparently leapt from garden oddity to staple crop in Alsace, one of the hotly-contested border provinces between France and Germany. From there, large-scale production spread to the Low Countries and northern France
Iron was now at the service of man, the last and most important of all the raw materials which played a historically revolutionary role – until the potato.
- Friedrich Engels
Potato cultivation spread slowly in Germany, but experienced a rapid surge in the 1740’s. The War of the Austrian Succession emptied granaries across the Holy Roman Empire, and a succession of poor harvests failed to refill them. The potato filled the need, and spread rapidly to the east as peasants overcame their reluctance to plant them and the enlightened monarchs of the time provided encouragement.
These peasants hope to keep their noses as Frederick inspects their potatoes.
Frederick II, the new king of Prussia, saw the potato’s value and went even further than the other enlightened monarchs, distributing wagonloads of seed potatoes throughout Prussia. “The things have no taste,” peasants near Kolberg objected to his officials. “Not even the dogs will eat them.” Frederick, soon to the known as the Potato King, instructed his bureaucrats to cut off the ears and noses of those who refused to plant potatoes. The spuds quickly spread across Prussia.
By the outbreak of the War of the Bavarian Succession in 1777 - the Potato War – potato cultivation had become well established in Prussia, Austria and further east. The potato took enthusiastically to Prussia’s otherwise poor, loamy soil and the population started to surge as well. Within a few decades, the potato-fed masses would provide the industrial revolution with its muscle power.
The potato shaped the Potato War: while the armies – much larger than those of the Seven Years’ War - could find enough to feed themselves, they could not do so easily. It took much longer for foraging parties to locate and dig up potatoes than it did to seize a similar amount of grain. Operations slowed to a crawl. For their next wars, Austria and Prussia would rely on a supply system of large magazines and wagon trains to fill them and disperse their contents.
Every year, the Potato King's grave is decorated on his birthday.
The great empires of Eastern Europe – Prussia, Austria and Russia – could never have arisen without the potato. Potatoes changed the entire economic outlook of the region, allowing each of them to raise even larger armies than ever before, and keep them fed. Famine disappeared, and the common people no longer had cause to fear hunger. Unless something happened to the potato.
But that’s another story.
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.