Plants that changed the course of history

SUGAR, quinine, tea, cotton, the potato and the coca plant: these are the plants that journalist Henry Hobhouse selected for his hard-hitting study, Seeds of Change: Six Plants that Transformed Mankind (Counterpoint, 2005). In his often hair-raising account, Hobhouse charts how demand for these plants moved populations across oceans, built and ruined fortunes, economies and governments, changed cultures and societies for good – and seriously bad.

These are nearly all tropical plants that had remained fairly localised until the great European voyages of discovery began in the 15th century. Their particular properties and powers proved of consuming interest not only to scientists, but also to businessmen and politicians. “After being transferred to countries other than their native habitats, they became important to the new producer and consumer in many unusual ways,” Hobhouse explains.

“Yet their real significance was in their side effects upon the humans who became involved with their production, distribution or exchange.”

SEEDS OF CHANGE Quinine from the bark of the cinchona tree, which grows in the forests of Bolivia and Peru, had long been used by the native Quechua peoples. Brought back to Europe by Jesuit missionaries in the 17th century, it was applied as a treatment and preventative for malaria, with considerable success.

The disease was then rife in Europe and also deterred travel to other continents where it was prevalent. Armed with supplies of quinine, explorers, traders and colonisers were able to set out for malarial regions of the world in greater safety. Hobhouse concludes — and most historians agree — that without quinine, the European colonisation of Africa and Asia could not have taken place as and when it did.

Sugar cane is a grass native to Asia, known for thousands of years there but in Europe only as a rare spice imported from the East at great expense, until the establishment of plantations in the Caribbean and other colonies. Thousands of slaves were brought annually from Africa to work in the cane brakes and until 1800 the Caribbean was responsible for more than 80% of both world sugar production and the trade in slaves.

Hobhouse points out that refined sugar is an unnecessary, highly addictive food that has played havoc with our digestive processes and our health – think diabetes, tooth decay and obesity – but sugar remains the world’s largest crop.

Sugar cane may now, however, enjoy a kind of redemption as an alternative energy source for fuel, electricity and various “green” products — but an increase in demand could encourage further clearing of the rainforest.

The tea plant, Camellia sinensis, native to Asia and the source of so much comfort, has also been the cause of much grief. Once again it was all about trade, greed, supply, demand and addiction.

China had all the tea, and wanted payment in silver. British traders had all the opium, grown in India, which they offered in part payment. And so began one of history’s most sordid business deals; “Chinese civilisation was debased and almost destroyed by tea and opium,” says Hobhouse. Hobhouse has more dark history to recount: how the cotton trade and the use of slaves – once again – shaped the American South, and almost destroyed it too.

The coca plant, used for centuries by the people of the Andes as a mild stimulant to provide energy for daily life at high altitudes, is now processed into a lethally addictive drug that supports a lucrative criminal subculture.

The potato, a tasty side dish for most, became a staple in Ireland, enabling impoverished peasants to produce food on marginal land – until the potato blight arrived. The ensuing famine brought many Irish to the US, with an abiding hatred of the British, which helped to delay American entry into both world wars.

On the bright side: once the US doors had opened to the Irish, they stayed open for many more European immigrants, including Italians, Jews and Russians, to create the richly cosmopolitan culture that is America today.

The list of world shapers and shakers doesn’t stop there of course. There’s still tobacco, the grape and opium poppy, to name a few. These and many other influential histories have been ably documented by Bill Laws in his fascinating and beautifully illustrated book, Fifty Plants that Changed the Course of History (Struik, 2011).

Various food plants – grains, roots – were the great enablers of the change from a hunter-gatherer to an agrarian way of life.

“Grains are the most important plants in the world,” Laws writes. “Without bread wheat, Europe might still be stranded in the Dark Ages.”

Over centuries the variety of edible crops has increased hugely, and plants have also provided us with a cornucopia of other necessities and comforts: rubber, paper, aspirin, tea, coffee, perfume, silk and chocolate, to name only a few of many remarkable plant histories Laws has to share.

This bounty has all too often come at a price though – ruthless exploitation of both people and environments down the centuries.

Laws also has a modern agenda, a plea for proper use of plant resources and preservation of the environment.

“This is a good time to look at how plants have altered the history of our life on Earth and how they continue to play a pivotal role,” he writes. “We are taking liberties with our plants and with doing so, with planet Earth. It cannot continue.

“The peril of destroying our natural environments and forests could alter the course of history forever.”

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