The Scando Review
The Scando Review
The Poor Potato and Industrial Revolution

The Poor Potato and Industrial Revolution

Most of you would have eaten French fries or crisp chips that come in packets. The same is true of the spicy, hot masala dosa. When you eat any of these, you are consuming something that has influenced the history of the world – potatoes. Would it not be a little hard to believe that potatoes were an important factor in the Industrial Revolution, the world wars, and the growth of the European continent itself? It could be said that the history of the world is that of potatoes too!

That history began about 8,000 years ago in Peru in South America. The ancient Inca Empire in the Andes Valley was the likely birthplace of potatoes. The Incas were cultivating about 100 different varieties of potatoes, which were the staple food of the Incas. Potatoes – which are high in protein, carbohydrates, minerals, vitamins, and essential fats – were ideal food for those who worked in the mines and on the farms.

Potatoes were brought to Europe from the Andes by Spanish sailors. At first, the Europeans did not like the imported potato that came across the sea. The main reason was its poor appearance and resemblance to the poisonous plant belladonna.

It was natural that Europeans, whose main food was cereals and bread, might have been disgusted when they saw potatoes. They called the potatoes ‘dirty vegetable’ and ‘devil’s apple’, so they gave up trying to make it edible  and limited them to their gardenpots as decorative plants. Potatoes had to wait another 200 years to make it to the European dining table.

Potato cultivation was popularised by Frederick the Great, who ruled the Prussian Empire in the 1740s. Frederick, who was a big fan of potatoes, introduced compulsory potato cultivation during his reign. He was known as the ‘King of Potatoes.’ Soldiers engaged in war or otherwise who had to stay away from home, were given potatoes as food.

The potato became the saviour of the Europeans in overcoming the food shortage crises that constantly plagued them.

Potatoes were first adopted by the working class in Europe. Considering the easy availability and low cost, they decided to give the potatoes a try as a last resort. Despite its upscale external appearance, Europe was a starving continent. France, one of the richest countries of the time, experienced 111 food shortage crises between 1371 and 1791, which claimed the lives of millions. The situation in England, Germany, and Spain were no different.

The potato became the saviour of the Europeans in overcoming the food shortage crises that constantly plagued them. In addition to grains, they adopted potatoes as their main food.

In the 1750s, the working class in Europe almost exclusively ate potatoes. Farmers, labourers and soldiers came to depend on  potatoes, and the population in Europe rose gradually. The population of Europe rose from 140 millions in 1750 to 400 millions in 150 years.

As the health of the working people improved, their population increased, and empires grew. This led to the Industrial Revolution, which began in the second half of the 18th century. The role of potatoes in the emergence of Britain, Germany, and the Netherlands as world powers was not insignificant.

The article How the humble potato changed the world published in 2020 in BBC written by Diego Arguedas Ortiz depicts how Ireland embraced potato cultivation enthusiastically. The Irish stopped cultivating cereals completely and did not even hesitate to solely cultivate potatoes . However, this resulted in a tragedy – the so-called Irish Potato Famine from 1845 to 1849 led to one of the worst food shortages the world has ever seen. About one million people died, and over two million people fled to other places. However, it was not too long before things got back to normal and the potato crops yielded great returns again. Workers from Ireland did speed up the Industrial Revolution. Potatoes were a balanced diet for the exhausted workers who toiled 16 to 18 hours in factories.

The painting Potato Eaters by famous Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh illustrates the influence of potatoes amongst the working class in Ireland.

The history of World War I and World War II cannot be read without reference to the potato. It was the potatoes in their food parcels that helped sustain the lives of soldiers who had to stay on the battlefield for weeks or months.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that the history of the world would have been different and the world we see today would have been a different place were it not for potatoes.

Today, without distinction of race or colour, potatoes are a staple part of the diet of people around the world. Potatoes, once eaten only by the poor workers, are now an integral part of the luxurious menus of global fast-food giants like KFC and McDonald’s.

The fact that there is a species of potato that adapt to any soil and climate made this poor vegetable a favourite food of the world. Europe can even be alluded to as ‘The Potato’ because potato, directly and indirectly, played a crucial part in transforming Europe into what it is today.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that the history of the world would have been different and the world we see today would have been a different place were it not for potatoes. It is doubtful whether there would have been an Industrial Revolution, European empires, and even world wars. Historians say that it is impossible to think of a world without potatoes.

When potatoes appear on our dining tables and as snacks almost on a daily basis, most people do not probably know that they have such a long and eventful history. The potato, which we Indians believe to be our own vegetable, has a great place in world history. Along with other historical men, women, and events, we must also reflect upon the story of the poor potato that came from the Peruvian mountain valley.

The next time you see potato in sambar, avial, and masala dosa, you may pay due respect to it since it has an illustrious history of its own.

Now put on your thinking hats and think about the following questions for a couple of minutes.

Can you think of the reasons for Irish Potato Famine from 1845 to 1849?

Can you think of the reasons why Europeans called the potatoes ‘dirty vegetable’ and ‘devil’s apple’?

Write down your thoughts and discuss them with your students, children and your colleagues. Listen to their views and compare them with your own. As you listen to others, note how similar or different your views are to others’.

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Happy Teaching!