Created | Updated Dec 14, 2012
When man set foot on the moon in July 1969, he quite possibly reached the pinnacle of human technological achievement. From the misty past of evolution, civilisations rose and fell. Each reached a little further than the last, increasing the store of human knowledge. It was a series of stumbling steps that led Neil Armstrong to take that historic step for mankind.
Many trace the history of the immense project that took man to the moon back to Wernher von Braun and his V2 rockets in World War II. While it is true he played his part, the real roots are thousands of miles away and hundreds of years before: to Peru in 1531 and a man called Francisco Pizarro.
Conquistadores Chomping Chuno Chips
In the early 16th Century, Spain was looking to carve out an empire in what is now South and Central America. The Conquistadores, armed with modern weapons and skillfully playing locals off against each other, quickly subjugated the Incan civilisation. One such was a man named Pizarro. As they forged their way higher and higher into the Andes, they had to eat what the locals ate. From the wheat they were used to at lower altitudes, Pizarro and his men had to adapt to chuno. Chuno is potatoes left out overnight in the cold, dry climate found at high altitudes. Basically freeze-dried, chuno lasts a long time before spoiling and thus provided year-round sustenance for the natives where little else will grow. Easily transportable, if a little hard for Europeans to stomach, it was the food that fuelled the enslaved Incans as they toiled in the silver mines which generated the wealth that turned Spain into the richest nation on earth. Inadvertently therefore, potatoes made their first real impact on the world. The influx of silver paid for Spain to become the greatest military power in Europe and the new wealth created galloping inflation and social upheaval throughout the continent.
It was almost inevitable that the galleons that transported the silver back to Spain stocked up on chuno to feed the sailors for the long voyage. Indeed, its ability to last a long time without spoiling made it ideal for seafarers. The sailors found it quite disgusting however and were glad to offload any remaining chuno in the Basque ports of Spain at the first opportunity. Not ones to see anything go to waste, the Basques tried planting the chuno and were rewarded with the first potatoes to be grown on European soil. These proved to be highly popular and were soon being taken to sea again by fishermen. Thankfully, with no ready method for freeze drying, the potatoes were taken in their natural state.
It was these Basque fishermen who, returning from the excellent fishing off Newfoundland, introduced the potato to Ireland where it was an instant hit for a very different reason. It's not clear exactly when potatoes were brought to Ireland, but certainly by 1650 it was well enough known to become a lifesaver for the Irish after their defeat by Cromwell. The English government resolved to solve the Irish Problem by distributing confiscated land amongst disbanded soldiers and driving the remaining Irish into Connaught. The defeated Irish survived by cultivating potatoes on the small piece of land left to them. It was soon discovered that potatoes, when supplemented with milk, actually constitute a healthy diet. Potatoes have roughly four times the calories of wheat and the Irish actually prospered. The disbanded soldiers did not fare so well. Introducing the farming methods they knew from mainland Britain, they were dismayed to find that wheat did not grow particularly well in the wet Irish climate and were soon struggling. They sold out to job-lotters who found out soon enough that the only way to make money out of this land was by raising beef cattle. The Irish were experienced herdsman and sold their services to the new landlords. Needing only an acre of land for potatoes and enough grassland for a cow, they were remarkably cheap labour and quickly spread back into the areas they had been driven from so recently. Indeed, between 1740 and 1840, the population of Ireland doubled to eight million.
The situation in the North of Ireland was quite different however, where Protestant Scots who had settled in Ulster following an earlier rebellion in 1607, brought a Scottish oats-based agriculture which prospered in the Irish soil.
A Setback Takes us Forward
The success of the potato led to the second great influence it had on world history in 1845, when an exceptionally cool and wet summer brought the devastating potato blight to Ireland. For a population so utterly dependent upon one crop, this was a disaster. As potatoes rotted in stores and fields throughout Ireland, the great Irish Diaspora began: a great outpouring of people that flowed from Ireland into the grateful developing lands of America, Canada and Australia. These dispossessed Irish played a major part in shaping the great democracies of the 20th Century and helped ensure that America joined World War I on the side of Britain rather than Germany.
Meanwhile, in Europe the potato had established itself quite firmly with peasants. Initially grown in the gardens of the Basque sailors, it was spread by fishermen along the Northern Mediterranean coast. Easy to prepare by virtue of merely being thrown into a pot of boiling water, the potato was a welcome supplement to diets. It also had benefits which were not at first obvious.
How to Beat an Army
The feudal system saw peasants pay Lords and Barons in grain. This was easily transportable to the cities and could be stored all year round in silos. However, invading armies tended to see grain silos as fair game and repeatedly ransacked areas they passed through. Left without grain either for food or for planting the next year, the peasants usually starved. A state of affairs that they found disagreeable but that now had a ready solution. Potatoes could be kept in the ground until they were needed for the supper plate and thus tended to be overlooked by the soldiers. Peasants who grew potatoes simply waited for the armies to move on and then dug up their crop. With the frequent to-ing and fro-ing of armies as they jostled for position following the Middle Ages, news of this wonderful life-saving crop spread among peasants.
The Roots of the Second Reich
It didn't take long for governments to realise that the peasants weren't starving when they should have been and they soon discovered the root cause. In Prussia in 1750, Frederick the Great handed out seed potatoes to peasants and encouraged them to cultivate potatoes. This really paid off for him in the Seven Years War (1756 - 63), when repeated invasions by Austrian, Russian and French armies were withstood by the peasants fortified with potatoes. This resilience helped Prussia grow into the German State of the 20th Century and perhaps the memory of such seemingly superhuman fortitude of Prussians led to the arrogance of the Kaiser that set off World War I. Not perhaps a particularly auspicious moment in the history of the potato then.
Potatoes and Fashion
Other countries took note of the resilience of the Prussian peasants and instituted programmes of potato cultivation among their own people. Marie Antoinette famously wore a bouquet of potato flowers to a state ball to make the humble potato fashionable among landowners.
The First Baby Boomers
It is no coincidence that, as potato cultivation moved from being a garden plant to a mainstream crop, the health of the European population improved. With quadruple the calories of grain and an ample supply, the peasant population exploded. By a happy coincidence, the Industrial Revolution was happening at just the same time and a rapacious industrial appetite for manpower was met by the burgeoning population. With a ready supply of labour, the Industrial Revolution transformed Europe. Released from the seasonal chore of harvest, countries could now field full-time, professional armies equipped with weapons churned out from the new steel mills and factories. While armies fought each other repeatedly on the mainland, Britain utilised its immense naval power to set about creating the largest Empire in history. Their vastly increased numbers of full-time soldiers and sailors could range across the oceans of the world, unfettered by the need to return each autumn to harvest grain.
The burgeoning populations and armies continued to repeatedly clash in Europe. The industrial bases were kept stimulated by the need for more weapons, more labour-saving devices for agriculture, more machines to keep pace with the rapidly accelerated pace of life. All built by men fed on potatoes.
As we enter an era of space exploration, the potato continues to play a central part. On longer trips, to Mars for example, astronauts may have to grow their own food. Experiments on the Space Shuttle in 1995 showed that potatoes grow rapidly in a low gravity, high light environment. Crucially, they lead to far less waste material from the digestive system compared to other 'Space Crops'. So it is entirely possible that the first life other than man to visit Mars will be the potato.
As Wernher von Braun idly flicked through HG Wells' stories of rocket ships and munched on his potato crisps, perhaps he should have paused for a moment and thanked Pizarro.