Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Plants changed the world

What was the driving force behind man's exploration of the unknown parts of the globe? Was it man's insatiable need to gain knowledge? Or was it man's strong sense of adventure? Was it, perhaps, man's greed–his selfish desire to have more?

Henry Hobhouse points out in his book "Seeds of Change: Six Plants that Changed Mankind" (second edition, 1993) that plants, not humans, transformed history. In the introduction, he said that a good example that set Europeans to the seas was pepper. The Europeans were in search of pepper which, in the old days, was the only way to add taste to very salty preserved meats. He who had pepper had control of the economy, most likely.

Indeed, this information agreed well with Philippine history lessons: the Spaniards were originally looking for the Spice Islands where pepper, and other spices, could be found in large quantities. They mistook the Philippines as the Spice Islands in 1521, and the rest is history.

The six plants that changed mankind, according to Hobhouse, were: quinine, tea, cotton, sugar, potato, and the coca plant. A motley crew of plants, right?

Apparently not. These plants have more in common than people think at first glance. All of these plants were involved in the economics and the politics that built the First World empires (but mainly the British Empire). Tea was widely planted in British-occupied South Asia and traded through the East India Company. Sugar was grown in plantations in the West Indies, thanks to British sweet tooth. Cotton textile production was a major industry in Great Britain thanks to large-scale cultivation in India, and sold by the East India Company (again!). Quinine, the botanical source of the antimalarial drug of the same name, was made available in the British colonies to keep both the land owners and the slave labourers alive, literally. Potato originated from Peru and arrived in Europe. In Ireland, famine caused by disease-infected potatoes forced a lot of people to migrate to North America and to Great Britain.

The strange thing about all this, I think, is that rice is glaringly absent in the discussion. Rice, which is the staple food of more than half the world's population was left out. Hobhouse probably did not deem rice as important as the potato, for instance, because it did not create as big an impact in the West as it did in Asia. Thus, the story presented in the book appears to be centered in Europe.

Despite the Western centricity of the account, the book is still informative. It presents history in a creative way, making people take a second look at the world they're living in now.