Most histories of the Spanish and Portuguese conquest of the New World, after reporting on Columbus establishing contact, focus on Cortez and Pizarro and their conquest of the Aztecs and Incas. Chief among the accounts are those involving the Conquistadoes and gold. The new colonies brought emense quantities of gold and silver and helped make Spain the most powerful country in the world. In the long run, however, it may have been the humble potato that was the most significant item brought back to Europe. Farmers could harvest much larger uantities of potatos per acre than any other crop. This meant that European countries could support much larger populations than ever before. The cultivation of the potato resulted in a population explosion, a key factor in the industrial revolution.
The potato originated in South America's Andean Mountains. The Aymara Indians developed over 200 different varieties of potatos on the Titicaca Plateau where they grew at elevations above 10,000 feet. The potato was unknown in Europe and Asia until introduced by the Spanish after the conquest of thre Inca Empire in the 16th century.
The Inca until the early 15th century AD were but one of a large number of tribes situated in the Andes and narrow coastal plain from Chile north to Colombia. The tribes shared many common cultural cahracteristoics. The Inca were possessed with a messianic creed which taught that they were destined to dominate the world. They proceeded to conquer and assimilate neighboring tribes in southern Peru around Lake Titicaca. The Inca had a genius for public administration, enineering, as well as military strategy. One of their mostal notable inovations was the construction of a road network allowing the rapid movement of armies. Eventually this network streached the length of South America from cebtral Chile to southern Colombia--over 2,500 miles. The most important Inca ruler was Pachacuti (He Who Shakes the Earth) who regined from 1438-1471 and helped create the administrative structure needed for a great empire. The Incan Empire was operate on a system of state socialism. The Empire's output was the property of the Emperor or Inca and he distributed the food and clothing that was produced among his subjects as he saw fit. To the Inca, the gods resided in their native Andean mountains. The Inca placated the gods with offerings of corn, chica, meat, and occasioinally human sacrifices.
Most histories of the Spanish and Portuguese conquest of the New World, after reporting on Columbus establishing contact, focus on Cortez and Pizarro and their
conquest of the Aztecs and Incas. Chief among the accounts are those involving the Conquistadoes and gold. The new colonies brought emense quantities of gold
and silver and helped make Spain the most powerful country in the world. In the long run, however, it may have been the humble potato that wss the most significant
item brought back to Europe. While the Spanish were after gold, but it was the potato that was to change Europe even more than the treasure ships laden with gold and silver. The population of Europe was still quite small at the time of the Spanish conquest of the Inca in Peru during the mid-16th century. The Spanish Conquistador Pedro Cieza de Leon in his “Chronicle of Peru” is the first European known to describe the potato.
No one knows when potatos were first brough to Europe and planted. Potatos despite their importance as a shipboard food that could prevent scurvy was not immediately adopted by European farmers. Spanish farmers appear to have begun planting them by the 1570s. Potato cultivation next spread to the Low Countries, then a possession of the Spanish Crown, and Switzerland. They were introduced to Germany in the 1620s. The nutritional value of the potato became widely accepted. Frederick the Great of Prussian ruler ordered his people to plant and eat them as a valuable food source. The potato by time of the Seven Years War (1756-1763) was a basic staple of the Prussian diet. By the time of the French Revolution (1789), the potato was becoming popular in France.
The potato was not only central to the life of the Andean Native American cultures, but it also findamentally transformed European civilization. The potato within in a century had become an essential part of the European diet. Not only was it nutritious, but it was more reliable than wheat which did not grow well in damp climates. European farmers found that they could harvest a larger yield of potatoes than any other crop per acre. The result was that farmers could feed a much greater population than ever before. The cultivation of the potato resulted in a population explosion. The population increase in Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries was in large measure due to the potato. The potato helped generate significant population increases throughout Europe, but not evenly. French demographics were especially affected. France had been the most populous and as a result most powerful country in Europe, in part because it had a climate conducive to wheat farming. The arival of the potato in Europe increased the aricultural productivity of northern Europe, including Britain, Germany, and Russia. The changing dmeogrphics affected the blance pf power in Europe.
The potato was one of the many contributors to the European Industrial Revolution. The potato which the Spanish introduced to Europe from South America substantially increased the caloric output from European farms. European farmers had been ficused on wheat ahnd other grains. These were crops from the Middle East. They were idealy suited for Mediteranean climates, but less so for the colder climate of northern Europe. Not only were griwing cionditions not idea, but grain farming in the north was more subject to crop failures which until modern times could mean famine and starvation. The potato was differejnt, it was ideally suited to the climnate of northern Europe. As European agriculture became more productive, a smaller number of farmers could support the increasingly large numbers of industrial workers in Europe's rapidly expanding cities.
The Irish Potato Famine began with a blight of the potato crop. The Irish had come to depend on the potato as a mainstay of their diet. No other crop produced so much food per acre of land. The blight was devestating and spread with amazing speed. Within a year a bountiful crop was reduced to rotting fields. Vast expanses of Irish fields were ruined by black rot. It would have not been as bad if the Irish diet had been more diverse, but the poor Irish peasantry survived on the potato harvest. Potato crops accross Europe failed, but nowhere in Europe was the poopulation so dependant on the potato. Not only was the potato gone, but the crop failure caused the price of other food crops to soar, placing substitute foods beyond the purchasing power of the destitute Irish peasantry. The Irish peasantry were tennantv farmers who eked out a subsistaence existance with the potato not only found their food stocks roting, but were unable to pay their rents. Soon their British and Irish Protestant landlords were evicting them from their homes. Some of the Irish peasants out of desperation attempted to eat the rotting potatos. Whole villages were devestated by cholera and typhus. Parish priests desperately tried to tend to their congregtions and feed the starving. Inn some cases the dead went unburried. Many were burried without caskets. English relief efforts wre inadequated and even these wereec abandoned in the midst of the famine. Work houses because of inadequate nutrition and unsanitary conditions were death traps. The Irish famine has been seen by many as the greatest humanitarian disasaster of the 19th centuy. This was in part because so many died and others forced emmigrate. Over 1 million are believed to have actually sucumbed to statvation and disease. But most tragic of all was that it was preventable. Throuhout the Famine, Irish, and English landowners were exporting food. One author points out that a quarter of the peers in the House of Lords owned land in Ireland and failed to act. [Wilson] As the 19th century moved on, independence became a possibility, but not an inevitability. The central development in the 19th century was the Irish Potalo Famine (1845-50). The reforms of the 19th century could have succeeded in integrating Ireland within the rest of the United Kingdom. This did not occur and the central reason was the Famine. The potato famine and more importantly the British reaction to the Famine resulted in a Holocaust of horendous proportions. After the Famine, Irish independence was inevitable.
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