Forget kings and generals! The potato has had more of an effect on history than all of them combined.
When the Conquistador Francisco Pizarro and his merry band of thugs invaded Peru, they found a prosperous and culturally diverse empire. And, unlike the human-sacrificing Aztecs to the North, the Incas practiced a religious tolerance that led many smaller tribes to join the empire voluntarily.
The Spaniards also found what they were looking for- gold and silver beyond their wildest dreams.
However, they were dismayed that neither beef and bread was to be found anywhere in the Inca empire. They forced themselves to make do with alpaca and guinea pig meat, and with a strange root vegetable called the papa, or potato. They had no idea that the spud would soon become the foundation of the first world-wide empire.
Potatoes, while not very practical for long-term storage when raw, would keep indefinitely when freeze-dried, which the Peruvians had learned to do in their high Andean storehouses. Unfortunately for the Peruvians, the freeze-dried potato also freed thousands of them from farm work, and enabled the Spaniards to turn them into slaves to work in the silver mines. This vast silver lode financed the building of ships and the raising of armies that allowed Spain to create the greatest empire that the world had ever seen- the first truly world-wide empire.
It’s a long voyage from Spain to Peru, and the Spanish treasure ships could only carry enough food and water for a one-way trip; they re-supplied in Peru for the return. And, since there still wasn’t any bread to be had in Peru, they stocked up with potatoes. Some of the sailors became rather fond of the spuds, and took some home to plant in their gardens.
This caused world history move in some new directions, and not always good ones.
In Europe, during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the potato traveled north from Spain, as more and more farmers found it useful for survival.
You see, the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were a time of almost constant war, and armies marched back and forth across Europe, plundering as they went. Many small farmers and their families died because all of their stores of grain were confiscated by whatever army happened to be marching past their farm.
Word quickly spread about the potato. Farmers could leave their crop in the ground, digging up only what they needed until a passing army was safely over the horizon. The potato marched north, and many people survived who would otherwise have starved.
The climate and soil of the Basque country of Spain were especially friendly to potato growers, and Basque fishermen began taking potatoes on their long fishing trips to the Grand Banks. When the fishermen stopped in Ireland for a rest and a wee drop of Irish whiskey on their way back home, they left some potatoes behind.
The potato really thrived in Irish soil, and before long it became a staple of the Irish diet. Poor farmers could grow bushels of them on small plots, and potatoes, along with milk and cheese from a single cow, would supply all the vitamins, minerals and protein a family needed to live.
When the English conquered Ireland in the 17th century, they tried to colonize the country, but soon found that Irish soil and climate are NOT friendly to wheat. And, since English farmers and workers were unwilling to give up their precious bread to emigrate to Ireland, the aristocracy had to rely on Irish labor. This was also economical, since an acre of potatoes and grass, and one cow would support an Irish family. As a consequence, the Irish population grew, and Britain only gained a toehold in the North, where imported Scottish farmers found that their oats also grew quite nicely.
It had to happen sooner or later- In the mid-1800’s, a ship docked in Ireland and brought with it a fungus that attacked potatoes, bringing on the terrible Irish Potato Famine. Millions of Irish, faced with starvation at home, emigrated to Canada, Australia, the USA, and other countries, radically changing the ethnic mix of Western civilization.
Meanwhile, back in Europe, a few rulers began to catch on the virtues of the potato. (Some monarchs were almost as smart as the average peasant.)
Frederick the Great of Prussia ordered large tracts of land to be planted with potatoes, enabling his small country to survive numerous invasions by larger nations. This, coupled with his success as a military strategist, turned Prussia into a powerful nation, which eventually led to the unification of Germany in the nineteenth century.
And now for the bad news: German unification made possible World War I, the rise of Hitler, World War II, and the Holocaust.
Blame it all on Pizarro. We might also say that the Inca King Atahualpa’s Revenge was mightier than Moctezuma’s Revenge.