Quite the most fascinating obituary I have read appears in my paper today. The deceased is Henry Hobhouse, aged 92, whose interesting life started with running away from Eton as a schoolboy and joining the merchant navy. The obituary spends most of its words in describing a book, Seeds of Change, he wrote when he was in his 60s.
The book discusses the five plants that Hobhouse considered to be the most important in history. By this he meant recent history. The most important plants by far in civilized history have been wheat and rice and other cereals derived from the cross breeding of wild grasses.
Nor does Hobhouse mention silk, initially the material grown by grubs in the mulberry tree and the sustainer of the oldest, longest and most valuable trade route for two millennia — the Great Silk Road. Nor does he mention spices which, as anti=bacterial additives to meat, have been traded between Asia and Europe for centuries. His selection is of fairly recent times, each with significant consequences.
Made from the ground bark of he cinchona tree growing in the high Andes it was used by the indigenous Peruvians as a muscle relaxant. In addition, when the Spanish Conquistadores had brought it to Europe, it was discovered to treat malaria and millions of lives in Africa and Asia have been saved. Further, it was the first natural chemical to be made artificially and thus opened up a massive pharmaceutical industry.
A natural, but infrequent natural product to which we have become addicted because our genes have not built up a defence to imbibing too much of it. It was a product of millions of Africans captured by Muslim traders and sold to British and French sea merchants for work as slaves in sugar cane plantations. Lovely to taste it has become in recent years one of the greatest scourges to good health in advanced countries.
Also brought about as a world-wide industry originally by massive use of slave labour in the southern States of America. When woven it is not as strong or smooth as silk but much superior for weaving and printing than linen. Initially confined to home spinning and weaving, mainly in India and Egypt, cotton spinning became the first largely automated process.
The immense profits from the first few decades of factory production spawned the immense profits that would later be made to invest in deep coal mining, iron and steel, railways, steel ship building, chemical, electrical, radio and, last of all electronics. None of those would have ever started without the huge boost from cotton spinning.
Another natural product, but highly cross-bred into many different types by south Americans, was also brought to Europe by the Spanish. It was a particularly important part of the Irish diet and, when potato blight struck in 1845, caused a million deaths from starvation and a migration of 3 to 4 million to America. This was a significant enough hard-working population to help the vast growth in the American economy and to stimulate even larger immigration numbers from Europe.
This occupies a very shameful place in British history when, in order to force China to sell more tea to Britain in the 19th century we ensured that millions of Chinese became addicted to opium, which we grew in India. Understandably, this soured the relationship of the Chinese government to Britain after the take-over by the communists in 1949 and explains why we still export fewer goods to China than France or Germany.
Henry Hobhouse’s Seeds of Change was certainly worth the writing and is a useful re-balancing of the usual history books which confine themselves largely to political and military events. There are always powerful undertow going on and this one helps to put the industrial revolution in better perspective.