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The Early Modern Potato: A Global History

 
Have you encountered a reference to potatoes from before 1800? Rebecca Earle is interested in all pre-nineteenth-century (and especially pre-eighteenth-century) references to potatoes, especially those that locate potatoes outside their homeland in the South American Andes, as part of a global history of the early modern potato.

If you would like to submit a reference—however fragmentary—related to early modern potatoes, please use this easy online form.

The Potato Project

Europeans are currently the world’s most enthusiastic potato-eaters. The typical Briton consumes over a hundred kilos annually, and the greatest potato-eaters of all are the Belarusians, who consume nearly 200 kilos per capita per year--more than anywhere else in the word. The Chinese, in turn, are the world’s largest producer of potatoes. Today’s potato is truly a global food and a global commodity.

This was not always the case. The potato was introduced to Europe in the sixteenth century, following the Spanish conquest and settlement of the Andean region in which the tuber originated. From there it spread around the world, carried by the twin forces of global trade and colonialism. This project traces the dissemination of the potato in the early modern world, in order to study the processes through which new culinary and agricultural regimes evolve.

Heatmap of mentions

Context and Questions

The Potato Project asks two inter-connected questions.

  • How quickly, and by what routes, did the potato spread around the world in the decades and centuries after Europeans first laid eyes on the tuber in the mid sixteenth century?
  • Why did states across eighteenth-century Europe begin to promote the cultivation and consumption of the potato?

The first question builds on the pioneering work of Alfred Crosby, who examined the global impact of what he called the Columbian Exchange—the flow of plants, animals, microbes and other living things across the Atlantic and beyond unleashed by Columbus’ landfall in the Caribbean in 1492. Crosby and other scholars suggested that the spread of new world foods such as potatoes and maize helps explain the dramatic increase in the world’s population over the last five hundred years, and also hinted at the ways in which these foods travelled to Africa, India and elsewhere. At the same time, the details of their dissemination remain in many cases opaque. The Project traces the ways in which potatoes entered the diets of individual eaters around the world.

The second question examines the historical roots of the our conviction that food, agriculture, health and state security are intrinsically linked. The Project investigates the moment, in the late eighteenth century, when European philosophers, political economists, agronomists, doctors, bureaucrats, priests and other historical actors began to insist that strong, secure states were inconceivable without a resilient agricultural programme grounded on significant changes in the dietary practices of the population as a whole. It was in the eighteenth century that the processes connecting individual diets to the wealth and strength of the state began to be theorised in ways that allowed for effective manipulation and state intervention. Many projects and proposals for dietary reform were articulated in the eighteenth century. This Project focuses on the central role the potato played in many of them.

Click here for a select project bibliography. We'd welcome suggestions for other readings.