Posts Tagged ‘british empire’

The Potato – Egalitarian Crop?

February 15, 2011

Cultural Materialism – ‘an anthropological school of thought (or “research strategy”) that says that the best way to understand human culture is to examine material conditions – climate, food supply, geography, etc.’ (link)

From Charles C. Mann’s 1491, an interesting perspective on the potato; another foodplant that ‘doesn’t belong‘ outside (perhaps) of its home in South America, but was adopted – apparently – for the relative social benefits it conferred when compared to the other major introduced species feeding the growth of civilisation:

The staple crop of the [Peruvian] highlands was the potato, which unlike maize regularly grows at altitudes of 14,000 feet; the tubers, cultivated in hundreds of varieties, can be left in the ground for as long as a year (as long as the soil stays above 27°F), to be dug up when needed. Even frozen potatoes could be used. After letting freezing night temperatures break down the tubers’ cell walls, Andean farmers stomped out the water content to make dried chuño, a nigh-indestructible foodstuff that could be stored for years. (The potato’s cold tolerance spurred its embrace by European peasants. Not only did potatoes grow in places where other crops could not, the plant was an ally in smallholders’ ceaseless struggle against the economic and political elite. A farmer’s barnful of wheat, rye, or barley was a fat target for greedy landlords and marauding armies; buried in the soil, a crop of potatoes could not be easily seized.) (pp.225-6)

More info from Wikipedia:

Following the Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire, the Spanish introduced the potato to Europe in the second half of the 16th century. The staple was subsequently conveyed by European mariners to territories and ports throughout the world. The potato was slow to be adopted by distrustful European farmers, but soon enough it became an important food staple and field crop that played a major role in the European 19th century population boom.[7]

[...]

Across most of northern Europe, where open fields prevailed, potatoes were strictly confined to small garden plots because field agriculture was strictly governed by custom that prescribed seasonal rhythms for plowing, sowing, harvesting and grazing animals on fallow and stubble. This meant that potatoes were barred from large-scale cultivation because the rules allowed only grain to be planted in the open fields.[29] In France and Germany government officials and noble landowners promoted the rapid conversion of fallow land into potato fields after 1750. The potato thus became an important staple crop in northern Europe. Famines in the early 1770s contributed to its acceptance, as did government policies in several European countries and climate change during the Little Ice Age, when traditional crops in this region did not produce as reliably as before.[30][31] At times when and where most other crops failed, potatoes could still typically be relied upon to contribute adequately to food supplies during colder years.[32]

I suppose a key factor undermining the potato’s egalitarian potential is its storability*: if it can be stockpiled (to any degree – even if less so than grains) this basically invites an elite group to come along, stick surpluses in a guarded barn and deny access to anybody refusing to pay tribute (as Richard Manning put it: ‘Agriculture was not so much about food as it was about the accumulation of wealth’). Naturally, this would only work if they also found ways to deny access to comparable plants freely available in the wild. (Destroying non-agricultural land to plant more potatoes would be a good start…) Here’s either Ray Mears or Gordon Hillman writing in Wild Food, the book accompanying the BBC series:

Roots were an extremely important food source for our ancestors. In Britain we have more than 90 indigenous species of edible root of which most were probably used by the combined populations across the country. Evan an individual band of hunter-gatherers probably used 20-30 species in the course of their annual round. Compare this to our present-day diet, in which root foods are dominated by a single introduced species – the potato – and in which our cultivated carrots, turnips, swedes and radishes were probably much later additions, domesticated in the Mediterranean Basin from where they were introduced into Britain, although wild forms were native here. The bland taste of these domestic forms probably appeals to a lot of palates in contrast to the broad range of distinctive and often strong flavours offered by wild roots. (pp.80-1)

Of course, decentralised self-sufficiency and a degree of social equality aren’t much good to you if you’re dead. Ask the Irish about the dangers of relying too heavily on a few varieties of non-native foodplants. Not that they had much choice in the matter:

The Celtic grazing lands of… Ireland had been used to pasture cows for centuries. The British colonised… the Irish, transforming much of their countryside into an extended grazing land to raise cattle for a hungry consumer market at home… The British taste for beef had a devastating impact on the impoverished and disenfranchised people of… Ireland… Pushed off the best pasture land and forced to farm smaller plots of marginal land, the Irish turned to the potato, a crop that could be grown abundantly in less favorable soil. Eventually, cows took over much of Ireland, leaving the native population virtually dependent on the potato for survival.[25]

If cultures are what they eat, what kind of food staples would lead to the least hierarchical social organisation? The above seems to suggest: as many different ones as possible, and the more uncontrollable (perishable), localised and wild the better.

Food for Freedom!

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* – Indeed, Mann doesn’t mention that conquistadors later made use of it as a ‘convenient food for slaves in the Spanish silver mines and sailors on the Spanish galleons’ (link) – in this instance the plant acted less as an ‘ally’ than a collaborator with the enemy in the indigenous struggle against a foreign ‘economic and political elite’.

Old Habits…

June 13, 2010

Sorry, couldn’t resist. Some politics links:

Seumas Milne writing in the Guardian’s ‘Comment Is Free’ about the Tories wanting to whitewash British imperial history in the schools. He takes the opportunity to remind his readers of the history which the rulers would prefer them to forget. Check out this paragraph for a scorching summary which you won’t hear every day:

The British empire was, after all, an avowedly racist despotism built on ethnic cleansing, enslavement, continual wars and savage repression, land theft and merciless exploitation. Far from bringing good governance, democracy or economic progress, the empire undeveloped vast areas, executed and jailed hundreds of thousands for fighting for self-rule, ran concentration camps, carried out medical experiments on prisoners and oversaw famines that killed tens of millions of people.

I had that going through my mind while watching a bit of the ‘Trooping The Colour‘ ceremony on the BBC yesterday and wondering what it would take for Englanders to look back on their history and state traditions with the same doubt and questioning as, say, Germans or Japanese. Well, I guess it’s pretty obvious – ‘we’ would have to fight a big war against other white people and lose… Also worth scrolling down through some of the comments to see what kind of readers Britain’s Leading Liberal Newspaper is attracting. My favourite was ‘Anarcher’s simple one-line dismissal: ‘I am British, and I am proud of our history.’

Comedian Mark Steel’s commentary on the IDF’s assault on the Gaza aid convoy, ‘Of course, they were asking for it‘. I especially liked this part:

That would be as logical as the statement from the Israeli PM’s spokesman – “We made every possible effort to avoid this incident.” Because the one tiny thing they forgot to do to avoid this incident was not send in armed militia from helicopters in the middle of the night and shoot people. I must be a natural at this sort of technique because I often go all day without climbing off a helicopter and shooting people, and I’m not even making every possible effort. Politicians and commentators worldwide repeat a version of this line. They’re aware a nation has sent its militia to confront people carrying provisions for the desperate, in the process shooting several of them dead, and yet they angrily blame the dead ones. One typical headline yesterday read “Activists got what they wanted – confrontation.” It’s an attitude so deranged it deserves to be registered as a psychosis, something like “Reverse Slaughter Victim Confusion Syndrome”.

Also, trust a comedian to draw the obvious conclusion which all the journalists are somehow blind to:

If this incident had been carried about by Iran, or anyone we were trying to portray as an enemy, so much condemnation would have been spewed out it would have created a vast cloud of outrage that airlines would be unable to fly through.

(See also the two-part Media Lens Alert, ‘Headshot – Propaganda, State Religion and the Attack on the Gaza Peace Flotilla‘)

Lastly, while the copy of the Evening Standard by my toilet is talking about British politicians who want Obama to stop bashing ‘British Petroleum’ because of all the pension money that supposedly comes from BP shares, this SchNEWS report comes into my inbox, and just leaves all the mainstream reporting I’ve seen in the dust:

BP has had over 8,000 minor and major recorded spills since 1990 alone. While all eyes have been on the current ecocide in the Gulf of Mexico, their Alaskan Pipeline burst in late May, spewing 100,000 gallons of oil into the environment. State inspectors say this occurred because “procedures weren’t properly implemented,” in other words – they didn’t give a damn.

The ho-hum lackadaisical attitude of [BP CEO] Tony Hayward is indicative of BP’s disaster response in general. It has been shocking to see BP’s slow response to contain the oil. There is a complete lack of any oil containment technology, beyond stringing some booms (vinyl tubes) over the ocean that deflate and blow away. While the oil industry has poured billions of dollars into riskier deep-water drilling, it has not invested in responses to the leaks and disasters that have increased four fold in the last decade.

As they say over at Media Lens (again), ‘We did not expect the Soviet Communist Party’s newspaper Pravda to tell the truth about the Communist Party, why should we expect the corporate press to tell the truth about corporate power?’

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Hello to anybody visiting for the first time, after I finally got off my arse to publicise this blog a little. I feel like maybe apologising if the first post you see here definitely throws back to my older, indoor style of writing about faraway people & events that don’t touch my life in any immediate way.

Perhaps I could swing it like I did in the email I sent round, about politics and the media ‘growing on their own Disturbed Ground’. Or I could make the above more relevant to my direct experience by calling it a Useful Exercise in Applying Critical Thought which might come in handy when dealing with everyday matters. Or to have it as a ‘personal growth’ story I might include a paragraph agonising over whether & why I care about victims of the British Empire, pro-Palestinian human rights activists or those humans and non-humans killed or injured in the Gulf of Mexico, when I will most likely never meet or have a direct relationship with any of them*.

Maybe I’ll just say that it was what I felt like writing about today, and that I hope you enjoyed reading it. If not, stick around anyway cos I’ll probably write about something completely different next time :)

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* – (June 18) Oops! Maybe earlier I should have specified historical ‘victims of the British Empire’, because in one way or another I encounter its poison legacy in everyone I meet. Indeed, I consider myself to be in recovery from its desperate, grasping assault on my person (in the schools, in the churches, in the parenting atmosphere, in the media, in the political culture writ large…) – I know that I care about myself, at least sometimes ;)


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