The dissipation of the potato in Western Europe
The Spanish conquerors of America were lured to South America by the tales of realms of silver and gold but history demonstrated that the real treasures the Spaniards appropriated in South America was the lowly potato. The potato has benefited the human race far more than all the gold and silver pillaged from the Inca people.
The first written record of a European encounter with potatoes was penned in 1537 by Castellanos, a Spanish Conquistador. After raiding a village in South America, Castellanos and his party found the area deserted and entered the houses in search of loot. Instead of silver and gold, they found maize, beans and truffles(which we know today as potatoes).
Sir Francis Drake (1540-1596)
Sir Francis Drake is purported to have introduced the potato to England in 1586. Drake, the first English circumnavigator of the globe, was a national hero to the English but to the Spanish he was known as El Draque (the dragon). In 1586 he seized the port of Cartegena in Columbia, the capital city of the Spanish Main and occupied it for six weeks. The story is that Drake set out from Cartegena with a supply of potatoes taken from the Spaniards, some which found their was back to England with him. By that time the potato had already been cultivated in Spain for more than a decade.
Sir Walter Raleigh brings potatoes to Ireland.
Sir Walter Raleigh (1552-1618), was a brilliant intellect and graceful poet. He was credited with introducing the potato to Myrtle Groove, his country estate at Youghal in Cork, Ireland.
John Gerard claims the potato originates in North America.
John Gerard (1545-1612), a prominent English herbalist published a famous Herbal or book of medicinal plants in 1597 in which he introduced and illustrated the potato. It was he who said that the potato came from Virginia. He misled historians for over 300 years about the true origin of the potato.
The potato is not recorded as having been grown as a field crop in England till the mid 1700's.
Frederick the Great, King of Prussia (1712-1786)
Frederick the Great, King of Prussia,(1712-1786) overrode his people's fears by royal decree enforcing potato cultivation in various territories. Believing potatoes would ensure a dependable food supply, the king wrote and distributed royal circulars describing proper methods of potato cultivation and use. His soldiers toured the countryside inspecting the crops and enforcing the program.
Antoin August Parmentier
Antoin August Parmentier came into contact with the potato for the first time during the Seven Year's War (1756-1763) when he became a German prisoner in Hanover. He claimed he would not have survived imprisonment without the potato.
Upon returning to France he eventually persuaded King Louis XVI to support the reintroduction of the potato into France. A demonstration garden was planted and all through the day the field was guarded by the king's soldiers but by night Parmentier withdrew the guard so that the tubers could be stolen. The stolen potatoes were the basis for its successful introduction into the gardens of France.
Evicted Irish Family finds shelter in ditch. London News, December 1848
In the summer of 1845 a disease of the potato called the late blight fungus arrived in Europe from North America. By October 1845 the blight had reached Ireland and the plants had begun to turn black and rot on a massive scale. Three successive years of late blight and heavy rains rotted the potato crops in the ground. With out potatoes both the peasants and animals went hungry. When the animals died of lack of food, milk, meat and eggs were no longer available. People were left with nothing to eat and no way to make money to support themselves.