It doesn’t take a genius to figure out the impact of plants on mankind’s development – the change in lifestyle from hunter-gatherer to agrarian society was entirely predicated on our relationship with the plant kingdom, the domestication of species leading to the end of non-hierarchical egalitarian structures and the rise of city states and, soon enough, the unbridled use of warfare as a means of territorial protection and acquisition.
Some plants more than others have played a vital role in the shaping of the modern world and continue to do so to this day, and in Seeds of Change, the classic historical commentary by Henry Hobhouse, six plants are discussed which have had a huge impact on determining the course of history: quinine and the white man’s burden; sugar and the slave trade; cotton and the American south; the potato, Ireland and the United States; and the scourge of the streets deriving from coca.
Hobhouse outlines the impact of each plant with a remarkable grasp not only of the husbandry involved in their development but also with an understanding of the commercial, political and cultural dynamics that allowed them to achieve a status which would transform humanity worldwide. Quinine freed European explorers and colonizers from the effects of malaria and paved the way for generations of exploitation of foreign lands – ironically, as Hobhouse observes, the systematic destruction of the Amazon basin was made possible by the medicinal properties of the cinchona tree found in the forests of Peru and Bolivia.
Indeed, a consistent pattern emerges of degradation of the “Third World”; a process of exploitation for the benefit of Europeans, often unnecessary indulgences enjoyed off the back of untold suffering. Sugar is a prime example of this, a commodity which drove the slave trade whilst simultaneously impairing the user with rotten teeth, poor digestive system and nervous dependence.
Hobhouse’s chapter on tea and the destruction of China should be supplemented by an additional chapter on opium: while the tea trade unarguably had enormous repercussions on the country – and the rest of the world – the role of opium was an equally insidious factor in the depredations of the East India Company and demonstrates how the first multinational corporation to emerge from history ostensibly created the model for subsequent criminal drug syndicates. Later, industrialists and robber barons who profited immensely from the opium trade would come to dominate spheres of influence in the United States, for instance the Russell and Taft families, who were responsible for the establishment of the Skull and Bones secret society at Yale University.
Likewise, the British merchant banks and trading companies who made fortunes from opium went on to establish the Hong Kong and Shanghai Corporation, now known as HSBC, who even today have been caught laundering money from major drugs cartels around the world.
It’s a shame Hobhouse doesn’t venture down this avenue, since it would have tied into his chapter on coca with disturbing implications regarding the true nature of the trafficking in illegal substances and the role played by governments, international banks and intelligence agencies in the cocaine trade. That said, few mainstream historians are willing to tackle the true geostrategic imperatives which influence the global drugs trade, and his insights into the historical uses of coca leaves both during the Inca empire and the Spanish conquest more than make up for this oversight.
Long before its refined form became the world’s most popular illicit stimulant, coca, with its variety of alkaloids and vitamins went from being enjoyed by the Royal Inca and the ruling classes to a staple part of the diet of slaves working the high altitude Andean mines, stripped of their culture and bound to their servitude through a new dependency.
That the role plants play in the world is hugely significant is no less relevant today than it has been throughout history – they remain essential commodities under the control of rich and powerful corporations perhaps even more pernicious than the plantation owners and conquistadors of the past. Today, companies like Monsanto in their drive for profit and control seek to patent the genetic code of seeds to monopolize the market while contaminating the world with genetically modified crops. As we move into the biotechnological age, the way in which plants transform mankind look set to change once again.