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November 14, 2013


The script writers and sensationalists among us are prone to describe the Incan civilization of the Andes as one of bloody human sacrifice, and so it was. Similar horrors can be found in the old Aztec culture of present-day Mexico and elsewhere, even within North American and European history. The tortures of the Inquisition in Europe, as in the Andes, were also sponsored by the then dominant religion; “witches” were burned in Salem, and the Thirty Years War between Protestants and Catholics in Central Europe killed perhaps as much as 30% of the total population. Spain was one of the centers of the Inquisition, so when Spanish conquerors subdued modern-day Andean Peru, an objective historian can safely note that we had a case of savages dominating savages, with the edge going to the savages who had muskets (and smallpox).

Many (and I am one of them) believe that it was not gunpowder but rather germs and viruses that did in both North and South American native populations who had no natural immunities to such lethal microscopic organisms, a hidden plus for Europeans in their invasion and takeover (euphemistically called “exploration of the New World”) that neither they nor their native victims understood. We did not understand that diseases could be caused by germs until the 19th century; our medical science was primitive and barely post-shaman.

Doris Goodwin in her book “Team of Rivals” tells of the backgrounds of Lincoln’s three competitors for the Republican nomination for president in 1860. Salmon Chase of Ohio was one of them. She tells the heart-rending story of how his first wife died in childbirth with their first child and how Chase suspected she had been “bled” in order to “save” her. A similar fate awaited George Washington, who in late 1799 went to the doctor with a pulmonary condition, was bled, and never saw 1800. I hope that “bleeding” those who may need tourniquets has been abandoned by now, even if under religious auspices.

The foregoing is the Guns and Germs portion of this essay; now on to the tubers.

Potatoes were unknown in Europe prior to Spanish “exploration” of Peru. Potatoes were a big crop for those ancient Incans, and even though a relatively cool weather crop and with Peru at an equatorial latitude, the crop prospered there because of the Andean highlands. Altitude made the difference. Imported to relatively cool Europe, they were a hit, especially with the Irish, many of whom were too poor to afford wheat and made a diet staple out of potatoes.

Most who read this are familiar with the Irish potato famine of 1845-1846 and how many Irish left the country for better lives. Many did not make it, and starved to death. They didn’t know it at the time, but it was a virus that doomed the potato crop. Their staple was in short supply. Nearly a million migrated to the United States, where they were persecuted for their religion and where signs in bars read that “no dogs or Irish allowed.” They were called “micks” and assigned jobs that were dirty and dangerous and that most people would not do, like, for instance, coal mining.

I am one of three sons of an Irish-German coal miner. I had occasion to visit western Ireland a few years ago (from where my predecessors on the paternal side migrated). I toured heart-rending reminders of the massive death tolls caused by the potato crop failure and talked to current residents to get their views of the famine that sent so many Irish elsewhere.

There were suspicions that the British were exporting beef and wheat from the eastern side of the island to Britain while the Irish on the west coast were literally starving to death. If so, then it would appear they were being discriminated against on their own turf. If not, then we can chalk it up to Irish hatred of British occupation over the years.

Even with my Irish blood, I have a view of this continuing friction that will not go away, and it is this: that we have enough problems in this world without going back into history to drag out old wrongs real or perceived for a fight today. If we in this country were to follow such reasoning, then America (which had two wars with Britain long before the Irish potato famine) should be at odds with Britain today – but    things change. Alliances shift. We were allies of Britain in World War I and II. We buy billions in Japanese exports regardless of Pearl Harbor etc. There must come a time when rational beings tell themselves to “get over it.”

It is strange how the fates dictate human existence. If Andean farmers had not come up with potatoes in Peru, and if Spanish conquistadores had not invaded Peru and brought potatoes back to Europe, and if there had been no Irish potato famine which brought my predecessors to America, I would not exist. Therefore, and  though I have been boycotting McDonald’s for years due to their medieval labor policies, perhaps I should just once go into one of their restaurants and answer in the affirmative when asked if I “want fries with that.”

I owe a lot to the potato.  GERALD  E


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  1. billy1926 permalink

    Now do one on corn and one on tomatoes (one of your favorite foods).

    • Both maize and tomatoes were imported to Europe, but unlike potatoes, were difficult to mark as staples. Native Americans, of course, used corn to make bread, both flat and inflated, but it wasn’t quite up to staple status Ireland was the perfect spot for taters; too bad they only raised on variety – other varieties might have been resistant to the virus of the middle 1840s. Maybe it’s just as well that corn was not a big Irish thing, seeing as how you can make whisky out of corn and the Irish have been known to imbibe. TSK! GES

      On Thu, Nov 14, 2013 at 11:38 AM, elderblogger

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