Magazine article The Spectator

The Dark Side of the Vegetable World

Magazine article The Spectator

The Dark Side of the Vegetable World

Article excerpt

Books about how plants change men's lives are the latest publishing phenomenon. The tulip, the orchid and the nutmeg have all been the subject of recent narrative histories. Fourteen years ago, long before the bandwagon started to roll, Henry Hobhouse wrote Seeds of Change, about five plants -- sugar, tea, cotton, cinchona (used for making quinine) and the potato - that transformed mankind. In the current paperback edition a new chapter on coca has been added. The book was an edifying read when it first came out and anyone who missed it then now has the chance to catch up on some history seen from an extraordinary perspective.

The scope is huge and the themes are desperate. Poverty, misery and exploitation - man's inhumanity to man - are all shown to have been directly attributable to the vegetable world. The appalling facts of the slave trade in the Caribbean during two centuries of sugar production make for uncomfortable reading. The harvest of one ton of sugar to please the white man's sweet tooth cost the lifetime of one black slave. Conditions in the Andes, where silver was mined by the Spanish Conquistadors, were no less attractive. There, workers were only kept alive by being given bundles of coca leaves to chew. Spanish mineowners found that the use of coca (from which cocaine is derived) `made possible a reduction in food rations of between one fifth and a quarter'. The addictive leaves also helped with the altitude sickness suffered by all mine workers, but not even cocaine could prevent the Amerindians from dying of mercury poisoning. One of the most appealing things about this book is that the author strays constantly from the main theme. If he wants to devote several pages to the technique of silver-refining he does. A digression on the process of mixing and treading the toxic mercury combined with the precious metal into a mud paste is not strictly relevant to coca, but it means that the reader ends up with quantities of esoteric information.

Hobhouse throws some interesting light on the use of raw coca leaves, which were kept by the Incas as a reward and used not as a drug but as a privilege of the elite. Its debasement to the scourge of 20th-century streets begs many questions which he is not afraid to ask. He is intrigued by the nature of addiction, the central problem of selfesteem, and by the possibility of breeding a coca plant without the genes which cause addiction. …

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