Like stimulating conversation based only very loosely on six plants.
381 pages, ★★★★★
The book starts with exceeding confidence:
“It is gratifying for an author if a book remains in print; it is even more gratifying if no amendment has to be made because of new evidence” — page xi.
Thus, these two outdated statements, left uncorrected by new evidence humoured me:
“The term, “Negro” is used in this book to refer specifically to a West African black with sickle-cell anemia” — page 4.
“The actual population [of India] today is nearly 700 million” — page 11.
But the contradictions stop there. The book suddenly becomes gripping, describing historical events with interdisciplinary knowledge and an excellent arts/humanities/scientific balance. Here are just a few fascinating snippets:
- Quinine (without quinine, there’d be no WW2, no Panama Canal, and only 100 million people in India)
- Sugar (cultivating sugar was brutal work; about one slave would die per ton of sugar produced)
- Cotton (Liverpool was built to cater to the slave-trade)
- Tea (an interesting history written from a purely colonial perspective)
- Potatoes (the Irish harvested corn very differently due to the unique climate)
- Coca (Popeye’s spinach binges were actually shots of cocaine; but Middle America knew no better and per-capita consumption of spinach soared sixfold in a few decades)
Sweet thoughts in this book include:
“Potatoes floating ashore from the wrecked Armada in 1588 were alleged to have colonised western Ireland” — page 238.
Another thought-provoking snippet is this:
“The illegal drug scene is an oddity that if the opiates and the coca derivatives were legalized, the drugs themselves would be cheap and there would be no criminality, no drug scene and much less money-laundering and thousands of addicts would foreshorten their lives and the genes which give rise to addiction (which may or may not exist) would not not multiply as they do now” — page 295.
I think there’s room for a sequel that features another five plants: hemp, cocoa, corn, rice and bananas. Each of them changed the world profoundly, and each come with an abundance of interesting stories to tell.
The topics in this book are so broad, so important, yet so little-known, that they make for excellent conversation. I wish for a sequel. ★★★★★