Henry Hobhouse was the first to recognise plants as a causal factor in history in his Seeds of Wealth. In this new book, he examines four plants: rubber, timber, tobacco and the wine grape, each of which enormously increased the wealth of those who dealt in them, created great new industries and changed the course of history. Ancient Rome's monopoly on wine production had huge economic and hygienic importance. Without rubber, there would have been no development of cars, buses and trucks, bicycles, waterproof clothing or even tennis balls and condoms. Tobacco has largely been condemned for its effects on health and its true role in history ignored. Tobacco has often been used in place of currency and its growth in Virginia supported a colony that produced much of the talent that made Independence possible. Timber shortages led the British Royal Navy to become dependent on American timber. The dearth of timber drove English coal mines deep, which led to the steam pumps, steam engines, and ultimately the Industrial Revolution. These are fascinating stories the effect of minutiae on the great waves of history. 'You cannot help but admire and enjoy the company of a man who takes such a novel and global view of history' Spectator
Like his classic work, Seeds of Change, Henry Hobhouse's new book deals with the effect of plants on humans and their past. But this new book, Seeds of Wealth, tells the story of four plants that made men rich, and how these plants inadvertently changed the course of history.
The four crops Hobhouse has chosen are timber, the wine grape, rubber and tobacco. These four were not picked out of a hat, their cultivation and consumption has had a profound and enduring effect on the world in general and, specifically, on those who grew or traded their fruits.
As early as Shakespeare's time, timber became deficient in England; this shortage promoted the use of coal before any other country. Shallow coal being soon exhausted, this dearth led to the mining of deeper coal, which made essential the pumping of underground water, which in turn involved the use of steam power. this initiated the coal-steam-iron phase of the Industrial Revolution, fifty years earlier than in any other country. In the British North American colonies, in contrast, the entrepreneurial use of the colonies' great wood-wealth helped engender the revolution of rich men, which resulted in the War of Independence. As a consequence the new nation was, and remains, wealthier than European countries.
Given the right conditions, the wine grape flourishes as an alternative to grain. Ancient Greece and modern New Zealand, two economies 2,500 years apart, made the change-over very effective. Vineyards, ancient and modern, have produced many times the gross output of traditional staple wheat fields. Good wine, Hobhouse argues, makes people wealthy as well as mellow and wise. He deals with the story of wine grapes in a way that is original, provocative and full of new insights.
Rubber is an essential in many ways, used in planes, cars, bicycles, electricity, games and even condoms - all this from a Amazonian tree only 'discovered' after Columbus and only cultivated a century ago. Hobhouse traces the effects on the world economy of this most industrialized of plants, and describes rubber's integral part in the building of three countries, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. The synthetic rubber industry is also thoroughly explored, explaining how its one curious technical limitiation makes natural rubber still so fundamental.
Finally, there is tobacco, now very politically incorrect, but responsible for the affluence of Virginia, home of Founding Fathers. Virginia itself was only viable because of tobacco, the wealth of which created a colony that produced much of the wisdom that made Independence and, even more so, the Constitution feasible. The more recent tobacco story is less happy, one which cigarettes have dominated with known, sad consequences.
Seeds of Wealth offers proof of how the seemingly irrelevant can have widespread unintended consequences. In presenting global history from a perspective he has made his very own, Henry Hobhouse offers an overview of humans who have harnessed the nature of gain and how nature has unwittingly contributed to the creation of wealth and to economic growth.