A personal and highly original take on the history of six commercial plants, Seeds of Change illuminates how sugar, tea, cotton, the potato, quinine, and the cocoa plant have shaped our past. In this fascinating account, the impassioned Henry Hobhouse explains the consequences of these plants with attention-grabbing historical moments. While most records of history focus on human influence, Hobhouse emphasizes how plants too are a central and influential factor in the historical process.Seeds of Change is a captivating and invaluable addition to our understanding of modern culture.



seeds of change cover

5th Edition includes:

[1] sugar

[2]  tea

[3] cotton

[4] potato

[5] quinine


seeds cover 6

6th Edition adds:

[6] coca plant

Henry Hobhouse Reveals Five* Plants That Changed the World in Seeds of Change

By Catherine Lem


Book Review: Seeds of Change; Five Plants That Transformed Mankind, book by Henry Hobhouse

Quinine, sugar cane, tea, cotton, and the potato: Henry Hobhouse’s book argues through a historical perspective that plants, these five in particular, have strongly influenced the course of history. In the introduction, Hobhouse points to mankind’s tendency to accredit history as a mainly human history and claim that it is the exploits of men and women that determine events over the course of time. The purpose of this book is to provide evidence that plant life is an ‘unexpected source of change’ in the world.

The book opens with quinine, a genus of tree whose bark can be ground down and used as a cure for Malaria. To show how important this plant is to human history, Hobhouse explains the impact Malaria had on human populations. There are three conditions necessary for malaria to thrive, mosquitoes of the correct type, stagnant water, and infected humans. While the removal of just one of these conditions would cause the disease to die out, these three elements came together in human populations often, especially when there was a rapid rise in population. This not only affected the civilizations where malaria was present, but those civilizations that infected agents traveled to or traded with. Malaria was not present in many places around the world until explorers exposed the disease to those areas. Malaria also kept travel in check because peoples were afraid to travel to places where malaria was prevalent. Quinine enabled people to move without fear of Malaria, enabling Europeans to invade regions and peoples where malaria was present. The trade of indentured servants and slaves was also made possible by quinine, for they were able to import and export slaves without the fear that they would die of malaria.

Sugar is important because humans have built an addiction to the substance. Hobhouse explains that, before sugar cane was first crystallized, honey was used as the main sweetener, and this was used in small intervals to flavor meals. Most of the sugar in the bloodstream was from other foodstuffs, such as fruit and starches. When sugar was used this way, it took the body some time to process these foods into sugar to be used as energy. With the availability of sugar, the stomach had much less work to do, and was able to produce energy in bursts rather than in a steady drip, and the energy was used up in the same manner. Another aspect was that sugar and fiber are not easily digestible in large amounts, causing humans to avoid fiber products. Sugar addiction is widespread, and causes many health issues such as obesity, tooth problems, and malnutrition. Not only the health aspects of sugar impacted human history. The demand for sugar to feed human addiction created a need that caused sugar cane plants in the Caribbean, which were kept manned by the enslavement of Africans.

The main influences of tea were on the relationship between Europe and China. The Chinese controlled tea production and exchange, and Europeans were dependent on the tea. This dependency was caused by the need for Europeans to boil their water to kill bacteria and an addiction to the caffeine in tea. The most notable impact that the tea trade had in history was its role in the opium trade in China. The tea trade was more profitable for China than for Great Britain. The trade was altered to create more profit for Great Britain by trading opium for tea. The Chinese quickly became addicted to opium, an addiction that was destructive to the people, the Chinese economy, and the country itself. Hobhouse explains this affect on China in the following way: “Chinese civilization was debased and almost destroyed by tea and opium.”
The cotton industry in early America was a labor-intensive and demanding industry, more so before the invention of the cotton gin. Because manual labor workers were expensive, the American South created profit from the cotton trade by exploiting slave labor. Cotton production expanded Southern populations and defined much of Southern culture. When the push began to emancipate the black slaves the South was abhorred by the amount of money they would lose in the value of the slaves themselves. They insisted that the cotton trade would fail without the use of slave labor. But seven years after slavery ended, the cotton trade once again reached the pre-war levels of success. It was not until the Industrial Revolution that the cotton trade failed. While some cotton is still made in the US, there were entire cities that depended on the cotton trade, cities which had to turn to other trades or sink into poverty.

The potato changed the course of history in Ireland. The potato was native to South America, but was brought to Europe during the Age of Exploration. It became a dietary perk to most European nations, but a staple in Ireland. Great Britain had taken the more fertile lands of Ireland, pushing the Irish to the mostly barren hilltops. The Irish began to grow potatoes in a ‘lazy bed,’ a bed with a ditch along it. The lazy bed allowed an Irish family to eat a potato harvest in a year and still allow tubers to plant more. The problem with the lazy beds was that the Irish used them as the only source of food, each family farming their own potatoes with no money circulated. The population was increasing when Great Britain’s monarchy became protestant, and Catholics were banned from all public office. The noble class of Irish were thus barred from power and the right to vote, and went to serve abroad. Without anyone to pay for merchandise, the merchants and middle class also fled, leaving only the poor and their potatoes. When famine hit the potatoes of Ireland, Great Britain exploited the starving Irish. Many Irish eventually flooded into the United States. They brought to the US a deep hatred of Anglo-Saxons, and eventually their population delayed American entry into the world wars. Also, after the US let in large numbers of Irish, they then let in populations of Italians, Jews, Russians, and other continental immigrants.

The purpose of this book was to inform how and why these five plants had enormous impacts on the course of human history. The most interesting themes covered throughout the book was the dependencies that humans had on these plants, that it was not necessarily individual humans that were essential to history, and that these plants were both a blessing and a curse for humans. The five plants caused dependency in the following ways: sugar and tea were addictive, quanine was needed to cure disease, cotton was the basis of Southern American economy, and the potato was the staple food of the Irish. Hobhouse admittedly was trying to debunk the idea that history is mostly altered by the presence of strong men and women. While Seeds of Change focuses on the production and distribution of the five plants by humans, it does not focus on influential individuals, rather it speaks of population tendencies towards the plants. Finally, Hobhouse provides information about both the benefits and disadvantages of these plants on human populations. He shows, for example, that potatoes enabled the Irish to survive on poor land, but the Irish became so dependent on the potatoes that when they failed the Irish starved or fled.

This is a history book, and to write it Hobhouse utilized other works of history. Most of the facts in the book are footnoted to both explain more about the fact and to tell where Hobhouse found the fact. While this does not read like a textbook, it covers a large amount of history in a relatively short book. This makes the book an efficient read, but also quite dense. I do not believe that this is a casual read for anyone who is not interested in history, nutrition, or international relations. The best audience would be people who have curiosity for historical economics, for the book mostly explores the production and trade of the five plants.

Overall, I found Seeds of Change a worthwhile read that contributed to my understanding of the five plants and how they affected human history. The material was presented in chapters by plant and in chronological order, a format that was easy to follow. Hobhouse is able to brilliantly show the involvement of the plants in history, and to prove that they have had profound impact upon humans throughout time.


2010 © Associated Content, All rights reserved.


* This book has been updated to include the coca plant. The sale of world-wide cocaine has changed social global relations.




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