Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Senator Kennedy and the potato

Sometime last night we lost one of the very few true progressives in the US Senate, Edward M. Kennedy. This is a sad, though not totally unexpected, event, reported at length in other places.

I want to focus here on something else: the largely unreported and underappreciated back story of how Teddy Kennedy and his family, along with other Irish folk, came to be in and around Boston, and what shaped their tendency to be on the liberal side of politics.

It began with the Columbian Exchange, the great transfer of people, plants, animals, and ideas set in motion when an Italian named Cristoforo Colombo, a.k.a. Christopher Columbus, working for the Spanish royalty, ran into the Americas on his way to the Far East. Columbus himself brought with him among other things horses, pigs, cattle, sugar cane, and wheat, all of which helped transform the New World. And he carried back to Europe not only some of the Native Americans he encountered but also various animals and plants. But it was the Spanish conquistadores who followed him who set in motion events that would lead to Edward Kennedy.

In the early 1500s the Spanish reached and conquered the area of South America we now know as Perú and Bolivia. In the Andes, the Spanish found indigenous farmers growing an amazing number of food plants, one of which we now know as papas; potatoes. When potatoes were first taken back to Europe people were reluctant to eat them, using them instead as ornamentals. Eventually, though, potatoes became the preferred food of much of the European poor and working classes, because abundant crops could be grown on small plots of land, even in poor soils. Potatoes helped European populations rebound from years of plague, providing labor for the new factories of the Industrial Revolution.

The Potato Eaters, by Vincent van Gogh

The soils of Ireland were especially productive, and Irish farmers became hugely dependent on potatoes. But then something bad happened: in 1845 a blight appeared that decimated the potato crop, and between 1845 and 1852 around a million people died. About the same number left the island to escape the British government's generally less than robust response to the problem, many landing in the port of Boston and settling there.

The Irish who came to America fleeing the Famine brought with them strong memories of the lack of help offered them by the British, and along with this the idea that it should be government's role to assist in such crises. This idea, that government can do things for ordinary people rather than only for the elite, formed the core ideology of the political party that came to be associated with Irish names like Kennedy and Kerry: the Democratic Party.

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