Monday 30 October 2017

Hobhouse's History

'A modern blight sees history through a prism (or fog) that distorts much of the past, not because of often obvious absurdities, but because of anachronisms. Contemporary political correctness can only exist after certain conditions have been fulfilled. These conditions did not exist before current technology made them possible. So, to consider the past when these factors could not have been present under the assumption that they were, is naive of students. For teachers it is at best ignorant and, at its worst, close to intellectual fraud.'
 Wise words from Henry Hobhouse in a prefatory note to his Seeds of Wealth (published in 2003, and things have got worse since then). This is a follow-up to Hobhouse's Seeds of Change: Five Plants that Transformed Mankind, a book full of unexpected connections and startling insights that, once pointed out, seem obvious – and yet change everything. The footnotes alone contain more interest than a shelf full of more pedestrian histories.
 The five plants whose roles in history are examined in Seeds of Change are sugar, tea, cotton, the potato and the cinchoa (the source of quinine). The chapter on sugar alone upturns all the conventional wisdom about the triangular slave trade (though of course that false wisdom still thrives, partly for reasons hinted at in the quotation above).  Hobhouse's chapter on the potato does a similar mythbusting job for the Irish potato famine. The second edition of Seeds of Change added the coca plant to the original five, with similarly eye-opening results.
 Seeds of Wealth takes a similar approach to the earlier work, but focuses on plant products that have made men – and nations – rich, and in doing so have changed the course of history: timber, wine, rubber and tobacco. So far I have read only the chapter on timber, and it's packed with fascinating facts and figures that convincingly demonstrate how British shortage of timber and American superabundance of it dictated the course of both countries' histories over four centuries, bringing about Britain's very early industrial revolution and fuelling the westward march of the States, among many other things...
  Henry Hobhouse was not only a historian but a broadcaster, journalist, farmer and politician. When he died last year, the eulogy at his funeral was spoken by his godson – Jacob Rees-Mogg.


  1. I like Rees-Mogg and was assured by someone who had never come into contact with him, as a matter of incontestable orthodoxy, in a pub the other night that he is "odious." It is very striking how many people find his very existence offensive and badly need to discount his credibility. Excellent post. Thanks Nige.

  2. Thanks Guy. Rees-Mogg has always struck me as one of the few likeable people in politics. Funny, too. And impeccable manners.

  3. Interesting that a rather conservative (socially, politically) figure should adopt an essentially Marxist approach to history - the exploitation of plants makes men wealthy, but it additionally and necessarily requires the exploitation of men (slaves, proles) to do the harvesting and processing. Despite this, the books sound fascinating slices of history and I have sent my man out to buy copies. Thank you, Mr. Nige, for pointing us to these little gems.

  4. Up to a point, Newman - the abundance of timber in America actually made men free and independent, as it furnished all they needed to build (and heat) a home and fence their land, as well as being a potential source of income. Enjoy the books anyway.