28 July 1586: Britain is introduced to the potato

On this day in 1586, Sir Thomas Harriot brought the first potato back to Britain from the 'New Found Land of Virginia'. We've been in love ever since.

If there was ever a vegetable that has helped shape our national destiny, it's the humble spud. A mainstay of our national dish, we serve it in a hundred different ways, and always insist on it being there for Sunday lunch.

In England, it partners up with cabbage to make bubble and squeak', or colcannon if you're in Ireland. And in Scotland, tatties' go hand-in-hand with neeps on Burns Night. In fact, the potato is so much a part of our culture, it's easy to forget it isn't even British.

On this day in 1586, Sir Thomas Harriot stepped off the boat in Plymouth. He had just returned from Sir Walter Raleigh's English colony on Roanoke Island in modern-day North Carolina, where he had made detailed studies of the wildlife and potatoes.

In the months that followed, Harriot recorded his adventures in A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia. In it, he described a curious tuber:

"Openavk are kind of roots of round forme, some of the bignes of walnuts, some far greater, which are found in moist & marish grounds growing many together one by another in ropes, or as thogh they were a string. Being boiled or sodden they are very good meate."

Britain isn't short of "moist & marish grounds" and the potato soon took root, so to speak. Since then, potatoes have become part and parcel of our national cuisine and our history too.

The failure of the potato crop in Ireland in the 1840s sparked one of the first great waves of emigration to the United States. And the great Marxist thinker, Friedrich Engels, even saw the "farinaceous tubers", as he called them, as having fuelled Britain's industrial revolution: "[Iron] is the last and most important of all raw products that play a revolutionary role in history; the last if we except the potato."

So, next time you're eating mashed openavk', remember that if it wasn't for Sir Thomas Harriot, Britain today might look and taste very different.

Recommended

Rail strikes and the summer of discontent – who's to blame?
UK Economy

Rail strikes and the summer of discontent – who's to blame?

The rail workers are all out and look likely to continue through the summer. Comrades in other unions are joining the strikers. Who is to blame?
25 Jun 2022
Cryptocurrency roundup: a crypto price war could be on the cards
Bitcoin & crypto

Cryptocurrency roundup: a crypto price war could be on the cards

Bitcoin continues to languish around $20,000, while Binance's action on fees could spark a crypto price war. Saloni Sardana rounds up the week’s crypt…
24 Jun 2022
Interest rates are rising, here are the best savings accounts on the market
Savings

Interest rates are rising, here are the best savings accounts on the market

With inflation at more than 9%, your savings are not going to keep pace with the rising cost of living. But you can at least slow the rate at which yo…
24 Jun 2022
Share tips of the week – 24 June
Share tips

Share tips of the week – 24 June

MoneyWeek’s comprehensive guide to the best of this week’s share tips from the rest of the UK's financial pages.
24 Jun 2022

Most Popular

The ten highest dividend yields in the FTSE 100
Income investing

The ten highest dividend yields in the FTSE 100

Rupert Hargreaves looks at the FTSE 100’s top yielding stocks for income investors to consider.
22 Jun 2022
Get ready for the coming oil glut
Oil

Get ready for the coming oil glut

Investors are assuming that energy prices will stay high. History suggests the opposite, says Max King
20 Jun 2022
The ten investment trusts with the highest dividend yields
Investment trusts

The ten investment trusts with the highest dividend yields

Investment trusts are one of the best ways to participate in the stockmarket, and the way they are structured means they can maintain their dividends …
23 Jun 2022