Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Potato and Walter Raleigh: Never let the facts spoil a good story

I've got a particular interest in potatoes. Lots of my research is based on dealing with potato pests, so I've got an affection for the tuber.

That's why I was so excited to see a new website, potato.ie launched to promote the Irish potato as 'Ireland's Feel-Good Food'. Take a look, it's full of recipe ideas, fun facts and information about Solanum tuberosum.

If I've got one complaint, it is that the website highlights the supposed connection between Sir Walter Raleigh and the potato. A connection which is just not supported by the facts.

Under the the 'History' section of the website, they note that "popular myth credits its introduction at Youghal, Co. Cork by Sir Walter Raleigh. Other anecdotal evidence suggest that the potato was washed up on the shores of Cork after the wreck of the Spanish Armada in the area".

To be fair to the Irish Potato Federation, they make it clear that they consider the Raleigh story an urban (or should that be rural?) myth and so it is.

The potato originated in South America and what is at question here is how it got to Europe and, in particular, how it got to Ireland and the UK.

The Walter Raleigh myth is a really nice story and in many ways, I'd really like it to be true, but academics and historians are pretty sure that it's not. The story 'dies hard' though due to is widespread publicity and legendary status.

The most likely theory for the introduction of potato to Ireland and Britain is that it arrived from Spain. The author William Coles wrote in London in 1657 about “the potatoes which we call Spanish because they were first brought up to us out of Spain, grew originally in the Indies…”

Even as far back as 1727, there was clearly a view that the potato came from Spain (and indeed there was people willing to reject that argument). The Anglo-Irish botanist Caleb Threlkeld wrote pompously:

“Those who would give to the Spaniards the honour of entrencing (sic) this useful root called the potato, give me leave to call designing parricides, who stirred up the mislead zeal of the people of this kingdom to cast off the English government which is the greatest mercy they ever enjoyed… To ascribe the honour of the English industry to the effeminate Spaniards cannot be passed over without remark… and if I might advise the inhabitants, they should every meal they eat of this root be thankful to the Creator for English navigation.”

"every meal they eat of this root be thankful to the Creator for English navigation"What a wonderful rant! But perhaps he protests too strongly? It's useful to note that nowhere does Threlkeld mention Raleigh to back up his assertions. Surely if the Raleigh myth was in play back in 1727, the author would have played it as his trump card? This suggests that Raleigh's name was introduced at a later date to support this argument.

The Spanish theory is also supported by Irish oral tradition.Seán O Neachtain wrote the poem Cáth Bearna Chroise Brighde (The Battle of the Gap of St. Bridget’s Cross) in 1750 and this clearly supports the Spanish theory.

The poem is a very lengthy account of a fictional battle, which takes place near Tallaght in Co. Dublin (the poem extends to 218 short verses).

In it, O'Neachtain refers to the potato as "An Spaineach Geal" - the kind-hearted Spaniard and refers to its supporters as "the friends of the Spaniards". At the beginning of the poem, the poet mourns the loss of "my dear Spaniard" saying his death will be "death for the gaels, woe to them all".

Clearly then there were cultural references to the Spanish Introduction in 18th Century Ireland. When exactly Raleigh's name became involved in the story is unclear. Brewer (1826) certainly links Raleigh to the introduction and says it happened in 1588 when Raleigh was Mayor of Youghal.

Whatever the truth, the Raleigh myth is an endearing one and there is little doubt that the southwest of Ireland is a location were potato cultivation was understood and practiced at an early stage, perhaps because of the mild climate. It is possible that Raleigh was used as a figurehead for those wanting to give the vegetable a more 'appropriate' or British image in light of its connections to Spain.

As a piece of fiction, the Raleigh myth is a great one, but we shouldn't confuse fact with fiction, even if it does spoil a good story.

4 comments:

Pádraic Óg June 30, 2011 at 2:47 PM  

How the potato reached Ireland has been the subject of great debate. Sir Walter Raleigh has been both credited and dismissed as the champion of the cause. John Houghton wrote in is weekly bulletin in 1699, that Raleigh returning from Virginia stopped in Ireland and planted the potato (Salaman 2000 p.149). This is disputed by Safford in The Potato of Romance and of Reality who points out that Raleigh merely financed the five expeditions to Virginia and only one of these stopped in Ireland for provisions on it’s return. He also states that Raleigh would not have found the potato there. Safford also dismisses the legend that Raleigh brought them from Quito explaining that he was never with in a thousand miles of there.

Spanish origin

One of the greatest treasures discovered by the Spanish in their conquest of Peru was the potato. Jimenez De Quesada on conquering the Inca civilisation recorded their way of life. The potato was soon recognised as the Inca people’s basic staple. Initial recordings described them as truffle like roots. Records show the potato being sold in Seville in 1570 and being purchased for use as foodstuff by the hospital in the same city in 1573 (Wilson 1995 p.12). Salaman (2000) dates the introduction to Spain as 1570 thus giving the crop three years to develop to market quantities to enable the Hospital de la Sangre at Seville to purchase them in 1573.



For two hundred and fifty years it was believed the potato originated in Virginia. This untruth was credited to one John Gerard when he published the second edition of his Herball in 1597. The first record of the potato was in Gerard’s first edition, published the previous year (Salaman 2000 p.77). Salaman suggests Gerard may have acquired the specimens from Sir Francis Drake’s expedition that rescued an earlier expedition planned and financed by Sir Walter Raleigh to Virginia. Gerard may have been attempting to gain favour with Queen Elizabeth by associating the plant with her favourite explorer, Raleigh, who named the colony after the Virgin Queen (Salaman 2000 p.83).


Safford, W. E. (1925). The potato of Romance and of Reality.

Salaman, R. N. (2000). A Social History of the Potato. Cambridge, University Press.

Wilson, A. (1995). The Story of the Potato through illustrated varieties.
, Balding & Mansell.

Pádraic Óg Gallagher

Michael Sergeant January 21, 2014 at 11:42 AM  

from what I heard the potato was brought to Ireland in a time of famine by Sir Walter...and this also cause a series of death to the people of Ireland. The original potato is of a purple colour. This "white potato" now is the result of gene manipulation or agricultural husbandry.

Lorenzo October 29, 2014 at 12:30 PM  

Why would Raleigh introduce the potato to ward of a Famine, seeing as it was the policy of the Elizabethans to exterminate the irish and plant their land with English colonists. He would have looked on a famine as a god given opportunity to finish the work he had already been involved in.

Pageturners September 21, 2015 at 10:47 AM  

Famine was a policy of the Tudor English in Ireland. In spring they brought out special long-bladed harrows to drag through the growing crops and destroy them; in summer they drove off cattle and other livestock by the thousands and slaughtered them, and in autumn they burned what crops had been saved in their stores.

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