Drake, Raleigh, Hawkins and the potato

Sir John Hawkins and Sir Francis Drake have strong ties to Devon and Plymouth. We can add another ‘Sir’ to the mix – Sir Walter Raleigh. They’ve got a few things in common – they are all Devon boys; they were all sailors & commanders of ships; they are normally celebrated as “adventurers”; they were all knighted by (or on behalf of) Queen Elizabeth I, but they are all also involved in really grim stuff…here’s why they got knighted:

  • Drake (in 1581 – for plundering & looting Spanish ships, making the Queen really rich, on return from circumnavigating the globe)
  • Raleigh (in 1585 – after his part in the Desmonds Rebellion in Ireland – ‘Desmond’ is the Anglicisation of the Irish Deasmumhain, meaning ‘South Munster’)
  • Hawkins (in 1588 – after years of making Queen Elizabeth I very rich through slave-trading voyages, and for his part in sea battle against Spanish Armada). 

They also have something else in common, which is they have each been credited with introducing the potato to Europe. However, this is largely mythical.

The potato as we know it was completely unknown in England before the 1500s. Potatoes originated in South America where people in the areas currently known as Peru, Ecuador, Argentina, Bolivia & Chile were cultivating them as a staple crop.

The Inca, Chono, Altiplano, Andean & Mapuches nations all cultivated, ate and sold potatoes long before Spanish forces invaded & looted their lands in the early 1500s – and found them particularly useful because of their long shelf life & as a cash crop.

It’s most likely that potatoes actually made their way to Europe by being taken by Spanish colonising forces – in what is sometimes euphemistically referred to as the “Columbian Exchange” – the widespread transfer of plants, animals, culture, human populations, technology, devastating diseases and ideas across the Atlantic between North, South & Central America, West Africa and Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries.

Potatoes are here in England as a result of decades of bloody fighting, colonization and trade, alongside the changes in agricultural practices across Europe that meant potatoes became an important staple of the diet – contributing to about 25% of the population growth in Afro-Eurasia between 1700 and 1900.

There are a whole range of claims surrounding potato introduction / discovery / description.

Francis Drake was known & celebrated as “The Potato Man” in Offenburg in Germany.

John Sparke from a wealthy land-owning family in St Judes area of Plymouth – who has a  plaque in his memory on New Street on the Barbican(and there’s another one to him in St. Andrew’s Church) – sailed on Hawkins second slaving voyage in 1564 & wrote a journal – made reference, probably for the first time in English, to potatoes and tobacco, both of which he had seen in the West Indies. This is more likely to have been a description of what we’d call a sweet potato though, as these were grown in the West Indies at the time.

Herbalist John Gerard(1545-1612) used the term ‘bastard potatoes’ to distinguish the potato from the sweet potato

  • For instance, the first ‘scientific’ description of the potato in English appeared in his work of 1597, although he mistakenly believed it came from Virginia rather than South America.
  • Gerard’s lack of scientific training and knowledge led him to frequently include material that was incorrect, folklore or mythical, such as the barnacle tree that bore geese.
  • Modern-day authorities disagree as to how much of Gerard’s Herball was original – accused of plagiarism. Except for additions of some plants from his own garden and from North America, Gerard’s Herbal is largely an unacknowledged English translation of Rembert Dodoens’s herbal, published in 1554, itself highly popular in Dutch, Latin, French and other English translations.
  • Most of the 1,800 woodcut illustrations had also appeared previously in Eicones plantarum, a herbal published in Frankfurt in 1590, but one of the 16 newly commissioned woodcuts was the ‘Virginian Potatoes’ entry.


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