Stamp Matters - Food for the Masses.

The colonisation of South and Central America by Spain in the 16th Century allowed Spain to become a major power in Europe with the influx of enormous amounts of gold, silver and precious stones. This new wealth allowed the King of Spain to indulge in a number of conflicts to spread and consolidate the Roman Catholic faith in Europe and the New World.

Stamp showing potatoes

Of much greater benefit to the people of Spain and almost immediately to the rest of Europe, was the proliferation of the new food plants found in the New World. These plants had sustained the populations of America for some thousands of years, and their introduction into Europe had an almost immediate effect.

Prior to 1500, the threat of food shortages amongst the common people was common right across Europe. Grain harvests were at the mercy of the weather and vegetables and fruit were grown by individual families on the very small plots of land, not sown to grain crops. These food supplies were also seasonal and not easily stored. Consequently, localised famines were commonplace.

The new plants from the New World had been developed over time to produce a high yield and had extended growing seasons. Many could be preserved and stored for a considerable time, so that the times of scarcity were much shorter. This allowed the general population to become better fed than before and allowed greater productivity within the overall economy.

Stamp showing tomato

Which plants are we talking about? The most outstanding were the humble potato, the tomato, corn and rice but there were a great many more. Depending on the climate, a mixture of these new crops became part of the staple diet of the greater part of the population. Beans and peanuts could be dried and stored. Rice and corn added to the wheat, barley and oat grain crops. Squash and beans grew in the winter. Rice was particularly important to the countries of southern Asia, where it has become the staple food of millions. The introduction of the onion, the artichoke, the chilli and the peanut added new flavours to many cuisines across the world.

The cassava plant was widely used to feed the slaves on the tropical plantations of all colonising nations, sustaining cheap labour forces to expand their economies. Sweet potatoes were used in the same way.

There were many exotic plants as well, such as the pineapple, the avocado, the passionfruit, and a variety of nuts and berries such as the cashew nut, the Brazil nut and the chestnut, cranberries and blueberries. Those of us with a sweet tooth can thank the New World for the cacao bean and the vanilla pod. Introduced recently into Australia is the achacha fruit. Keep your eyes open for it.

Many of these plants have appeared on stamps from countries around the world and are worthy of being collected as a special topic by a collector ready to do some research.