Remembering Henry Hobhouse

Posted in: Comment, News and Updates

I mentioned Henry Hobhouse's Seeds of Change: The 6 plants that transformed mankind the other day.  I read this many years ago now, along with his  Seeds of Wealth: 5 plants that made men rich.  I read his Forces of Change: an unorthodox view of history relatively recently.

It was my desire to be sure of the full wording of these titles that led me to the Guardian obituary (April 2016) and to the knowledge of his death.  Given that Hobhouse was a conservative economic historian (with no academic training), the Guardian obit was generous:

"Where Hobhouse succeeded lay in inventing the form and mixing meticulous research with the brio of a feature writer on deadline. He was no botanist, economist or academic, but he had a voluminous capacity for facts, loved an argument, knew instinctively what was interesting and, above all, how to tell a dramatic story.

So it was that he unearthed arresting facts such as the practice of giving coca leaves every 45 minutes to the impoverished workers in Bolivian tin mines, not only to ward off altitude sickness but also to reduce the appetite. He discovered how the Jesuits exploited the antimalarial properties of quinine, that HMS Victory was made largely from American wood and that the British drank more wine in the middle ages than they do today. These and a thousand other observations made for intensely readable history and gained the respect of academic historians."

At his funeral, Jacob Rees-Mogg said:

"Once people read it, they saw history in a new way.  He discovered relationships that nobody else had thought about, but once he had they were stunned that they had not managed to think of them before.”

I think that's spot on.  My favourite insight is his notion that the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century CE meant that much intellectual talent was released into secular life to the significant and lasting benefit of civil society.  Rather obvious when you think about it.  I hadn't but Hothouse had.  His are three of the best books I have ever read; as they are all about the ups and downs and ebbs and flows of globalisation, they remain pertinent today.

If you read them, you will likely be informed, astonished and (if you're a Guardian reader) probably annoyed every 6 pages.  This will be good for you.

Posted in: Comment, News and Updates


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