This article appeared in The Nation on Sunday August 26 2012
Jonathan Swift wrote A Modest Proposal to lampoon the ideas of William Petty. Swift suggests that impoverished Irish might profit by selling their surplus children as food for rich gentlemen and ladies.
Genocide by Famine?
In his book Three Famines, Thomas Keneally, the Australian novelist who wrote Schindler’s List, quotes a contemporary observer of the Irish famine: “Insane mothers began to eat their young children who died of famine before them; and still fleets of ships were sailing with every tide, carrying Irish cattle and corn to England”.
As a result of the famine that followed the potato blight of 1845, Ireland’s population fell by 25%. One million people died of starvation and typhus. Millions emigrated over following decades. Some 2.6 million Irish entered overcrowded workhouses where more than 200,000 people died.
The 1911 Census showed that Ireland’s population had fallen to 4.4 million, about half of its peak population. The population of Ireland has never got back to pre-famine levels.
According to historian Cecil Woodham-Smith, “the unreliability of the potato crop was an accepted fact in Ireland.” In 1851, the Census of Ireland Commissioners recorded 24 failures of the potato crop going back to 1728 of varying severity. In the first two decades of the 18th century, the potato became a base food of the poor because it could be easily stored. The British rulers forced Irish peasants to subsist on a potato diet since a farmer could grow triple the amount of potatoes as grain on the same plot of land. A single acre of potatoes could support a family for a year.
Unnatural Causes of Famine
Under British rule, Irish Catholics were prohibited from entering the professions or even purchasing land. Instead, many rented small plots of land from absentee British Protestant landlords. Half of all landholdings were less than five acres in 1845.
The Earl of Lucan owned over 60,000 acres of land stolen from the indigenous population. Many absentee landlords lived in England where rent revenue was sent collected from impoverished tenants who were paid minimal wages to raise crops and livestock for export.
Rent collection was left in the hands of the landlords’ agents, Gombeen men. This assured the (usually Protestant) landlord of a regular income and relieved them of any responsibility. Gombeen man is a pejorative Hiberno – English term for a shady, “wheeler-dealer” or businessman on the make and take. Mudalali might be a Sri Lankan equivalent.
The landlords regarded the land as a source of income from which to extract as much money as possible. This caused resentment among the tenants and their hostility encouraged the landlords to stay away, some visiting their property once or twice in a lifetime, or never.
A great mass of evictions came in 1847, although records were not kept until later. Police recorded a total of almost 250,000 persons as officially evicted between 1849 and 1854. Historian James S. Donnelly Jr. believes this to be an underestimate. If those pressured into ‘voluntary’ surrenders were included, the figure would almost certainly exceed half a million. There was little voluntary about tenants being persuaded to accept a small sum of money to leave their homes, cheated into believing the workhouse would take them in. The Earl of Lucan was one of the worst evictors. He was quoted as saying “he would not breed paupers to pay priests”. After evicting over 2,000 tenants in Ballinrobe, he then used the cleared land for grazing.
Broadcaster and historian Robert Kee suggested that the Irish Famine of 1845 is ‘comparable’ in its force on ‘popular national consciousness to that of the ‘final solution on the Jews,’ and that it is not ‘infrequently’ thought that the Famine was something very like, ‘a form of genocide engineered by the English against the Irish people’.
However, Irish Historian Cormac Ó Gráda disagreed arguing that “genocide includes murderous intent and it must be said that not even the most bigoted and racist commentators of the day sought the extermination of the Irish.” Ó Gráda thinks that a case of neglect is easier to sustain than that of genocide.
Voodoo Economics and God’s Will
Charles Edward Trevelyan was responsible for ‘relief’ but thought it heretical in terms of religion and economic philosophy. Trevelyan believed the famine had been sent by God “to teach the Irish a lesson. The real evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people.”
In his book Late Victorian Holocausts Mike Davis argues that cyclical weather shocks were survivable in the early 19th century but later, in the golden age of liberal capitalism, they were transmitted directly to the poor through the newly established system of global commodity markets. This was what made the failure of the Irish potato crop so disastrous. It was a man-made disaster.
John Mitchel, one of the leaders of the Young Ireland Movement, wrote the following in 1860: “The British account of the matter, then, is first, a fraud; second, a blasphemy. The Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the famine.”
Alex de Waal, author of Famine Crimes, writes: “western nations still preach the fundamentals of a single path to development through integration into the global market. Is not the ghost of Trevelyan stalking Africa?”
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