by Paul Gallagher
Printed in The American Almanac, May 29, 1995.
Not Potatoes, But Slavery
Any historian, who has studied the subject further than former Vice-President Dan Quayle, knows that potatoes (or the lack thereof) did not cause the Irish famine and genocide 150 years ago. The potato blight which struck the harvest in autumn 1845 had begun in North Carolina, and spread to destroy potato crops throughout the Northern Hemisphere for several years; it did not cause famine or mass death anywhere except in Ireland. Nor were potatoes the only major produce of Irish agriculture at the time; they were just the only produce which the Irish – 75 percent of whom were feudal tenants of British landlords, fanatical preachers of “free trade” – were allowed to eat or to feed to their livestock. The historian Arthur Young had written, like many others, that the Irish tenant farmers were slaves in effect:”A landlord in Ireland can scarcely invent an order which a laborer, servant, or cottier [tenant farmer] dares to refuse …. He may punish with his cane or his horsewhip with the most perfect security. A poor man would have his bones broken if he offered to lift a hand in his own defense.”
Free trade exported or sold all the corn, wheat, barley, and oats Irish farmers grew, in order that they should pay their rents. All crops became cash crops–and there was nothing left for the farmer and his family to eat. British free trade tolerated no change in this situation while a million Irish starved to death, heavily deploying troops to protect the export ships. Free trade evicted instantly all farmers who stopped paying their rents, and the large landlords, led by British Foreign Minister Lord Palmerston, evicted their tenants more rapidly than before as they were starving in the 1840s, even evicting many who were still paying rent. Free trade decreed that no money would be spent on infrastructure projects such as drainage, harbors, fisheries, etc., though a committee of prominent Irish subjects led by Thomas Drummond had quickly surveyed what was most needed. Ireland at that time had 164 miles of railways; England had 6,621 miles
Free trade decreed that no government surplus food – “no welfare” – be given to the starving, in order to leave the market for food undisturbed. “We do not propose,” Prime Minister Lord John Russell told the House of Commons, “to interfere with the regular mode by which Indian corn and other kinds of grain may be brought into Ireland.” Free trade insisted that the destitute work on the Public Works or in the workhouses, and that these hundreds of thousands should receive wages below the miserable levels prevailing, in order not to distort the labor market. Thus laborers died in large numbers “on the works” and in the Poor Law houses. Free trade gave the Irish farm families three choices when the potato crops failed: starve on their farms, while selling their grain crops and paying their rent; report to the Public Works or the Poor Law workhouses to be worked/starved to death; or emigrate and take a 50 percent chance of surviving the passage across the Atlantic.
The Irish population was officially 8.1 million in 1845. Some 1.5 million human beings died of starvation and disease in Ireland in four years, while more than one million attempted to emigrate; of these, about 500,000 died–usually of typhus – in passage or in quarantine camps in Canada and New England. The Montreal Board of Health stated of those in the camps in 1847, “It may well be supposed that few of the survivors could reach any other than an early grave.” In that period, among the Irish emigrant population of Massachusetts, average life expectancy was estimated by Lemuel Shattuck at 13.4 years, with 60 percent dying by the age of 5: a level characteristic of Stone Age human societies.
When it was “over,” the British officials directly in charge of “Irish famine relief,” particularly acting Treasury Minister Sir Charles Trevelyan, congratulated themselves and were decorated as Queen Victoria made her gala 1848 visit to Ireland. As 1847 ended, Trevelyan wrote: “It is my opinion that too much has been done for the people. Under such treatment the people have grown worse instead of better, and we must now try what independent exertion, and the operation of natural causes, can do…. I shall rest after two years of such continuous hard work in public service, as I have never had in my life.”
Then, having vacationed in France, he added: “[The] problem of Irish overpopulation being altogether beyond the power of man, the cure had been supplied by the direct stroke of an all-wise Providence.”
The British historian Charles Kingsley, who accompanied the Queen on her gracious and glorious visit, wrote: “I am daunted by the human chimpanzees I saw along that 100 miles of horrible country. I don’t believe they are our fault. I believe that there are not only many more of them than of old, but that they are happier, better and more comfortably fed and lodged under our rule than they ever were. But to see white chimpanzees is dreadful; if they were black, one would not feel it so much.”
However, Lord Clarendon, the British viceroy in Ireland during the famine, saw the situation more clearly. He wrote to Prime Minister Lord John Russell: “I don’t think there is another legislature in Europe [other than the British] that would coldly persist in this policy of extermination.”
How It Was Done
British free trade had been working to create this disaster for a long time previously. The crucial period was the 1785-1845 policies of William Petty, the second Lord Shelburne, and Prime Minister William Pitt, who took over the British governments after the American Revolution, and for whom Adam Smith wrote his Wealth of Nations and other “free trade” tracts.
The great Irish writer and leader Jonathan Swift had written already in 1730: “One-half of all Irish rents is spent in England … with other incidents, (it) will amount to full half of the income of the whole kingdom, all clear profit to England…. The rise of our rents is squeezed out of the very blood, and vitals, and clothes, and dwellings of the tenants, who live worse than English beggars.”
During the same period, a Lord Chancellor Bowes in Dublin made a published ruling that “the law does not suppose any such person to exist as an Irish Roman Catholic.”
However, in the eighteenth century, the condition of the Irish had improved for the first time since the Elizabethan and Cromwellian invasions (which explicitly intended genocide, but with less effective means than “free trade” proved to be). This improvement was due in large part to the organizing efforts of Swift and his Leibnizian networks. In particular, the Irish merchant marine had been revived, her ports improved, effective taxes lowered, and the clothing, linen, and glass industries developed, and agriculture had been improved. The Penal Laws of the 1690s had been intended to insure that Irish Catholics would be reduced to potato culture on rented land. But effective organizing of the large number of Scottish Protestant immigrant landlords, had allowed some development and led to a united Catholic-Protestant movement which gained the Constitution of 1782, during the American War of Independence. The Irish population had begun to grow rapidly.
Prime Minister William Pitt’s policy was described by Sinn Fein’s founder and Ireland’s first President, Arthur Griffith. “On the 12th of May, 1785, Pitt’s new proposals were introduced in the English Parliament. They provided, among other things, that Ireland should not trade with any country where its trading might clash with the interests of England’s mightiest corporation – the East India Company … and that the navigation laws which the British Parliament adopted should be accepted by Ireland.”
To impose this “free trade” policy, Pitt eventually sponsored and repressed the Irish Uprising of 1798, to disarm the Irish Volunteers and introduce large numbers of British troops, and to force the 1801 Act of Union which annulled the Irish Constitution. (During the same period, the same policy of the same Pitt and Shelburne also reduced and impoverished Scotland, which had begun to industrialize at the time of the American Revolution.) In his political pamphlets, Arthur Griffith described in detail how Pitt after 1801 destroyed Ireland’s new manufactures, particularly linens, by dumping British goods there, and rapidly eliminated independent Irish shipping. Even worse, was the collapse in land use under Pitt and Shelburne’s “free trade” policy. By the 1820s, 80 percent of all Ireland’s land was owned by British and Scottish landlords, and 25 percent of all land was completely unused for any purpose except real estate speculation. Some 75 percent of what was used, was in grain or horse/cattle pasture, most of this for export by merchants under London’s domination. On the remainder, the Irish grew their potatoes; on perhaps two acres of rented land for each large family.
All nineteenth-century accounts of those who saw both the Irish tenant farmers and African slaves in America and the Caribbean, agree that the Irish were far worse off. In 1845, a British government commission headed by the economist Nassau Senior counted up what free trade had done: Except during the brief potato harvest, there was no work at all for 2.4 million Irish adults; by today’s calculations, 60 percent unemployment. Woollen, linen, poplin, furniture and glass manufacture had disappeared; fishing had nearly disappeared for lack of capital for boats, storage, etc. Even water-powered grain mills had disappeared, in the country which had introduced them to Europe 1300 years earlier. There were only 39 hospitals serving 8 million people. The famous Duke of Wellington wrote in 1829 that “there never was a country in which poverty existed to the extent it exists in Ireland.”
Senior’s was not the first such commission, so the British government knew exactly what its “free trade” policies were creating in Ireland. In 1824, a previous commissioner was asked in Parliament: “Looking ahead to 15 years or more, what must this increase in population in Ireland, without any employment, end in?” He answered, “I don’t know. I think it is terrible to reflect upon.”
Once the famine was underway, the same Nassau Senior wrote that he feared it would not kill more than a million people, which would scarcely be enough to eliminate the unemployment.
But in 1842, 6 million pounds Sterling in rents were remitted out of Ireland to England, and a very large amount of real estate lending speculation in the City of London was based upon those rents. Much later, in 1898, an Irish commission calculated that, during the entire century of “free trade” since Pitt’s Act of Union of 1801, the net flow of wealth from Ireland to England had totalled 250 million pounds Sterling.
Free Trade Without Money
Thus, when blight destroyed three-quarters of the potato crop of 1845, a sizeable majority of the Irish population owned no land, earned no wages, and paid as rent most or all of the proceeds of the sale of their grain crops. They had little or no money or means of raising it; nearly 2 million did not even sell their own produce, but turned it all over as rent in exchange for being allowed to grow potatoes on small strips of land.
Sir Robert Peel was British Prime Minister for the first half of 1846 after the destruction of the first potato crop. Immediately, a committee of Irish citizens (rather, subjects) headed by Henry Drummond made urgent proposals:
- stop the export of corn and the distilling of grain into spirits;
- remove duties on food imports;
- public works concentrating on rail and harbor (fishing)
- relief committees funded in part by a 10 percent tax on landlords (20-50 percent on absentees); and
- in part by a £1.5 million 10-year British loan on the security of Irish hardwood forests.
Prime Minister Peel ignored all but 2), which he used as a pretext to push for repeal of the British Corn Laws making import of Irish corn into Britain much easier. Otherwise Peel’s government bought, against a 3.5 million pound crop loss, a total of £100,000 worth of American Indian corn, purchased through Baring Brothers’ Bank. The reason for the tiny amount was that it was to be locked up in military storehouses in Ireland, under control of Relief Commissioner Col. Henry Routh, and used “only as a leverage stock for purposes of preventing, through occasional sales from these stocks, an overfast rise in the market of foodstuffs.” Thirdly, Peel allowed formation of relief committees which could propose public works, but with no British government funds and solely voluntary (charitable) contributions from landlords in Ireland.
Treasury Head Sir Charles Trevelyan became effective dictator of the “relief” of Ireland, and already in June 1846 he was writing to Colonel Routh: “The only way to prevent people from becoming habitually dependent on government is to bring [relief] operations to a close. The uncertainty about the new crop [there were already signs of a second year of potato blight] only makes it more necessary…. These things should be stopped now, or you run the risk of paralyzing all private enterprise and having this country on you for an indefinite number of years.”
Almost nothing of the tiny government “reserve stock” remained by then anyway. Baring’s had one more ship on the way, but Trevelyan ordered that “the cargo of the Sorciere is not wanted; her owners must dispose of it as they think proper.”
In September, when the Irish had begun to die of starvation and there was plenty of evidence of the 100 percent failure of the second, 1846 potato crop, the Times of London added: “Such are the thanks that a government gets for attempting to palliate great afflictions and satisfy corresponding demands by an inevitable but ruinous beneficence…. It is the old thing, the old malady, the national character, the national thoughtlessness, the national indolence.”
Meanwhile, Peel’s Tory government had been voted out for trying to repeal the Corn Laws–Great Britain’s high tariffs on imported grain. Lord John Russell’s Whig government replaced it and did get them repealed. During 1846, Ireland exported enough wheat, barley, oats, oatmeal, pigs, eggs, and butter to feed its entire population. Many modern historians have noted outrage at this export, which was heavily guarded by British troops against starving crowds. But few note that under British free trade policies, even more wheat was imported into Ireland that year than exported; however, at least half the entire Irish population was without any means to buy food; “free trade” dictated that none be given – “no welfare” – and the rate of evictions was growing with their destitution.
Irish members of the British Parliament in London proposed the government buy stocks of grain otherwise to be exported, and sell it in the worst famine areas, especially in Connaught where starvation deaths were growing. The answer from Lord Russell directly was no: “Purchase by government of any food in ordinary use is forbidden in order to avoid competition with private traders.” Trevelyan and Colonel Routh agreed that “there must be a distinction clearly kept between the ordinary distress of the people, and that resulting from the losses of the potato crop, which alone it may be our object to relieve.”
Lord Russell’s government added a Public Works program which was widespread but unfunded; local committees had to propose the works and sign a contract holding their members personally responsible to repay the British government 100 percent of the cost within two years, plus interest of 3 percent per annum! At first the government sometimes added partial matching grants for local money raised, but these were very difficult to qualify for, and were completely discontinued in 1847. During all of 1846, with 3 million Irish unemployed and selling everything down to their family beds for food, a total of 5,000 pounds-Sterling was expended for piers, harbors, drainage, navigation and water power projects combined: In other words, none were carried out.
Russell and Trevelyan made a Public Works rule, which was later found as well in the Constitution of Jefferson Davis’s Confederacy: “Any public works done shall not be of a nature to benefit any individuals in any greater degree than all of the rest of the community.”
To the despair of the better-off Irish farmers who were trying to save their countrymen, this rule eliminated all projects for drainage of bogs – the only way to rapidly increase food production – on the grounds that this would preferentially benefit those living nearest the bog being drained.
This was the common “free trade” argument against government infrastructure-building which was used against Abraham Lincoln’s Illinois networks at the same time. As a result of this “rule,” the Public Works during the Irish famine built only roads, which was the one kind of infrastructure which the country already had plenty of. The wages were supposedly set at subsistence levels, but as desperate people deluged the “Works,” the wages were often paid weeks late, and many thousands starved to death “on the Works.” Meanwhile, in the Workhouses (called Poor Houses the next year after passage of the Irish Poor Law), several hundred thousand elderly, infirm, and young children crowded, dying more slowly of malnutrition and disease.
The Tavistock Grin
Lord John Russell evaluated the reports of the second consecutive complete failure of the potato crop as no reason to change policy. Lord Russell, the 6th Duke of Bedford, was known for his small stature and icy smile; he was so cold and arrogant that even his brother, the Marquess of Tavistock, told him he was offensive to his own Whig followers. By the winter of 1846-47, the Irish people had begun to die of starvation in large numbers.
Lord Russell’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir Charles Wood, announced that there would be no more government importation of Indian corn or any other food–private enterprise would provide it. He announced that the problem in 1845-6 had been that “private trade had been paralyzed by government purchases,” and that “merchants had declared they would not import food at all if the government were to do so.” Public Works were to be limited to one year, and ended by Aug. 15, 1847, and their expense was “to fall entirely on persons possessed of property in the distressed district.”
Thus, Sir Charles Wood. In autumn 1846 crops failed in many European countries. French and German governments and bidders bought large amounts of grain from America and elsewhere, while the British government “sat it out.” Food dealers in Ireland were now charging enormous prices, which Trevelyan welcomed in a letter to Colonel Routh: “The high prices will have a regulating influence, as nothing is more calculated to attract supplies, and especially from America…. Do not encourage the idea of prohibiting exports (from Ireland): perfect Free Trade is the right course. Nothing ought to be done for the West of Ireland which might send prices, already high, still higher for people who, unlike the inhabitants of the West Coast of Ireland, have to depend on their own exertions.”
Evictions were now going on massively and it was clear that wholesale starvation would take place in 1847. Colonel Routh sent out a memo to his relief officers: “represent to applicants for government supplies of food, the necessity for private enterprise and importations.”
In December 1846 Whitehall ordered all Commissariat officers in Ireland to cease all food sales. Colonel Routh added in a memo: “Even if it were practicable at the moment to open our depots [he knew they were actually empty] it would be prejudicial to owners of grain, inasmuch as at present extraordinary prices can be realized.”
If this seems an egregious government endorsement of price gouging, Trevelyan repeated it himself: “If dealers were to confine themselves to what in ordinary circumstances might be considered fair profits, the scarcity would be aggravated fearfully….”
Trevelyan added that the government would also do nothing about the new problem – the disastrous fact that all seed potatoes had been eaten and there was nothing to plant in 1847: “The moment it came to be understood that the government would supply seed, the painful exertions of private initiative to preserve a stock of seed would be relaxed.”
No seed would be provided, and, as it turned out, the 1847 potato harvest was to be blight-free, but only 20 percent of normal anyway for lack of seed and the death, exhaustion, or illness of farm families. The chance was not to be repeated: The 1848 crop again was destroyed by blight.
In January 1847, the British government smashed Circular #38, which the Irish Board of Public Works had issued, allowing “family task work” under a sensible emergency proposal of some large farmers. It would have paid farm families wages to work their own land, and more wages for also working on drainage projects. “It is quite impossible,” wrote Trevelyan, “for my lords to give their sanction to parties being paid by public funds for the cultivation of their own land.” That same month, Colonel Routh reported on Ireland’s poorest county, Skibereen, that 50,000 pounds rent had been paid in 1846; there were only 12 landowners, all British lords and knights. The government also defeated a proposal of Lord George Bentinck in Parliament, for a railroad building act in Ireland funded by the British Treasury.
Lord Russell’s government did, however, make one refinement in their “free trade” policy toward the genocide now actually gathering speed in Ireland. They passed the Irish Poor Law to end all British Public Works in Ireland by August of 1847, and to establish instead soup kitchens at the existing Workhouses, and new Workhouses “to be built.” What they intended was “deregulation” of public works, leaving them entirely up to the initiative (and the financing) of the local “Poor Law Unions” in Ireland, which were funded by local “rates” (taxes). What they produced, perhaps intentionally, was total chaos and despair, as Colonel Routh ordered the Poor Law Unions (which were all completely bankrupt) to replace (i.e., evict) the elderly and infirm from the Workhouses to make way for “able-bodied” skeletons who would report to work there in exchange for soup for their families. But since the British government was still expending a bit of public money in Ireland, Sir Charles Trevelyan wanted that wrapped up quickly: “the government would now be relieved,” he announced, “from feeding the people through its officers.” In a private letter of that month, February 1847, he added, “It is hard upon the poor people to be deprived of knowing that they are suffering from an affliction of God’s Providence.” And Trevelyan added threatening letters to Public Works head Colonel Jones and new Relief Commission head Sir John Burgoyne, telling them they were spending far too much money.
In February-March 1847 came the final implosion and breakdown of “free trade”: private food imports from America arrived in the amount of 100,000 tons; some never made it to markets for lack of infrastructure (carters had lost their workers and sold their equipment), and the rest couldn’t be sold for lack of buyers with any money. The prices of grains now collapsed. Typhus began to spread in March, so that from that point onward, the better-off classes in Ireland also died in large numbers.
As a kind of final “free trade” commentary, Trevelyan had his secretary send this statement to all Poor Law Unions in July, 1847: “There is much reason to believe that the object of the Relief Act is greatly perverted and that it is frequently applied solely as a means of adding to the comforts of the lower classes … instead of being, as intended, a provision for the utterly destitute, and for the purpose of warding off absolute starvation…. The Commissioners cannot but complain of finding the demands for rations from many districts continuously increasing, and sometimes largely, without even a word of explanation to account for it.”
Since now the entire cost of relief of the destitute and starving lay on the local “rates” paid by landlords, another side of the “rent bubble” of British “free trade” in Ireland now became exposed. Lord Mountcashel presented the following figures to the House of Lords: of the annual rent collection in Ireland of £13 million (a huge amount), the landlord class paid annually 10.5 million pounds-Sterling on “mortgages and borrowed money” to the City of London bankers and speculators in real estate. Montcashel was making clear that an increase in rates, now planned by the British government, would siphon money off from mortgage payments, and, sure enough, in late summer 1847, the financial markets of London crashed, as the previous two years’ speculation in rents, wheat, corn, and foreign railway shares collapsed.
With that collapse, the British government “wound up” its public works loans and tiny relief expenditures in Ireland in August 1847. Only Lord Clarendon, the Viceroy for Ireland, remained the protesting voice: “What is to be done with these hordes? Improve them off the face of the earth, you will say, let them die. But there is a certain responsibility attaching to it.”
Lord Palmerston’s Tenants
Landlords in Ireland now tried to evict all the tenants they could in order to reduce the number of local destitute, and therefore their rates (poor relief taxes). They began to get, not just evictions, but criminal judgments for non-payment of rent, throwing the fathers of families into jail. This – as the landlords intended – finally set off the migration across the Atlantic which became a flood of starving, dying typhus-carriers into Canada and then New England in 1848-9.
Incredibly, large exports of foodstuffs from Ireland continued right through 1848 and 1849, which were the years in which the Irish population fell rapidly from 8 million to 6 million through death and emigration (and 40 percent of the emigrants died in crossing the Atlantic alone). In November 1848, exports of food from Cork in a single day, were 147 bales of bacon, 255 barrels of pork, 5 casks of hams, 3,000 sacks and barrels of oats, 300 bags of flour, 300 head of cattle, 239 sheep, 542 boxes of eggs, 9,300 firkins [about one-fourth of a barrel] of butter, and 150 casks of miscellaneous foodstuffs. But an inspector of the Public Works in Cork in the same month wrote about the public “workfare” rolls: “The lists are useless. No one answers their name. They have gone, or are dead.”
1848 was the year in which “revolutions” and insurrections took place against those European governments targeted by the British, particularly France. Foreign Minister Lord Palmerston personally manipulated and directed the `”Young Europe” agents who fomented these insurrections. A very small and pathetic such “uprising” was apparently attempted that year by the “Young Ireland” movement; but in fact, Lord Russell had written to Palmerston three months earlier, acknowledging that this “Young Ireland” was controlled by Palmerston. “I am not yet ready to adopt, like Mr. Pitt, `ripening measures’ to force on a rebellion,” wrote Russell in December, 1847. Thus he was admitting, at the same time, that the Irish Uprising of 1798 had been sponsored and controlled by then-Prime Minister William Pitt, in order to force upon Ireland the ruinous rule of “Free Trade” in place of the Irish Constitution of 1782.
Palmerston’s main operation that year was the “1848 Revolution” in France, which overthrew Louis Napoleon because the French had been refusing to open their ports to British Free Trade.
But he found time to evict nine shiploads full of his Irish tenants to Canada, 2,000 persons in all. As the ships arrived in New Brunswick, they raised storms of protest – on board children, elderly, and destitute were starving, many of they completely naked: “they had to be clothed by charity before they could, with decency, leave the ship.” The “Common Council of the City of St. John deeply regret that one of Her Majesty’s ministers, the Rt. Hon. Lord Palmerston … should have exposed such a numerous and distressed portion of his tenantry to the severity and privations of a New Brunswick winter … unprovided with the common means of support, with broken-down constitutions and almost in a state of nudity.”
The U.S. Congress at first passed emergency legislation to block the “typhus ships” of Irish immigrants from landing. Palmerston as foreign minister placed great pressure on the American government to open some of their ports to this particular human export of British Free Trade. Most Irish landed in Canada, but if they lived, they would not stay there. As Canada’s Gov.-General Lord Dunham then admitted: “On the American side all is bustle and activity. On the British side of the line, with the exception of a few favored spots, all seems waste and desolation.” So the Irish immigrants walked across the border to New England, where they continued to land, and to live in slums with Stone Age life expectancies for 20 years more.
Between 1902 and 1921, Irish national independence from Britain was finally won by the Sinn Fein movement, which was built on the rejection of British Free Trade, and the embrace of the ideas of the “American System” economists Friedrich List, Matthew Carey and Henry Carey.