Feb 18, 2006

Potato Blight and Colonial Might: Nature and Empire In Ireland's Great Starvation

Left: Sketch of “Bridget O’Donnel and Her Children” in Illustrated London News, December 22, 1849

(Toledo, OH) The “Great Starvation” is a term that refers nominally to the effects of a particular fungus, Phytophthora infestans, upon the chief crop for domestic consumption in nineteenth-century Ireland: potatoes. However, the actions (or, in many cases, non-actions) of the colonialist English government created conditions that turned a food shortage into a campaign of tacit genocide.

The disease first manifested itself in the areas of Wexford and Waterford in August 1845; however, the fungus had made its way from the Americas, and had existed for centuries before the worldwide outbreak of the 1840s. The fungus likely originated in the Andean region of South America.

While Ireland was not alone in experiencing the blight, its cool, wet climate provided an ideal breeding ground for the fungus. In addition, certain climactic conditions existed in Ireland during the early years of the blight that increased the virulence of the disease.

A significant portion of the 1845 harvest was lost to the blight; harsh weather conditions in the winter of 1845-46 added additional privations to a population already weakened by reduced availability of food. By the time of the 1846 harvest, the blight had spread throughout the land, and the potato crops were a complete failure.

The harvests in the years 1847-49 continued to be stricken with the blight, and what began as a shortage of food in 1845 grew into an unprecedented socio-ecological catastrophe. By the end of the decade, between one and two million people had died, and similar numbers of Irishmen had immigrated to foreign lands; America, Scotland, England, and Australia were their principal destinations.

While starvation directly claimed many lives during this period, many more Irish died from diseases that ravaged the weakened immune systems of the malnourished population. A study by Whelan gave a sobering sense of the effects of disease:
In a sample of 4,000 dead from West Cork in 1847 that 44% died of fever, 34% of starvation, and 22% from dysentery…scurvy, due to vitamin C deficiency, contributed to mortality rates, while vitamin A deficiency contributed to eye problems including blindness, as well as higher mortality rates…

Factors Predisposing Ireland toward Devastation

The potato, which was introduced from the New World to Europe during the seventeenth century, provided an inexpensive food source that could produce large yields on small plots of land. This made it an ideal food for the poor of Europe, and landlords were quick to encourage its production in Ireland. Metress notes that “the potato was one of the few major crops not subject to tithe;” this economic consideration surely did not go unnoticed by the poor of Ireland, and was a factor in determining the types of crops to be planted.

By the time of the blight, the potato had become the food staple for the vast majority of the Irish population. This dependency upon a single crop contributed to the catastrophe that occurred during the Great Starvation.

Another factor that increased local dependency on the potato was the ever-increasing export of Irish produce; better-quality farmland was being used to support income-generating exports such as grain, flax, and livestock. The leftover lands thus became those that were dedicated to feeding the native population of Ireland. Landlordism promoted the potato, as a dietary staple, and Irish peasants, locked into a colonial system that denied them control of their native soil, were forced to adopt the tuber as a means of basic survival.

As a colonial power, England derived many benefits from its subjugation of the island of the Irish. In addition to the natural resources being siphoned off, Ireland provided both cash (in the form of rents) and a market for manufactured English products. This arrangement was cemented by the presence of England’s military upon the island; it is worth noting that the British stationed more troops in Ireland in 1798 for a small uprising than they sent to face the mighty armies of Napoleon Bonaparte at the Battle of Waterloo.

This wealth-sapping nature of British colonialism left the average Irishman at a level of meager subsistence; seven of ten Irish families lived with little or no surplus money at the time of the famine. Such a level of poverty would certainly pose a difficult hurdle in a time of great need, and the potato blight caused just such hardship.

In addition to these factors, it is important to regard the political status of the Irish at the time of the Starvation. The Irish were an oppressed people with few rights and only a token voice in the British government; as such, given this second-class status, it is not surprising that that the British government did little to alleviate the plight of the starving natives when hunger struck.
Left: Sample potato with infestation of blight

British Racism and the Great Starvation

An element of racism by the English towards the Irish cannot be discounted as a contributing factor in the years of privation. By incorporating an attitude of racial inferiority towards the Irish, it has been suggested that the British could more easily excuse their obligations as the titular government. Dr. James Kay, a prominent nineteenth-century British physician and politician, exemplified this view in an 1849 pamphlet rife with British bigotry:
…the race that lives in these ruinous cottages, behind broken windows, mended with oilskin, sprung doors, and rotten door-posts…in measureless filth and stench…must really have reached the lowest stage of humanity.

Racist beliefs about the inferiority of the Irish pervaded all levels of society; to dismiss British racism as a function of a small minority of extremists is to ignore the voluminous extant material. For example, in an 1865 issue of the Anthropological Review (a prestigious London-based academic journal), an abstract entitled “Physical Characteristics of the Celts” was published. This “scientific” treatise listed the following characteristics as typical of the average Irishman:

• Bulging lower face, most extreme in upper jaw.
• Retreating chin and retreating forehead
• Large mouth, thick lips
• Short, upturned pig-like nose
• Mentally deficient

To the victims of the Great Starvation, however, it is important to recognize that British racism extended throughout the government; this pervasive attitude certainly affected British policies towards the starving Irish population. Sir Charles Trevelyan, Assistant Secretary of the Treasury, encapsulated the sentiment of British elite in this way:
The greatest evil we have to face is not the physical evil of the famine but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse, and turbulent character of the Irish people.

One effect of racist beliefs towards the Irish was the drawing of conclusions that the Irish must somehow have been responsible for their own misery. Some used religion to illustrate this belief; Trevelyan wrote in the Edinburgh Review that the famine was a punishment by God for their allegiance to the Pope. By blaming the victims, the British general public could mentally absolve themselves from any responsibility for the suffering in Ireland.

The term “genocide” is one heavily laden with emotion; a compassionate person cannot hear this word and feel anything but horror and revulsion. As such, British defenders recoil at the use of this term, and attack those who would apply it to the British response to the Great Starvation.

While the British did not cause the potato blight, they certainly did little to alleviate the suffering of the starving millions. There was a deliberate policy of inaction that was just as lethal as the active policies of the architects of other genocidal horrors, such as Hitler, Stalin, or Pol Pot.

There was also a systematic quality to the British reaction to the hunger of the Irish. Despite the rising death tolls and growing numbers of refugees leaving for other countries, the British actually reduced their participation over time, preferring to leave charitable organizations to the task of relief. As evidence of British reluctance to act, Sir Charles Wood, Chancellor of the Exchequer, responded that he was “perfectly ready to give as near to nothing as may be.”
In the words of Robbie McVeigh:
The British Government assumed responsibility for the governance of Ireland against the wishes of the vast majority of the Irish – yet tolerated the death of 2,000,000 of its forcibly made subjects.
By its inadequate relief efforts, callous official statements, and insistence on political domination over human compassion, the British government created an enormous socio-ecological catastrophe. To minimize British responsibility for the death of millions smacks of politically motivated historical revisionism in its most odious incarnation.


Anonymous said...

Potatoes rotted. Micks die. Big whoop. England rules!

historymike said...

Wow. Brilliant.

I suppose I would hide behind "anonymous" if I were going to utter idiocy like that.

Four 2-word sentences; what an accomplishment for you!

On a serious note, please engage in more thoughtful discussion of the topics. I would rather entertain commenters with terrible spelling and grammatical errors who nevertheless demonstrate rational, civil discourse than a troll who stops by to post flame-bait.


Name withheld to protect the guilty said...

There was a comedian who pointed out that Ireland is an island nation, and therefore surrounded by water, and therefore also surrounded by FISH!--yet they still starved. Talk about putting all your eggs in one basket.

The quote from Whelan about vit C seemed out of place, and made me wonder...it turns out one potato with skin has almost half the daily requirement. Didn't realize how nutritious spuds actually are!

historymike said...

Yes, I've heard that comment - I think it was Dennis Leary.

Spuds are indeed quite nutritious, and a person can live on them fairly well with the addition of a protein source (meat, beans, nuts) and a few vegetables abd fruits.

Stephanie said...

Did this book mention the death ships? Some landlords offered to send their people to America, except they sent them in rotten ships that couldn't make the voyage. That seems like an active way to encourage the genocide to me.

As for fish, I suspect it was much like the grain. They could grow it, but they couldn't keep it.

liberal_dem said...

An element of racism by the English towards the Irish cannot be discounted as a contributing factor in the years of privation.

Two comments about this statement. First, 'racism' seems to be a poor choice of words as both the British and Irish share a common race.

More importantly, the Brits have shown throughout their history that they are, as a nation, some of the most aggressive and ruthless people on the planet. Their history is rittled with conquering, occupation, and pre-emptive strikes all over this globe.

The mess that they left in Palestine and Iraq/Iran when they stopped occupying these areas created the chaos that we Americans have mopped up with both our blood and our billions of dollars of tax-payers' money.

They are the modern 'barbarians' of the world and we Americans are following along quite nicely in their sorry footsteps.

Erie Island said...

Also, HM, there is documentation that the Irish were "brought into" Louisianna, after being told that they were really going to New York. It is also reported that many southern plantation owners "used" the Irish to perform tasks that they wouldn't allow their slaves to perform. They considered their slaves to be worth more than the Irish.

I'll find the references for the above and post them.

Anonymous said...

Good article Mike. You are right on!

Nicole Creech Cassidy