The Economist and the Irish Famine

by Henry on December 13, 2012

The Economist has a review of two books on the Famine in the most recent issue.

Both authors describe the folly and cruelty of Victorian British policy towards its near-forsaken neighbour in detail. The British government, led by Sir Charles Trevelyan, assistant secretary to the Treasury (dubbed the “Victorian Cromwell”), appeared far more concerned with modernising Ireland’s economy and reforming its people’s “aboriginal” nature than with saving lives. Ireland became the unfortunate test case for a new Victorian zeal for free market principles, self-help, and ideas about nation-building.

Ireland still functioned as a basic barter economy—few hands exchanged money and the peasant population relied on their potato crops, which had failed. But rather than provide aid and establish long-term goals for recovery, Trevelyan and his cohorts saw a chance to introduce radical free-market reforms. As Mr Kelly notes, Trevelyan sent his subordinates to Ireland equipped with Adam Smith’s writings, like missionaries sent to barbarian lands armed with bibles. One absurd project to introduce a money economy was part of the public works scheme.
… Trevelyan and other architects of the famine response had a direct hand in filling the newspapers with the “oft-repeated theme that the famine was the result of a flaw in the Irish character.” And Punch, a satirical magazine, regularly portrayed “‘Paddy’ as a simian in a tailcoat and a derby, engaged in plotting murder, battening on the labour of the English workingman, and generally living a life of indolent treason,” explains Mr Coogan. The result of such dehumanising propaganda was to make unreasonable policy seem more reasonable and just.

It’s genuinely good to see The Economist publishing a piece directly acknowledging how radical free market dogmatism led the British government to respond so badly to the starvation of a million of its own subjects. It would have been better if the magazine had said something about its own contemporary role in public debate over the Famine, where it stood side-by-side with Punch, pushing back against the idea of helping the Irish in Black 47. My old economics professor, Cormac Ó Gráda, talks about how the Economist strongly supported the Whigs and Radicals who emphasized the evils of public charity and the inevitability of the outcome in his The Great Irish Famine, suggesting that the Economist’s Thomas Wilson “countenanced large-scale mortality with equanimity.” Ruth Dudley Edwards devotes a chapter to the Famine in her official history of the Economist – she puts the best face that she can on the Economist’s editorializing, but admits sotto-voce that the Economist became ever more dire as the Famine wore on. I don’t know whether the writer of the new review didn’t know about this history, or didn’t think it appropriate or useful to mention it, but it surely seems relevant to me.

I got into a discussion about this yesterday on Twitter with Robert Cottrell, a former writer for the Economist who now runs the excellent The Browser website. He did some searching in the Economist’s historical archives, and found a few relevant extracts which he very decently made available via yfrog. I think they come from the editorial of Jan 30, 1847. The key quote:

… the people, rapidly increasing, have been reduced, by acts for which they are chiefly to blame, to a sole reliance on the precarious crop of potatoes. It would be unjust to Ireland – it would be a neglect of a great duty which is imposed on us at this time – if we did not point to this calamity, assuming as it does this aggravated form, as in a great measure the natural result of that crime which has precluded the people from other available resources. That the innocent suffer with the guilty, is a melancholy truth, but it is one of the great conditions on which all society exists. Every breach of the laws of morality and social order brings its own punishment and inconvenience. Where there is not perfect security, there cannot be prosperity. This is the first law of civilization.

There’s more about the imprudence and immorality of government transfers (which would gladden the heart of Paul Ryan, if not, as the author of one of the two books notes, his great-great grandfather ). Still, the extract above is probably enough to convey the gist. Whether the apeman caricatures of Punch were more offensive than the Pecksniffian platitudes of the Economist is a matter of taste (certainly, the former were cruder). What’s undeniable is that they both helped conduct towards the same end.

{ 85 comments }

1

PGD 12.13.12 at 4:21 pm

I totally want the same PR department Imperial Britain hired to whitewash their record. When a famine happens in a Communist country it’s all, COMMUNISM = NAZISM MASS MURDER TENS OF MILLIONS SLAUGHTERED, but a whole lot of famines that happened under British rule are mysteriously lost to memory. Instead we get the occasional wistful editorial-page musing about how colonialism wasn’t so bad after all.

2

Anderson 12.13.12 at 4:32 pm

The horrid aspect of British colonialism is that they treated Africans and Indians as if they were Irish.

3

Latro 12.13.12 at 4:43 pm

Why it all sounds a bit familiar, and kind of recent memory… except famine and potato-blight but there is something in this …

4

Sandwichman 12.13.12 at 4:45 pm

“It would be unjust to Ireland Greece – it would be a neglect of a great duty which is imposed on us at this time – if…”

Hey, ECB, come and get some splendid boilerplate!

5

Nick 12.13.12 at 4:54 pm

From the review, it doesn’t look like the policies to combat the famine could fairly be considered laissez-faire and not recognisably Smithian either. Price controls on food prices and “modernising” public works don’t look terribly typical of either. If it was genuinely justified using an interpretation of Smith’s work, its very unlikely to be one he would approve of.

6

Nine 12.13.12 at 5:35 pm

“From the review, it doesn’t look like the policies to combat the famine could fairly be considered laissez-faire and not recognisably Smithian either.”

Ah yes, real “laissez-faire” has never yet been tried … don’t people ever get tired of this ?

7

Freshly Squeezed Cynic 12.13.12 at 5:42 pm

If it was genuinely justified using an interpretation of Smith’s work, its very unlikely to be one he would approve of.

Smith actually said that public infrastructure works, of the type that even the Whig government endorsed, were necessary to facilitate commerce, amongst other things.

The problem with the Whig governments’ use of public works projects in Ireland is that they were not Smithian because they did not, in fact, have any commercial use; Trevelyan and the like were so afraid of crowding out market activity that they funded roads to nowhere and shot down a Tory suggestion to build a railway, if I remember rightly. (As PM when the crisis started, Peel had, in fact, shipped in Indian corn and set up public works projects; these were reduced initially by the Whig government, then increased when it became clear that the Irish situation was dire)

The other main problem was that by the time these public works projects were being used, the Irish were weak, sick, and starving, and so making them do hard labour to get their relief was probably the worst thing you could do at that point.

8

Freshly Squeezed Cynic 12.13.12 at 5:45 pm

Damn, messed up that link. Can someone fix it, please?

9

Freshly Squeezed Cynic 12.13.12 at 5:56 pm

Cheers, although now my link to Smith’s own words is gone. Here’s the relevant section. Part III is all about public works to facilitate commerce.

10

Keith 12.13.12 at 6:10 pm

“the Irish were weak, sick, and starving, and so making them do hard labour to get their relief was probably the worst thing you could do at that point.”

Sounds like Stalin and Hitler could have learned a thing or two from Mr. Trevelyan. Indeed may be they did. First exploit the natives anti revolutionaries etc until they die; while blaming them with racist propaganda for their temerity in dying from your policies.

We have the same today in modified form in England with the Government demonising the disabled, sick, and unemployed with planted stories in the Daily Mail to justify cuts in tax for the striving millionaires. But I suppose at least Bengal will not have to endure accidental famines at the hand of absent minded British civil servants.

11

Main Street Muse 12.13.12 at 6:12 pm

“Ireland became the unfortunate test case for a new Victorian zeal for free market principles, self-help, and ideas about nation-building.”

That “Victorian Cromwell” – Trevelyan – learned from a long history of “nation-building” tactics that destroyed hosts of other nations (see Puritans, North America; Cromwell, Oliver, Fatal Shore, Australia, etc.)

The “Victorian zeal for free market principles” was simply a new and ugly wardrobe for old and devastating “nation-building” ideas of the British. That tiny island did its best to transform the globe… and they did.

12

Nick 12.13.12 at 6:16 pm

“Ah yes, real “laissez-faire” has never yet been tried … don’t people ever get tired of this ?”
Its really not even close in this case. Public works designed to increase overall welfare is one thing, but just for the sake of employment – not laissez-faire at all.

13

Freshly Squeezed Cynic 12.13.12 at 6:28 pm

Except the entire point was to not interfere in the market (hence the stupidly designed public works projects of little value) and only was a tepid response to a mass humanitarian disaster. The idea that the Whigs just casually went “oh, well, we’ll employ all the Irish now” ignores the ideological tension that was happening, and that was why the response was so inadequate, and the compromises made in the public works program (if it can even be called that), even in an emergency where people were dying en masse.

This is the “Hoover was really a socialist” issue again.

14

Bruce Wilder 12.13.12 at 6:38 pm

“British policy towards its near-forsaken neighbour

A curious turn of phrase, since Ireland, at the time, was not a British neighbor, but an integral part of the United Kingdom, and its ruling Protestant Ascendancy, crowding the native Irish peasant off most of the arable land, constituent parts of the British upper classes, well represented in both Houses of Parliament and among the officers of the British Army.

Another interesting turn of phrase, later in the article:
“. . . the free market economics that Britain tried, and failed, to apply to Ireland’s problem . . .” Wait, they tried to apply free market economics, but failed to apply free market economics — that’s the Economist’s story? I guess so, because this ambiguous sentence follows shortly thereafter:

“The question remains as to whether misguided ideology of a previous era can be found culpable of a greater evil.”

Will we now have a theory of a greater evil to excuse market liberalism, to go with the theory of lesser evil to justify Obama?

15

Nick 12.13.12 at 6:55 pm

Hoover wasn’t a socialist. It so happens he engaged in quite a lot of public works before Roosevelt, which were not effective because they didn’t increase aggregate demand, as he (and the Federal Reserve) had other policies that were strangling demand at the same time.

The Irish famine was due to laws and policies that benefitted British landowners. For the most part they were protectionist, and they were only “laissez-faire” in so far as they also avoided doing things that might harm landed interests as well supporting landed interests through positive interventions (like tariffs). And as free trade eroded that landed interest in the latter half of the 19th century, famine became less extreme and less common.

16

Freshly Squeezed Cynic 12.13.12 at 7:06 pm

The Irish famine was due to laws and policies that benefitted British landowners.

Um, no, not really. The land system in Ireland benefited no-one and the British despised it; the tenant farmers were locked in to a system of property rights which gave them no compensation and no security, and many of the landowners were deeply in debt due to the poverty of their tenants. It was a dysfunctional system of property rights that needed restructuring.

And I think you’ll find what solved the land issue was not some nebulous idea of “free trade”, but a) the change in landholding patterns after the famine due to emigration (and, y’know, death), and b) the land reform policies (the famous “three F’s”; fixity of tenure, free sale, and fair rent) agitated for and won by the Land League in the 1880s. Protectionism and tariffs are really second-order problems regarding the famine and land question in Ireland.

I suppose you can claim that the restructuring of landholdings due to the demographic crisis was caused by a relatively “lassez-faire” approach to dealing with the famine, but that’s the opposite of what you’re arguing, and I don’t think anyone really likes a policy with the cost of a million lives.

17

Henry 12.13.12 at 7:16 pm

“British policy towards its near-forsaken neighbour”

I noticed myself, but think on reflection that it’s justifiable. The country’s official name was the Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, suggesting that there was a specific difference between “British” and “Irish.” Obviously, the actual relationship was stronger than being neighbours, but nor was it a possession – I’m not sure exactly what words could have been used to convey the relationship at short hand in a manner that was both accurate and not horribly clumsily.

18

Freshly Squeezed Cynic 12.13.12 at 7:24 pm

Also Nick’s explanation makes no sense when you consider that, as has been noted, during the latter half of the 19th century there were a number of quite awful famines in India which killed millions, well after the repeal of the Corn Laws and during the period Nick is claiming that the “landed interest” had been eroded by free trade.

In fact, the only major famine in India which there was little excess mortality is the Bihar famine of 1873-74, where there was an extensive famine relief effort. Indeed, the Lieutenant Governor was criticised for excessive spending, despite this success; the relief efforts of the Great Famine of 1876-8 were paltry in comparison.

19

phosphorious 12.13.12 at 7:29 pm

“That the innocent suffer with the guilty, is a melancholy truth, but it is one of the great conditions on which all society exists.”

That truth is only “melancholy” when you contemplate it on a full stomach. Otherwise it’s fucking horrific.

20

Freshly Squeezed Cynic 12.13.12 at 7:30 pm

(and, of course, there’s a reason why it’s called the “Great Famine”)

21

Steven Tran-Creque 12.13.12 at 7:51 pm

It’s weirdly comforting to know the Economist has pretty much been the same since 1843.

I do reach for my revolver whenever anyone mentions a “barter economy”, though.

22

DFC 12.13.12 at 8:02 pm

This way of thinking has deeply roots in the predestination faith, as the malthusianism and social darwinism itself also have (and may be the whole concept of darwinism). All of this are also in the roots of the Ricardo’s “Iron Laws” and in general in their “dismal science”

Father Malhus provided some good arguments to sustain the poor’s laws, and others ways to avoid the “exponential growth” of population, because the “inherent depraved nature” of poors made charity an error that only delay the “natural and inevitable” (darwinistic) adjustment in their numbers

If the poors are, at the same time, catholics, well….

23

Barry 12.13.12 at 8:39 pm

Steven Tran-Creque 12.13.12 at 7:51 pm

” I do reach for my revolver whenever anyone mentions a “barter economy”, though.”

As was noted by (Graber?) way earlier in this blog, what they might have meant really was ‘stuff we can’t easily tax, and workers not working on our plantations, under a ‘free market’ set by our thugs’.

24

Steven Tran-Creque 12.13.12 at 8:58 pm

No, I’m pretty sure you’re right about that. (Or Graeber’s right? If he commented on Ireland specifically somewhere, I missed it.) But that’s no excuse for uncritically throwing terrible terms like “barter economy” around in current scholarship.

25

Josh G. 12.13.12 at 9:52 pm

As I’ve said before, if Stalin and Mao were guilty of genocide, so too were the British administrators in Ireland and India during the 19th century.

Capitalism has just as murderous a record as communism does. (And cut it out with the No True Scotsman fallacies – I won’t claim that Stalinist Russia wasn’t really communist if you don’t claim that Victorian England wasn’t really laissez-faire.)

26

Main Street Muse 12.13.12 at 9:59 pm

I myself wonder how a nation dependent primarily on one crop for its food supply (so dependent on this crop that its absence creates a terrible famine) indicates a “market” of any kind, let alone a “free market.”

27

Anderson 12.13.12 at 11:26 pm

if Stalin and Mao were guilty of genocide, so too were the British administrators in Ireland and India during the 19th century.

Right, because the Brits went through Ireland seizing whatever food anyone had on hand?

The British did not actually *cause* the potato blight.

28

Bruce Wilder 12.14.12 at 12:12 am

Right, because the Brits went through Ireland seizing whatever food anyone had on hand?

Yes.

The British did not actually *cause* the potato blight.

The British are not oomycetes, that’s true. Did someone argue that they are?

The British government was responsible for the famine.

29

Joshua W. Burton 12.14.12 at 2:03 am

PGD @1:

I totally want the same PR department Imperial Britain hired to whitewash their record.

One moderately endearing trait of Israelis (no, we’re not going there — this is peripheral but relevant) is that they have never fallen for this even a little bit; they have always despised the British much more heartily than they do the Germans. After all, the Germans were only trying to kill them all (a simple difference of opinion, as it were) while the British acted as if they expected to be thanked.

30

JanieM 12.14.12 at 2:18 am

Anderson: Right, because the Brits went through Ireland seizing whatever food anyone had on hand?

Bruce Wilder, responding: Yes.

From that handiest of sources, just as a starting point:

Records show Irish lands exported food even during the worst years of the Famine. When Ireland had experienced a famine in 1782–1783, ports were closed to keep Irish-grown food in Ireland to feed the Irish. Local food prices promptly dropped. Merchants lobbied against the export ban, but government in the 1780s overrode their protests. No such export ban happened in the 1840s.[64]

Cecil Woodham-Smith, an authority on the Irish Famine, wrote in The Great Hunger: Ireland 1845-1849 that no issue has provoked so much anger and embittered relations between England and Ireland as “the indisputable fact that huge quantities of food were exported from Ireland to England throughout the period when the people of Ireland were dying of starvation.” Ireland remained a net exporter of food throughout most of the five-year famine.[fn 4]

Christine Kinealy writes that Irish exports of calves, livestock (except pigs), bacon and ham actually increased during the famine. The food was shipped under guard from the most famine-stricken parts of Ireland. However, the poor had no money to buy food and the government then did not ban exports.[66]

31

Freshly Squeezed Cynic 12.14.12 at 2:41 am

To be absolutely scrupulous, though, it’s unlikely the people who were unable to even afford grain, and were the worst hit by the Famine, would be able to afford meat, although obviously export crops don’t really help poor starving farmers at these times.

I mean, I like Kinealy’s work, but it’s not nearly as simple as the John Mitchel idea that if the British had closed the ports, the Irish would have been able to stave off famine. It’s the whole catalogue of failures in policy decisions by the British government that make the Famine so tragic. And an “Irish” response, either through Home Rule or separatism would have been just as inadequate, perhaps more so.

32

Joshua W. Burton 12.14.12 at 2:52 am

Records show Irish lands exported food even during the worst years of the Famine.

See also Shaw, in Man and Superman.

MALONE. He will get over it all right enough. Men thrive better on disappointments in love than on disappointments in money. I daresay you think that sordid; but I know what I’m talking about. Me father died of starvation in Ireland in the black 47. Maybe youve heard of it.
VIOLET. The Famine?
MALONE [with smouldering passion] No, the starvation. When a country is full o food, and exporting it, there can be no famine. Me father was starved dead; and I was starved out to America in me mother’s arms. English rule drove me and mine out of Ireland. Well, you can keep Ireland. Me and me like are coming back to buy England; and we’ll buy the best of it. I want no middle class properties and no middle class women for Hector.

33

Anderson 12.14.12 at 3:43 am

Well, I have more to learn about the Famine, then. Many thanks.

34

Chris Bertram 12.14.12 at 8:10 am

The country’s official name was the Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, suggesting that there was a specific difference between “British” and “Irish.”

There may have been, but I think the naming thing principally might just reflect the fact that the two islands (as geographical entities) have those names. The cut between member and other seems to run within the Irish (and maybe within other constituent nationalities of the UK at the time) rather than between British and Irish. So lots of posh Protestant people (Burke for example, though that’s complicated) could be insiders.

35

Robert Cottrell 12.14.12 at 8:36 am

Just to confirm that the extracts cited by Henry do indeed come from The Economist of January 30th 1847.

36

Tim Worstall 12.14.12 at 9:08 am

“And I think you’ll find what solved the land issue was not some nebulous idea of “free trade”, “

Seeing as various of you know a lot more about this than I do, a question.

I’ve heard it said that the real, ultimate, cause here was the English insistence that the Catholics follow Catholic inheritance laws. As in (not that these are specifically Catholic but….) all children get a claim to an equal part of the real property of the estate. Estate might not be quite the right word for a 2 acre smallholding but….

Protestants however could follow the English rules of primogeniture.

It doesn’t take too many generations of such different inheritance laws for the Catholics to all be on half acre plots and the Protestant estates to remain at however many tens or hundreds of acres they started out as.

The aim of this policy being, in a time when ownership of land equalled power, to reduce the power of the Catholics over time. Or to convince certain of the grander families to convert.

I really don’t know whether there’s any truth to this idea. I can see that it makes sense (not that it makes sense as in being a good thing to do but it explains what actually happened). And around me here in rural Portugal I can see certain similar effects on land holdings. More importantly here it’s on buildings: you can and do end up with 10 or 15 grand and great grandchildren all having a claim on a house of the recently departed. And that makes it extremely difficult to reach agreement for it to be sold on to some other person who might actually use it (to the point that parts of Lisbon really do suffer from this problem, buildings falling over as the family squabbles).

As I say, I’ve no idea though whether it’s actually true. Even, did the English really impose such different inheritance laws?

Anyone actually know?

(Re, “The English”, “Catholics” etc. Yes, I’m English myself, part of that Irish Catholic diaspora although in my family case leaving Ulster in 1921)

37

roger gathman 12.14.12 at 9:39 am

18 – nice catch! Davis’s Victorian Holocaust hasn’t been mentioned here, but it should be. There were definitely terror famines, if we identify terror famines as using famine conditions to force socio-economic change. Stalin was pursuing the policy – suggested by Trotsky, in fact, although neither the Stalinists nor the Troskyists like to admit this – or collectivizing the farms and ending the NEP, which the Soviets couldn’t align with an urban-oriented industrialization policy. Famine was a way of speeding up the process. Similarly, in Ireland and India, the British were definitely trying to break the patterns of exchange and work in the village through, for instance, demanding taxes in money rather than in kind, and through ‘disciplining’ the population through labor camps.
Here’s the long quote about conditions in the 1876 famine in India and the British response.
In a lightning tour of the famished countryside of the eastern Deccan, Temple
purged a half million people f r om relief work and forced Madras to follow Bombay’s
precedent of requiring starving applicants to travel to dormitory camps outside
their locality for coolie labor on railroad and canal projects. The deliberately
cruel “distance test” refused work to able-bodied adults and older children within
a ten-mile radius of their homes. Famished laborers were also prohibited from
seeking relief until “it was certified that they had become indigent, destitute and
capable of only a modicum of labour.”50 Digby later observed that Temple “went
to Madras with the preconceived idea that the calamity had been exaggerated,
that it was being inadequately met, and that, therefore, facts were, unconsciously
may be, squared with this theory…. He expected to see a certain state of things,
and he saw that – that and none other.”51
In a self-proclaimed Benthamite “experiment” that eerily prefigured later Nazi
research on minimal human subsistence diets in concentration camps, Temple
cut rations for male coolies, w h om he compared to “a school full of refractory
children,” down to one pound of rice per diem despite medical testimony that
the ryots – once “strapping fine fellows” – were now “little more-than animated
skeletons … utterly unfit for any work.” (Noting that felons traditionally received
two pounds of rice per day, one district official suggested that “it would be better
to shoot down the wretches than to prolong their misery in the way proposed. “)’z
The same reduced ration had been introduced previously by General Kennedy
(another acerbic personality, “not personally popular even in his own department”)
53 in the Bombay Deccan, and Madras’s sanitary commissioner, Dr. Cornish,
was “of the opinion that ‘experiment’ in that case [meant] only slow, but
certain starvation.” Apart from its sheer deficiency in energy, Cornish pointed
out that the exclusive rice ration without the daily addition of protein-rich pulses
(rto/), fish o r meat would lead to rapid degeneration.” Indeed, as the lieutenant governor was undoubtedly aware, the Indian government had previously fixed
the minimum shipboard diet of emigrant coolies “living in a state of quietude”
at twenty ounces of rice plus one pound of dal, mutton, vegetables and condiment.
55 In the event, the “Temple wage,” as it became known, provided less sustenance
for hard labor than the diet inside the infamous Buchenwald concentration
camp and less than half of the modern caloric standard recommended for
adult males by the Indian government.”

However, history has obligingly whitewashed most of this business. The B ritish became comfortable with the idea that they acquired the Empire through “absent mindedness”, and I suppose that absent mindedness extends to mass killing.

38

ajay 12.14.12 at 10:44 am

I totally want the same PR department Imperial Britain hired to whitewash their record. When a famine happens in a Communist country it’s all, COMMUNISM = NAZISM MASS MURDER TENS OF MILLIONS SLAUGHTERED, but a whole lot of famines that happened under British rule are mysteriously lost to memory.

Er, I think quite a lot of people still remember the Potato Famine. The Irish one, that is. You won’t find many people remembering the Highland Famine that cut the region’s population in half. Lot of empty villages up there in the straths; lot of Destitution Roads.

39

rf 12.14.12 at 11:05 am

“The Irish one, that is. You won’t find many people remembering the Highland Famine that cut the region’s population in half. Lot of empty villages up there in the straths; lot of Destitution Roads.”

It seems from this there’ a a difference in scale though, which makes the emphasis on the Irish famine legitimate?

http://www.helsinki.fi/iehc2006/papers3/Vanhaute.pdf

40

Peter T 12.14.12 at 11:33 am

Re Tim @35 – yes, the punitive laws insisted that Irish divide their inheritances equally. Some 18th century ones also forbade Irish to own a horse worth more than a certain amount, to own arms and so on. And the Test Acts prevented Catholics from entering the professions, while a policy systematic of dispossession aimed at forcing Catholic gentry into exile (where they formed regiments in the Austrian, French and Spanish armies, and made significant contributions in those states and also in Russia). The Irish could then be despised as poor and ignorant.

41

Grant 12.14.12 at 12:30 pm

Are there any examples of effective (and positive) government response to a famine before the 20th C.?

42

Jim Buck 12.14.12 at 12:44 pm

It seems there’s a movie in production about the Ottoman Empire’s notorious attempt to interfere in the melancholy necessities of a starving Ireland:
http://irishhungercomm.wordpress.com/2012/04/26/turkish-producers-work-on-irish-great-famine/

43

rootless (@root_e) 12.14.12 at 12:57 pm

@41

see the story of Joseph in the Bible.

44

Scott Martens 12.14.12 at 1:36 pm

Grant@41: A quick look at secondary sources suggest effective state intervention in the 1782 Irish famine, the 1879 Irish famine, and the 1873 Bihar famine. But it looks like part of the problem is the contra-factual nature of your request: Before the 20th century, when the state intervened successfully, no one called it a famine.

45

ajay 12.14.12 at 1:42 pm

39: oh, no doubt. Not as many people in the Highlands to start with, and emigration was easier. But using the Irish potato famine as an example of a famine that was successfully covered up by Teh Evil Empire is… odd.

42: any that aren’t made up, I think he probably meant. And there are lots in the document that rf links to.

46

mollymooly 12.14.12 at 3:27 pm

The Economist has a review of two books on the Famine in the most recent issue. … It’s genuinely good to see The Economist publishing a piece directly acknowledging how radical free market dogmatism led the British government to respond so badly to the starvation of a million of its own subjects.

Might I point out that the review in question is actually a blog post, not an article included in the print edition.

47

rea 12.14.12 at 3:52 pm

Are there any examples of effective (and positive) government response to a famine before the 20th C.?

The key to being a Roman emperor was to keep the city’s grain supply functional. Panem (et circenses).

48

Kaveh 12.14.12 at 4:04 pm

Grant @41, Yes, and probably a huge number that you haven’t heard about because famines were prevented. For example Chinese dynasties maintained a vast infrastructure of government storehouses which were used for this purpose, and this is reported by travelers from C & W Asia. Amartya Sen in his book on famines mentions that the Mughals had something similar.

49

Henry Farrell 12.14.12 at 4:12 pm

Mollymooly thanks for the correction. On the different question of the relationship between land ownership and the Famine, it’s a little more complicated. Barbara Solow (yes, married to, but excellent and undervalued economist in her own right) has an interesting book arguing that the land tenure system and underinvestment were certainly a big part of the problem, but doesn’t only attribute this to the previous penal laws afaicr.

50

Harold 12.14.12 at 4:30 pm

[Although known for his Presbyterian work ethic, Secretary of Agriculture and Vice President Henry A. Wallace, whose improvements in corn breeding made him a millionaire while still young, was nevertheless derided as "the dreamer."]

In the spring of 1944, Wallace had been pondering the “dreamer” issue when the snippet of a poem came to mind.

I am tired of planning and toiling
In the crowded hives of men,
Heart-weary of building and spoiling
And spoiling and building again.
And I long for the dear old river,
Where I dreamed my youth away,
For the dreamer lives forever,
But the toiler dies in a day.

The poem was called “The Dreamer,” Wallace had heard it many years before from an old friend, Des Moines lawyer Addison Parker. In a spare moment Wallace wrote a note to Parker asking whether he still remembered it. Parker sent back a copy of the poem, written by John Boyle O’Reilly, along with a letter recalling how he’d heard it. As a young man Parker had gone to hear Williams Jennnings Bryan when the famed populist spoke in Des Moines in 1909. Bryan observed that he had been called a dreamer and quoted the poem in response. Parker continued,

Bryan then went on to say something to the charge of being a dreamer like this: “However I am not willing to rest my defense on what might be termed poetic license, so I have turned to the Book which I always turn to confound my enemies and confuse my critics—the Bible, and I find there was more than three thousand years ago a man by the name of Joseph of whom his brothers said, ‘Let us kill him for he is a dreamer of dreams.’ But fortunately for them and their people they did not succeed in their murderous designs and seven years later they went down to Egypt and brought corn of the Dreamer to feed their starving people!”

“Don’t be disturbed if you are a voice crying in the wilderness,” Parker told Wallace, “Because you may recall that the first voice that cried in the wilderness is still echoing through the ages and until it is heeded there will be no peace, I fear, in this troubled world.”

If Wallace was disturbed, he gave no sign of it. He dreamed on.
—John C. Culver and John Hyde, American Dreamer, a Life of Henry A. Wallace (New York: WW Norton, 2001), pp. 329–330.

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js. 12.14.12 at 4:44 pm

Seconding Kaveh @47, and noting also that Davis’ Late Victorian Holocausts has a lot of discussion relevant to Grant’s question—in fact he talks about how independent principalities in the Subcontinent (e.g. Hyderabad, I think) reacted rather differently and in a far superior manner to the very same drought conditions that were causing widespread famines in parts of the Deccan under British rule. Pretty illuminating stuff.

52

Freshly Squeezed Cynic 12.14.12 at 5:21 pm

Tim:

As far as I can tell, the provisions of the Popery Act of 1703 which forced Catholics to inherit by gavelkind were more or less repealed by 1778 (and the penal laws were never uniformly applied). Certainly, by the time of the famine there were plenty, although not a majority, of Catholic landowners.

Plus, the issues with the land tenure system I’m talking about are much further down the line, at the tenant and sub-tenant level, where there was little incentive for the tenant to improve their land due to short-term leases and lack of compensation for improvements. There was also a considerable concentration, rather than fragmentation, of land holdings at the very top: around 800 families owned 50% of the land. I suppose you could make the argument that the penal laws facilitated this concentration, which after all was mostly in the hands of the Protestant Ascendancy.

The point I’m making, though, is that all of this, which did contribute significantly to how bad the Famine was (there was little to no Famine in Ulster, where due to the policy of plantation tenant farmers had more rights), has little to do with the repeal of the Corn Laws, and what changed it involved collective political action.

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Bloix 12.14.12 at 5:22 pm

The Famine Year

Weary men, what reap ye? – Golden corn for the stranger.
What sow ye? – Human corpses that wait for the avenger.
Fainting forms, hunger-stricken, what see you in the offing?
Stately ships to bear our food away, amid the stranger’s scoffing.
There’s a proud array of soldiers – what do they round your door?
They guard our masters’ granaries from the thin hands of the poor.
Pale mothers, wherefore weeping – Would to God that we were dead;
Our children swoon before us, and we cannot give them bread.

We are wretches, famished, scorned, human tools to build your pride,
But God will yet take vengeance for the souls for whom Christ died.
Now is your hour of pleasure – bask ye in the world’s caress;
But our whitening bones against ye will rise as witnesses,
From the cabins and the ditches, in their charred, uncoffin’d masses,
For the Angel of the Trumpet will know them as he passes.
A ghastly, spectral army, before the great God we’ll stand,
And arraign ye as our murderers, the spoilers of our land.

Jane Francesca Wilde (“Speranza”) (1847)

54

ragweed 12.14.12 at 6:38 pm

I have never understood how Adam Smiths policy prescriptions around the repeal of the corn laws could have possibly helped in the case of the Irish Famine. Even if we ignore the various imperialist policies, AS main argument around the corn laws was that grain spulators helped to insure that food prices evened out by buying where there was a surplus (and prices were low) and selling it where there were shortages (and prices were high). But that assumes, in typical classical tradition, that its all about supply and demand for one good.

In the Irish famine (and many others) the problem was that the farmers whose potatoes failed had no crop to sell, so they had no money to buy the otherwise sufficient food. The increase in exports from Ireland is a natural response by “rational” homo-economicus-type food traders – if you can get a better prices in London than you can selling to starving Irish peasants, you sell it to London (and as I understand it, this has happened in many famines).

If anything, the Irish famine is an example of why Smiths arguments around speculation are wrong.

55

marek 12.14.12 at 8:12 pm

@40

The Test Acts had surely been repealed some time before the famine, though not long enough before for there to have been time for a catholic cadre of officials to have built up. But it’s worth noting in this context that the Test Acts are rooted in a seventeenth century fear of catholicism in England: the fact that the Irish had the temerity to be catholic meant that they sustained collateral damage, rather than that they were the focus of concern in this context. Which is, of course, a nicety of little consequence to those affected by either famine or prejudice.

56

Eimear Ní Mhéalóid 12.14.12 at 9:15 pm

In fact all leasehold property continued to descend as personalty – and thus to be subdivided – right up until the passing of the Succession Act in the 196os which brought new rules into force for all property. Lands acquired under the various Land Purchase Acts (the former tenant holdings) also, by virtue of the 1891 Registration of Title Act, continued to descend as personalty.

Only freehold property passed on death to the “heir-at-law”. This would have included holdings under renewable leases for lives, somewhat popular at least up to 1829 since the holder had a vote if the holding was worth 40 shillings and in the era before O’Connell generally voted as the landlord directed. After 1829 most of these were probably converted to ordinary leases as they fell in and would have become subdivided where inherited, but there hardly was much time between then and 1845 for all that many subdivisions. (No idea what proportion of holdings they constituted.)

If I remember correctly, the repeal of the Corn Laws is generally thought to provide a motive to landlords in the post-Famine period to “clear” the land of many of the labourers and tenantry, no longer required for the work of tillage since the less labour-intensive grazing of animals for export is now more profitable. During the Famine it seems to have been considered that the Corn Laws were detrimental to the starving since they kept up the price of grain and encouraged its export from Ireland to its neighbour. The repeal in 1849 would seem to have been too late to make any difference there.

(hoping this comment doesn’t get eaten a third time)

57

Bloix 12.14.12 at 11:09 pm

The Corn Laws were enacted in 1815 to keep continental grain out of the British Isles. By cutting off England from the continent, the Napoleonic Wars had turned Ireland into a breadbasket for the rapidly growing English cities. The Corn Laws — passed primarily to aid English farmers — maintained the Irish competitive edge and encouraged Irish landlords to commit their fields to wheat for export. By the 1840’s, 75% of Irish arable land was devoted to cash crops for England.

Over the same period, the Irish population grew at a rate much faster than that of England or of Europe generally. In 1750, the population of Ireland was about 3 million. In 1840, it was about 8 million – the highest it has ever been. They were almost entirely rural poor, and because Ireland was not industrializing, there was no work for them. Being Catholics, they had few legal rights.

There was no work for these new millions. Instead, they lived in “cabins” almost outside the money economy, on scraps of waste land rented from landlords under the conacre system – annual rental without the legal rights or social expectations of tenancy. They paid rent in kind or in labor. Many of them lived far from towns and manor houses, in distant villages in the south and southwest, isolated from the organized middle class and aristocratic life of the country. They lived on potatoes and cabbages, with the occasional cup of buttermilk or bit of bacon.

Wheat is grown in large fields, requires animals and teams of manpower for seeding, plowing and harvest, is stored in covered buildings safe from water and rats, and must be ground into flour by a miller. All these things require an organized society in which the various participants, both rural and townsfolk, are linked by economic necessity. If the system of growing and distributing wheat is disrupted, many people at all levels of society suffer.

By contrast, potatoes were grown in unplowed “lazy beds,” hand tilled and harvested, left in the ground until wanted for food, and dug up and eaten without processing. A family could raise potatoes and cabbages for a generation, and trade them for the occasional tool or piece of cloth, without ever entering into any money transactions or forming any long-term economic ties with anyone. They did not deal with people outside their small communities. They were mostly illiterate, and most spoke no English. They had large families, each generation crowding onto the patches of waste land they could afford from their landlords.

When the potato blight hit their crops, these people were utterly defenseless. They had no legal rights to speak of; no rights to their lands; no money savings; no skills; no relationships with anyone in a position to help them. No one needed their labor; no one outside their communities knew them personally. The landlords were happy to see them go, as they could then improve the land for the ever more profitable wheat, cattle, and sheep.

As hundreds of thousands swarmed onto the paths and roads, looking first for work, then for food, and then for a place to lie down and die, they appeared completely alien and even frightening to the townsfolk and the landowners – different in speech, religion, customs, and physical appearance, like foreign intruders in their own country. Many hundreds of thousands more never left their villages, dying out of sight in their hovels and under their hedges.

It was a famine that didn’t matter to anyone who had the power to stop it. If anything, the deaths of two million and the emigration of a million more was a positive benefit to the English and to the Anglo-Irish who ruled the country.

58

Gene O'Grady 12.15.12 at 12:27 am

On successful responses to famines, the Roman answer isn’t so much the steady policy of the emperors that Juvenal mocked, it’s more late republican responses to famine in the city of Rome that led to the institutionalization of that policy. The great organizer and administrator Pompey had a lot to do with that.

More to the point might be whether the Romans did anything like that outside the city of Rome. I seem to recall something from graduate school days in Pliny or Dio about an effective government response to a famine in Bithynia that involved taking on the grain merchants who were stockpiling grain waiting for the price to rise while there was rampant starvation, but I couldn’t quote a source now.

Are we really talking about “Catholic” inheritance law? It seems quite different from the Spanish property law that still influences property holding in California.

And since Henry Wallace has come up, I discovered on our cross country trip summer before last that the people of Iowa have erected an appealing monument to him at one of the rest stops we hit.

59

Antoni Jaume 12.15.12 at 12:56 am

«Are we really talking about “Catholic” inheritance law? It seems quite different from the Spanish property law that still influences property holding in California.»

I don’t think so. In Catalonia the figure of the ‘hereu’ or, if there were no male heir, the ‘pubilla’, was quite current. The hereu received the main properties.

60

Rob W. 12.15.12 at 5:23 am

Don Boudreaux on the same topic reaches, predictably, the opposite conclusion.

61

Freshly Squeezed Cynic 12.15.12 at 6:43 pm

Then to worsen matters, Britain’s high-tariff “corn laws” discouraged the importation of grains that would have lessened the starvation. Indeed, one of Britain’s most famous moves toward laissez faire – the 1846 repeal of the corn laws – was partly a response to the tragedy in Ireland.

Boudreaux is aware that the Famine lasted until 1852, right? And 1847, the year after the repeal of the Corn Laws is infamously the worst year of the Famine, the “Black ’47″?

…you know, why do I even ask?

62

Bloix 12.15.12 at 7:15 pm

Freshly Squeezed – Boudreaux is literally correct that repeal of the Corn Laws was partially in response to the famine. Parliament passed the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846, and the sponsor of repeal, Sir Robert Peel, argued strenuously that repeal was necessary in order to mitigate the famine.

But immediate and full repeal could not pass, so the bill that did pass phased repeal over three years, so that wheat imports continued to be taxed until 1849. And in any event the starving Irish had no money to buy wheat or bread or any other food. To the extent repeal helped at all, it was in making relief efforts sponsored by the church and the government a little cheaper.

63

In the sky 12.17.12 at 3:43 am

On the different question of the relationship between land ownership and the Famine, it’s a little more complicated. Barbara Solow (yes, married to, but excellent and undervalued economist in her own right) has an interesting book arguing that the land tenure system and underinvestment were certainly a big part of the problem, but doesn’t only attribute this to the previous penal laws afaicr.

So too does RDC Black in Economic thought and the Irish question. Places a lot of the blame on the ease of uncompensated eviction, and the moral hazard that creates. Why work hard on the land if it makes you more likely to be evicted?

64

Katherine 12.17.12 at 10:59 am

A slight aside here, but it is truly shocking how little of the Irish potato famine is taught and known in Britain. I did my History GCSE on exactly this period in Britain – we covered enclosure, industrialisation, the Corn Laws – but narry a mention of the famine.

I’d say if non-historians know anything about it, it’s generally along the lines of “Irish potato famine, lots of Irish people dead, British government didn’t do well”. And most people don’t know anything at all.

It’s nealy always this way with Irish/British history though. Mention Cromwell and most British people will mention the Civil War, Roundheads vs Cavaliers, that sort of thing. If you bring up Ireland and the New Model Army, the vast majority won’t have a damn clue what you’re talking about. Some will think you’re talking about 80’s pop music.

There’s a shameful, wilful blindspot about the treatment of Ireland by Britain – and by Britain I really mean England. I don’t know why, although I do have some vague thoughts about distance and guilt.

65

ajay 12.17.12 at 11:31 am

64: meh, school history is just terrible generally, in every country. They managed to teach me the history of the Second World War without ever using the word “Stalingrad”.

66

ajay 12.17.12 at 11:32 am

And in NY a few years ago, IIRC, they made it compulsory for public schools to teach the potato famine as a deliberate act of genocide

67

Katherine 12.17.12 at 11:37 am

And in NY a few years ago, IIRC, they made it compulsory for public schools to teach the potato famine as a deliberate act of genocide…

Yes, but that was in New York. I’m talking about Britain, Ireland’s neighbour, closest nation, with an entwined history over many years etc etc

And I don’t agree about school history, as it happens. Mine was taught very well, both at GCSE (awarded at 16) and A-level (awarded at 18). It was the curriculum that was lacking, which is not something to just ‘meh’ about.

68

rf 12.17.12 at 12:29 pm

“A slight aside here, but it is truly shocking how little of the Irish potato famine is taught and known in Britain”

Bizzarely, in Ireland its not taught at any level in school either (as far a i can remember)

69

Katherine 12.17.12 at 12:39 pm

Collective willingness to forgive and forget or insidious plot by English/Anglo-Irish powers-that-be to sweep the whole thing under the rug? You decide!

70

faustusnotes 12.17.12 at 12:54 pm

Katherine, my experience of school, and of the adults of my generation I have met from Britain, is that the UK’s entire colonial past is basically not taught at school, and for most people in Britain the entire empire is a case of “we did some bad things, but they’re all better off for it now.” It’s just the same as the knowledge Australians “of a certain age” have of the genocide there. It’s probably different for kids going to school in the UK now, though, just as it is in Australia.

71

faustusnotes 12.17.12 at 12:54 pm

The first couple of sentences there should have said “was”…

72

Shay Begorrah 12.17.12 at 1:44 pm

While the “genocide” label for the great famine seems excessive (it was more “put the brutes on a diet” than exterminate them) the unpleasant demographic problem of Catholic Ireland was neatly and fortuitously dealt with, and partially thanks to the merits of the free market. Today the population of the UK excluding Northern Ireland is about ten times that of the island of Ireland, in 1841 it was only twice the population of its troublesome western neighbour.

To be more exact in 1841 the population of England, Scotland and Wales came to about 18.5 million while Ireland’s was 8.1 million. An annoyingly large proportion of these 8.1 million were not just illiterate savages but illiterate Catholic savages of questionable loyalty. The famine led to an astonishingly long period of population shrinkage in Ireland as these ne’er believe wells first died and then emigrated. In fact Ireland’s population only stopped decreasing in around 1967, 115 years after the end of the famine.

Quite an advertisement for the benefits of laissez faire and the policy prescriptions of The Economist.

73

Henry 12.17.12 at 1:48 pm

And in NY a few years ago, IIRC, they made it compulsory for public schools to teach the potato famine as a deliberate act of genocide…”

This is a story I know quite a bit about, and it’s more complicated than that. The beginnings were more or less as you suggest, and were plausibly rooted in rather sordid ethnic political jealousies (Irish American politicians figuring that if the Jews had gotten their Holocaust onto the curriculum, the Irish had their own holocaust too …). But then, the curriculum was handed over to actual academics, who knew these debates, to design, and they did a pretty good job both of dumping the perfidious Albion stuff, and of putting it in the context of broader Amartya Sen type debates about the politics of famine more generally, emphasizing that this was one example of a broader set of catastrophes, which had some features in common and some not. I’ve read through the curriculum. It’s as good as you could reasonably expect, and a bit better.

74

Phil 12.17.12 at 2:33 pm

There’s a shameful, wilful blindspot about the treatment of Ireland by Britain – and by Britain I really mean England. I don’t know why

Because we’re still there?

I changed schools between the second and third years of secondary school; we didn’t have a National Curriculum in those days, so when I started the new school I was ahead of everyone else in Latin, way behind in Chemistry, and had a big gap in my mental history of Britain, stretching roughly from St Augustine to the Old Pretender. I’d love to know how I would have been taught the Civil War. I get the impression there’s a certain nervous reticence about the regicide and the Commonwealth, for very much the same reason as there is about Ireland.

75

bert 12.17.12 at 3:08 pm

Glad to hear the curriculum is good.
Less convinced by the public art. I think it reflects the taste of the commercial real estate billionaire who pushed it through.
The artist also made this, which is twelve foot tall and weighs 3 tons.

76

In the sky 12.17.12 at 4:56 pm

Bizzarely, in Ireland its not taught at any level in school either (as far a i can remember

It may have been a teacher going off-script, but I was certainly taught about it at roughly age 10. It was given in the Feckin’ Cromwell narrative.

77

mollymooly 12.17.12 at 5:21 pm

@rf: “Bizzarely, in Ireland its not taught at any level in school either (as far a i can remember)”

That’s not really true, but not completely false. The curricula for senior primary and junior secondary offer only “suggestions”, leaving up to the teacher precisely which names and dates get fed into the process. The Famine is a suggestion many but not all teachers will pick up. On the senior secondary school curriculum the Famine is compulsory AFAIK, but many students will have dropped History by then.

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rf 12.17.12 at 6:46 pm

“That’s not really true, but not completely false. … On the senior secondary school curriculum the Famine is compulsory AFAIK, but many students will have dropped History by then.”

Yeah that seems a more nuanced take, although it appears from the LC syllabus you linked to that you can pick your topics so you don’t cover it? We definitely didn’t anyway (in the 00s) as far as I can recall..and instead spent a disproportionate amount of time studying the life of Charles De Gaulle .. but maybe it’s changed since then. (Although the syllabus looks familiar)..or maybe our teacher just taught what he wanted?..(I’m after confusing myself)

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Trader Joe 12.17.12 at 10:26 pm

Had Trevelyan been more clever he’d have announced that the Irish were being emancipated rather than describing it as land reform.

Then we could have had a movie that married Downtown Abbey and Lincoln rather than two more dreary tomes on the famine and the upteenth parsing of how this could have happened…no doubt the books include some excellent scholarship, but hasn’t this topic been parsed? Irish leaning writings blame the English. Engligh leaning writings blame everything else.

80

Bloix 12.17.12 at 10:57 pm

BTW, a novel set during the famine that is worth reading is My Dream of You, by
Nuala O’Faolain.

81

Stephen 12.18.12 at 7:56 pm

Reality is merely a social construct, but can we agree that in a reality reasonably concordant with demonstrable history:

No UK government, whatever the OP ignorantly says, was ever led by Charles Trevelyan. He was a fairly senior civil servant, no more.

In the US system, senior civil servants and ambassadors may be appointed by incoming governments to reward their adherents and financiers. Foreign countries sometimes do things differently from the US. In the UK, senior civil servants serve one government after another, putting successive policies into effect as best they can.

There was no one UK government policy during the Irish famine; indeed, there was no one UK government. At first, 1845-6, there was the Conservative government of Sir Robert Peel, who believed (in words echoed by Trevelyan) that “the people must not be allowed to starve”. Peel ordered, and Trevelyan very competently organised, the Government-funded import of the cheapest available grain, American maize. Nobody starved. Peel also got through Parliament the repeal of the Corn Laws, allowing for the import of cheap wheat, oats and barley. Ideally, this might have taken immediate effect; given the opposition in Parliament from Conservative members who believed – accurately in the long term – that repeal would harm their constituents, a somewhat delayed repeal may not have been politically possible.

It is not easy to say what more Peel could have done. Genocidal policy, not at all.

In 1846 Peel’s government fell, defeated by a tactical alliance of discontented Conservatives, opposed Liberals, and Irish Catholic Nationalists (who had for some time been free to vote for, and be elected to, the UK Parliament). Russell’s Liberals formed a new government. Their declared policy, unlike Tory paternalist Peel’s, was that market forces would solve everything. This was an ignorant blunder. But note that the Irish Catholic Nationalist MPs, who should surely have been better informed about the realities of Irish life than any London Liberal, did not realise at the time that it was a blunder: they supported the formation of Russell’s government. One cannot blame Russell very harshly for understanding Ireland no better than the Irish leaders did.

The result was, of course, a disaster, made worse – economists might like to note this – by its coincidence with the collapse in late 1846-early 1847 Britain of the Great Railway Speculative Bubble, which left businesses and financial houses going bankrupt by the dozen, and made it temporarily impossible for even HMG to borrow money at any tolerable rate.

The revised policy of the Liberal government was to feed the Irish whatever the economic policy: at the peak, over 3,000,000 impoverished Irish were being fed daily at UK government expense. There was also a great deal of private charity. That may not have been forgiven, either.

As genocide goes, that does seem rather incompetent.

82

Bloix 12.19.12 at 8:50 pm

“As genocide goes, that does seem rather incompetent.”

This is a line I have used in threads about the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, which have seen explosive population growth since 1967. Deaths from Israeli acts in Gaza and the West Bank are counted in the thousands over a period of forty-five years. Life expectancy and per capita income in the occupied territories are comparable to neighboring Arab countries. You can argue that the that the recent attacks on Gaza are war crimes; that the settlements are illegal; that the occupation is a form of apartheid; but it’s not possible to argue with a straight face that Israel is engaged in genocide.

Ireland is a different story.

Between one and two million Irish-speaking people died of starvation and disease in a period of a few years. The culture and society of their country were irrevocably changed. Their language was effectively extinguished as a language of daily life. Villages disappeared from the map as large stretches of the west and southwest were depopulated. As the emigration of able-bodied young became the rule, the population of the Ireland went into steep decline, decreasing for almost a hundred years, from 8 million in 1845 to 4 million (for the entire island) in 1940.

The potato blight hit all of northern Europe, not merely Ireland. Yet in Belgium, Prussia, and other countries where the poor were reliant on the potato, the death toll was measured in the thousands or tens of thousands, not in millions. In these countries, population growth was barely disturbed and ordinary country life resumed once the blight ended. But Ireland was changed forever. In Ireland, the land that had supported millions of rural poor was cleared and converted into fields for export crops.

It is plausible that the Irish famine resulted, not from intentional English malevolence, but from a combination of natural causes, bad luck, incompetent administration, false ideological and political beliefs, religious and linguistic discrimination, and widespread indifference. If so, the famine probably does not meet the legal definition of genocide, which requires the ”deliberate infliction” of conditions of life that are “calculated” to bring about the physical destruction of a people, in whole or part. Simply allowing people to starve, even as food under armed guard is transported out of their country, probably does not qualify as genocide.

So the Ukrainian famine of 1932-33, during which millions of people starved as soldiers stole their grain, was legally a genocide, while the Irish famine, in which soldiers kept people who had nothing to eat away from the food that would have saved them, perhaps was not.

But the Irish famine, by an uncanny fortunate coincidence, was extremely beneficial for a rapidly industrializing England, as it turned Ireland into the breadbasket that English cities needed, while supplying the cheap labor for the dirtiest and poorest-paid jobs that those cities created.

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Stephen 12.19.12 at 9:35 pm

You know, we’re not too far from agreement.

On some points we agree entirely. You are, I think, the first person to make the bizarre and irrelevant comparison between 1840s Ireland and recent events in Israel/Palestine, but we (and I hope everyone else) can agree that the two cases are very different.

Since you have written nothing against my assessment of Peel’s policies , efficiently administered by Trevelyan – adequate Government-funded food imports, public works, repeal of corn laws: nobody died – as eminently non-genocidal, I take it that we agree there too. I hope you also agree that the OP’s description of Trevelyan as leading the British government is mere fantasy.

Probably we agree that the later phase of Russell’s policies, with the UK government feeding three million Irish a day, indicate the reverse of a genocidal intent.

And in the catastrophic phase between the fall of Peel and reality breaking through to Russell, I like you see “a combination of natural causes, bad luck, incompetent administration, false ideological and political beliefs”. The incompetent administration, I would add, was largely confined to the corrupt and inefficient Irish administration of public works. Trevelyan and others worked efficiently, obeying orders that in the middle phase were based on entirely false beliefs; which initially, it seems, were shared by or at least not objected to by the numerous Irish Catholic MPs.

There are points on which we may differ. I don’t know if you have read Austin Bourke on Irish food exports in the famine: his figures seem to show that these were not nearly enough to have prevented starvation. He quotes Daniel O’Connell as arguing for keeping exports going: I would not like to claim to have a better understanding of, or care for Ireland than O’Connell had.

And I don’t think Ireland became England’s breadbasket. That was the Canadian and American prairies.

I agree that millions of Irish emigrated: but tell me, even if it had been possible to keep everyone fed in the famine, what alternative was there to long-term emigration?

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Andrew 12.19.12 at 9:40 pm

Fascinating discussion in the comments and original post. Many thanks to all. I’ve just been reading about the famine in Cecil Woodham-Smith’s “The Great Hunger”. I recommend it to anyone who wants to know more about this harrowing episode in world history. It’s very readable considering the subject matter. Woodham-Smith’s account very much accords with the general tenor of the comments here, namely that the laissez-faire principles of the government of the day meant their response to the crisis was a terrible failure. It just makes you think on (and give thanks for) the rise of the labour movement because it is impossible to imagine a (democratic) government responding to a famine within its borders in the same way today.

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derrida derider 12.20.12 at 9:20 am

I have always felt a certain horror of political economists, since I heard one of them say that he feared the late famine in Ireland would not kill more than a million people, and that would scarcely be enough to do much good.
– Benjamin Jowett

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