A recent article in the Irish on-line newspaper thejournal.ie, reporting on calls for the annual commemoration of the 19th century potato famine to have a fixed date, drew an inevitable spate of comments pointing out that this event was really an example of genocide. Are such claims fair?
The starting point for my response is to look at motives. If you believe that the responsibility for the economic and/or social problems being faced in a particular place or time can be laid at the door of a specific group of people you are embarking on a journey that certainly can end in genocide. It has happened many times in history, not just in 1930s Germany.
Blaming immigrants, people of colour, the rich, the poor, the members of a religious group or of a profession – politicians, bankers, the police force – is always too easy as well as dangerous. But the question is where do you draw the line when it comes to proposing solutions. Do you stop at calls to ‘control our borders’? At demands to ‘send them home’? (These latter relating to immigrants). Do you insist on restricting the movements of those you regard as the source of the problem, or their forced removal to some other place – ‘transportation’? Or do you embark on a declared policy of rounding them up and imprisoning them, to be followed by a covert but systematic process of industrial scale murder?
There can be no doubt that the last of these qualifies as genocide1.
But what if nature presents an opportunity to bring about a cull of those you regard as blameworthy and you refuse to provide the kind of assistance that could prevent the natural tragedy? You are, arguably, not directly responsible for the many deaths that take place. You can claim that providence is to blame, that God’s punishment is being wreaked upon the victims – both claims made by British officials and politicians at the time.
You are surely guilty by virtue of your inaction. Is that genocide?
If not, is there a word in the English language that describes such a crime? And it is worth pointing out that it is a crime that continues to this day, when we turn refugees away from our borders, just as it did a century and a half ago when death by disease and starvation was permitted to run largely unchecked in what was then a part of the United Kingdom.
The man most frequently blamed for government policy towards the Irish at the time is Charles Trevelyan. Surprisingly few historians have made what to me is an obvious connection between those policies and the fact that Trevelyan was a student of Thomas Malthus. It was Malthus who first pointed out that population growth is geometric whilst that of food production is arithmetic. Sooner or later increasing population leads to increasing poverty and, eventually, famine.
The methods he proposed to overcome this problem included ‘moral restraint’ and delayed marriage, both with the aim of reducing the birth rate. The opening up of new colonies in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa also presented an opportunity to reduce the local population by immigration. Troublesome subjects from both islands were sentenced to ‘transportation’, their removal to one or other of these far off lands, manacled in the bowels of ships.
In the fifty years preceding the famine the population of Ireland had doubled. An important cause of this was the arrival of the potato, a highly nutritious food that could be grown above
the soil, on land unsuitable for other crops, the tubers simply covered in a mixture of peat, straw and seaweed or manure, providing a healthy diet and increased prosperity. With greater health came increased survival of infants and a naturally increasing population. This brought about a dramatic reduction in the area of usable land available to each person.
Widespread crop failure
Potato blight first struck in Ireland in the autumn of 1845. Over night the whole field turned totally rotten. The stink of the tubers caused the air to be fouled. The same happened to varying degrees in each of the next 5 years. It was not only in Ireland that this phenomenon took place. Parts of mainland Europe and the Western seaboard of North America were also afflicted.
Yet it was only in Ireland that the effects were so devastating. This was in part due to an over-dependence in Ireland on the potato as the principal food. The average consumption by 1845 was 14 lbs per person per day. An acre of land would yield up to 12 tons per anum and a family of man, wife and four children consumed 5 tons leaving an adequate surplus to feed a pig and a few chickens.
In the Midlands and East there was less dependence on the potato. Here the fertile soil was used to produce wheat and barley, most of which was exported to the mainland. These exports did not cease when the potato crop failed. They were, after all, an important source of food for that land’s occupants, as well as profits for the aristocratic owners of Irish lands. With such a dramatic reduction in the potato harvest people became undernourished or starved. Undernourished people are susceptible to disease. Sanitation in these times was inadequate to prevent the spread of typhus, cholera and dysentery, diseases which killed many.
There were attempts at relief. Against government opposition, Robert Peel imported maize from the USA. Trevelyan insisted that the Irish landlords should bear the brunt of any relief, but many were incapable of doing so. How can you provide assistance from rents received when the very people who require the assistance are the same people who pay the rent?
An early form of what today is called ‘workfare’ was introduced, with a range of public works instituted to provide employment in return for meagre wages. This often entailed the construction of roads to nowhere, the heavy work often carried out by women and children too weak from lack of food to produce enough to earn the price of a day’s nourishment.
Workhouses imposed rules which meant that one had to have literally nothing in order to qualify for admittance. Men, women and children were segregated once admitted, splitting families (but enforcing the ‘moral restraint’ Malthus advocated as a way of preventing population increases).
Some evangelising protestants made the aid they provided conditional upon the conversion of Catholics away from their preferred religion.
At the same time, it is important to acknowledge that not all land owners were impervious to the needs of their tenants. Nor did all of those with religious motives impose conditions on the recipients of assistance.
In particular, the Quakers established the first soup kitchens, financed fisheries and agricultural improvements, including the distribution of seeds, and funded industrial development.
But it is clear from the records of the time that the authorities, with their poor opinion of the Irish as a rebellious and ungrateful body of people, welcomed the opportunity that nature had presented. Does that add up to genocide – or simply guilt by omission?
Is it fair to liken it to the Nazi’s persecution of Jews and others with a programme of deliberate extermination, or with more recent events in Rwanda or the former Yugoslavia? Probably not. But it most certainly ought to serve as a lesson in where the scapegoating of those who differ from us in some way can lead.
1Footnote: According to the United Nations: [G]enocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
The word did not exist before 1944 and the above definition was established in 1948.