A Purgatory of Misery by Frank Parker and Pat Lillis – Stave #7
Chapter 6 – “Top Dog” Mentality
For more than two hundred years British explorers and traders had traveled the world, discovering new lands bordering the Pacific and Indian Oceans. They developed trade links with the indigenous populations of these lands and profited enormously from that trade. They were not alone. Dutch, French, Spanish and Portugese merchants and adventurers were doing the same. Conflicts often ensued, engendering frequent wars. Britain usually came out on top and, by the beginning of the nineteenth century, large parts of Africa as well as the Indian sub-continent, all of Australia, New Zealand, many Pacific Islands, Southern China and most of North America were governed by the British monarchy or its authorised agents.
The oldest of these colonies, those on the Eastern seaboard of North America, had formed themselves into the United States of America, fought for and won independence. But there were many other lands that offered opportunities for those seeking adventure.
At the same time it could be said that Britain was leading the way in scientific advancement. Some of those early explorers, such as James Cook, had pioneered techniques of surveying and map making as well as bringing back numerous geological and botanical specimens to add to the world’s fund of knowledge. Others had developed, and conducted experiments to prove, scientific theories that formed the basis of our modern understanding of chemistry, physics, astronomy and medicine.
Little wonder, then, that they regarded themselves, their beliefs and their systems of government to be superior to any others. In particular, the old ideas embodied by the Roman Catholic Church were deemed to be barely superior to the paganistic practices and idolatry of the natives of Africa, the far East and North America who had proved so easy to exploit. If certain among the Irish chose to cling to such outdated notions, if those same people were also poor and ignorant, then must there not be a causal link between the two? All that was necessary for the Irish to escape from their fate was for them to acquire the enlightened Protestant education that had produced the scholars, sailors and merchants that had made the acquisition of such an empire possible.
It was certainly the case that many of these colonies needed labour. They especially needed people who were capable of taking undeveloped land and turning it into productive farmland. Successful farmers from across the British Isles were, therefore, encouraged to emigrate to the colonies. And individuals who chose to defy the law could be sent as punishment to work as slave labour.
Many Irish protestants joined in these empire building enterprises, serving in the British army and navy and as crewmen on privately operated cargo vessels. Catholics were prevented by law from entering the army and many other professions. Many of them therefore studied overseas and served in the armies of Britain’s enemies: France, Spain, Portugal and the Austro-Hungarian empire. A member of at least one comparatively wealthy catholic family, that of which Daniel O’Connell was a scion, became a general in Empress Marie-Therese’s army and was awarded a baronetcy by her.
Irish men and women of both religious persuasions sought the opportunities presented by the ready availability of land in these new surroundings. Meanwhile in Ireland the practice of sub-dividing land to provide for a rapidly increasing population continued, despite the incentives offered by some landlords to encourage such migration.
Educated Britons did not stop at developing and testing scientific theories. They concerned themselves with philosophical and social problems, especially those associated with the increasing population and the poverty that seemed inevitably to accompany it. How was it possible to ensure that the production of food kept pace with the growing number of mouths to feed? As the industrial revolution progressed and more people left the countryside for over-crowded cities, the old pattern of living, in which food was transported over relatively short distances to markets close to where people lived, was superseded by new modes of transport. Canals, railways and metaled roads made it possible to transport food from the fields to markets in the burgeoning centres of manufacturing.
A new field of study opened up as scholars attempted to understand the increasingly complex relationship between production and consumption and the problem of ensuring that workers, who no longer had access to the possibility of growing even some of their own food, were able to earn enough from their new activities, operating machinery, to provide the basic necessities of life.
How to share the wealth produced by the activities of merchant explorers and, later, by machines, among the whole population, instead of enriching a few whilst the majority struggled in conditions of abject poverty? As we have seen, men like Adam Smith pointed out that rent placed an added, unfair, burden on wealth creators¹. Others speculated about the relationship between increases in food production and the growth in population. On the one hand the more people were employed in all kinds of production, the more that could be produced. On the other, the more food that was available, the longer people tended to live, especially young people. Whereas it was, in the past, not uncommon for children to die from any of a variety of diseases before reaching puberty, the more well fed they were the more likely they were to survive into adulthood and become parents themselves. Was there a limit on the ability of the available land to produce sufficient food?
Whilst new lands were available for food production in the colonies, the cost of transporting this food across the ocean was considerable. In the view of some it made more sense to take the people to the food, rather than bring the food to the people. This, then, was another reason to encourage people to emigrate. A reason, too, to remove from the British Isles those individuals whom the authorities deemed to be undesirable.
As mentioned in chapter 3, one of the thinkers of the period, Thomas Malthus, examined the evidence and concluded that there was, indeed, a limit to the food production capacity of the land². The population had consistently grown at a faster rate than had the volume of food production. It was, he insisted, necessary to take steps to limit the growth of population, especially among the very poor. If they produced fewer children it would be easier to ensure that those children were well fed and housed to an acceptable standard. It might even be possible to end the practice of sending children out to work at a very young age. They could be sent, instead, to school where education would fit them for a better life.
Meanwhile, the very uneven distribution of wealth enabled those with vast amounts of it to indulge themselves by building large houses with productive walled gardens and landscaped parkland covering several hundred acres. The houses were filled with artifacts brought from all around the world. They planted the parklands with species of trees and shrubs, the seeds of which were also brought from distant lands. This happened across Ireland as well as England, Scotland and Wales. Many of the owners of these houses built towns to house the people who worked in the house and on the estate. Few were inclined to sully the beautiful landscape within which they had carefully chosen to build by introducing modern industries to provide alternative employment for their tenants.
The tenants were content – they had a house with a plot on which to grow their potatoes. Sometimes, sufficient space to permit someone else to grow potatoes, too. If that person built a rough cabin on the plot and took up residence, so much the better. The rent he paid helped ensure there was enough seed for next year.
But, to make the estate profitable and ensure that the land owner had the means to pay the large retinue of servants and gardeners, he needed the tenants of the estate’s farms to produce the kind of food that could easily be exported to the industrial centres of England where the growing population was a source of increasing demand. Growing more food for export required a more efficient use of the land. Too many tenants of larger holdings had allowed labourers, most of whom worked only at those times of year when there was high demand for farm labour, to set up home in cabins, each with its own potato patch. That space could be better utilised to graze cattle or grow wheat or barley.
Many landlords therefore embarked upon a policy of encouraging and providing limited assistance for emigration. When that failed they turned to the mass eviction of tenants. None had anything that would be recognised today as security of tenure. Had they done so, they would not have had the necessary resources to pursue a case at law.
Not all landlords thought along these lines. A few did facilitate the development of ‘ideal’ industrial towns on their estates. One such was at Portlaw, in County Waterford, where a Quaker family established a successful cotton mill. Portlaw is the only community in Ireland whose population increased during the famine years.
Many of those who owned large estates in Ireland rarely visited them. They left them in the care of agents, many of whom were content to pocket the small rents paid by the labourers and small subsistence farmers. Pressure to change came from government, members of which, perhaps heeding the messages of men like Malthus, wanted to maximise the production of food for the masses congregating in expanding cities like Liverpool, Birmingham and Manchester, as well as the capital. For their part, the landowners were concerned about competition from such food as could be imported easily from the colonies, notably American grain. As already noted, they lobbied for, and got, the application of tariffs on foreign grain.
- The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith (1776)
- An Essay on the Principle of Population, Thomas Malthus (1798)
Continue to Chapter 7