Famine and Laissez-Faire World History Name: E. Napp Date: Historical Context



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Famine and Laissez-Faire

World History Name: __________________

E. Napp Date: __________________
Historical Context:

The Great Famine in Ireland began as a natural catastrophe of extraordinary magnitude, but its effects were severely worsened by the actions and inactions of the Whig government [Britain], headed by Lord John Russell in the crucial years from 1846 to 1852.


Altogether, about a million people in Ireland are reliably estimated to have died of starvation and epidemic disease between 1846 and 1851, and some two million emigrated in a period of a little more than a decade (1845-55). Comparison with other modern and contemporary famines establishes beyond any doubt that the Irish famine of the late 1840s, which killed nearly one-eighth of the entire population, was proportionally much more destructive of human life than the vast majority of famines in modern times.
In most famines in the contemporary world, only a small fraction of the population of a given country or region is exposed to the dangers of death from starvation or infectious diseases, and then typically for only one or two seasons. But in the Irish famine of the late 1840s, successive blasts of potato blight – or to give it its proper name, the fungus Phytophthora infestans – robbed more than one-third of the population of their usual means of subsistence for four or five years in a row.
This was not an artificial famine as the traditional Irish nationalist interpretation has long maintained - not at any rate at the start. The original gross deficiency of food was real. In 1846 and successive years blight destroyed the crop that had previously provided approximately 60 per cent of the nation's food needs. The food gap created by the loss of the potato in the late 1840s was so enormous that it could not have been filled, even if all the Irish grain exported in those years had been retained in the country. In fact, far more grain entered Ireland from abroad in the late 1840s than was exported – probably almost three times as much grain and meal came in as went out.
Thus there was an artificial famine in Ireland for a good portion of the late 1840s as grain imports steeply increased. There existed – after 1847, at least – an absolute sufficiency of food that could have prevented mass starvation, if it had been properly distributed so as to reach the smallholders and labourers of the west and the south of Ireland.”

~ bbc.co.uk

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Why, then, was an artificial famine permitted to occur after 1847, and why didn't the British government do much more to mitigate the effects of the enormous initial food gap of 1846-47? In many contemporary famines a variety of adverse conditions make it difficult or impossible to deliver adequate supplies of food to those in greatest need. Such conditions include warfare and brigandage, remoteness from centres of wealth and relief, poor communications, and weak or corrupt administrative structures. Ireland, however, was not generally afflicted with such adversities.


Though it had a rich history of agrarian violence, the country was at peace. In addition, its system of communications (roads and canals) had vastly improved in the previous half-century, the Victorian state had a substantial and growing bureaucracy (it generated an army of 12,000 officials in Ireland for a short time in 1847), and Ireland lay at the doorstep of what was then the world's wealthiest nation. Why, then, was it not better able to deal with the problems caused by the failure of its potato crop?
In answering this question, it is instructive to contrast the role of ideology in the general response to famines today with the part played by ideology in response to the Great Famine in Ireland. Today, wealthier countries and international organisations provide disaster assistance (though, alas, often not nearly enough) as a matter of humanitarian conviction and perceived self-interest. But in Britain in the late 1840s, prevailing ideologies among the political élite and the middle classes strongly militated against heavy and sustained relief…
What, then, were the ideologies that held the British political élite and the middle classes in their grip, and largely determined the decisions not to adopt the possible relief measures outlined above? There were three in particular – the economic doctrines of laissez-faire, the Protestant evangelical belief in divine Providence, and the deep-dyed ethnic prejudice against the Catholic Irish to which historians have recently given the name of ‘moralism’.



Laissez-faire, the reigning economic orthodoxy of the day, held that there should be as little government interference with the economy as possible. Under this doctrine, stopping the export of Irish grain was an unacceptable policy alternative, and it was therefore firmly rejected in London, though there were some British relief officials in Ireland who gave contrary advice.”

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The influence of the doctrine of laissez-faire may also be seen in two other decisions. The first was the decision to terminate the soup-kitchen scheme in September 1847 after only six months of operation. The idea of feeding directly a large proportion of the Irish population violated all of the Whigs' cherished notions of how government and society should function. The other decision was the refusal of the government to undertake any large scheme of assisted emigration. The Irish viceroy actually proposed in this fashion to sweep the western province of Connacht clean of as many as 400,000 pauper smallholders too poor to emigrate on their own. But the majority of Whig cabinet ministers saw little need to spend public money accelerating a process that was already going on ‘privately’ at a great rate.


Recent historians of the famine, while not neglecting the baleful role of the doctrine of laissez-faire, have been inclined to stress the potent parts played by two other ideologies of the time: those of ‘providentialism’ and ‘moralism’. There was a very widespread belief among members of the British upper and middle classes that the famine was a divine judgment – an act of Providence – against the kind of Irish agrarian regime that was believed to have given rise to the famine. The Irish system of agriculture was perceived in Britain to be riddled with inefficiency and abuse. According to British policy-makers at the time, the workings of divine Providence were disclosed in the unfettered operations of the market economy, and therefore it was positively evil to interfere with its proper functioning.
A leading exponent of this providentialist perspective was Sir Charles Trevelyan, the British civil servant chiefly responsible for administering Irish relief policy throughout the famine years. In his book The Irish Crisis, published in 1848, Trevelyan described the famine as ‘a direct stroke of an all-wise and all-merciful Providence’, one which laid bare ‘the deep and inveterate root of social evil’. The famine, he declared, was ‘the sharp but effectual remedy by which the cure is likely to be effected...God grant that the generation to which this great opportunity has been offered may rightly perform its part...’ This mentality of Trevelyan's was influential in persuading the government to do nothing to restrain mass eviction – and this had the obvious effect of radically restructuring Irish rural society along the lines of the capitalistic model ardently preferred by British policy-makers.
Finally, we come to ‘moralism’ – the notion that the fundamental defects from which the Irish suffered were moral rather than financial. Educated Britons of this era saw serious defects in the Irish ‘national character’ – disorder or violence, filth, laziness, and worst of all, a lack of self-reliance. This amounted to a kind of racial or cultural stereotyping. The Irish had to be taught to stand on their own feet and to unlearn their dependence on government…
Moralism’ was strikingly evident in the various tests of destitution that were associated with the administration of the poor law. Thus labourers on the public works were widely required to perform task labour, with their wages measured by the amount of their work, rather than being paid a fixed daily wage. Similarly, there was the requirement that in order to be eligible for public assistance, those in distress must be willing to enter a workhouse and to submit to its harsh disciplines-such as endless eight-hour days of breaking stones or performing some other equally disagreeable labour. Such work was motivated by the notion that the perceived Irish national characteristic of sloth could be eradicated or at least reduced…”

~ bbc.co.uk

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The Article: The Irish famine: Opening old wounds; Economist Magazine, December 12, 2012
In 1997 Tony Blair, the British prime minister, made the first formal apology for Britain’s role in the Irish famine. Between 1845 and 1855 Ireland lost a third of its population – one million people died from starvation and disease and two million emigrated. Mr. Blair regretted a time when those who governed in London had failed their people. Two new books explore Britain’s role in the famine and rekindle the debate about whether its misdeeds can be considered genocide.
The Graves are Walking’ by John Kelly, a historian and popular science writer, is an engrossing narrative of the famine, vividly detailing Victorian society and the historical phenomena (natural and man-made) that converged to form the disaster. The decimation of the potato crop in the 1840s brought on the danger of mass starvation, but it was the British response that perpetuated the tragedy. The hand of nature, as illustrated in both books, caused only part of the problem.

Both authors describe the folly and cruelty of Victorian British policy towards its near-forsaken neighbor in detail. The British government, led by Sir Charles Trevelyan, assistant secretary to the Treasury (dubbed the ‘Victorian Cromwell’), appeared far more concerned with modernizing 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.
Peasants were hired to build unnecessary roads in order to earn money to buy food. But wages were often not enough to match the high food prices enforced by Trevelyan as a measure to attract imports to Ireland, especially from America.
The belief that the famine was God’s intention also guided much of Britain’s policy. They viewed the crop failures as ‘a Visitation of Providence, an expression of divine displeasure’ with Ireland and its mostly Catholic peasant population, writes Mr. Kelly. Poverty was considered a moral failure. Within a few years Irish immigrants flooded the port cities of Liverpool in England, Montreal and Quebec in Canada and New York. The emigrant was considered an object of horror and contempt, as Mr. Kelly writes: ‘pedestrians turned and walked the other way; storekeepers bolted the door or picked up a broom; street urchins mocked his shoeless feet, filthy clothing and Gaelic-accented English.’ Throughout the book, Mr. Kelly bemoans the tragic effects of human folly, neglect and Victorian ideology in causing the famine and its aftermath. He rejects the charge of genocide.

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Tim Pat Coogan, however, takes a more radical view in ‘The Famine Plot’. Mr. Coogan, an Irish historian and journalist, is, to many, the unofficial voice of modern Irish history. In the introduction to his polemical history of the disaster, he labels the famine genocide and criticizes other Irish historians as revisionists who are sanitizing the famine’s story. His previous books about the IRA and the reputation of Eamon de Valera, Ireland’s president in the 1960s, caused controversy, but his view of the Irish famine is more widely accepted. Like Mr. Kelly, Mr. Coogan blames the free market economics that Britain tried, and failed, to apply to Ireland’s problem, but believes that their negligent actions were deliberate. He also describes, in painful detail, the indignity and hardship suffered by the peasant population who were stigmatized by anti-Catholic prejudice and the belief that poverty was self-inflicted.
His most compelling argument for British negligence is in the final chapter, in which he recalls the xenophobic images and words commonly used to caricature the Irish in Victorian England. 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 labor of the English workingman, and generally living a life of indolent treason,’ explains Mr. Coogan. The result of such dehumanizing propaganda was to make unreasonable policy seem more reasonable and just.
The question remains as to whether misguided ideology of a previous era can be found culpable of a greater evil. Mr. Kelly’s engrossing book lays out the evidence but stops short of calling it genocide. Mr. Coogan’s opinion that the famine was genocide is clear. But both books make a compelling case for why we should revisit our current understanding of it.”

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