The Irish Potato Famine and Charles Trevelyan
The British did not cause what we know as the Irish Potato Famine, which affected potatoes across the continent of Europe as well as Ireland. It was caused by a potato blight that destroyed the potato crops. But the starvation in Ireland and the deaths which resulted from the famine were wholly preventable and the British Empire did little or nothing to prevent it other than assign a man with a near-psychotic hatred of the Irish in general and the poor in particular, Charles Trevelyan to direct their policy. As the rate of deaths from the famine were nearing their peak, the man tasked with providing aid to the suffering wrote to Lord Monteagle that the famine was an “effective mechanism for reducing surplus population.”
In 1845, the year the famine began, Ireland was part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. For several decades Ireland had grappled with poverty and unemployment in its cities, and though there was ample Irish representation in the British Parliament, few workable solutions to the Irish problem were proposed. Irish resentment of the British, and British contempt for the Irish, was palpable. Most of the Irish, 80% of whom were Catholics, lived as tenant farmers on estates owned by absentee landlords, who used middlemen to collect their rents.
The crops the tenant farmers grew were for export and the profits went to the landlords. They were allowed to grow a few crops for themselves and their families, and the potato was one crop favored for this due to its yield and, unlike wheat, the fact that it could be used without further processing. When the potato crops failed they were left with no food, little money, and spent their days working crops which would provide no food for themselves. In response to the famine, the British government attempted to provide aid to these tenant farmers by removing tariffs on grain to lower the price of bread (the Corn Laws). This act led to the fall of the British government and the new government adopted the attitude of laissez-faire towards the crisis.
Charles Trevelyan was assigned to administer the new government’s response to the famine. Trevelyan believed that the famine was, “the judgment of God…to teach the Irish a lesson”, and did little to provide help to the starving. What aid was sent to Ireland from the British Government and from British and other charities around the world was his responsibility to distribute, and he delayed the delivery as much as possible or tied its distribution to labor requirements. In 1847 Parliament passed the Irish Poor Laws, which established both workhouses and soup kitchens.
As it would do later in India, the export of food from Ireland during famine reached new heights as the Irish people starved. In the case of the starving Irish, the food they grew for the profit of the landowners was too expensive for them to purchase. At a minimum, the famine led to over a million deaths and over that number of Irish emigrated, many to the United States and Canada. In 1860 one of the founders of the Young Ireland Movement wrote, “The Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the famine.”