Skip to comments.The Great Starvation as Opportunistic Genocide (Did the British commit genocide in Ireland?)
Posted on 09/06/2001 8:23:45 PM PDT by independentmind
The Great Starvation in Ireland between 1845-1852 was one of the great biopolitical catastrophes in human history. Biology, geography, history and social structure in the context of 19th century, British colonialism determined the course of this brutal period in Anglo Irish relations.
The potato failure occurred in the 19th century but its roots are embedded in the needs of 18th century British Capitalism and colonialism. In the early 18th century, Ireland provided a source of capital in the form of rents and raw materials and a market for English manufactured goods at the same time the Crown prevented the development of a Irish industrial base by granting monopolies to British investors in Ireland. By this time the Irish land was owned by British landlords and most of the native Irish survived by tenuous tenancy or seasonal labor.
By the second half of the 18th century Ireland was turned into a farm to supply inexpensive food stuffs for the growing British industrial classes. The availability of inexpensive Irish grown food helped to control unrest among British workers. The effects of this system of exploitation led to the development in Ireland of two agricultural systems. A bare subsistence agriculture developed alongside a profitable commercial agriculture. Under this arrangement Irish peasants found it impossible to raise their standard of living. Such a system was backed up by an oppressive political and legal system that was stacked against the indigenous Irish. It left the Irish without any basic human rights. All this was backed up by the most powerful military machine in the world.
In 1965 A. J. P. Taylor, a noted British historian, wrote in reference to the liberation of Belsen in 1945: only a century before, all Ireland was Belsen. Nearly two million Irish people died of starvation and fever within five years. He further noted that: Irish people were driven off their land. They were starved, degraded and treated worse than animals. Taylors analysis of the Great Starvation seems to beg the question - was it genocide?
The British did not deliberately plan the mass death of the Irish people by starvation. According to Rubenstein it would seem that passive genocide is a possible charge for a government that knowingly accepted mass death as a necessary cost associated with their policies. In words of Robbie McVeigh, The British government assumed colonial responsibility for the governance of Ireland against the wishes of the vast majority of Irish - yet tolerated the death of 2,000,000 it forcibly made its subjects.
The Irish were subjected to a policy of exploitation and destruction with definite physical goals: clearance, forced emigration and slow death which were possibly worse than direct genocide. For the Irish, the misery and deprivation went on longer. The starvation was not an isolated event it was an integral part of a continuing cycle of political repression and endemic poverty that characterized British colonial policy. Britain had long range plans for cultural extermination but resistance by the Irish frustrated their attempt. Resistance that according to Hazel Watters facilitated the hardening of anti Irish racism among the British people.
The British response to the potato failure was weak and ideological. It consisted of some importation food, make work projects for the destitute and finally soup kitchens of questionable nutritional value. However, no attempt was made to halt food exports from Ireland or to provide free food. In fact 8 ships a day left Ireland loaded with food bound for England. Britains meager efforts were short lived and Ireland was quickly abandoned to the ravages of starvation, disease, forced evictions and emigration.
Hostility, prejudice and racism toward the Irish influenced the British approach to the Irish Famine. An attitude of absolute English supremacy in all things was part of Anglo-Irish relations since the initial Norman Invasion of Ireland in the twelfth century. During the starvation prominent clergymen blamed the Irish for reckless, improvident breeding and a lack of morals. In 1847 Reverend Hugh McNeile of Liverpool, future Anglican Dean of Ripon, published a book, The Famine a Rod of God: Its Provoking Cause, Its Merciful Design, which echoed the theme of divine visitation. In 1848 the Anglican Archbishop of Dublin, Richard Whately, accused the Irish poor of responsibility for the circumstances in which they were placed, pointing to their slovenliness, inattention to religious duty and proneness to crime. The London Times called for extermination, while The Economist referred to the Irish as primitive, incompetent, priest-ridden members of an inferior race. On February 12, 1853, The Economist wrote, The departure of the redundant part of the population of Ireland and Scotland is an indispensable preliminary to every kind of improvement.
Punch, the British political humor magazine, depicted the Irish as the missing link between gorillas and Negroes:
A creature manifestly between the gorilla and the negro is to be met with in some of the lowest districts of London and Liverpool It belongs in fact to a tribe of Irish savages When conversing with its kind it talks a sort of gibberish. It is, moreover, a climbing animal, and may sometimes be seen ascending a ladder with a hod of bricks.
The Irish were depicted as subhuman, so it was easier to excuse ones humanitarian obligations. In 1841 the English historian, J. A. Froude, described the Irish s being more like tribes of squalid apes than human beings. British intellectual views of the Irish were such that the British public widely hailed the starvation as an efficient solution to the Irish problem. The Irish poor were lazy, morally depraved as well as subhuman, therefore they were undeserving of help. Dr. James Kay once wrote in a pamphlet:
But the most horrible spot lies on the Manchester side, immediately southwest of Oxford Road and is known as Little Ireland A hoard of ragged women and children swarm about here, as filthy as the swine that thrive upon the garbage heaps and in the puddles. In short, the whole rookery furnishes such a hateful and repulsive spectacle as can hardly be equalled in the worst court on the Irk. The race that lives in these ruinous cottages, behind broken windows, mended with oilskin, sprung doors, and rotten door-posts, or in dark, wet cellars, in measureless filth and stench, in this atmosphere penned in as if with a purpose, this race must really have reached the lowest stage of humanity.
Misled by such tripe, many English were led to believe that he Irish were the cause of their own poverty and starvation. In other words, the English had turned effect into cause. If the perpetrator can place the blame on the victim, it allows one to live comfortably with the inhumanity of ones actions.
Racism like race is a biocultural phenomenon, produced by real or perceived biological differences interacting with socio-cultural factors. English racism toward the Irish was a combination of cultural imperialism and biological determinism. It resulted in the English, as a group, differentially treating the Irish as a group on the basis of biological or social race. However, doctrines of racial superiority are never exclusively biological or sociocultural, for their main purpose is to provide justification for discriminatory behavior.
Sociopolitical conflicts between groups can serve to sharpen and exaggerate even pseudo racial differences between groups. This can create categories of them and us that encourages racist interactions. As Ashley Montagu once noted:
Race in our society is not a term which clearly and dispassionately defines certain real conditions which can be demonstrated to existed but as I have already said, the word acts more as a stimulus which touches off a series of emotional charges that usually bear as much relation to the facts as bees do to bonnets.
Many British political figures from Sir Charles Trevelyan, Assistant Secretary of the Treasury, to Sir Charles Wood, Chancellor of the Exchequer, detested the Irish. Trevelyan said: The Greatest evil we have to face is not the physical evil of the famine but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the Irish people. He applauded the fact that starvation encouraged migration. An 1848 article by Trevelyan in the Edinburgh Review supported the view that God was punishing the Irish Catholics for their superstitious ways and adherence to popery. He was knighted that same year for his work on the Famine. Nassau Senior, a British government advisor on economic affairs, actually wished that more might die. The Irish population had been growing at a rate twice that of England, and if organized militarily could have been a threat to British power. Indeed, without the effects of emigration the population of Ireland would have eventually surpassed that of England and Wales. But perhaps British officials were most troubled by the fact that large numbers of Irish had emigrated to England. In 1841 one out of every 40 persons living in England and Wales was Irish. Ten years later the figure was one in twenty-five, a proportion that presented serious potential strife in the event of a major uprising in Ireland.
Often the British have explained the starvation in Ireland as a regrettable event that could not be blamed on them. One argument suggests that just as the British accepted the death of troops in wartime, so too should the Irish starvation casualties be accepted. This argument, however, fails to address the fact that the Irish deaths were the result of imperial policy regarding a subjugated nation in peacetime. The rationalization that a money shortage and logistical problems related to a poor transportation system were to blame, does not ring true. Whenever crowds gathered to protest, money and transport for troops to control them were quite adequate. Liz Curtis notes that at the end of 1847, after six landlords were killed, an extra 15,000 troops were sent to Ireland.
Another popular British explanation evolved from the misconception that Ireland was overpopulated due to lack of moral restraint, and the fundamental laziness of the Irish people. In other words Irish poverty was their own fault. To the English, the potato unnaturally subsidized the Irish and their large families to the brink of disaster. In the words of geographer, Thomas Freeman: Apparently content with little the Irish increased and multiplied. Likewise Drake in 1969 noted that: Irish men and women were prepared to live almost exclusively on potatoes.
By indicating that the potato readily satisfied the primitive needs of the Irish, it depoliticized the poverty of the native Irish, allowing ordinary English people to ignore the abuses of landlordism. The starvation was thereby attributed to psychological flaws in the Irish character. The following example, extracted from the London Times, illustrates this point: The great object of life is to rent a miserable patch of land, to build himself a hovel or burrow in the earth, to marry and if possible to live as well as a pig. Johnathan Pim, Secretary of the Central Relief Committee (Society of Friends) wrote openly of the common racist views held by the British press, and challenged their claims of the Irish character. Here, Pim relates how many Irish people were falsely accused of idleness and improvidence:
These vices are attributed by many to the prevalent creed; and their supinenss and want of industry are laid at the door of their religion. Others speak of them as the inherent characteristics of the Celtic race .The inferiority of the Celtic race is a gratuitous assumption, not easy of proof; but even if this be admitted, those who on that account consider the Irish as unimprovable, forget the great admixture of races which has taken place in this country.
Malthusian explanations ignore the fact that Irish agricultural output increased steadily in the half century before the starvation. This was true even where the population was increasing the most, yet it did not in any way seem to hurt food production. Malthusians conveniently forget the huge exportation of food from Ireland during the starvation. Food raised by the Irish that could have fed the people of Ireland rather than the bank accounts of British capitalists. Also ignored was the reduced socioeconomic status of the native Irish which was the result of land confiscation and policies antagonistic toward Irish culture. Further, the British had implemented policies throughout Irish colonial history that were intended to destroy the development of Irish industries. Without a local industrial base Irish people were left with no alternative way of making a living. British rule simply hindered all native initiatives and institutions.
From a biocultural perspective today, the fact that the British were willing to accept mass death in order to eliminate the Irish peasantry, constitutes genocide. Christine Kinealy has recently posited: the response of the British government to the famine was inadequate in terms of humanitarian criteria and increasingly after 1847 systematically and deliberately so. She feels that if the British had the political will to ameliorate the starvation they had the resources to do. But they wished to use the situation to affect long term agrarian reform at the cost of suffering disease, emigration and a legacy of hate and resistance.
Food often used as a weapon of war. It is probable that the British used food as a weapon to bring Ireland to its knees, clear it of multitudes of people and consolidate its political economic hold on the Island.
Stannard in his brilliant work American Holocaust has proposed that the Natives who died form forced labor, introduced disease, malnutrition, death marches, exposure and despair were victims of genocide. Slave labor projects that worked people to death were no less genocidal than gas chambers. In Ireland colonial policies that elevated greed to a high social value and political expediency to an greater importance than human life drove the Irish towards a genocidal experience. British racism allowed the suffering of the Irish to be dismissed as subhuman savages doomed to death by their depravity and primitive biology.
Edward Twistleton upon resigning his post as Poor Law Commissioner of the Poor Law Commission said that he was an unfit agent for a policy which would be one of extermination. Lord Clarendon the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland during the Starvation said: I dont think there is another legislature in Europe that would disregard such suffering as exists in the west of Ireland or coldly persist in a policy of extermination. In 1846 William Makeprice Thackery characterized British colonialism in Ireland as Follows:
It is a frightful document against ourselves - one of the most melancholy stories in the whole world of insolence, rapine, brutal endless slaughter and persecution on the part of the English master There is no crime even invented by Eastern or Western barbarians, no torture or Roman persecution or Spanish Inquisition, no tyranny of Nero or Alva but can be matched in history of England in Ireland. (Thackery,1846)
The Starvation experience of 1845-1852 in Ireland does qualify as genocide under Article II of the Genocide Convention of 1948. Article II, b, of the Convention refers to causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of a group. British policies encouraged mass starvation with intent to destroy or displace a significant part of the Irish people. One would assume that this is congruent with causing serious bodily or mental harm to the Irish as a group. Article II, c, of the convention refers to deliberately inflicting on a group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in part or whole. British rule inflicted on the Irish people a repressive land tenure system, abstract economic policies, an ideology of racism and prejudice and systematic political repression that were aimed at the cultural and biological extermination of the Irish. All of which were backed up and readily enforced by military coercion of great magnitude. The Irish were denied by British colonial policies the right to raise their children as their ancestors did, the right to continue their linguistic traditions and the right to be free to establish an economic base that would assure humane level of a quality existence.
The study of the Great Starvation of 1845-1852 allows us to learn form the failure of the past. There are similarities between those years in Ireland and what has happened today in such places as Ethiopia, Bangladesh, and the Sudan. The same combination of ideological, socioeconomic and political factors interact to produce mass starvation today. A systematic knowledge of the Irish Starvation should teach us not to trust victim blaming theories of causation based on overpopulation and natural disaster. We should consider the legacy of colonialism, neocolonialism and racism as well as the uneven trade relationships between the rich and poor areas of the world.
It is also possible that students by studying the tragedies of their own group or groups similar to their own may develop more empathy for more disparate groups. Such study can, through knowledge of shared suffering, unite us in our condemnation of inhumane excesses wherever they occur. However, we should not engage in moral bookkeeping or exercise in comparative pain that pit one devastated and exploited group against another.
Human suffering and death cannot be simply conceptualized as less horrible or more horrible. Those who lived the Great Starvation suffered: psychological terror, physical abuse and in many cases death in ways similar to that of Native Americans, captive slaves and the victims of Nazi genocide. However, the categorization of their suffering is significant only to those who survived for the individual victims of genocide perish without knowledge of their impact on future generations. It behooves us who rever their memory not to degrade it by self serving attempts to promote differential morality or outrage.
Will review, study, and examine...and get back with you, I promise!
Ol' Joe Stalin did a much better job of it.
And no mention of the innocents who died before, during and after the hunger strikes in Northern Ireland 20 years ago.
Aren't half-truths just lies by another name?
'Fighting like hell' seems like an apt metaphor for those who endorse terrorism in Northern Ireland and other parts of the world.
I commend with all my heart the work of the Irish Famine/Genocide Committee. And I regret that I shall be unable to attend the forum on May 1-2. I shall be in Harrisburg, PA, speaking at a rally against the barbarity of capital punishment.
Frequent trips to Ireland in the dark days of the hunger strike and since, have strengthened my work for peace, here and elsewhere.
No peace without justice. An ingredient of that elusive justice for the Irish people, is a direct, lucid confrontation with the myths concerning the Great Hunger.
One asks, and rightly, who owns the memories? How is it that the perpetrators of crime seize on memory, sanitise it of guilt, and turn it to their own advantage?
It must be understood: the tactic enables the guilty to perpetuate a fiction of absolute power over the victim.
We must seize the memory, correct the record, name the criminal, deny the myth of victor and victim, of powerful and powerless.
And this is not solely or even primarily for our own sake; the process belongs to all people, those who have survived this tormented century, and those who have not.
The reclaiming of memory belongs to everyone who has known gulag and death row and torture chamber, fast unto death, disappearance and slavery and intimidation, racism and sexism and homophobia.
Mourn the dead, fight like hell for the living! Reclaim the memory! So doing, we reclaim our own humanity.
Daniel Berrigan, S. J.
Then there are those who cynically exploit suffering to advance political causes which lead to further suffering, war and injustice. We've seen no shortage of that in Northern Ireland.
Naturally, the website fails to reveal Rosemary's cynical role as a defence attorney for a number of Sinn Fein - IRA serial killers. Thanks to her 'success' in this role many innocent people were murdered by KKK look-a-likes with guns or blown to smithereens with Semtex bombs.
She was also a close friend of one of the Bogota 3. They are currently being investigated for their links to Cuba and terrorism and drugs in Colombia.
PROJECTS AND EVENTS
May 1 - 2, 1999
A Forum --
Dedicated to the Memory of Rosemary Nelson, Esq.
No doubt this is true. And people who lie about the past make it much easier for the cyncical to accomplish their objectives.
The following sent their combined condolences to the Irish News:
Thar cheann Coiste na n-Iarchimí agus na grúpaí áitiúla diarr-chimí uilig, tugaimid comhbhrón da fear chéile agus a clann iomlán. Tar Anall (Belfast); Tús Nua (Belfast); An Lóiste Iur (Belfast); An Trá Ghearr (Belfast); Amach agus Isteach (Belfast); Tar Isteach (Belfast); Tar Abhaile (Derry); Strabane Ex-Prisoners Group; Arais Arís (Dungannon); Clones Fáilte (Clones); Cumann na Meirleach (South Armagh); Tar Anall Iúr Cinn Trá (Newry); Fáilte Abhaile (Dundalk); Fermanagh Ex-Prisoners Group; Goite (Lurgan); Portadown Ex-Prisoners Group; Donegal Ex-Prisoners Group; Fáilte Arais, Dublin; Sinn Féins Prisoners Department Belfast.
Jim 'Mortar' Monaghan, one of the Bogota 3, has been an employee of Tar Isteach, a republican prisoner support group.
Martin McCauley, another of the Bogota 3, and his wife sent the following message to the family:
My dear friend Rosie, one in a million, a pillar of strength and a beacon of hope. Much loved and sadly missed by Christin and Martin McCauley.
Why should I trawl loyalist or republican sites?
How many innocent people would have to die before you said enough was enough? We already have too much of a Mafia society in NI without the help of attorneys.
Her associations were with a lot more republican thugs than just one of the Bogota three as the collective condolences demonstrates.
MURPHY, Conor (Newry and Armagh)
Director of Cumann Na Meirleach Ard Mhaca Theas Ltd.
These people are all intimately related to republican terrorism but not to the cause of Justice and Peace.
However what does that have to do with the facts as presented in the article? Speak to the issue rather than attacking the messengers.
For one thing, primogeniture was not an Irish custom in terms of land inheritance; instead, parcels owned by a father were apportioned equally to all sons, and they to theirs. By the 1840s this resulted in a plethora of very small holdings which were only barely capable of supporting their families, and this (among other reasons, including dietary changes) resulted in an overdependence on a single, relatively new, and not genetically diverse, food-crop, the potato. When the Blight came around (no mention of that above, incidentally...) the Irish were far more vulnerable to a single crop failure than their immediate ancestors were.
For another, and the British certainly aren't devoid of blame here, the custom of absentee landlordship meant that management of these small-holdings was conducted by agents of agents, and the real human cost was not well communicated to the actual land-holder once the tenant got behind in the rent. Eviction was a cold, mechanical process of economics, and the bodies alongside the road weren't visible to the British, Scots, or Scots-Irish landlords. And it took awhile for the magnitude of the problem to be evident over the religious and political partisan screaming, much of which was even worse than the stuff quoted above.
There's a pretty good book that examines the claims made in The Great Hunger against the intense criticism it engendered, and against what has been learned since of such matters as grain exportation and relief efforts. It's here:
My own opinion - insensitive, surely. Hateful, definitely. Organized genocide, probably not. IMHO, of course.
One other thing - call me a pedant, but this usage irritates me:
Taylors analysis of the Great Starvation seems to beg the question - was it genocide?
This is NOT "begging the question" although it may raise the question. Begging a question is a logical fallacy which results when an assumption is made that a question has already been answered. "When did you stop beating your wife" 'begs the question' of whether the person ever started. Harrumph!
As I have said on another thread, I would hesitate to use the word genocide to describe British policy during the famine, mostly because of the political connotations the word usually has today. Irish customs regarding primogeniture may have been a contributing factor to the famine, but I think that English laws that forbade Irish Catholics from entering professions and that discouraged the growth of industry in Ireland should also be examined.
I guess my bottom line is that when people are starving, you feed them. The famine to me is the perfect example of theory (laissez-faire capitalism) gone wild. It also shows how extreme bigotry can distort one's moral reasoning.
There might be an additional religious dimension at work. Some sects could well have believed that the famine was God's judgement on Ireland. These sort of ideas probably still prevail.
I don't think there was a uniform system of land tenure. For example, there was something called Ulster Custom where I think tenants could benefit financially from improvements made during the tenure of a lease. It may not have been widespread even in Ulster.