Friday, October 29, 2010

Robert Peel and the Irish Famine

In 1845 a devastating blight hit the Irish potato crop which was the sole diet of millions of Irish people. The blight wasn’t the first of its kind, but it was the worst. That is until the following year which was worse again. The effects of a third blight in four years in 1848 left Ireland reeling in a way it has never fully recovered from. Millions died, and millions more fled to Britain and North America. To this day, the island of Ireland’s population remains two million less than it was in 1845. There was well meaning sympathy next door in the then-wealthiest country on earth, but the problem got ignored whenever a solution inconveniently threatened to interfere with British financial interests.

The problem itself was slow to manifest itself at first. As digging of the potato crop progressed in the autumn of 1845, the news from Ireland grew steadily worse. By mid October, reports from the local constabulary were growing that showed crop failure all parts of the country. In Monaghan and elsewhere it was remarked “potatoes brought a few days ago, seemingly remarkably good, have rotted.”

It was this initial soundness that left everyone bewildered and then thrown into despair. What looked like a splendid crop rotted in front of farmers’ eyes. Wild theories were put forward as it why it was happening. Some blamed static electricity in the atmosphere generated by smoke from locomotives that had just come into use. Others pinned the culprit as 'mortiferous vapours' from ‘blind volcanos’ deep in the earth. One school of thought blamed another recent fashion: the collection of guano manure.

The esteemed British Prime Minister Robert Peel was being kept abreast of developments and asked his good friend and scientist Dr Lyon Playfair to investigate. Peel appointed Playfair head of a Scientific Commission to see what could be done to save the Irish potato. Playfair had studied under Justus von Liebig but was a better courtier than chemist. He asked the editor of the leading horticultural paper in Britain, Dr John Lindley to join him on his expedition.

In Ireland they were met by the eminent Irish Catholic scientist (a rarity for the time) Professor Robert Kane. Peel asked Kane to work with his Commission because he knew Kane was already investigating the problem and had written an important book about The Industrial Resources of Ireland. He would also provide the men with local knowledge and between them, Peel hoped, they would come up with a “dispassionate judgement” on the problem.

The Commission needed little deliberation. Members found evidence all too easily the problem was even worse than reported. They estimated half the crop was destroyed or about to be. Their mission became finding a method of preventing sound potatoes from rotting. But despite the involvement of Kane, fatal ignorance of Irish conditions proved the Commission’s undoing.

The traditional Irish method of storing potatoes was to keep them in a simple pit where the tubers could be partially protected from frost and rain. The Commissioners advised farmers to dry the potatoes in the sun and then put them in a trench covered in turf. There followed complicated instructions on sifting packing stuff using unslacked lime, burnt turf and dry sawdust. There was a laundry list of unobtainable tools required and opaque hints on how to make bread from the starchy material. 70,000 copies were printed of the instructions which suggested if the farmer did not understand them they should ask their landlord or clergyman to explain its meaning.

The Commission produced “four monster reports” to the Peel Government in three weeks. Hopes that the starchy material would provide sustenance were dashed as was the possibility of separating the good and bad bits of slightly blighted spuds. It didn’t matter what people did with them, the potatoes melted into a slimy decaying mess.

Senior landowners started warning Dublin Castle that the problem was getting out of hand. Lord Clare told the Irish Under-Secretary at the Castle he “would not answer for the consequences” if a famine occurred. With the year’s crop destroyed “how were they to survive to August 1846?” Clare asked. One person suggested the 12,000 police and army horse supply of corn be cut while the Duke of Norfolk said the Irish “should learn to consume curry powder” which he said had nourished India.

On 28 October 1845, the Dublin Corporation called for a committee to be set up to advise the Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland Lord Heytesbury to adopt measures “to avoid calamity”. The committee led by Daniel O’Connell proposed corn exports be stopped and the ports thrown open for free import of food, rice and Indian corn. They also suggested food stores and public works for country areas. O’Connell suggested a tax on landlords to pay for all this.

Heytesbury was unimpressed by the proposal. He used the time-immemorial excuse of stonewalling politicians saying all the evidence was not yet in. “It was impossible to form an accurate opinion...until digging was complete,” he said. The plans needed to be “maturely weighed”. The Freeman’s Journal led with the condemnation of Heytesbury’s weasel words. They summarised his message as “let them starve”.

If Heytesbury was an archetypal colonial fool, Peel was not. He knew that the crop failure meant the Irish must be fed on grain, so his answer was to repeal the Corn Laws. He also knew this was political suicide. A previous supporter, the Duke of Buckingham had resigned from cabinet three years earlier rather than tolerate a slight modification to the laws. Now Peel was staring down a remedy that involved the abolition of duties on all “articles of subsistence.”

This was bad for Peel, but it would prove even worse for Ireland. In England, the vital oxygen of publicity for the fate of the Irish was deprived by the burning domestic issue of the laws. English farmers in particular stood to lose out if duties on imported grain were lifted. Worse still, opponents of abolition repeatedly denied there was any problem in Ireland at all and that change was unnecessary. The Tory Mayor of Liverpool refused to call a meeting for the relief of Irish distress while the blight was seen as “the invention of agitators”. To even express the opinion the blight existed, had the danger of setting the speaker out as a dangerous radical.

The abolition question produced a huge split in Peel’s own protectionist Conservative Party. There was an overwhelming majority in Cabinet against him. Despite being rolled on the issue, Peel refused to resign. Playfair produced his final report on 15 November. He said late rainy weather had made the problem even worse than before. But the Cabinet was unmoved. On 5 December Peel tendered his resignation to Queen Victoria. After “ten famous days” of feverish negotiations, opposition leader Lord John Russell told Victoria he too found it impossible to form a government.

The poisoned chalice was handed back to Peel who had to carry out Corn Law reform against his own party’s wishes. Ireland’s fate lay in his hands but they were tied behind his back. As 1845 passed into the deep winter of 1846, control of Ireland passed to Peel's increasingly powerful Treasury Assistant Charles Trevelyan. Trevelyan had little sympathy for the Irish whom he felt did not help themselves enough. He worked to undermine Peel’s relief plans of Indian corn. The Irish gave up hope on English assistance and prayed instead for survival to a good harvest in 1846. It was this second failure that did all the damage. The British had charity fatigue second time round and Trevelyan shut down the relief operation.

Peel, meanwhile got his Corn Law repeals through at fatal cost. On 26 June 1846 the Whigs and Protectionist Tories combined to bring him down. He was defeated by 73 votes and resigned three days later. As an observer said at the time, the vote “had as much to do with Ireland as Kamschatka". But with the laissez faire Lord John Russell in power supported by Trevelyan of similar mind, any hope Britain would intervene in the calamity that followed disappeared. Britain practised genocide by omission. In lieu of potatoes, the Russell Government planted the seeds that would lead to Ireland’s 20th century rebellions.

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