One hundred and 56 years ago this week, on Aug. 17, 1846, the British government announced that it would not intervene in the grain market in order to alleviate the critical food shortage in Ireland. Some had argued that such an intervention was necessary to lower the price of food to allow starving Irish peasants to buy it. But Lord Russell, the new prime minister of a Whig government recently come to power, adamantly refused. He and others in his administration argued that the iron “laws of economics” prohibited any meddling with prices or trade policy. Later, when he and his government did respond to the Famine then gripping Ireland, it was to establish the infamous workhouses. Again they invoked economic theory that said people, especially those already seen as lazy (i.e., the Irish), will grow dependent of government handouts if they are given too freely. Thus did the natural disaster of the potato blight develop needlessly into one of the great disasters of the modern era.
The potato blight, of course, first appeared in Ireland in the late summer of 1845. By September, it spread to farms in the northeast, eventually destroying one third of the potato crop. In 1846, the year of Russell’s fateful policy decisions, the blight reappeared in June and spread at a rate of 50 miles per week to all 32 counties, destroying nearly 90 percent of the crop. The loss in 1847 was lower — just 30 percent — but it was equally devastating because farmers had planted so few potatoes. Half the potato crop of 1848 fell to the blight, with smaller, localized outbreaks of blight occurring between 1849 and 1852.
The initial reaction of the British government was promising. Robert Peel’s Tory government acted quickly to prevent starvation (Peel had presided over food relief efforts during crises in Ireland back in 1817 and 1822). Peel ordered a Scientific Commission to investigate the causes of the blight, and in November 1845 secretly purchased _100,000 of Indian corn from America. In the spring of 1846, this corn was sold at cost to local Relief Committees, which then sold it to the poor. Public works programs were established (mostly road building) which provided employment and wages to thousands. Peel’s measures were successful in the short term and no one starved in the first year of crisis (August 1845 to August 1846). But the potato failure of 1845 was small compared with those to come and far greater measures would have to be taken to prevent mass starvation.
Unfortunately, in June 1846 Peel’s government fell in the wake of his successful effort to repeal Britain’s Corn Laws (tariffs on grain imports). He was replaced by a Whig administration headed by Lord John Russell. It was marked by a deep ideological commitment to free trade and the conservative economic principles advocated by Adam Smith, David Ricardo and other classical economists who warned against government interference in economic affairs.
So when some suggested imposing temporary price controls on food in Ireland or beginning emergency distribution of food for free or at cost, the Russell government announced on Aug. 17 that it would do no such thing. It likewise refused to stop the export from Ireland of enormous quantities of food unaffected by the blight. To do so, they government argued, would damage the overall British economy and hinder Ireland’s recovery. As a result, tons of oats, grain, dairy products, distilled alcohol, and livestock left Ireland for Britain, Europe and the U.S. — eventually under military and police guard — while its people starved.
While British officials argued that they could not violate the laws of free trade and the free market, they often did so when it suited their needs. As historian Christine Kinealy has noted, when the Chinese refused to buy their opium, the British waged the Opium War (1839-42) to force them to do so. This suggests that other motives, like racism and a desire to see the troublesome Irish population substantially reduced, were at work as well. “The great evil with which we have to contend,” argued Charles Trevelyan, permanent secretary of the treasury and a central figure in determining British policy toward Ireland, “is not the physical evil of the famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse, and turbulent character of the Irish people.”
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The same ideological purity that led British officials to resist calls for price controls or modifications in free-trade policy also made them resolutely opposed to free emergency food distribution in 1846. Russell and Trevelyan hoped to use the Famine crisis to reform and modernize Irish society, a society that they considered hopelessly backward. So beginning that fall, Russell’s government established a vast system of public works (far greater in scope than Peel’s) that required people work for food. Free food distribution, they argued, would damage the economy by artificially forcing down food prices, thus hurting farmers and shopkeepers. It would also foster dependence among the lazy Irish. Public works, they stressed, would also help modernize Ireland by improving farms and roads.
The public works projects began at precisely the moment when starvation and malnutrition from the second potato failure were taking hold. By March of 1847, the programs employed 734,000 people (one out of every three adult males). Conditions were dreadful. Men were required to work 12 hours a day, six days per week, at hard manual labor. The work carried on through the winter (an extremely cold one that brought nine inches of snow), even though workers often had little more than rags for clothing. Wages were a paltry 2d per day — far below market rates. To make matters worse, while wages were kept low, food prices were not. Food sellers took advantage of the situation and prices soared.
While some projects of value were completed under the plan, many were useless, make-work tasks established because the British government could not bear the idea of giving away food without making people work for it. Worse still, the need to labor on the public works to survive meant that people had little or no time to plant crops. As a result, the harvest of 1847, while losing only 30 percent to the blight, was a fraction of its normal level.