Friday, July 31, 2009

Let's show some awareness of history

Charles Trevelyan, the civil servant with most direct responsibility for the government's handling of the famine, described it in 1848 as "a direct stroke of an all-wise and all-merciful Providence", which laid bare "the deep and inveterate root of social evil"; the Famine, he affirmed, was "the sharp but effectual remedy by which the cure is likely to be effected. God grant that the generation to which this opportunity has been offered may rightly perform its part..."

This summer across New England we have been afflicted by an unusual agriculture condition, the "late blight", which has the potential to cause major failures of the tomato and potato crops. It has become commonplace for the news coverage of the late blight to refer to the best known outbreak of late blight, in Ireland in 1845.

It has also been commonplace for news coverage to refer to late blight as the condition "which caused the Irish potato famine in the mid-19th century". "The crop disease -- the same that caused the Irish potato famine -- is not unusual, but arrived in the region early this year".

In fact, there is no question that the blight did not cause the Famine. True, it caused the failure of the Irish potato crop, but the only serious question of the cause of the Famine was whether it was the result of an intentional program of genocide by the English, or was simply caused by a callous indifference to the suffering and starvation that English policies imposed on the subjugated Irish population.

The quote that opens this essay is as good an example as any of the argument in favor of genocide: the very man charged with responsibility for famine relief was contemplating with glee the prospect of the death by starvation of millions of Ireland, with his only regret being that the number of deaths might be insufficient to suit his purposes. In 1996 Francis A. Boyle, a law professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, wrote a report commissioned by the New York-based Irish Famine/Genocide Committee, that concluded "Clearly, during the years 1845 to 1850, the British government pursued a policy of mass starvation in Ireland with intent to destroy in substantial part the national, ethnic and racial group commonly known as the Irish People.... Therefore, during the years 1845 to 1850 the British government knowingly pursued a policy of mass starvation in Ireland that constituted acts of genocide against the Irish people within the meaning of Article II (c) of the 1948 [Hague] Genocide Convention."

In 1845, Ottoman Sultan Abdülmecid declared his intention to send 10,000 sterling to Irish farmers but Queen Victoria requested that the Sultan send only 1,000 sterling, because she had sent only 2,000 sterling. The Sultan sent the 1,000 sterling but also secretly sent 3 ships full of food. The English courts tried to block the ships, but the food arrived at Drogheda harbour and was left there by Ottoman sailors.

On the other hand, historian Cormac Ó Gráda disagreed that the famine was genocide: first, that "genocide includes murderous intent and it must be said that not even the most bigoted and racist commentators of the day sought the extermination of the Irish"; second, that most people in Whitehall "hoped for better times in Ireland" and third, that the claim of genocide overlooks "the enormous challenges facing relief efforts, both central, local, public and private". Ó Gráda thinks that a case of neglect is easier to sustain than that of genocide.

Given the public statements of those in power in England I find it hard to credit the idea that the Great Hunger was not caused by a deliberate program of genocide. While English imperialists did not create or engineer the blight, they undoubtedly took advantage of the crop failure to reduce what they saw as Irish overpopulation and to restructure the agriculture industry and system of land ownership in Ireland.

Genocide? Whatever your answer, it is clear that it was not the blight that caused the Famine. The American press should know better.


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