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The Cornishman’s corn, and why countries aren’t businesses

12/09/2017

One of the most popular modern Irish folk songs is The fields of Athenry (pronounced not as ‘At-Henry’, but with ‘Athen’ as in ‘Athens’ and ‘ry’ as in ‘rye’ – the name of a small town in the west of Ireland). The song, a tear-jerker if ever there was one, tells the story of a young Irishman called Michael who in the midst of the country’s devastating potato famine 170 years ago is caught stealing some of ‘Trevelyan’s corn’ to feed his starving family, and is punished by being sent for life to Britain’s penal colony in Australia, never to see his family again; by implication, his wife Mary and his children are thereby condemned to die of hunger.

Unfortunately, the reality of the Irish famine was even far worse than this, and one person is generally held to have made a major contribution to it: a heartlessly zealous British civil servant called Charles Trevelyan, the son of a Cornish clergyman.

Given his Cornish descent and typically Cornish surname (the ‘tre-‘ prefix means ‘farm’ or ‘homestead’), you might think Trevelyan would have felt a particular affection for his fellow-Celts in Ireland (and in the Scottish Highlands, to which the same potato disease would spread a few years later). But, on the contrary, he seems to have harboured a deep contempt for them; and he was determined that famine relief efforts must not interfere with the smooth flow of British trade. Although he ‘generously’ conceded that Irish people should not actually be allowed to starve to death – presumably because this would reflect badly on his government’s administration of the island – his misguided laissez-faire policies, which foreshadowed the worst excesses of today’s ‘free-market capitalism’, ensured that at least a million of them did. In fact, Trevelyan could clearly not have cared less, for he believed that the potato famine was God’s punishment for ‘the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the [Irish] people’, as well as ‘an effective mechanism for reducing surplus population’; he was a follower of the no less cynical economist Thomas Robert Malthus, who saw ‘excess’ population as a threat to economic growth, and ipso facto a bad thing.

When the impoverished crofters of Western Scotland began to suffer the same fate as the Irish before them, Trevelyan’s ‘solution’ was to found the ‘Highland and Island Emigration Society’, which encouraged them to quit their homes and take ship for Australia – not officially as a punishment, but the effect was much the same. This was the time of the infamous ‘Highland clearances’, in which large numbers of Gaelic-speaking tenant farmers were evicted by rich landlords, and left to their fate. True to type, Trevelyan seems to have believed that he was helping the victims – but his main concern was once again to maintain the smooth flow of British trade, and to get rid of ‘surplus population’.

So what exactly was ‘Trevelyan’s corn’, as mentioned in the Irish song? Irish potatoes were of a particularly nutritious kind, and millions of people had managed to survive on very little else; indeed, when the famine first made its appearance in 1845 the island had an astonishing nine million inhabitants, making Ireland the most densely populated part of Europe (the scale of the subsequent decline through mass starvation, disease and emigration can be measured by the fact that even today the total population is less than 6.5 million, and will probably never return to its former level). But when the ‘potato blight’ spread from North America to continental Europe in 1844, this one-sided food source became a death sentence for Ireland’s people. In 1845 and again in 1847 the potato harvest failed throughout the island; and although people in the wealthier cities of the north and east could find plenty of other things to live on, this option was not available to the poor in the south and west. Not only did they have nothing left to eat, but they could not earn money by selling their surplus crop – for the entire crop had rotted in the ground. In desperation, starving people tried to eat the foul-smelling, blackened mush that remained; but that was not only devoid of nutritional value, but also carried disease. Farmers had been used to replanting pieces of potato (known as ‘seed potatoes’) that would generate the following year’s crop; but now, for want of any alternative, they began to eat these too, thereby ensuring there would not even be a new crop to fail.

At first the British government tried to provide relief, but the scale of the catastrophe proved overwhelming. Potato blight was a hitherto unknown disease; various suggestions were made about how to tackle it, but all in vain. And now Charles Trevelyan’s racist, bureaucratic, laissez-faire zeal came to the fore. Throughout the famine years whole shiploads of food continued to leave Irish ports; while Britain’s international trade kept flowing, millions of its citizens were abandoned to their fate. To add insult to injury, the notion arose that the supposedly ‘improvident’ Irish had brought all this on themselves by becoming so dependent on a single source of food. Thus did the British authorities attempt to shrug off what was clearly their responsibility as rulers of a country they had conquered  by force centuries earlier.

But the horrific consequences of this deliberate neglect were soon too evident to ignore; and, perhaps mindful of his public statement that Irish people should not actually be allowed to starve to death, Trevelyan came up with a seemingly satisfactory solution: imports of ‘Indian corn’, a.k.a. maize. This was the ‘Trevelyan’s corn’ that Michael stole. But relief was above all not to be provided free of charge – for that would interfere with ‘free’ trade. Since the by now destitute people in the south and west of Ireland could not afford to pay for the expensive corn, they continued to starve, but a ‘solution’ that looked good on paper in London had been provided – and too bad for the ‘improvident’ Irish if they failed to take advantage of it. To make matters worse, not only could a crop like maize hardly thrive in Ireland’s damp, cold climate, but Irish people were completely unaccustomed to growing it, let alone cooking it – yet more ‘improvidence’, not to say ‘sloth’ (perhaps the fact that Trevelyan’s father was a clergyman played a part in such biblical condemnation of a whole starving people).

And when people like young Michael in The fields of Athenry resorted to theft, they were of course punished with the full force of the colonial law: life imprisonment on the other side of the world.

170 years ago, Trevelyan was doing in Ireland what Donald Trump is today trying to do in the United States: run a country like a business, and to hell with the impact on flesh-and-blood people. It didn’t work then, and it won’t work now – unless you think mass suffering is an acceptable outcome of free-market capitalism, and the victims’ own fault.

I don’t, and nor should anyone with any kind of conscience – especially the ‘born-again Christian’ Republicans who tend to support the likes of Trump. But of course their main faith is in their own money.

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