Nick Wilson, "Political Ecology and the Irish Potato Famine"


particularly under Peel, did not carry this attitude. First, Peel purchased 100,000 of Indian corn precisely because he saw the inability of markets to relieve a famine completely. The Indian corn "was to be held in reserve, controlled by Government, and a supply 'thrown in' whenever prices rose unreasonably."57

However, at other times Peel acted in favor of laissez-faire. For example, he pushed for a repeal of the corn laws, the protectionist duties on the importation of corn to the United Kingdom, at the same time that he was importing the Indian meal for relief. Initially he linked Corn Law repeal to the plight of Ireland, but according to Woodham-Smith, the Irish famine became increasingly lost in the debates over the bill and was little more than a rhetorical gimmick by the time they were eventually repealed. Kinealy writes:

"At the beginning of 1846, when the news from Ireland suggested that the distress would not be as severe as had been feared, Peel continued to press for a repeal of the Corn Laws. A shift in emphasis was now becoming apparent as he increasingly used the 'Condition of England' question as much as the Irish potato blight as the imperative for repeal."58

What is important to remember about this debate is that it was enormously controversial. Indeed, when Peel first suggested a repeal in late 1845, it caused the breakup of his cabinet and dissolved the ruling Tory coalition. The government was reformed after a two week break, mainly because of divisions amongst the opposition, but it is worth noting that an act wholly consistent with doctrinaire adherence to laissez-faire-repeal of the corn laws-was so politically controversial that it caused the downfall of an administration.

Remarkably, even Charles Trevelyan hints at a more robust understanding of the economics of famine than he is usually given credit for. In late 1846, writes Woodham-Smith,

57. Woodham-Smith, 55.
58. Kinealy, 58.
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