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


"[Trevelyan wrote:] It was useless 'to transfer famine from one country to another.' If food was bought for Ireland in the present scarcity, prices must be sent up, and the English and Scots working-classes would pay more for their food. Large sums of public money had already been spent on Irish relief, and 'you cannot expect the English and Scotch laborers to support Ireland and pay famine prices as well.' Everything that could be done had been done: 'My purchases are carried to the utmost point short of transferring the famine from Ireland to England.'"59

This statement, coming from Trevelyan, is surprising for two reasons. First, it is oddly enough both consistent and inconsistent with a strict interpretation of laissez-faire. Second, it indicates an awareness at the highest levels of British government that workers were unable to pay the high famine prices of food. The system of public works was already in full swing, and the British government argued that the wages it paid were more than enough to buy food, despite a calculus that did not account for famine price inflation. However, Trevelyan advocated protecting English and Scotch workers because he believed that their wages would not be sufficient to pay famine prices. His position suggests a use of laissez-faire to protect the lower classes of England and Scotland at the expense of the Irish.

Davis' argument about the third world being used to subsidize the industrial dominance of Britain is also extremely difficult to sustain in the Irish case. The lynchpin of Davis' argument in this regard is that India continued to export massive amounts of grain throughout the famine. Contemporary accounts suggest a similar situation in Ireland, and early in the famine there were riots in many port cities as wheat and oats were exported. However, as O'Grada convincingly demonstrates, this perspective is flawed for at least two reasons. First, even if all of the food exported during the famine were costlessly diverted directly to famine relief, "the ensuing increased supply of food would have made only a small dent in the gap left Phytophthora infestans."60 [Original emphasis.] Secondly, O'Grada shows that over the course of the famine,

59. Woodham-Smith, 137.
60. O'Grada, 124.
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