Saturday, June 16, 2018

Driving to devastation

When I was little, I remember reading a story, or perhaps a play, where an Irish family is considering migrating to a new land, America. Moving across the ocean, with little prospect of ever coming back, is daunting. One of the characters is reluctant. But one young man insists: at home, there is nothing. Even if they survive, he says, all they can look forward to is potatoes. More and more potatoes.

This little scene got stuck in my head. I couldn't understand why somebody would object to a steady diet of potatoes. Could one ever have too many potatoes?

I didn't understand because I had never had to live a potato diet. No bread. No corn. No rice. No lentils. Just potatoes, morning and night, day in and day out. And sometimes, not even that – not even a boiled potato.

It was only recently that I finally understood, once I started reading about the great Irish famine of 1945. It was also called the great potato famine, because the big disaster was a failure of the potato crop. A potato blight meant that suddenly, the vast majority of people had nothing to eat at all. An interactive map released by the Queen's University College, Belfast, shows that between 1841 and 1851, along the west coast, nearly half the populuation was wiped out.

How could this happen?

The answer lies in a complex mix of bigotry, oppressive feudalism, and imperialist policies.

By the eighteenth century, England's rulers were largely Protestant. England also controlled Ireland and Scotland in direct and indirect ways. Certainly, the Irish and Scots had their own distinct language and culture. Ireland also had a significant Catholic population that faced discriminatory laws. Catholic could not own property or join the army or hold public office.

Many of these laws were repealed before the famine. But land ownership was deeply skewed against the tiller who was being squeezed tighter and tighter. They worked for very meagre wages in exchange for being allowed a tiny plot of land on which they could grow the food that would feed their own families. The only thing that would grow abundantly on small plots was potatoes.

The big lords often lived far away, in cities. They neither knew nor cared about the difficulties of their tenants. They appointed middlemen to deliver their share of money. These middlemen further divided and sub-let the land in a way to extract maximum rent.

Already, vast tracts of land had been cleared to make way for cattle, to feed the diary and meat needs of England. But the poor did not own this cattle. And once they had been made paupers, their landlords evicted them and flattened their little huts.

Worse, there were laws that kept the prices of food artifically high. Cheap grain imports were not allowed but traders kept exporting grain and livestock. Through the worst of the famine, as millions perished, hundreds of thousands of gallons of butter left Ireland.

This is how we ride up to famine: because there's money to be made that way.

This story is familiar to Indians who know about the Great Bengal Famine of 1943. Millions died. There are many similarities – a diseased crop in one season, absentee landlords, marginal or landless farmers, a steady export of grain, imports being either disallowed or diverted.

With reference to Bengal in 1943, we speak of imperialism and racism at work. But the truth is, any shade of difference is enough – a different language or accent, a different religion or sect – once you set out to create inequality, institutionalise it, and to profit from the devastation of others. 

First published here:

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