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Canada she embodied a similar condition in the capitulation of that province; and that if she wanted Ireland, she could not afford to adopt a more rigorous Puritanism in that country.
To write the history of the famine is not possible here-thousands and tens of thousands, and hundreds of thousands of innocent men and women perished in it; it killed more human beings than all the French Revolutions from the Jacobins to the Communists; more than England lost in any of the wars in which she engaged from the battle of Hastings till the battle of Waterloo. I have written the tragic story elsewhere for those who care to read it; here our business is to take a hasty glance at the defensive or remedial measures by which the calamity was encountered by the Whig Government. For this is the history of half a century of boons.
It is right on the threshold to say that munificent aid came from individuals and sections of the English people. The Wesleyan Methodists forgot their prejudice against Irish Papists, and subscribed 5,0001.; the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge gave 4,0001. each ; banks and public companies and several great nobles contributed liberally; and the Society of Friends collected nearly 50,0001., and expended it by their own agents in considerate and organised relief. But the Government, who could not with impunity have allowed one parish to be destroyed by famine in England, adopted a policy which it is difficult to review even at this time of day with tranquil pulse.
They were exhorted to forbid the exportation of food from Ireland till the safety of the people was provided for. But the food exported was carried to England, where it furnished a cheap and convenient supply, and they flatly refused. Young England was then in its generous youth, and Lord John Manners reminded Parliament that it was not England alone that reaped the benefit—within ten days from the time he spoke there were seven-and-twenty vessels in the Seine loaded with corn from Ireland; and he advised that the remedy which other European nations had employed, shutting the ports, should be tried. But his proposal met with no response.
They were besought as an alternative to purchase food in the great grain markets of the world, and establish granaries, as Germany, Belgium, and Switzerland had done ; but Lord John Russell announced that he would not interfere with private enterprise, or disturb the ordinary course of trade; and in the end supplies bought from corn merchants in London, who made immense fortunes out of the traffic, cost twice or thrice the amount they could have been bought for if this precaution had been adopted. All the generous contributions from England fell short of the sum diverted in this illegitimate manner from the food fund into the pockets of English corn-merchants and shipowners.
When at length it was determined to feed the people on Indian corn, instead of the crops reared by their own industry, the Government were urged to employ the navy in carrying it from the United States. Maize which could be bought at less than a pound a quarter at Chicago rose to 41. in Mark Lane; and every pound wasted came in the end to represent the life of an Irish peasant. The navy was declared on official authority to be quite unfit for such a service. As a practical commentary on this opinion, two ships of the American navy sailed into Dublin Bay laden with corn, the gift of the American people to Ireland. That nothing might be wanting in the completeness of the refutation, one of them was an English frigate, the Macedonia,' captured in the last war with America; and it was naturally asked if it was only after they had fallen into the hands of an enemy that English ships of war were fit to perform this service for Ireland.
When Parliament made a grant of money for the relief of the famishing people, the method of spending it became a cardinal question. There was a general agreement in Ireland that it should be expended on some scheme of reproductive public works; and railways, canals, and the reclamation of waste lands were suggested. But the Government insisted on spending it in quite useless undertakings. Lines of roads were projected where there was no traffic; serviceable highways were torn up to alter the levels; and in the end, when the scheme excited intolerable ridicule, it was suddenly abandoned, and the roads left for years unfinished and impassable. Lord George Bentinck, who did not lack a certain practical capacity, submitted to the House of Commons a scheme for lending sixteen millions to Irish railway companies in the proportion of 21. for every ll. of share capital already profitably expended to enable them to employ the people in useful undertakings. Experienced railway directors in England declared the plan to be practicable and safe, but the Whigs made it a question of confidence that a proposal emanating from the Opposition should be defeated, and it was lost by a small majority.
One boon granted in this era must not be overlooked. It was enacted that any peasant who accepted public relief, when public relief was the alternative of immediate starvation, should forfeit his holding; and wholesale evictions ensued. The people in Limerick and Clare made a struggle to retain the harvest they had reared and the lands they had tilled, and here and there attempted some blind reprisals on their enemies ; and another boon in the shape of a Special Commission was despatched to the disturbed districts, and straightway delivered eleven peasants to the hangman. Nothing is easier than to talk platitudes about preserving public order, but in no other country in the civilised world would the Government have denied the people adequate relief in such a calamity, and then killed them for endeavouring to help themselves. Had a mob of Belgravian notabilities been driven to the same extremity as this mob of Munster peasants, no law, human or divine, would have re
strained them from taking what they wanted wherever they could find it.
I refrain from painting the horrible condition to which this policy reduced the country beyond a single extract, founded on the reports of Mr. Forster, the late Irish Secretary, who was then a young man superintending the generous alms distributed by the Society of Friends :
At Skibbereen, in the fruitful county of Cork, whose seaports were thronged with vessels laden with corn, cattle, and butter for England, the rate-collector found houses completely deserted, the owners having been carried to their graves. In one cabin there was no other occupant than three corpses; in a once prosperous home a woman and her children had lain dead and unburied for a week; in the fields a man was discovered so fearfully mangled by dogs that identification was impossible. The Relief Committee of the Society of Friends described the state of the town in language which it was hard to read with dry eyes.
* This place is one mass of famine, disease, and death. The poor creatures, hitherto trying to exist on one meal per day, are now sinking under fever and bowel complaints, unable to come for their soup, which is not fit for them. Rice is what their whole cry is for, but we cannot manage this well, nor can we get the food carried to the houses from dread of infection. I have got a coffin, with moveable sides, constructed to convey the bodies to the churchyard, in calico bags prepared, in which the remains are wrapped up. I have just sent this to bring the remains of a poor creature to the grave, who having been turned out of the only shelter she had a miserable hut-perished the night before last in a quarry.
The labourers employed on the roads amounted to half a million, and after the famine had run its course for two years an alarm was raised that there would be no hands to cultivate the land (to the serious peril of rent). The Government determined to stop the system, and set all this labour free; and at the same time to shift the responsibility for the future from the State to the soil. There would be no more public works, they announced, but an extra rate might be levied for the support of the poor, and when the workhouses were full the Commissioners could, in any case they thought proper, authorise out-door relief in the shape of rations of half-cooked Indian meal. The decision was in effect that the calamity must be treated as an Irish, not as an Imperial one, and must be borne by Ireland exclusively. To make Irish property support Irish poverty would have been substantial justice, had the owners been empowered to control the expenditure of the necessary funds ; but it must be noted that this was done at a time when the Irish people were denied the right to take the whole responsibility, and with it the complete management, of their own affairs, which they passionately demanded ; and when even the advice of the most practical Irishmen, Unionists or Repealers, was disregarded, and the rates spent in complete contempt of the wishes of those who had to pay them. Dr. Whately is said to have likened the new policy to the expedient of granting a hungry dog the liberty of eating his own tail.
There was no lack of reasonable suggestions to meet, or at any rate to mitigate, the danger. A leading Irish member proposed a tax of ten per cent. on absentee rents—the property of men who sometimes did not spend a pound in the country, or contribute a pound to the Famine Fund--but the great absentees were the leaders, or the wirepullers of parties (as they are still), and the proposal was not listened to. Another member—a large proprietor, but a man of just and generous instincts_submitted a Land Bill which would give farmers who still possessed a little money a motive to spend it in employment; but it was opposed by Lord John Russell, and rejected by a large majority.
A Famine Conference in Dublin, so thronged with magnates that rank and station almost excluded industry and experience, recommended that a beginning might be made in cultivating the waste lands. Millions of acres of reclaimable soil, waste since the creation, lay waiting the transforming hand of industry, and an army of ablebodied labourers were ready for the work. No project could well seem more unobjectionable or hopeful, and the Government introduced a bill for the purpose.
But the waste lands were the property, in a great degree, of absentee nobles, the heirs of men who had obtained them on conditions which had never been complied with, and to touch them would raise questions inconvenient to property. After the bill had made certain progress Lord John Russell withdrew it on the humiliating plea that it would be ill received by the House of Lords. This plea would hardly have sufficed had the project been one necessary for the safety of the people in that part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland called England.'
The Government were warned that throwing the burthen wholly on Ireland would inevitably end in the destruction of millions of the Irish people. But this was a catastrophe which apparently did not alarm them. They persisted in their policy; and by death or emigration, which in the majority of cases was only protracted death, two millions of the Irish race actually perished. The result of our social system,' said Mr. Forster, reporting on the condition of Ireland at that time, “is that vast numbers of our fellow-countrymen-of the peasantry of one of the richest countries the world ever knew--have not leave to live.'
All the Poor Rate that could be levied from an impoverished country was quite insufficient for the support of the starving multitude; but the Government competed with the paupers for a share of it. The Treasury had lent seven millions for the employment of the people; five millions of it had been wasted mainly on needless roads, contrary to the urgent remonstrance of Ireland ; and a million spent not on wages, but on the purchase of land for this stupid experiment. • The aid which the stronger country proposed to give to the weaker, from the Treasury to which both contributed,' says a recent historian of these transactions, 'was the remission of one-third of this debt. A blunder in foreign policy, or the escapade of an ambitious Minister in India or Africa, has cost the British tax-payer more in a month than was spent to save millions of his fellow-subjects beyond the Irish Sea.' The Treasury had a legal claim for the repayment of a million and a quarter of this advance, and they insisted on a special rate being struck on a country where, in the language of Mr. Forster, the industrious peasantry had no longer "leave to live,' for the immediate repayment of it. They were warned on all hands that to divert this sum from the fund on which they had thrown the entire support of the poor, was to sentence myriads to death by starvation. Many Boards of Guardians reported that to collect a further rate was impossible, that enough for the urgent wants of the day could not be obtained by any process of exaction, and that they must decline the task proposed. But Shylock was not more determined to have his legal rights on the instant. A dozen Boards were dissolved (under a power provided with malice aforethought in a recent Act), and officials called paid guardians' put in their place, to do the will of the Government.
1 Mr. Sharman Crawford.
Despair seized on the people, and all who could afford the cost fled from the country. A multitude of peasants made their way to the United States, the customary asylum of Irish emigrants; but more than a hundred thousand, tempted by lower fares and nearer ports, preferred Canada. The Government made no attempt to aid or regulate this tremendous flight, and no preparation in a British colony for the reception or employment of the helpless refugees. The Times, not given to sentimental sympathy with Irish distress, pronounced the neglect to be an eternal disgrace to the English name. The result that followed is one of the most tragic chapters in human annals.
The United States maintained sanitary regulations on shipboard which were effectual to a certain extent; but the emigration to Canada was left to the individual greed of shipowners, and the ships employed rivalled the cabins of Mayo or the fever sheds of Skibbereen. Crowded and filthy, carrying double the legal number of passengers, who were ill-fed and imperfectly clothed, and having no doctor on board, the holds, says an eye-witness, were like the Black Hole of Calcutta, and deaths occurred in myriads. The survivors, on their arrival in the new country, continued to die and to scatter death around them. At Montreal, during nine weeks, eight hundred emigrants perished, and over nine hundred residents died of diseases caught from emigrants. During six months the deaths of the new arrivals exceeded three thousand. Ships carrying German emigrants and English emigrants arrived in Canada at the same time in a perfectly healthy state. The Chief Secretary for Ireland was able to inform the House of Commons that of a hundred thousand Irishmen who fled to Canada in a year 6,100 perished on the voyage, 4,100 on their arrival, 5,200 in the hospitals, and 1,900 in the towns to which they repaired. The Emigrant Society of Montreal paints the result during the whole period of the famine, in language not easily to be forgotten:
• From Grosse Island up to Port Sarnia, along the borders of our great river, on