One Hundred Years Later, Same Message. 1916 - 2017
Sunday, February 14, 2010
BIRTH OF THE BOYCOTT
I can describe the exact moment of conception. On the evening of September 22nd, 1880, Father John O’Malley was sharing a meal with American journalist James Redpath. At some point in the meal the priest noticed that the American had stopped eating. When queried, Redpath explained, “I am bothered about a word. When a people ostracize a land grabber..." And Redpath struggled for a moment, before explaining, "But ostracism won't do" The priest, according to Redpath, "tapped his big forehead, and said, 'How would it do to call it "to boycott him?” Mr. Redpath wrote, “He was the first man who uttered the word, and I was the first who wrote it.” (Talks About Ireland, 1881) And thus was born another contribution to the English language. Of course the meaning of this invention requires a little explination.
Freed from its incubator in the central highlands of Mexico, 'Phytophthora infestans', the Potato Blight, arrived in Ireland in the 1830’s. By then the humble potato had become the primary food for the 8 milion people of Ireland. It could be grown almost year round. It produced so much protein per square foot that a family could be supported on a quarter of an acre of land. Then, in the decades after 1845, the blight created "The Starving Time". Each year more and more of the crop was consumed by the moldy blight. By 1855 20% of the population of Ireland had starved to death, and another 20% had emigrated.
The British government struggled to respond to the disaster with church based relief, but politics now compounded the human misery. Potatos were molding away in the fields. But wheat, which was growing healthy and abundant in Ireland, was too expensive for the starving Irish to buy, thanks to the Corn Laws. These were duties (taxes) charged on imported grain. This was done to protect the Irish landowners from having to compete with cheap American wheat. But by 1880, of the four million souls still surviving on the emerald isle, fewer than 2,000 owned 70% of the land. The three million tenant farmers own nothing, and over the two previous years their rents had been increased by 30%. The very life was being squeezed out of them.
Meanwhile, most of the largest, wealthiest landowners, those benefiting from the Corn Laws, were absentee landlords, Englishmen and women who hired local farmers to manage their distant estates. “Captain" Charles Cunningham Boycott was one of these local farm owners/managers. Those tenants who could not pay were evicted by the managers. Those who were evicted usually died. To argue it was not intended as “genocide” misses the point. Ireland was teetering on the edge of a revolution.
On Tuesday, July 3rd, 1880, three men emptied their revolvers into the head and face of twenty-nine year old David Feerick, an agent for a absentee landlord, outside of the village of Ballinrobe, County Mayo. No one was ever charged with the murder. In early September, outside of the same village, “Captain” Charles Boycott, who owned 4,000 acres himself, called on the tenants to harvest the oat crop of Lord Erne, whose larger property he managed.
“Captain” Boycott would be described by the New York Times (in 1881) as 49 years old; "a red faced fellow, five feet eight inches tall, the son of a Protestant minister who had served in the British Army." He earned his title of Captain not in the military but for his daring attitude in sport. The day he called them back to work Boycott also informed the tenants that their wages were being cut by almost half. The tenants simply refused to work.
The Boycott family and servants by themselves struggled for half a day to cut and harvest the oats before admitting defeat. Mrs. Boycott then appealed to the tenants personally. They responded to her by bringing in the oat crop before the winter rains ruined it.
On September 19th, Charles Stuart Parnell (above), an Irish politician, addressed a mass meeting in the town of Ennis. Parnell called on the crowd to shun any who took over the property of an evicted tenant. “When a man takes a farm from which another has been evicted, you must show him on the roadside when you meet him, you must show him in the streets of the town, you must show him at the shop counter, you must show him in the fair and the marketplace, and even in the place of worship, by leaving him severely alone — putting him into a kind of moral Coventry — isolating him from his kind like the leper of old.” Unstated, was the reality that this was a religious war, the Catholic south of Ireland against the Protestant north and England.
On September, 22nd, a local process server, accompanied by police, issued eviction notices to eleven of "Captain" Boycott's tenants. The tenants were not surprised. One told a local newspaper, “He treated his cattle better than he did us.” The server would have issued more eviction notices, but a crowd of women began to throw mud and manure and the agent and his police escort had to retreat into the Boycott home. That night, in the house of Father O'Mally, the word "Boycott", as a verb, was invented. It was put to immediate use.
The next morning, September 23rd, a large crowd from Ballinrobe (above) marched to the Boycott home and urged the servants to leave. By evening the Boycotts and a young niece living with them, were alone in the house.
A letter written by “Captain” Boycott was published in the London Times. It made no mention of the raising of rents, only of the refusal to pay those rents. It made no mention of the cutting of salary, only of the refusal to work. It did detail in full the travails of Captain Boycott and his family. His mail was not being delivered. He was followed and mocked whenever he left his farm. “The shopkeepers have been warned to stop all supplies to my house. I can get no workmen to do anything, and my ruin is openly avowed…”
Harpers Weekly Illustrated News for December 18, 1880, recorded what happened next. “A newspaper correspondent first started the idea of sending assistance to Captain Boycott…one person alone promised to get together 30,000 volunteers. Mr Forester, Chief Secretary for Ireland, at once vetoed the project of an armed invasion…
"It was accordingly decided to pick out some fifty or sixty from the great number of Orange (Protestants) from northern Ireland who were anxious to volunteer. Under military protection (of 1,000 troops) these men harvested Captain Boycott’s crops… The cost of this singular expedition was about ten thousand pounds…”
It took two weeks under military guard for the inexperienced Ulster men to bring in the crop of turnips, wheat and potatoes, valued by Boycott as worth about three hundred and fifty pounds. Mr. Parnell estimated the harvest had cost the English government “one shilling for every turnip.”
Boycott left Ireland with his family on December 1, 1880, traveling in the back of a miltary ambulance and escorted by soldiers. His exit had been achieved by nonviolence. He never returned. Some one described his exile as the “death of feudalism in Europe".