Saturday, April 9, 2016

Indians Aiding the Irish

Listen to a podcast of this episode.

While working on my last post about Irish history, I cam across an interesting story.  In the midst of the Irish Potato Famine, the Choctaw Indian Tribe donated $174 to the Irish people.

The amount given was not significant.  It would be about $4000 in today's dollars.  What was truly amazing was that the Choctaw had, only a few years earlier, been forced off their land in Mississippi and forced to walk the "trail of tears" to what is today Oklahoma, a bleak and barren land where little would grow.  They had been forced into abject poverty by the European descendants who had taken their property.  Despite, this, they felt compelled to help people on the other side of the world who were at the moment suffering more than they were.

Potatoes in Ireland

Potato infected by the blight
The Potato Famine itself is a terrible natural disaster combined with such human indifference. It has become a landmark historic event.  Europeans introduced potatoes to Ireland from South America around 1600. Because the plant allowed the growth of so much food on very little land, the crop soon became a popular staple to the land starved hungry Irish.  For decades the new crop flourished.  But when blight began to hit the crop, it had no natural ability to resist, as many native crops would, and was utterly destroyed.

Massive crop damage is nothing new to farmers. Disease can wipe out a crop. Potatoes, however had become so critical to the common diet in Ireland that the complete loss of a crop left millions without any food at all.  What made the Potato Famine so different was that it covered the entire Island and hit successively for several years in a row.  Some Irish farmers grew other crops, but these were cash crops for export. Starving Irish had to watch this food leave for England while they had nothing to eat.

Irish Government

In a democracy, politicians looking to curry favor with voters would stumble over themselves rushing to bring aid and assistance to the victims of this sort of tragedy.  Most Irish, however, could not vote in 1845.  Voting was limited to land owners.  Ownership of all land fell to a relatively small number of Protestant nobles.  These were the descendants of those who benefitted from the British confiscation of land from Catholic leaders centuries earlier. Catholics could not own land, and as a result also could not vote.  Many of these land owners did not even live in Ireland but simply owned the land while living in London. These few nobles, were the only "voters" that were of any concern.   The Act of Union in 1800 had made Ireland part of the United Kingdom and included Irish representation in Parliament.  But again, these members of Parliament were chosen by the Protestant aristocracy, not the Irish Catholic people. Just to be sure, Catholics were barred from serving in Parliament.

Ireland, before the famine
For the Irish commoner, potato farming was difficult even in good years.  Most had farms that were extremely small, often 1-10 acres, to grow all the family's food for the year. Farmers planted potatoes in March and harvested in September or October.  July and August were often known as the "starving months" when the previous year's crop was gone and the new one not quite ready.  Since farmers ate most of their crops, there was no money to buy any extra food.  What little money they could raise paid for the rent on their land.  They stored harvested potatoes in covered underground holes to get them through the next year.

In case the Irish Catholics wanted to better themselves, English Penal laws prevented them from doing so.  As already mentioned, Catholics could not own land or vote.  They could not serve as an officer in the army or navy.  They could not hold any government office, practice law, attend school, or serve an apprenticeship.  They also could not own weapons.  Irish could not export goods to countries other than England and policies effectively prevented any industry or manufacturing on the island.  So, Irish Catholics were stuck in subsistence farming on land owned by their Protestant masters, with no options to do anything else.
Starving Irish

While there were some attempts at reform, little had changed for centuries.  In 1835, Gustave de Beaumont, a French sociologist, visited Ireland: "I have seen the Indian in his forests, and the Negro in his chains, and thought, as I contemplated their pitiable condition, that I saw the very extreme of human wretchedness; but I did not then know the condition of unfortunate Ireland...In all countries, more or less, paupers may be discovered; but an entire nation of paupers is what was never seen until it was shown in Ireland."  This was the condition of the Irish people before the Potato Famine struck.

The English at this time viewed the Irish as simply lazy and ignorant.  Farming left long periods of time with relatively little work to do outside of the planting and harvest period.  Many Irish could not afford to rent land at all. Without other opportunities for employment, they survived by begging. The English ignored the lack of opportunities and simply saw a lazy unproductive population worthy of scorn.

Potato Famine Strikes

Those were the good times.  In 1845, things became much worse as the potato blight swept across the island.   An airborne fungus (phytophthora infestans) floated across waiting fields of potatoes in the fall of 1845, incubating and growing inside the millions of potatoes.  Farmers, finishing the "starving months" eagerly anticipated the harvest.  Harvested potatoes quickly turned black and shriveled within days of exposure to air.  The crop was completely inedible.

An Irish funeral during the Famine.
There were, of course, many reasonable political options that could have relieved the suffering.  Food was plentiful in many other areas of the world, and trade was ready and willing to ship tons of food to paying customers.  If the British Government had acted quickly and in the best interests of the Irish people, the famine could have been a minor agricultural blip in history that meant almost nothing.  In fact, significant compassionate aid might have improved the outlook of the Irish people toward their British rulers and led to better relations in the future. Of course, none of that happened.

Rather than recognize the impossible position of the Irish people, English tended to blame their laziness and lack of work ethic.  They ignored a political system that had drawn virtually all excess wealth of the island for generations, creating no room for such a downturn. Some English even saw the blight as a just punishment from God. There were a few efforts.  Britain provided about £100,000 worth of American corn meal to be sold at cost to the Irish population.  It was a cheap import that could provide food.  There were many problems though.  The corn meal had to be ground in a country that had almost no mills.  The Irish found the corn hard to cook and digest.  It led to diarrhea and also lacked vitamin C, leading to scurvy in those who survived on it.  Beyond this, it was simply insufficient to replace the roughly £3 million loss of the potato crop.  It was also assistance based on the assumption that the following year's crop would be fine.  When the 1846 harvest was even worse, there was no attempt to continue the program.

Irish Family During the Famine
To make things even worse, British corn laws heavily taxed the import of any food from abroad. This was designed to keep food prices high and protect English farmers from foreign competition. Failure to repeal or even temporarily wave such laws in 1845 prevented cheap food from entering Ireland. Although it was proposed, English land owning farmers opposed any change to the tariffs. They could vote, while the starving masses in Ireland could not.  Nothing changed.

The Famine Continues

Many Irish had survived 1845 by selling what few possessions they owned, even their clothes, in order to buy food or pay rent on their farms.   Essentially they bet everything on a good harvest the following year.  When the crop failed a second year, they had no resources to use.  While the English government did finally repeal the tariffs on food imports, food prices world wide had grown due to crop shortages in Europe.  Some imported food prices tripled for people who had no more money anyway.   Britain refused to provide any food assistance.  Its primary involvement was to provide soldiers to shoot desperate and starving people who tried to prevent other crops from being exported to England.  There were a few public works projects designed to provide very low paying jobs.  This terrible low paying work was highly desired, even though a few workers literally dropped dead at work from the hard work and malnutrition.

By 1847, the works projects ended and soup kitchens began to provide direct assistance.  But this was too little, too late.  There simply was not enough food to feed the starving masses.  After a year, even the soup kitchens closed, leaving nothing

Landlords, unable to collect rents, had tenant farmers sent to jail for non-payment.  Their families were thrown in the streets to die.  The government continued to demand property taxes, so landlords even if inclined to provide some mercy, would have to take huge financial losses if they did not do something to put the land to profitable work.

More than 1 million people, on an island of 8 million, died from starvation or disease related to the malnutrition.  An estimated 1.5 million more fled the island.

Final Solution: Go Away

The English, tired of providing any assistance to Ireland, began to encourage emigration.  Ships to British North America (Canada) dumped thousands of starving disease ridden emigrants in small towns throughout Canada.  Most of these people died from the harsh conditions and lack of support. Many had even died before arrival on the "coffin ships" that carried them across the Atlantic.

Irish Refugees escaping the Famine
Some Irish traveled to England and Wales, where jobs and assistance was better.  The British reaction to this was to ship most of them back to Ireland, forcibly, where most died.

Many Irish traveled to the United States.  Because travel to America was more expensive, those suffering the most often could not make the trip. Even in America, they faced difficult conditions and anti-Catholic hostility from the Protestant population.  Many settled in Boston, where the laws a few centuries earlier permitted the execution of any Catholic Priest found in the Colony.  This fiercely Protestant town eventually received thousands of Irish immigrants.   Today there are more people of Irish descent living in the greater Boston area than there are in all of Ireland.  Other large cities, including New York and Philadelphia became homes to Irish refugees.  Life was hard and grueling 12 hour work days were common.  Local lynchings of Irish immigrants were not unusual.  But the benefit of being able to feed their families made the new life far more preferable to life in Ireland.

Private Assistance

The British government provided far too little assistance to help Ireland cope with this disaster.  However, as this disaster began to unfold, private groups began to contribute what they could. No private group was large enough or wealthy enough to provide the necessary assistance for systemic relief.  But basic compassion from many, resulted in efforts to provide what assistance they could.

The British Relief Association was formed 1847 by Lionel de Rothschild, a Jewish banker in London. This private association solicited donations worldwide, raising relief funds in Venezuela, Australia, South Africa, Mexico, Russia and Italy. It coordinated the receipt of over 15,000 individual contributions raising about £400,000, which was used to establish schools for Irish children, and provided free lunches at school.  While this was one of the most well funded organizations, it started late and existed for only a little more than one year.

Quaker Soup Kitchen
Ireland contained a small Quaker population of a few thousand. This group was relatively well off, but more importantly had associations with Quaker groups in American and England. Through these connections Quakers raised probably the largest amount of any private group, distributing close to £200,000 in the first two years of famine.

One of the largest outside groups was a group of British subjects in Calcutta India, who provided around £14,000 worth of aid.  The money was donated not by a few wealthy leaders, but through a massive fundraising campaign. Many British soldiers in India were Irish.  They contributed generously.  Many Hindu princes also gave donations, as did many Indian workers who worked closely with the soldiers.

Pope Pius IX made a large personal donation to famine relief in 1847.  More importantly, he issued a papal encyclical to Catholics worldwide, appealing for both prayers and financial assistance.

Small groups of people in US cities who were either Irish immigrants or sympathetic to the Irish plight also raised hundreds of dollars in small contributions from poor working people.  Vice President George Dallas held an appeal to raise relief funds.  President James Polk kicked in a mere $50.  However, he also made two US naval vessels available to ship private food donations to Ireland, despite the fact that the US was at war with Mexico at the time.

Not only was the British government cheap in providing government assistance, it also went out of its way to discourage some private aid as well. When the Sultan of Turkey (who was looking to ingratiate himself with the British Government) offered £10,000 in assistance, the British Consul advised him to lower his assistance.  It might offend royal protocol if he sent more money than the British Queen had donated (£2000). The Sultan dutifully reduced his donation to £1,000.

Private fundraising efforts reached around the world.  Many people contributed.  What fascinates me most are the very small contributions made by those who could least afford it.  Former slaves in British colonies in the Caribbean made donations from Jamaica, Barbados, and St. Kitts. Britain had only ended slavery less than a decade earlier.  While these people still lived in terrible poverty, they were moved to contribute something to the suffering Irish.  Perhaps part of this was in thanks to Daniel O’Connell, an Irishman who played a leading role in ending slavery in the British colonies.

Not only former slaves, but current slaves in America also made donations.  A number of contributions in the American South came from collections in slave churches.  Even children in a pauper orphanage in New York, as well as prison inmates in Sing Sing were moved to join the call for donations.

Ending Famine Assistance

The worldwide assistance generally came to an end when the English declared the Famine over in 1848. They did this, despite the fact that more Irish died in 1849 than any other year.  The Famine is now generally considered to have lasted until 1852. The British were simply embarrassed by the foreign outcry for assistance and no longer wanted the attention is was garnering.

Exact numbers of casualties of the Famine are unknown as the British did not keep written records. But the population of Ireland in 1840 was estimated at over 8 million.  By 1850, it was less than 6 million.  Further suffering and hardship caused continuing depopulation.  Even today, after many decades of recovery, the total Irish population is only around 4.5 million.

The Choctaw Donation

Amidst the wave of international fundraising, one of the most fascinating contributions comes from the Choctaw Indian Tribe.

The Choctaw Indians originally inhabited much of what is today the States of Mississippi and Alabama.  They were one of the "civilized tribes." They lived in stable farming communities with permanent homes and had adopted many of the white customs.  Many spoke English and had converted to Christianity  Some even owned rather large plantations and black slaves.  Despite all this, white southerners coveted their land.

The "Trail of Tears"
After the election of President Andrew Jackson in 1828, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, essentially requiring all Tribes to move west of the Mississippi River.  The Choctaw received miserable desert lands in what is today Oklahoma and removed from their native homelands.  At gunpoint soldiers forced men, women and children to walk to their new home in what has become known as the "Trail of Tears"

Alexis de Tocqueville, the French philosopher, saw first hand the Choctaw removals while he was visiting in Memphis, Tennessee in 1831 "In the whole scene there was an air of ruin and destruction, something which betrayed a final and irrevocable adieu; one couldn't watch without feeling one's heart wrung. The Indians were tranquil, but sombre and taciturn. There was one who could speak English and of whom I asked why the Chactas were leaving their country. "To be free," he answered, could never get any other reason out of him. We ... watch the expulsion ... of one of the most celebrated and ancient American peoples."

To say the travel to Oklahoma was difficult is a understatement.  Of the roughly 17,000 Choctaw who began the trip, about one-third died along the way.  Forced to abandon most of their possessions, the surviving tribal members lived in poverty on inhospitable land.  Despite these hardships, they remained on relatively good terms with the US and continued to interact with the rest of the country.

When the call came to support Irish Famine relief, many Choctaw willingly contributed what little they could.  They had known suffering and starvation themselves on the Trail of Tears and thereafter. The fact that the suffering Irish were Europeans, much like those oppressing the Choctaw did not dissuade them.

Years later, the Choctaw contribution to the Irish Famine has received more attention.  In the 1990's there were Irish delegations to the Choctaw nation in Oklahoma and Choctaw delegations to Ireland commemorating the act of generosity.  A plaque on Dublin's Mansion House remembers the Choctaw contribution: "Their humanity calls us to remember the millions of human beings throughout our world today who die of hunger and hunger-related illness in a world of plenty."

Listen to a podcast of this episode.

Further Reading:


  1. I think it would be great if the Irish people learned about the Native American people at the Standing Rock Reservation in ND, USA struggling to prevent an oil pipeline from crossing their land and ruining their sacred places and their water. Many tribes have come together in peaceful protest while the oil company rdestroys their land. Sounds like1848 in Ireland.

  2. Filipinos also opened its doors to some 1,300 Jews escaping Nazi Germany in the 1930s. Humanity and kindness are often inate to people who have less in life.