Skip to main content

The Feel Of The Lash

July 2024
4min read

Speaking of a man who could see nothing really disturbing in the institution of human slavery, Abraham Lincoln once remarked that this person was so constituted that he could not feel the lash that landed on somebody else’s back. Only if it hit his own back could he understand that a flogging was going on.

The insensitivity Lincoln was talking about is one of the commonest and most disastrous of all human traits, because it consents to cruelty and injustice; and it consents largely because the insensitive person does not even realize that these things exist unless they touch him personally. He can live next to monstrous wrong because he does not really know that it is there; it affects another person and so he does not feel it. Society approaches a respectable level of civilization only when it develops an active spirit of compassion.

Measuring by that yardstick one is forced to conclude that civilization has been rising rather slowly. Some of the darkest chapters in human history are in the books largely because simple compassion was lacking. There is always enough ill will, malignancy, and greed to give cruelty a start, Heaven knows, but what these qualities start would soon die if society as a whole insisted. Society usually does insist, once it understands what is happening, but there are times when understanding is tragically long in coming.

Cecil Woodham-Smith examines a most horrifying illustration of this point in her new book, The Great Hunger , which is a study of the terrible famine that afflicted Ireland in the 1840’s. This famine was one of the worst in history. It killed at least one and a half million people and drove about a million more to emigrate. Descending on a land that was already one of the most poverty-stricken in Europe, it created still more poverty, bringing in its train the manifold diseases that go with poverty. Its final legacy was hatredhatred so deep and lasting that Britain finally lost southern Ireland altogether.

In 1841 Ireland was one of the most densely populated regions in Europe, and one of the most thoroughly exploited. It had almost nothing in the way of industry. A few years earlier, a British economist reported that during most of the year, 2,385,000 persons had no employment because there was no work whatever to offer them. (This was in a country whose total population was a little more than 8,000,000.) Unless a man could somehow find a patch of land to grow potatoes on, he and his family would starve.

The natural result was that the land was divided and subdivided, over and over. It was not at all uncommon for a whole family to subsist on less than one acre of ground. Rents were high, most tenants could be turned off their land at the whim of the landlord, and the evicted tenant had no recourse at all except to try to get a quarter or half an acre on a sort of tenant-farmer arrangement.

The Great Hunger , by Cecil Woodham-Smith. Harper &: Row. 472 pp. $6.95.

What held this miserable arrangement up was the potato. With no other crop could a tiny parcel of land provide a year’s food for an entire family. To raise potatoes a man needed no equipment but a spade and no skill but the ability to dig in the ground. Ireland lived by the potato; if this crop should fail there simply was no chance at all to produce enough other food to support the teeming population.

Then, in 1845, came the potato blight, a frightening malady which caused potatoes to rot either in the hill or immediately after they had been harvested. It cut off Ireland’s supply of food; worse yet, it kept reappearing, year after year, and the situation became in the highest degree desperate.

Obviously, action by the British government was necessary, and in a sense the government did its best. It bought Indian corn, hoping that by throwing quantities of this on the market a general rise in the price of other foodstuffs might be prevented. It contributed fairly substantial sums to local agencies in Ireland, for the support of soup kitchens and workhouses. It appointed commissions of inquiry, and it spent quite a lot of money on work relief. All of this helped, but it did not help enough; people kept on dying; each year misery became more and more widespread; and in 1847, in despair, the British government relied on the operation of the Irish poor laws, which in effect meant that destitute Ireland would have to find the means to support famine’s victims.

This put the burden on the local landlords, some of whom had been making a good thing out of Ireland for many years; and it led directly to mass emigration, because it quickly occurred to the landlords that it was cheaper to ship a pauper to America than to continue to support him in Ireland. And the emigration became in itself a new chapter in human suffering, because it took thousands of people who had no resources at all, and who in most cases were in poor shape physically, and dumped them beyond the seas under conditions which-meant that many of them would simply die there instead of at home. Most of the New World’s immigrants came because they wanted to come, and were prepared to make a living under new conditions; these came because they had to, and were completely unprepared to make a living at all. Mrs. Woodham-Smith estimates that in 1847, fifteen thousand of them died on shipboard, and twenty thousand more died shortly after they disembarked.

It goes without saying that neither Canada nor the United States welcomed these newcomers gladly. Still, most of them did survive, and made their contribution to the new lands they had come to. One of them, for instance, was a man from County Cork named John Ford, who managed to get to Detroit and there, in time, became grandfather of Henry Ford.

Altogether, the Irish famine was one of the great disasters in human history. It must be admitted that it presented the British government with a problem altogether too large for easy handling; it must also be admitted that the handling the government gave it was abominable. And it was abominable, not because of active ill will but largely because of a singular obtuseness, an inability to be deeply and passionately moved by someone else’s sufferings. There was no attempt to end the age-old system of exploitation that had created the conditions under which failure of the potato crop must mean indescribable suffering. Throughout, the government was guided by the belief that it must not interfere with the operation of natural causes, that too much famine relief would corrupt the Irish people by teaching them to rely on the government, that the ancient virtues of self-reliance and industry must be promoted. The simple compassion that would have forced men to override such considerations and relieve the agony at any price was lacking.

The lash was coming down on the other man’s back.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.