Charles Trevelyan and the great Irish Famine

Published in Book Reviews, Issue 1 (Jan/Feb 2005), Reviews, The Famine, Volume 13

Charles Trevelyan and the great Irish Famine
Robin Haines
(Four Courts Press, 285)
ISBN 1851827552

Charles Trevelyan and the great Irish Famine 1In tackling Charles Trevelyan’s role in the Great Famine, Robin Haines has entered something of a historiographical minefield. The Famine, as a subject of academic research, has consistently exposed the polemics of Irish history-writing, from John Mitchel’s overtly nationalist verdict that ‘God sent the blight but the British government sent the Famine’ to more recent ‘revisionist’ accounts that have tended to sanitise the event and to argue that, given the scale of the disaster, there was little more the government could have done to prevent further death and suffering. Haines is concerned here with ‘revising’ the received view of Trevelyan, a result of the ‘half-truth, innuendo and careless repetition’ that has found its way into the secondary literature. Over some 600 pages Haines attempts to undermine the prevalent view of Trevelyan as a dictatorial civil servant (he was permanent head of the Treasury during the Famine) with undue influence over Famine policy who was imbued with the doctrines of classical political economy (particularly the doctrine of laissez-faire), racial prejudice against the Irish, and a providential view of the catastrophe as an ‘act of God’, all of which combined to convince him that the Famine must be allowed to ‘run its course’. Her central question is to ask why it is Trevelyan who has attracted the condemnation of history for the inadequate government response to the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Ireland.
Haines is correct to stress the sloppiness of much research relating to Trevelyan, and to expose the shockingly lazy way in which historians have simply borrowed ‘facts’ from seminal articles without ever taking the time to consult original source material. Her own scholarship is impressive: the work is built up almost entirely from Trevelyan’s letters, supplemented with the correspondence of the other main protagonists involved in Famine relief. The research provided here undermines the view that Trevelyan was the key influence on the government’s Famine relief policy. As she notes:

‘Scrutiny of the unpublished and published correspondence demonstrates the extent to which Trevelyan, although an influential adviser, was carrying out the wishes of his departmental head during the Famine—first Goldburn, then Wood. They, in turn, were guided by the advice, both political and economic, of their respective cabinets.’

Certainly Haines’s scrutiny suggests that the view of Trevelyan as the central relief administrator cannot be sustained. Rather he was a centrally placed civil servant who was caught haplessly between the manoeuvrings and machinations of his political overseers in Westminster and the governing élite in Dublin Castle. It seems that Trevelyan often bore the brunt of barbs that were aimed at his political superiors—barbs that historians have often viewed out of context and have taken to be truly reflective of Trevelyan’s character, according to Haines. Trevelyan’s devotion to his job cannot be called into question, nor can the difficulty of his position. He found himself liaising between Westminster and Dublin Castle, an unhappy partnership at the best of times, and arbitrating disputes within the Irish executive and the various committees, boards and commissions set up in response to the Famine. Despite all this he still found time, in dealing with the embryonic Irish herring industry, to have some Norfolk cured fish sent to Ireland to ‘excite the emulation of the Beginners in the Sister Country’ because ‘All the specimens I have received from Ireland . . . have been of the most execrable kind’. It is a credit to Haines’s comprehensive scholarship that Trevelyan’s role can now be seen in all its gruelling, painstaking, everyday detail, as well as providing a valuable insight into the demands imposed on well-placed Victorian civil servants.
Disappointingly, however, Haines devotes very little time to Trevelyan’s career and views outside his work in the Treasury relating to the Famine (only ten pages, for instance, are devoted to the 38 years of his life before 1845). This is a pity, since Trevelyan had a distinguished career, both before and after the Famine, in India, where he had been involved in schemes aimed at economic improvement and had expounded forthright views on educating the native Indian population along English lines. Haines refers at one stage to Trevelyan’s efforts to convince William Empson, the editor of the Edinburgh Review, that he was qualified to discuss problems relating to land tenure and the consolidation of smallholdings in Ireland because he had served his apprenticeship in India and was involved in serious land disputes there. In the Upper Provinces, where he had worked as settlement officer, he had presided over an area where smallholdings had ‘existed in great perfection’, he noted. In Ireland, however, he felt they had proved disastrous.
Unfortunately Haines does not explore the contrast Trevelyan draws between India and Ireland, nor does she pursue a line of inquiry that might have delved deeper into his Indian experience and the influence this brought to bear on his dealings with Ireland. Aside from his expressed views on India, Trevelyan wrote a number of pieces on pauperism in London, in the guise of letters to The Times or as addresses to charitable organisations, to none of which Haines refers. That she fails to draw upon these rich sources of material is a shame, since Trevelyan’s views on the problem of poverty in London and on ‘development’ in an imperial context would surely shed invaluable light on his approach to Famine-stricken Ireland, a country that was both part of the United Kingdom and yet resistant to the imposition of English ‘norms’ of improvement and development in much the same way as India.
More generally, Haines is reluctant to engage with the ideas that informed Trevelyan’s approach to policy, and she attends little to the wider debates or movements of ideas that would have inevitably affected someone as well educated and well placed as Trevelyan. This is in contrast to most recent work on the Famine, which has focused upon the ideological forces that constrained the government’s intervention in the Irish economy during the crisis. Historians have pointed to the influence of classical political economy, to prejudiced views of the Irish, and to the influence of evangelical providentialism. All of these ideological forces are said to have influenced the government in pursuing a policy of limited state intervention in Ireland and to favour the more hard-headed policy of ‘local responsibility’, whereby an amendment to the Irish Poor Law in late 1847 shifted the burden of relief from the central government to the local ratepayers in Ireland.
Haines is evidently unconvinced by most of these arguments, in particular the view that Trevelyan’s reading of the Famine was that of a ‘Whig moralist’ and ‘providentialist’. She is no doubt correct to stress that ‘providentialism’—a belief in the machinations of God in the affairs of man—was not solely the preserve of Whigs but applied equally to Robert Peel’s Tory government, who had overseen the first year of Famine relief. However, none of this disproves that Trevelyan was a providentialist. Her account does not dispel the view that Trevelyan was a man driven by ideas that influenced him in formulating policy, as well as in justifying those policies even after the scale of the suffering became apparent. He may not have been as influential as some historians have held, but neither he nor the cabinet ministers under whom he served were immune to the influence of ideas.
Haines is much more successful when she debunks the view that Trevelyan was an arch-racist, though perhaps we do not need to be reminded several times that he was an ‘avid collector of Irish protest songs and nationalist literature’. It is an interesting fact but hardly establishes that he positively celebrated all things Hibernian. Her principal point, though, which is well sustained here, is that Trevelyan’s principal animus was directed against the Irish land-holding class rather than Irish Catholic tenants and smallholders. His assertions about the profligate, slothful Irish landlords were commonplace amongst British politicians and reflected Victorian views about the educative, morally influential role of social élites. If the Irish tenants were averse to independent self-improvement and hard work, the blame lay primarily with their social superiors.
Despite her claims that this work is for ‘general readers and specialists alike’, it will primarily be of interest to scholars of nineteenth-century Ireland. The sheer size of the book and the level of detail it provides will put off those with a more general, non-academic interest in the Famine. Moreover, the work is so consciously aware of its role in a wider academic debate that knowledge of recent work on the Famine is essential to benefit from what Haines has attempted here. In terms of her desire to lift the ‘veil of dogma’ surrounding Trevelyan, Haines has demonstrated that his role has been exaggerated in the past, and that he was much more at the mercy of his political superiors than has previously been supposed. However, where she has failed is to convince that Trevelyan was not a ‘moralist’ or a reformer whose thinking led him to justify the government’s policy in terms of a God-given opportunity for Irish economic and social regeneration.
Ciara Boylan


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