Monday, August 26, 2013

Ever Wonder Where the Word Boycott Came From?

During the past week I ran across a post on Facebook that talked about the origin of the word "boycott" and I thought it would be interesting to share it here as it certainly is something that applies to our everyday life with a history of its own.  The word actually originated in Ireland in the 1880s after locals set about to shun Captain Charles Boycott for his eviction of Irish tenant farmers during the last main Irish famine which began in 1879.  In contrast to the Great Famines of 1740-1741 and 1845-1849, the result of this famine was for the most part hunger that was not life threatening and it was mainly concentrated in the west of Ireland.  While a series of food shortages and crop failures swept through Ireland during the 1870s and into the early 1890s, a larger scale crop shortage during 1879 led it to be called a famine and it is sometimes referred to as "An Gorta Beag" meaning mini-famine.

Woman Gathering a Meal
From The Graphic
January 24, 1880
Both the English and American press covered the famine and there exists many stories and sketches from that particular era.  To the left is the sketch of a woman gathering a meal in the field from an article entitled "The Distress in the West" from The Graphic on January 24, 1880.

The state of the tenant farmer was poor at best.  Most lived in small thatched houses which were really nothing more than hovels.  A description of which was printed in the article "The Distress in the West of Ireland" in Harper's Weekly on February 14, 1880:

Tenant Thatched "House"
From Harper's Weekly
February 14, 1880

"At present the miserable constructions on Irish farms area a source of amazement to a visitor who knows that he is among a people that pretend to live by agriculture.  In vain he looks for specimens of the quadrangle straw yard, with surrounding buildings, which distinguishes most English farms. Except on the few large holding, there are no straw yards at all, and no farm premises beyond the small thatched houses or hovels which are here honored with the designation of barns, cow-houses, and stables--usually joined on to the farmer's dwelling-house..."

According to Harper's Weekly "the vast majority of Irish farm land (97% in 1870) was owned by men who rented the land to tenant farmers, not by those who cultivated the land themselves.  Land ownership was also concentrated in the hands of a few; in 1870, only 750 families owned 50% of the land in Ireland."  The population of the time was 5,000,000.  With impending hunger and threat of another widespread famine, a social movement in the form of The Irish National Land League, also known as the Land League, was formed in 1879.  Harper's Weekly goes on to explain that "The Land League organized agitation throughout Ireland for an end to evictions and a radical change in the land system to allow tenants to become landowners.  To enforce uniform compliance with their goals, the Land League convinced people to shun those tenants, land agents, and landlords who failed to cooperate."  The first such use of this tactic was against the landlord and agent named Charles Boycott.

Captain Charles Boycott c 1880

Charles Boycott was both a landlord and an agent who collected rents for a landlord.  He himself having entered into a 31-year lease for 300 acres in the town of Ballinrobe was a landlord.  He also worked for the landlord, Lord Erne, in the management of 1000 acres.  Lord Erne's estates had 38 tenant farmers of which Boycott was responsible for.  Due to the 1879 Famine, Lorde Erne was allowing for a 10% reduction in collecting the rents.  The tenant farmers demanded a 25% reduction.  When the tenants were unable to pay their rents, mass evictions by Captain Boycott were ordered.  In response, the implementation of shunning Captain Boycott was put into place by the Land League.  Captain Boycott's shunning was so complete that even the person delivering mail refused after being threatened with bodily harm if mail was delivered to the Boycotts.

With the implementation of the shunning, Captain Boycott could not even harvest the crops in his field.  The British state attempted to harvest his crop by calling on all Orangeman to come and assist when local labourers refused to do the same.  In the end it took the protection of 2000 drafted into the area by the British state to bring in the harvest.  According to a post from The Irish History Podcast entitled "An Introduction to the Land War 1879-1882":   "While the league did not attempt to oppose such a large force, the entire operation cost the British state 10,000 pounds to harvest a crop worth a few hundred pounds.  This was a massive victory for the League as the state authorities could not carry out similar actions across the country--the boycott was born."

Boycott Family Harvesting Their Crops
From Harper's Weekly
December 18, 1880

Until we meet again, may God hold you in the palm of His hand.
--An Old Irish Blessing

Marian McCoy Boveri
Historic Homes Specialist

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