Most people will be familiar with the Great Famine or Great Hunger, a period of mass starvation and disease in Ireland from 1845 to 1849. Outside Ireland, it is often referred to as the Irish Potato Famine. Less well known is that the potato blight also affected many parts of Scotland during the same period, leading to protests and riots. These are documented in James Hunter’s new book, ‘Insurrection: Scotland’s Famine Winter’.
Some of the most violent riots took place in the North East of Scotland, Inverness and Caithness. The Western Isles were also badly hit by the famine and this led to a further stage of the land clearances and migration to North America. Absentee landlords, some of which invested their generous slave compensation payments in Highland and Aberdeenshire land, promoted migration.
For example, John Gordon of Cluny sent nearly 1,700 people to Canada. ‘These parties,’ a senior immigration officer noted of people reaching Quebec from Gordon’s estate, ‘presented every appearance of poverty and . . . were without the means . . . of procuring a day’s subsistence for their helpless families on landing.’
The insurrections were eventually put down by the military, although this took some time as there were few soldiers stationed in Scotland. At the outset, only 240 in Aberdeen and 55 at Fort George. There were no railways in the north of Scotland at this time, and only one Royal Navy gunboat available to transport troops. Law and order was enforced by a handful of constables and specials enrolled from the ‘reliable’ middle classes. However, many of these were sympathetic to the rioters and were in any case overwhelmed by the numbers involved.
The courts handed down punitive transportation sentences, in actions reminiscence of the Tolpuddle Martyrs case. As the Manchester Times noted “the men who supported the . . . exclusion are in high office and honour, and the poor young fellow who obstructed the exportation of a boatload of corn, when his neighbours had the horrors of starvation before their eyes, is sentenced to ten years transportation.”
The famine also raised political consciousness. The Whig MP for Caithness, who was in the pocket of the local landowner, complained, “They are great readers and their local press is of the worst description, tending . . . to preach socialism and its accompanying doctrines.”
The Chartists were also active in the areas affected. The authorities in Inverness made strenuous efforts in 1839 to deny venues for Chartist meetings organised by the Aberdeen Chartist, Alexander MacKenzie. He had similar problems in Macduff and Elgin. Hunter also notes the prevalence of shoemakers in radical activity, something which had been a feature of continental revolutionary activity.
Some historians have argued that there was no organised activity behind the riots. However, Hunter points out that while riot and disturbance was endemic in these communities, theft was not. Many of the actions were also well organised, such as in Inverness in 1847 when roadblocks were established around the town. Although there is limited evidence of wider political goals other than the relief of famine.
The authorities were forced to respond with food supplies and the sentences were reduced. Not welcomed by The Scotsman newspaper, which reverted to its long-standing conviction that crofters, said to be ‘men who love to live without without work’, needed to be ‘disabused’ of any notion that they might be deserving of help from outside.
The later extension of the franchise brought radical Highland land reform (HLLRA) candidates into the 1885 election including Gavin Clarke as the MP for Caithness. As a student, he joined the International Working Men’s Association, regarded Karl Marx as a guiding light, and was for some time on good terms with our very own James Keir Hardie.
As Hunter says in the concluding chapter, “Might there have been among the Bridge Street crowd, on the day when Gavin Clark became MP for Caithness, at least one or two people – in their fifties or sixties now – who were in that same street, on an equally snowy day in February 1847, when the Riot Act was read and a harbour-bound grain cart brought forcibly to a halt?”
There is a lot of detail in this book about the impact of the famine on Scotland, and pretty harrowing it is. It also highlights the establishment attitudes of the day and some nascent political responses. In all, a very worthwhile contribution to our understanding of the period and the insurrection that the famine provoked.
Ps. The book is half price at Waterstones in Glasgow at present.
I have been in South Africa this week. Keir Hardie’s visit to India is reasonably well known, but he also stopped off in South Africa on his way home.
You might have thought that the Boers would have welcomed him given he championed their cause during the Boer War. Unlike the Fabians, who supported the war, he saw it as a capitalists’ war. He admittedly had a rather romantic view of the Boer way of life, but he was proved right about the economic damage and the impact of militarism.
However, while Hardie opposed imperialism, he also had a distinct class position that included race. He argued that the fundamental problems of Indian workers or black African miners were the same as the poor of Lanarkshire, Ayrshire or South Wales. They both suffered appalling living conditions, while the landowners and the bosses exploited them.
He suggested that trade unions open themselves to blacks and share farmland. He championed the democratic rights of the majority and supported tribal lands, operating under their laws. Not a policy that was going to be popular in racist South Africa. Of course, Keir Hardie was never one to duck an unpopular cause!
His meetings in Durban, Johannesburg and Ladysmith were all physically attacked. He narrowly escaped with his life from the Johannesburg venue. As Keir Hardie put it:
“It will scarcely be credited by those not on the spot, but this produced as much sensation as though I had proposed to cut the throat of every white man in South Africa. The capitalist Press simply howled with rage – there were, of course, exceptions – and at Ladysmith a mob, led by a local lawyer, wrecked the windows of the hotel in which I was staying.”
I visited Ladysmith, but sadly I suspect the hotel he spoke at is no more in a modern main street - although the town hall and the siege museum are from that period.
Jonathan Hyslop puts Hardie’s position in context and explains the challenges it created for Labour supporters in South Africa.
“Labourites in the white settlement colonies wanted to defend Hardie, as a representative figure of British labour, but were embarrassed by the fact that Hardie’s position on India went against the grain of White Labourist ideology. In southern Africa, local leaders of British labour did opt to defend Hardie. But they did so not only at the risk of alienating their members, but also at the price of being forced into direct confrontations with anti-Hardie groupings.”
He also explains the basis for Hardie’s position and, to contemporary ears, the language he sometimes used: “He was a man of his time, seeking democratization of the Empire rather than its end, and his sympathy with the oppressed could coexist with constructs derived from contemporary racial ideology.”
He ended his tour in Cape Town. Here he was better received as some Cape unions had opened their membership. There was an election, and The Labour Party was concerned that he might damage their campaign. However, The Social Democratic Federation organised a series of well supported and undisrupted meetings.
Active hostility to Hardie in South Africa came mainly from middle- and upper-class British immigrants. British shopkeepers, members of volunteer colonial regiments, and supporters of pro-capitalist political groups. Many Afrikaners remembered his support during the Boer War.
British working-class political activists were generally unsympathetic to the grievances of the Indians. Remember, this was where Gandhi cut his political teeth organising coal miner strikes and campaigning against punitive taxes on indentured workers. However, their allegiance to the British trade union tradition and their admiration for the Labour Party in the United Kingdom meant that they had great personal respect for Hardie.
Keir Hardie Society
Picture from Martin Plaut
The years running up to the First World War were marked with many industrial disputes as workers joined trade unions in huge numbers to challenge falling real wages and working conditions. Keir Hardie was unsurprisingly to be found supporting workers in struggle across the UK.
The government decided on a number of occasions to deploy troops in support of the police. This was attacked by trade unions as an abuse of state power in support of the bosses and speakers at union rallies often called upon working class soldiers to disobey orders.
In the National Archives I found a 1912 Home Office file full of complaints from 'concerned citizens' about this, asking why the authorities are not charging the trade union leaders with sedition or similar offences.
One such complaint covered a meeting in Bristol at which Keir Hardie spoke. He said:
"I only know of two classes of people who can command police and military escort - one the blackleg and the other the Royal family. So far as I can make out, in the eyes of the powers that be, the one is regarded as important as the other. And I dare say that if the capitalist class were called upon to decide whether they would abolish the Royal family or the blackleg they would decide for the latter without hesitation."
Another speaker said:
"It is not the function of the soldier, maybe your son or brother, to be called out to shoot those who are simply fighting for right and a bit more bread and cheese."
One concerned citizen residing at, The Manor House, Othery, Bridgewater, enclosed a copy of the newspaper article in his complaint to the Home Secretary. The letter is on file and is reproduced below.
The civil servant who considered the matter was clearly outraged by the speeches. "The language is well calculated, not only to cause discontent and disaffection amongst H.M. subjects and promote feelings of ill will and hostility between different classes."
I somehow doubt Keir Hardie would have disagreed with that!
Sadly for 'outraged of Bridgewater', the civil servant had to conclude that it wasn't a case that called for criminal proceedings. Pity really, I am sure Keir Hardie would have enjoyed defending himself at that trial.
9 August 2019