Sinner or Saint?
When trying to unravel the role that Charles Trevelyan played in the ‘Great Famine’ you are entering something of a minefield. Any person who has attempted to learn about ‘The Famine in Ireland’ quickly realised that the research that has been carried out is filled with invective supporting opposing views on its cause, effects and results. The student soon discovers that Irish history-writing is more subjective than objective and requires reading ‘between the lines’ to get to the truth. We read opinions such as that spoken openly by the Nationalist politician, John Mitchel, when he stated his verdict that, “God sent the blight but the British Government sent the Famine.” Against such opinions we have the more recent ‘revisionist’ opinions that attempt to sanitise the ‘Great Hunger’ by arguing that, given the scale of the disaster, the British Government had done everything it could to prevent further death and suffering among the poverty stricken Irish peasantry.
There is little argument that Trevelyan was an important government figure during the Famine. The arguments arise when there is discussion concerning Trevelyan’s importance when compared to that other major protagonists that were involved in Famine relief. The revisionist historians will generally admit that Charles Trevelyan was an influential adviser for his government department, but not the key influence on the British Government’s overall Famine relief policy. They put forward the premise that Trevelyan, although an influential adviser, was simply carrying out the wishes of his departmental chiefs during the Famine, who received instructions from the cabinet. In other words, Trevelyan was simply a centrally placed civil servant who was unfortunate to become a ‘scapegoat’ for the manoeuvrings and machinations of the British Government and those who were governing Ireland from Dublin Castle. It is further claimed that Trevelyan’s bad reputation was a result of criticisms that were aimed at his political superiors, rather than him. The revisionist historians assert that these criticisms, therefore, have been taken out of context and are not reflective of Trevelyan’s character in any way. Against such a viewpoint we have the following description of the man by the well-respected historian of the Famine, Cecil Woodham-Smith – “his mind was powerful, his character admirably scrupulous and upright, his devotion to duty praiseworthy, but he had a remarkable insensitiveness. Since he took action only after conscientiously satisfying himself what he proposed to do was ethical and justified he went forward impervious to other considerations, sustained but also blinded by his conviction of doing right.” The question remains that did he believe he was doing right when, during the height of the famine, Trevelyan deliberately dragged his feet in disbursing direct government food and monetary aid to the Irish because of the strength of his belief in ‘laissez-faire’ economics and the free hand of the market. In a letter to an Irish Peer, Lord Monteagle, a former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Trevelyan described the Famine as being an “effective mechanism for reducing surplus population.” He determined that it was “the judgement of God,” and wrote that “The real evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the Famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people”. From his own words, he condemns himself.
In answer to those who wonder why Trevelyan was considered for such an important post. But, he had already enjoyed a distinguished career in India before the Famine, having been involved in schemes aimed at gaining economic improvement. At the same time, he had expounded very forthright views on educating the native Indian population along English lines. Because of his work in India, Trevelyan was convinced that he was qualified to handle any problems that related to land tenure and the consolidation of smallholdings in Ireland. He seems to have failed to recognise that in India he had presided over an area where smallholdings had been peacefully well established for many decades, which was not the case in Ireland. Furthermore, Trevelyan ignored the fact that India in the mid-nineteenth century was much different from Ireland in the same period, particularly when it came to the problems of widespread poverty and famine. Poverty and famine-stricken Ireland was a country that was supposed to be an integral part of the United Kingdom and expected to be treated as such. At the same time, Ireland resembled India only in its resistance to having English standards of improvement and development being imposed on them.
Trevelyan was simply a man driven by ideas, which influenced him in formulating policy. These same strongly held ideas caused him to justify those policies even when the terrible scale of the suffering became clear. Even if we accept the revisionist theory that Trevelyan was not as influential as we believe, they must admit that neither he nor the cabinet ministers under whom he served were immune to the influence of ideas. But, one characteristic of the man, which revisionists cannot deny, is that he was an arch-racist and although his racial venom was directed chiefly against the Irish landholders, he did not ignore the Irish Catholic tenants and smallholders. Trevelyan voiced his opinions that the Irish were a lazy, dirty and unimaginative race, which reflected the general belief of Victorian society about the Irish people.
Whereas Trevelyan’s role may have been exaggerated, and that he was much more at the command of his political superiors, it cannot be denied that he prided himself on being a ‘moralist’. He was an enthusiastic reformer whose ideas and convictions allowed him to justify the government’s Famine policy as a God-given opportunity for the British government to regenerate Irish economic and social life to the benefit of England.