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Matthew (1845-10-28)


“The Potato Blight”. Limerick Reporter, Tuesday 28 October 1845, p.4 col.2-3 (pdf image).

(Letters written September 22 and October 15 1845, published October 23 & 28 in the Glasgow National and Limerick Reporter)
These are two open letters written to the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel, regarding the outbreak of the Potato Blight and its impact in Ireland. There is also a brief notice of “a polite acknowledgement of the receipt” of the first letter by the government at Whitehall.

The version presented here comes from the Limerick Reporter, and before that the Glasgow National, but there is likely to be an earlier version in the London Standard which I haven’t found yet, because Matthew says as much in Mathew (1862e). Also, Matthew’s later letter to Lord John Russell was printed in the London Standard.

Matthew first speculates on the possible causes of the blight, considering not only the likely “animalcule” nature of the infection itself but also other possible contributing causes such as “climatic influence”. Matthew also places much blame on the likely weakened nature of the crop being attacked, a consequence of it being cultivated rather than wild (this is a general observation regarding domestication that he also makes in On Naval Timber and Arboriculture): “Animal or vegetable life, when brought under new conditions or circumstances different to what nature had accommodated it, is extremely liable to disease — even to an extent embracing the general destruction of the race”.

But the main purpose of these letters is to consider how best to ameliorate the condition of the Irish, irrespective of the causes of the famine: “what is be done with the famishing millions?”. Matthew urges the Prime Minister to stop the “bonded” export of food from Britain, to repeal the Corn Laws imposing high duties on imported food, and to start planting other crops in Ireland instead (Matthew suggests the turnip): “Exporting our food, the produce of Britain, and preventing food from being brought to us from abroad by a high duty, is an iniquity in the present case, almost like madness. Towards the great body of the British people — the consumers — it is an outrage, and the consequences may disastrous”.

(From the Glasgow National of Oct. 23).
Gourdie-hill, September 22.

SIR— The condition of the potato crop it of the very greatest importance. Should the diseases extend so as to become general throughout Ireland and North Britain, either this season or the next, what is be done with the famishing millions?

In Great Britain, perhaps one-third of the food of man consists of potatoes, or is produced from potatoes. In Ireland three-fourths.

The disease is known in the United States, and has been increasing for several successive years. Last week I examined a number of varieties of potatoes in different places of the south of England, and found them generally so far injured, that the whole must, to a certainty, become rotted should they be stored up, as it impossible to select those in which the disease is incipient from the sound. A great part of the tubers were already rotten.

Suppose the disease to become general over Ireland either this season or next season, it will require a grant of some 10,000,000l. or 12,000,000l. sterling to purchase food sufficient to preserve their population alive. It is not improbable, as the germs of this disease are widely disseminated, that they may on extending after the potatoe crop is dug up and stored in the pits.

We are now busy exporting our bonded grain to Belgium and Holland. A considerable quantity of Potatoes are also being contracted for to be exported. In the valley of the Tay, from which a considerable portion of the potato supply of London is derived, a great part is bought up tor export Belgium. Would it not be prudent to prevent this by orders in council — either to remove the anti-consumption duty from the bonded grain, which causes the exportation, or to prevent our potatoes from being taken out of the country till the amount of damage be ascertained, and parliament met? From the comparative high of grain at present on the Continent, the removal of the duty would not be attended with much alteration of price, or derangement of any sort. Perhaps so favourable an opportunity may not again occur.

The diseases of the vegetable kingdom are generally caused by parasitical insects or plants of a secondary or inferior order of organization — the destroying zoophytes, fungi, mould, which feed on superior life. Many of these animalcules are extremely minute, and of rapid development. These organized diseases are sometimes the actual cause of the evil, sometimes merely a sequence to climatic or other derangement of superior life. Throughout the greater part of Scotland, and also a portion of England, we have had for the last eight years a large-tree blight, produced, it would seem, by myriads of woolly coccus or aphis adhering to the leaf, and by living suction upon the juices of the leaf. The damage by this blight to the larch in North Britain is, I should think, at least equal to eight millions sterling.* This coceus resembles the woolly coccus of the apple tree, or American blight, which in some countries, especially Van Diemen’s Land, has destroyed the orchards. In these inquiries I have had occasion to notice, that, when plants are removed from their natural climate, or changed from their natural character by the culture of man, as in the case of the larch tree and potatoes in Britain, they are much more obnoxious to these infectious diseases, or parasitical destroyers, than when they are in their own climate, and left to nature’s nursing. A population, as in Ireland, subsisting upon potatoes, is therefore in a very hazardous position, more especially as they can scarcely descend, in case of necessity, to an inferior kind of food. In Scotland a considerable proportion of the potatoes is consumed by cattle and pigs. This affords an excellent security against famine, as in case of necessity the animals can be killed, or supported upon other food, and the potatoes left for the food of man.

Exporting our food, the produce of Britain, and preventing food from being brought to us from abroad by a high duty, is an iniquity in the present case, almost like madness. Towards the great body of the British people — the consumers — it is an outrage, and the consequences may disastrous. As a British subject, I protest against it.

At the present crisis, when the welfare of millions may depend upon your resolve, I hope and trust that you will able to determine for the best.

I have the honour to be, Sir,
Your most obedient servant,

* I have suggested that the kiln-drying of the larch cones, preparatory to thrashing out the seed, may be one of the disposing causes to the larch blight. The kiln-drying of any seed weaken the vitality and hastens the maturity of the resulting plant — more especially a perennial tree plant. Our larch trees produced from kiln-dried cones come to early maturity and seed bearing, and give a weakened progeny to seed, which, kiln-dried in its turn, suffer a still further reduction of vital stamna, and the resulting plant is, the natural food or victim of organised disease. In the case of the potato plant, the disposing cause to disease is probably the unnatural continuance of life by tubor cuttings, the injurious treatment of the tubers in heated pits during the time they are stored up, combined with the excess of gross nourishment afforded in our highly manured fields. In those respects, the treatment has been similar in Europe and America, and naturally is attended with similar results.

A polite acknowledgement of the receipt of the above dated Whitehall, Sept. 27, 1845.

Gourdie-hill, Oct. 15.

Sir—As we go on ascertaining the amount of actual injury to the potato crop, and the nature of the disease, our fears by no means diminish, in regard to our subsistence-supply for the present year are greatly increased. The disease had appeared in many districts of Scotland, and has caused great injury, particularly in the south-west counties. From Ireland, the latest accounts are most alarming. My son, in the north of Germany (Holstein), writes that all his potato fields are more or less injured, except one, the seed of which I had sent over from this country. Accounts from North America say that the disease is this season general and destructive in Canada, the previous year to some extent.

From the nature and amount of our facts, we remain rather undecided regarding the character of the disease. The disease has extended northward as the ripening has proceeded. It, indeed, seems that a general blight of all the cultivated potatoes of the globe has taken place, gradually evincing itself in the different localities as the crop approaches to maturity.— This cannot arise from any excess of moisture or coldness of the summer, as Canada, the United States, and Germany, the summer has not been unusually moist or cold. Being so general, and extending over both Continents, Europe and north America, we might infer that it was caused by some climatic influence, or atmospheric blight, electric magnetic, or other affection proceeding from the elements. But this is mere conjecture. And in the case of atmospheric blight, would expect it be simultaneous over all, and not gradually, as the plant approaches to maturity. We must admit that the potato plant is under very similar circumstances in north America and in Europe. It is a plant removed from its natural habitat (South America, within the tropics), and subjected to a mode of culture and treatment quite foreign to its natural condition, and thence more especially subject to attack by animalculae, zoophytes, or cryptogamic mould disease, called “infection.”

Animal or vegetable life, when brought under new conditions or circumstances different to what nature had accommodated it, is extremely liable to disease — even to an extent embracing the general destruction of the race. A new organisation of animalcule destroyers, or a contagious chemical influence like to fire or yest ferment, called “infectious disease,” is hatched and spread; or, it has been already existing, as widely extended, which sweeps the races in an unnatural position, and thence obnoxious to attack, from earth. Under this view, and taking into account the similarity of circumstances of the potato plant in Europe and America; and also seeing that the disease has occurred, and has been increasing the mischief to a spreading infection, the disposing cause to the disease being the denaturalised condition of the potato plant, as now cultivated in our latitudes. I am the more inclined to this view, as I last year noticed streaks of rot and disease to some extent in the potatoes of my own fields in Germany; especially in the fine Holland variety of potato; and I consider that the disease, though not generally observed, has been making insidious advances in Europe.

This view of the evil is certainly less flattering than any other. The disease having shown itself in wide and distant parts of the globe, would seem indicate that the defect lies in the unnatural condition of the plant itself; and as the malady has been for some time in progress, and is fast gaining ground, we may expect an increase of the mischief next season. As to a remedy for the disease itself, we hardly dare attempt it. Our present business is to consider how can we best prepare to meet the evil?— certainly the immediate repeal of the laws which tend to exclude supply of foreign food, and also by diminishing the amount of potatoes planted next season, and substituting some other nutritious vegetable instead.

The turnip vegetable, upon an equal extent of ground, is even of greater bulk than the potatoe, and nearly nutritious — especially the Swedish or Rutabaga — are, when cooked, highly palatable and wholesome. In the north of Scotland turnips are already brought into use, to some extent, as nutritive food for man. The ploughmen and farm-labourers, during the winter season, when milk cannot be got, make use of the soup of turnips as a substitute. They mix the rich saccharine juice obtained from the turnip by boiling with oatmeal, in lieu of milk, and find the mixture a wholesome nourishment. The boiled pulp of the turnips so used is given to pigs, or other animals; but, in case of necessity, it would, as well as the juice, form wholesome food for man. Carrots and parsnips are also very productive and nutritive.

The government of this country are at present in the most responsible position. The potato disease has spread into most of the districts in Ireland, and has caused very extensive damage. What is to be done with the starving millions in that country? An apprehended danger of the most fearful character, and which, if not timeously taken, may sweep millions from the earth, is before the ministry. They will surely, without a moment’s delay, adopt the best means of meeting the danger. I am, Sir, your obedient servant,

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