“To the Right Hon. Lord John Russell”. London Standard, Tuesday 20 October 1846, p.3 col.1 (pdf image).
(Letter written October 15 1846, published October 20)
An open letter written to the Prime Minister, Lord John Russell, exactly one year after his last letter to the previous Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel. The themes are essentially the same.
Matthew once again considers the biology of the disease. He believes that the disease has spread to other crop species (he was wrong in this – the potato blight was only a threat to potatoes and tomatoes). Matthew is so concerned that he wonders whether the blight might “threaten to blot out the human race from the earth”. Matthew then, as before, urges Russell to prevent the “bonded” export of grain from Ireland, and to reduce the high duties “which our landlord legislators had wickedly imposed” on imported grain (the Corn Laws had been repealed by this time, but this was gradually phased out over three years, and Matthew writes that in the short term import duties had actually gone up, not down). Matthew wonders whether there might be “some sinister party at work in your cabinet, similar to that which restrained your predecessor, Sir Robert Peel”, preventing Russell from doing the right thing.
Matthew predicts that social unrest would inevitably follow unless the government acted decisively, the Irish being “driven to desperation and madness by seeing their own food shipped away from them while they are starving”. By analogy, Matthew recounts his experiences of mass hysteria during the 1842 Great Fire of Hamburg, and ends: “Above all things, seeing that the whole cereal produce of Ireland, though retained at home, is insufficient to support the famishing people, and seeing that the shipping away their own corn from their shores while they are starving is the direct and certain way to produce irritation, frenzied commotion, destruction of property, and bloodshed, it, I think, behoves your government, in policy and common justice, to shut the Irish ports against further exportation of Irish grain”.
TO THE RIGHT HON. LORD JOHN RUSSELL.
MY LORD,— The general spread of the infectious vegetable blight over the cultivated portion of the north temperate zone is sufficiently menacing to command the attention of all. In Europe in particular, where aration is more followed, and the population comparatively dense, the article of food of greatest consumpt has been destroyed for two consecutive years, and this latter year the infection, become more extensively virulent, has spread to the leguminous and cereal crops, and to many other cultivated plants. I have this autumn traced the disease over a number of the kingdoms of Europe, and found it to extend to many genera; and in the different countries to affect the same kinds when they were present. The most dreaded affection is that of the oat, rye, beans, and turnips, which have generally suffered — the oats more especially, which over wide districts of the Continent are little more than chaff, and the straw cast of the Vistula so much discoloured and blackened as to be unfit for the food of cattle. Should this vegetable blight go on increasing at the same rate for a year or two more, and affect the cereal crops generally in the degree it has done the potato, it will threaten to blot out the human race from the earth, or leave a scattered remnant of wandering tribes, fishers and hunters, such as were recently existing in the wilds of North America, New Zealand, and New Holland. But this, we dare hope, will not ensue, more especially at a time when man, by his scientific discoveries and mechanical inventions, seems upon the eve of a new and improved condition of existence.
About a year ago l addressed two letters to Sir Robert Peel, which appeared in several of the leading London papers, pointing out the very imminent danger of the impending mischief, warning him of his deep responsibility, and calling upon him at once, by orders in council, to allow food to be brought to us from other countries free of the high fine per qr. or cwt. which our landlord legislators had wickedly imposed, to enhance the price of what they themselves had to sell. To these letters I would refer as containing as clear an account of the nature of the disease as has yet been given. What I then stated respecting the deep responsibility of the then government, and recommended to be done by Sir Robert Peel, is now doubly onerous upon your lordship and the present government to do. The law has been changed by the wisdom of parliament since that time, instead of to diminish, to increase the fine upon the importation of food several fold when food is dearest and most needed. We are now in that unhappy condition. Her Majesty’s subjects are driven to desperation by gnawing hunger, and are kept down by military execution. Cargoes of grain are shipped off from our shores to other countries free of fine or hindrance, while the importation of grain and other food for your famishing brethren has been legislated against and is prevented by an increased fine. Your lordship is placed in a position to have the laws executed against your Irish fellow subjects, driven to desperation and madness by seeing their own food shipped away from them while they are starving (I say advisedly their own, for in such a case of unforeseen sweeping calamity nature’s rights, the primary claim of a famishing people to the whole food produce of their own country, will speak out, must be heard). Can your lordship, with a pure breast, with hands unstained by their blood, do this, and allow the food-importing fine to remain when you and the government of which you are the head, with one fiat of the will, can remove it for ever? The exigency of the times, wise policy, moral duty, human sympathy — every good principle, and feeling, and necessity which can actuate man, impel your lordship to remove this food-importing fine. The high probity of your character, your judgment, and the bent of your mind to industrial liberty, induces many to wonder that you have not already done so, and gives cause for surmises that there is some sinister party at work in your cabinet, similar to that which restrained your predecessor, Sir Robert Peel.
Being in Hamburgh during the great fire, I had an opportunity of seeing a populace demented — the reason and judgement upset by the greatness of the calamity, its continuence day after day for nearly a week, with the consequent privation of sleep, and nervous excitement. Under this frenzy they fancied that the English, out of envy of the commercial greatness of Hamburgh, had kindled the city and were busied in keeping up tbe combustion, led to this fancy partly by observing the very great activity displayed by the resident English, who were doing their utmost, by blowing up connecting houses, &c, to reduce the fire. So great was the frenzied excitement that I and many others had to leave the city, and several were put in gaol to be safe from their fury. But to have punished or imputed blame to the Hamburgh populace for their error would have been absurd, as it would be to punish any other frenzied person for his frenzied act. So with regard to the Irish under their present calamity and misguided frenzied conduct, it becomes the government to act with the utmost forbearance, and with commiserative consideration for their prejudices and errors. Above all things, seeing that the whole cereal produce of Ireland, though retained at home, is insufficient to support the famishing people, and seeing that the shipping away their own corn from their shores while they are starving is the direct and certain way to produce irritation, frenzied commotion, destruction of property, and bloodshed, it, I think, behoves your government, in policy and common justice, to shut the Irish ports against further exportation of Irish grain. With fervent wishes that your lordship’s judgment may direct you aright,
I am, my Lord,
Your lordship’s most obedient servant,
Gourdie Hill, Oct. 15, 1846.