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 exists an increasing number of modern ‘historians’ who wish to ‘revise’ the long-accepted view of Sir Charles Trevelyan, who was the permanent head of the Treasury during the Famine. The ‘revisionists’ suggest that what has been written about this man is simply the result of the ‘half-truth, innuendo and careless repetition’ by pro-Nationalist commentators that has found its way into the records of this terrible period in Irish history. These modern revisionists seek to undermine the prevalent view that Trevelyan was a dictatorial civil servant, who held undue influence over government policy in handling the Famine. From his own words and deeds we can see that he is a devout disciple to those doctrines of classical political economy, especially ‘leaving well alone’ or ‘laissez-faire’. He was filled with a staunch racial prejudice against the Irish, and a providential view of the Famine being an ‘act of God’ against Irish Roman Catholicism. Trevelyan was convinced that the way that these things came together prevented him from doing anything that would stop the Famine from ‘running its course’. But, the revisionists insist that there is no defensible reason to condemn this man for the inadequate, criminal government response to the humanitarian crisis that was unfolding in Ireland.
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 1840 Trevelyan was appointed as assistant secretary to the Treasury, and served in this capacity until 1859, which covered both the Irish Potato Famine and the Highland Potato Famine in Scotland of 1846–1857. In Ireland, he administered famine relief while, in Scotland, Trevelyan was closely associated with the work of the ‘Central Board for Highland Relief.’ There is little doubt concerning Trevelyan’s devotion to his job, or the difficulty his position placed him in. He acted as liaison between Westminster and Dublin Castle, which proved not to be among the happiest of relationships. Trevelyan was also assigned to arbitrate disputes within the Irish executive, and the various committees, boards and commissions which were established in response to the outbreak of the Famine. However, his lack of action and his personal negative attitude towards the Irish people are widely believed to have been responsible for slow introduction of relief efforts during the Famine. When local committees wanted to open the food stores to the people, for example, Trevelyan decided against such a measure, writing, “Our measures must proceed with as little disturbance as possible of the ordinary course of private trade, which must ever be the chief resource for the subsistence of the people, but, at any cost, the people must not, under any circumstances, be allowed to starve.” Meanwhile, the starving Irish watched with growing resentment as boatloads of homegrown grains and cereals left regularly from Irish ports to England. Anger led to food riots erupting in many ports as the hungry tried unsuccessfully to confiscate the food that was being removed. During one incident in Dungarvan, a small port in County Waterford, armed British troops were pelted with stones and they shot into the crowd in retaliation. This resulted in at least two people being killed and several others being wounded.
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.
It was undoubtedly the ideological forces that Trevelyan gave voice to that constrained the British government’s intervention in the Irish economy during the crisis. There was the influence of classical political economy, the prejudiced views of the Irish people, and the influence of evangelical Providential beliefs that influenced the government’s policy toward Famine relief. That policy included limited state intervention in Ireland and favouring the alternative and less effective demand of ‘local responsibility’ for the relief schemes introduced. It was this policy that brought about a government amendment to the ‘Irish Poor Law’ in late 1847, which shifted the burden of relief from the central government to the local ratepayers in Ireland. It was Trevelyan’s firmly held belief that Ireland needed to heal itself from within, without any substantial aid from the British Government. Using his position within the government and his influence with the English ruling aristocracy it was quite easy for Trevelyan to persuade the Irish landowners to believe that “the government establishments are strained to the utmost to alleviate this great calamity and avert this danger.” He praised the government efforts and denounced the Irish gentry, blaming them for the famine. Trevelyan explained his belief that it was not the government’s responsibility to provide supplies of food or increase land productivity, but the responsibility of the landlords’. The influential English press agreed with his views and blamed the Irish gentry for not demanding that their tenants improve their land and plant crops other than the potato. Trevelyan identified the Irish gentry as being the “defective part of the national character” and he chastised them for expecting the government to fix everything, “as if they have themselves no part to perform in this great crisis.” He knew exactly how the Irish gentry was viewed by their own people, as well as the English, and by placing the blame for the famine upon them, Trevelyan justified the ineptness of the British Government’s response.
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.