Nally, David 2011 Human Encumbrances: Political Violence and the Great Irish Famine, reviewed by Pam Shurmer-Smith
David P. Nally, Human Encumbrances: Political Violence and the Great Irish Famine, University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, Indiana, 2011, 348+xviii pages, $38.00 paper, ISBN 13:978-0-268-03608-9 (
My first reaction to the suggestion I might like to review Human Encumbrances was that, since I am neither an historian nor an expert on Ireland, its narrow specialization was way beyond my interest. How wrong I was. This book should be read by every human geographer, indeed it should be read by anyone who cares at all about the reach of the colonial state, the cultivation of inhumanity or just about dedicated and painstaking scholarship.
As Britain’s first and nearest colony, Ireland has long served as a template for imperialist relations and a laboratory for new modes of social control. As “every schoolchild” knows, the Great Irish Famine of the 1840s was “caused” by potato blight and it, in turn, “caused” a mass migration of the afflicted to the United States, but for David Nally causality extends further, deep into the inherent violence of colonialism. Nally outlines the history of the colonization of Ireland from the eleventh century (the progressive expropriation of land by waves of settlers, the concentration of power in protestant hands, and the systematic destruction of subsistence modes of production) in preparation for a meticulous unfolding of the machinery of social control in the half century following the Act of Union (1801).
Starting from Hannah Arendt’s view that despotic domination “[does] not rest on superior means of coercion as such, but on a superior organization of power” (1970, page 50), Nally shows how union with Great Britain, including the adoption of a common currency, wrecked Ireland’s traditional manufacturing and international trade as well as its peasant agriculture. The Corn Laws, protecting British farmers from cheap foreign grain imports, ensured a lucrative market on the mainland for Irish grain, but the commercial farming that could take advantage of this, by employing new “scientific” methods on newly consolidated holdings, rendered much of the rural workforce superfluous. Wheat prices rose too high for landless labourers to afford bread, and, reduced to cultivating marginal land, small-holders found it increasingly difficult to produce a range of foodstuffs. From its original status as a standby crop, the potato rapidly became the staple of the rural Irish diet out of necessity. Indeed “staple” is too narrow a term; for many of the Irish poor, the potato was the sole food. Well before the outbreak of phytophthora infestans, the Irish peasantry had been pushed to the margins of survival and already many of those who could, emigrated. The rural poor had no other crop to fall back on when the potato blight struck, but commercial farmers continued to export foodstuffs and resented suggestions that they had any poor-law responsibility.
The book focuses on the Irish, but I could not help but read it for the Bemba people of Zambia, obliged to send young men to work far away in the Copper Mines to raise money to pay poll-tax, adopting starchy cassava because they could no longer grow enough of their nutritious millet.
Nally shows how, piece by piece, the Irish were dispossessed. The mid-1800s was the time when ideologies relating to the primacy of market forces became enshrined in an industrializing Britain. He claims, “The arrival of the potato blight provided the pretext necessary to justify further socio-economic engineering, especially at a time when non-market adjustments were officially condemned. As famine aid became more tightly entwined with processes of structural adjustment, relief strategies became increasingly biopolitical in nature and intent” (page 163). He shows that there were many who saw famines as “a natural purge of supernumerary hands” and others that emigration could serve as a “safety valve … to draw off the redundant population” (page 210). Lest it seem that government was merely callous, it became necessary to stress the moral educational aspect of such thinking. Robert Peel was not atypical when he declared, “The true lesson to teach a man who is able to work, and particularly an Irishman who is able to work, is that it is much better for him to rely upon his own exertions for support, than to be dependent upon charity for the means of subsistence” (quoted page 189). This meant the demise of outdoor relief and the application of great experiment of the workhouse, where “bare life” was eked out according to scientific principles of minimal nutrition and imported maize pap kept bodies alive. Such sentiments are not dead today.
Both Calvinist ideology and pseudo-scientific rationality sought to offload responsibility for the plight of the Irish onto the Irish themselves. In the context of this destitution, legislators, social engineers, philosophers, economists, and even tourists generated a stream of commentary and suggestions for policy. Nally’s examination of this contemporary construction of the Irish as inherently brutal, feckless, dirty, superstitious, ignorant and stupid makes for sobering reading. It ranges from earnest official reports, through pontificating moral commentary and proto-ethnography to insensitive cartooning. With an African past, I find it impossible not to recognize the minutiae of the many techniques employed in the creation and internalization of racial distance. A tiny detail like Carlyle’s complaining about difficulty finding good food on his quick trip to garner material for his Reminiscences of My Irish Journey 1949, illustrates the ease with which a man with an intact sense of his own superiority can assume that his own temporary discomfort ranks higher than others’ structural misery; worse than this, that these “others” are so brutalized as to have become immune to suffering.
The principle of accumulation by dispossession is central to Nally’s understanding of the impoverishment and starvation of the Irish people. In turn, his meticulous research, drawing upon a full spectrum of contemporary records, offers the most convincing account I have so far encountered of the interlocking processes whereby a population is drained of every last valuable resource in the name of Development and Modernisation.
Near to the beginning of this excellent monograph Nally observes that, “Despite the fact that the Great Irish Famine is now a major field of scholarly enquiry, there has been little attempt to engage with … critical perspectives which are derived principally from famine experiences in colonial and postcolonial contexts.” (page 4) This book admirably remedies this lack, referring to famine in India and Africa, drawing on the work of Sen to examine the development of ideas of entitlement. For Nally, history is not just isolated in the past, it flows into the present; he makes it impossible for a reader to miss the continuity between starving Irish people in the nineteenth century and food insecurity today. He is not afraid to go beyond the narrow confines of academia to use the media to draw attention to the politics of hunger in the contemporary world, most recently the Horn of Africa, articulating his central message that “[t]he widespread scarcity of food is mistakenly viewed as a crime without a culprit” (Nally 2011) and to name that culprit as international capital.
Pam Shurmer-Smith, email@example.com, Portsmouth, United Kingdom
Arendt H, 1970 On Violence (New York: Harcourt Brace and World)
Nally D, 2011 “Architectures of violence: Famine and profits” Aljazeera Last Modified: 16 Aug 2011 08:21