March 12, 2017

boycott

March 12 is the birthday of one of the great historical villains of Ireland—Charles Cunningham Boycott. Now memorialized in German (Boykott), Italian (boicottaggio), and French (boicot), among many others, Boycott has emerged as one of the most notorious figures of all time.

n. withdrawal from social or commercial interaction or cooperation with a group, nation, person, etc., intended as a protest or punishment
Oxford English Dictionary

Historical relations between England and Ireland have always been strained, and Captain Charles Cunningham Boycott certainly did nothing to help matters. His unwillingness to negotiate resulted in his name being eternally maligned in more than a half dozen languages around the world.

The Emerald Isle has had a rough go of it over the years. St. Patrick and the Christians overwhelmed the pagan tribes in the fifth century AD, the Vikings wreaked havoc for a century or so, and then the Normans and the English settled in for the long haul. As the Irish Catholic landowners slowly lost their property to Protestant British settlers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, times got pretty tough for your average Irish farmer.

Following the Act of Union (which was not nearly as sexy as it sounds) between the Kingdom of Great Britain and the Kingdom of Ireland in 1801, absentee British landlords were common across the Irish isle, with local farmers renting and working the land. One of these landowners was John Crichton, the third earl of Erne, who hired Captain Charles Cunningham Boycott to manage his estates at Lough Mask House in Connaught, County Mayo, Ireland.

Born in Norfolk in 1832, Boycott served in the military before becoming a land agent in 1872. He had unfortunate historical timing for beginning this unsavory career (an 1843 Royal Commission described land-agent “middlemen” as “the most oppressive species of tyrant that ever lent assistance to the destruction of a country”). Boycott’s new position came a short twenty years after the end of the Great Famine in Ireland (in which tenant farmers surviving solely on a diet of potatoes died by the hundreds of thousands) and just prior to the formation of the reformist Irish National Land League.

The Land League sought to protect farmers from exploitation, through the “Three Fs” of fair rent, fixity of tenure, and free sale. When his tenants requested more reasonable rents in 1880 after several bad harvests, Boycott unwisely suggested a graphic fourth “F” for them to go and act upon themselves and even tried to evict one of them. The Land League’s president, Charles Stewart Parnell, urged a local audience, “When a man takes a farm from which another had been evicted you must shun him on the roadside . . . , you must shun him in the streets . . . , you must shun him in the shop . . . by isolating him from the rest of his country as if he were the leper of old, you must show your detestation of the crime he has committed.”

Boycott’s workers left him, neighbors ignored him, his farm was vandalized, local stores would not serve him, and even the mailman would not deliver to him. Local officials organized a “Boycott Relief Expedition” under military protection to help save his harvest, but the land agent and his family were eventually forced to flee. Local newspapers began referring to successful ostracizing as “boycotting,” and a lamentable legacy was born.

Boycott endured seventeen years of etymological smearing before dying back at home in England in 1897.