A few evenings ago I watched the 2018 film, Black 47. It tells of the Irish Famine through the story of one traumatized Irish returned soldier. The main character, Martin Feeney (played by the young Australian actor James Frecheville), returns to Ireland from India (another British colony) after fighting for the Empire, only to find the devastation brought on Ireland by the British colonizers, enforced by the very same army he fought for.
This film is painfully well made in every way and is not easy to watch, but watching it honors the memory of the victims and ensures we do not forget crimes against humanity. The film’s main story is fictional and so are the characters. But the context in which the story unfolds, the time and events of the Irish Famine, are devastatingly real.
One of the most important messages from this film is that big historical events that affect a lot of people are not some abstract thing that happens ‘out there’ that has nothing to do with us. Everything that happens to human beings is personal both to victims and perpetrators, albeit in different ways. For those looking at significant historical events from outside or from the distance of time, it can be too easy to perceive them in the abstract. In fact, the way history is written and taught makes it too easy for all of us to view things with detachment. This film warns us against that. It makes history personal.
The victims of the famine were people, human beings like us. We don’t have to know them personally to be able to put ourselves in their shoes. What would it be like to be so poor that you have nothing, to have no shoes, no warm clothes, to not be able to feed yourself and your children, to watch your children die of starvation? How frightening and how desperate would this be? We all know what it feels to be afraid. We all know what desperation feels like, even if we have never experienced the particular conditions the film shows.
What would it be like to be stripped to the bare bones of survival because of the deliberate and calculating actions of someone more powerful than you who views you with contempt because of who you are? What would it be like to be treated like you are piece of garbage, a nothing, by someone who is so much more powerful than you that he can do anything he wants to you? It isn’t that hard to imagine and right now this is life and reality for many people around the world, including the Palestinian people. There are degrees of suffering, yes, but in my profession, we do not compare suffering. Every human being’s suffering matters to them and those around them and it should matter to all of us.
The events between 1845 and 1849 that devastated Ireland are called the ‘Irish Famine’. This is a descriptive title, and yes there was a terrible famine. But such a title makes it sound like this was an unavoidable natural disaster, a force of nature, when it was anything but. The so-called ‘Irish Famine’ was really a genocide committed with intent by the colonizing British Empire. It saw millions die of starvation, disease and exposure and millions leave Ireland never to return.
Britain took advantage of a natural disaster that caused a devastating failure of potato crops not only in Ireland but elsewhere in Europe to reduce the population of Ireland and break its resistance to British colonial rule. The potato blight that swept through Ireland left millions starving. The genocide saw the Brits ship food out of Ireland deliberately, while the local people were starving. Starving people were cold-heartedly evicted out of their dwellings into the harsh and cold countryside because they were too poor to pay rent to well-nourished English and English-sponsored landlords who stole and colonized Irish land and lived in comfort and warmth. Millions, entire families, were made homeless for no reason at all and no fault of their own. They were victims of the cruelty of the ruling classes of an Empire that wanted their land. They were thrown out with nothing, starving and barefoot like useless bits of rubbish with nothing to eat, and many died.
Britain felt contempt for the indigenous Irish. It chose not to see them as fellow human beings. Charles Trevelyan, the assistant secretary to the Treasury who was effectively in charge of Famine relief in Ireland said:
“The judgment of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson, that calamity must not be too much mitigated . . . 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 Tim Pat Coogan. *The Famine Plot: England’s Role in Ireland’s Greatest Tragedy*. 2013)
This quote does not need interpretation. It speaks for itself. Dehumanization is a common tactic all colonizers and settler-colonizers have been using throughout human history. All colonizers and genocidal regimes convince themselves (and all the bystanders out there) that they are not committing any crime, that in killing millions of their fellow human beings they are in fact doing something virtuous, essential and even godly. It is necessary to dehumanize victims so the job of harming, killing and displacing them is not only made easier but is in fact possible at all. Most people would not harm one another when they feel empathy and relate to each other’s experience. Colonizers do a good job convincing large sections of their own population and outsiders to turn off the empathy switch. They would not be able to carry out atrocities otherwise.
Britain managed to reduce the indigenous population of Ireland by half, and even after the worst of it was over, the population of Ireland kept declining. Britain did fail in the end. Ireland eventually freed itself from British colonialism in 1937, just under a century after the famine genocide. The entire journey however took hundreds of years of ongoing resistance to horrible cruelty, brutality, injustice, internal divisions fostered by the colonizers, a civil war and an unbelievable amount of suffering of an untold number of people.
Halving the population of a country that you colonize is one effective way to try to prevent resistance. The British ruling classes wanted Ireland not for natural resources but for strategic advantage. But regardless of the reasons that might lead one group of people to invade the land of another, colonizers and settler-colonizers are always abusive and parasitical opportunists. They invade, they take over, they turn people against one another, they suck the land and its population dry, they steal from and discard the host, or at least try to.
We see one such case unfolding in Palestine right in front of our noses and no one is doing anything about it. Most of the world looks on as it always has done. It views what is being done to the Palestinians either with the indifference of detachment, or with contempt toward the victims fueled by the choice to believe the perpetrators’ (predictable) dehumanizing propaganda. The perpetrator, the exclusively Jewish state of Israel created by the Zionist movement – itself a product of the colonialist mindset of 19th Century Europe – is still, incredibly, perceived as legitimate rather than as the crime that it is. It is as if we have learned absolutely nothing from history.
It took this long for such a painful, uncompromising and realistic film to be made about one of the many crimes of British colonialism in Ireland. I wonder when someone will finally make a film like this about the Nakba.