Facebook and Captain Boycott

Given the growing commercial boycott of Facebook as a result of the swelling volumes of hate speech and misinformation, I thought people might be interested in the story of where the word ‘boycott’ actually comes from. In some ways, it’s actually quite a funny story.

Needless to say, it was from Ireland:

 

The Story of Captain Boycott

In 1870, almost eighty percent of all the land in Ireland was owned by the descendants of British colonists, most of them absentee landlords who hired Land Agents to manage their properties to ensure the maximum ‘dividends’ were transferred back to their owners in the ‘home country’. The native Irish, meanwhile, were often obliged to make a living by leasing their old ancestral lands (annually), a task hampered by the fact that at least 50% consisted of holdings less than fifteen acres in size. The hardships that this caused led to great tension, a situation inflamed by the risk of famine and  the behaviour of predatory Land Agents who pitilessly instigated rack-renting and mass evictions to make a bigger profit for their masters.

In an attempt to counter these injustices, a political organisation called ‘The Land League’ was established in 1879 by individuals including Charles Parnell, Andrew Kettle, Michael Davitt and others. This organisation hoped to improve the lot of poor tenant farmers by abolishing landlordism in Ireland and enabling those farmers to buy the land they worked on over time.  Soon after its establishment, during a famous speech in Ennis (on September 19, 1880), Charles Parnell proposed that individuals who took the farms of evicted tenants should be ostracized by the community rather than resorting to violence.

Several years earlier, Captain Charles Cunningham Boycott (a retired British army captain) took the position of Land Agent for John Crichton, 3rd earl of Erne near the Neale in Co. Mayo (a block consisting of about 2,184 acres). As the Land Agent, Boycott was responsible for ensuring a regular profit from the land (which included collecting rent from 35 tenant families),a task he did for several years.

In 1880, due to poor harvests, many of the tenant farmers in Mayo were simply unable to pay their rent and sought relief from Lord Erne (though Boycott). Lord Erne offered a ten percent reduction but the protesting tenants pleaded for a twenty five percent reduction, which Lord Erne refused. With the tenants unable to pay, Boycott immediately attempted to evict eleven tenant families from the land.

When the alarm was raised about the evictions however, the Land League’s new tactics were applied and Boycott soon found himself socially, and professionally, isolated, unable to obtain labourers to work on his lands or to access local services (as businesses refused to trade with him). At night, huge damage was carried out on the farm’s infrastructure with equipment broken, trees felled and various crops stolen or destroyed. To make matters worse, the heightened tensions meant Boycott and his supporters had to be escorted anywhere they travelled, by armed police.

This concerted action proved remarkably effective and soon Boycott was reduced to writing a letter in the London Times (on 14 October 1880) to seek assistance to harvest his substantial turnip crop. He subsequently received support from the Dublin Daily Express (controlled and predominantly read by his peers and other members of the Protestant Ascendency who were concerned at the Land League’s success). This helped to establish a fund to help save Boycott’s crops and a ‘Boycott Relief Expedition’.

Although Boycott only required ten to twelve men to harvest his turnip crop, during the first week of November, 50 volunteers from the Ulster ‘Boycott Relief Expedition’ (predominantly made up of Orangemen volunteers from Cavan and Monaghan), arrived at Claremorris railway station to ‘get in the Captain’s turnips’. Arriving on a particularly stormy day, the volunteers (and the large company of soldiers escorting them), had to walk all the way to Boycott’s land in driving rain as none of the local drivers would transport them. There, over the next two weeks, housed in tents on the lawns and guarded by several hundred soldiers, they harvested the turnips. During that time however, a large number of sheep, fowl and other foodstuffs ‘disappeared’ and Boycott’s carefully manicured gardens were trampled to a muddy quagmire. By the time the ‘volunteers’ and the soldiers left (27 November 1880), the crop (worth less than £350 at market) had cost the English Crown and other financial interests almost £10,000 to harvest.

In December 1880, unable to sustain the financial losses and the damage to his reputation, Boycott sold his house and left Ireland. The affair in Mayo made headlines and by the end of 1880, the word ‘boycotting’ had spread throughout Ireland and overseas. Twenty years later, the word appeared as a verb in English dictionaries