How did the term “to boycott” originate?
Northern Ireland of the 1880’s was mostly owned by relatively rich landowners, many of whom were of English descent and Protestants, while the land was worked by tenant farmers, mainly Irish and Catholic. As predictably happens whenever one group controls the assets and there are numerous asset-less workers, the tenants were often exploited. In the 1870’s, there had been a depression, so farm prices dropped, as well as a famine. Many farmers were unable to pay their rent.
Lord Erne, 3rd of his name, owned estates in County Mayo in Northwest Ireland. His landlord’s agent was Captain Charles Boycott. An Englishman, Boycott had a tenant farm himself. As agent, his main job was collecting rent from Lord Erne’s tenant farmers.
The tenant farmers had complaints. They felt their rent was too high; that they had no rights to improvements they made to the land they worked. They felt the situation unfair, demanding at the least a reduction in rent following years of low prices for their produce and a lengthy famine. The Irish Land League was formed in 1879, campaigning for the three F’s: Fair rent, Fixity of tenure, and Free sale. For the next few years, the Land War ensued throughout Ireland.
The main choice of protest entailed refusing to pay rent unless the landlord agreed to a rent reduction. This tactic succeeded in getting a 25% rent reduction from a Catholic Bishop in one of the first protests. But Lord Erne was made of sterner stuff. He refused his tenants’ demands for lower rent and had Boycott evict the non-paying tenants.
Previous similar incidents often turned violent; Irish revolts had been repeatedly crushed by England’s superior force; agrarian violence in the Land War resulted in many deaths, harsher criminal penalties, and eventually disbandment by force of the Irish Land League. However, this time, the Irish adopted a new tactic.
On September 19th, 1880, Charles Stuart Parnell, the Irish Land League President. gave a speech. During it, Parnell asked: “What do you do with a tenant who bids for a farm from which his neighbor has been evicted?” The crowd had some answers. “Kill him,” “Shoot him,” “Refuse him whiskey!” Parnell replied:
“I wish to point out to you a very much better way – a more Christian and charitable way, which will give the lost man an opportunity of repenting. “When a man takes a farm from which another has been evicted, Shun him in the streets of the town, you must shun him in the shop, you must shun him in the fairgreen and in the marketplace, and even in the place of worship, by leaving him alone, by putting him in a moral Coventry, 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”.
Irish revolts which used force had repeatedly failed. The new tactic—shunning, refusing to do business with them at all—was first tried against Lord Erne and Captain Boycott.
The locals refused to harvest Lord Erne’s crops and isolated Boycott. People refused to speak to him; no one would do business with him; washerwoman refused his laundry; the mail carrier refused to deliver his mail. Boycott claimed the mail carrier—a mere boy!—had been threatened with violence if mail service continued. Even shop owners in a nearby village refused to serve him.
The matter garnered great attention when the London Times published Captain Boycott’s letter complaining about his situation. The English newspapers sent correspondents to Ireland. The English papers viewed the situation as Irish Nationalists victimizing a dutiful servant of a Peer of the Realm.
To be sure, Boycott’s version of events, as supported by later witnesses, question whether the tenants’ actions were violence free as Parnell’s speech urged. The sheriffs trying to evict Lord Erne’s tenants, for example, swore they were pelted by stones and dung. Thrown by women no less.
To harvest Lord Erne’s crops, fifty protestant Orangeman traveled to Lord Erne’s estate; to protect them, the crown deployed an entire troop regiment and more than 1,000 Royal Irish Constabulary. Approximately £10,000 was spent to harvest £500 worth of crops.
The shunning of Captain Boycott proved successful (depending on your point of view one must say) in at least a few respects:
Boycott left Ireland in December 1880.
British newspapers began using the “boycott” not as a proper name but to describe a tactic of protest. The verb “boycott” entered the English, Dutch, and other lexicons.
And, in 1888, a young man named Mohandas Karamchand Gandh arrived in London to study law. Ghandi came to learn, eventually becoming a barrister. Ghandi refined the non-violent protest technique of a “boycott” and used it extensively. It succored India’s independence from the British Empire.