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Captain Boycott loses war against poor people

Published:Friday | October 9, 2015 | 12:00 AM

Charles Boycott, the son of an Anglican priest, was a most unfortunate man. He's the brand name for a most effective type of social protest. But he was on the wrong side of the struggle. Boycott was born in England in 1832 and served in the British Army. After retiring, he worked as a land agent in Ireland. Lord Erne, an Anglo-Irish peer, politician and absentee landlord, employed Boycott to manage his estate.

In 1880, harvests were very poor, so Erne reduced his tenants' rent by 10 per cent. But they were not satisfied and demanded reduction to 25 per cent. Erne refused. Boycott tried to evict 11 protesters. When word got out, the tenants took action.

They were guided by the advice of Charles Stewart Parnell, an Irish landlord with a conscience. He was the first president of the Irish National Land League, founded in 1879. Their mission was to advocate for land reform: reducing extortionate rents, ensuring that tenants could not be unfairly evicted and enabling tenant farmers to purchase land.

Parnell recommended that when tenants took farms from which others had been evicted, the newcomers should be isolated. No violence; just leave them severely alone. Parnell's tactic was first used against Captain Boycott. Workers went on strike. Local suppliers of goods and services declined to do business with Boycott. Even the postman stopped delivering mail.

Boycott couldn't get anyone to harvest the crops and, in the end, 50 members of the Protestant Orange Order volunteered to do the reaping. Even though there was no threat of violence, they were escorted by 1,000 police and soldiers. The cost of protection was much more than the value of the crops. It would have been cheaper to just give the tenants the 25 per cent reduction in rent.




Boycott's name soon entered the English language, both as a verb and a noun. James Redpath, a journalist with the New York Tribune who went to Ireland to cover the Boycott story, was the first to use the new word in the international media. In an article published in the Magazine of Western History, Redpath tells how the word was coined:

"I was dining with Father John O'Malley and he asked me why I was not eating. I said that I was bothered about a word. 'What is it?' asked Father John. 'Well,' I said, 'when a people ostracise a landgrabber, we call it excommunication, but we ought to have an entirely different word to signify ostracism applied to a landlord or land agent like Boycott. Ostracism won't do. The peasantry would not know the meaning of the word, and I can't think of anything.' 'No,' Father John said, 'ostracism wouldn't do.' He looked downward, tapped his forehead, and then out it came. "How would it do to call it 'to boycott him?'"

The rejected word 'ostracism' wouldn't have been all that difficult for the peasantry to understand if they had been educated about its origin. It comes from the Greek word 'ostrakon', meaning 'tile'. The Online Etymology Dictionary notes that ostracism was "a method of 10-year banishment in ancient Athens, by which the citizens gathered and each wrote on a potsherd or tile the name of a man they deemed dangerous to the liberties of the people, and a man whose name turned up often enough was sent away". Pity we can't banish some of our politicians in this way.




There were some amusing responses to my column last week, 'Time to boycott Britain!' BobbieP wrote, "And to get this Boycott off to a smashing start, Carolyn Cooper has just announced that tomorrow she will publically [sic] demolish her prized British Jaguar sports car using a sledgehammer! From now on, she will only drive an authentically Jamaican vehicle, a pushcart. Now that is putting your money where your mouth is, Carolyn!"

I decided to respond: "Tata Motors, an Indian company, owns Jaguar. And I don't drive one. But facts don't matter when people get emotional about issues like reparations." BobbieP wasn't the least bit fazed by his/her errors. S/he gave a half-hearted 'sorry' and then pressed along, mocking the proposed boycott:

"Sorry for my mistake, Carolyn. I was positive that was a Jag you were driving at UWI. Jaguar may me [sic] owned by Tata, but it is still headquartered in England. Designed and built in England. If you want us to get serious about this boycott, you need to come up with a more robust definition of 'British'. Even the Queen isn't British, [sic] her family is actually German! Most major brands are now owned by multinational corporations, so your simple rule about ownership won't work."

Even in an age of multinational corporations, my supposedly 'simple rule about ownership' has validity. Take, for instance, the case of the Volkswagen Group. Bentley, Bugatti, Lamborghini, Audi, Porsche, SEAT, Skoda and Volkswagen are all owned by the company, which has both automotive and financial services divisions. The company operates in approximately 150 countries and has 100 production facilities across 27 countries. VW has two major joint ventures in China.

As a result of the recent diesel emissions scandal, there have been calls to boycott VW. Consumers understand their collective power. And they know what ownership means. It's a pity some of us can't 'own' the right to reparation.

- Carolyn Cooper is a teacher of English language and literature. Visit her bilingual blog at Email feedback to and