Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Irish Potato Famine: A Letter

My colleague Dorothea Rees recently unearthed a fascinating letter in our Brooker Collection of early American legal documents. Dated December 20, 1845, the letter appears to be written by two business agents to a Philadelphia businessman, Mr. George H. Steiner. The agents, J.M. Bolton and E.G. James, write as follows:

"The steamship Acadia at Boston yesterday & her news here to day not so favorable as anticipated. Flour has declined in England ... it is now affirmed by the Irish Journals that the injury to the potato crop will be much short of the general apprehension. ... Prices have advanced too rapidly & in consequence we may look for further decline here. ... still urging caution in your operations."

Tragically, the correspondents were wrong about the extent of the potato crop failure. In fact, the great famine began the same year the letter was written, 1845, and continued for several years, decimating the population of Ireland.

But we have 20/2o hindsight. We know the magnitude of this tragedy, and it is unsettling to see it discussed so dispassionately by two American businessmen at the very time it was unfolding. That very disconnect is one of the wonderful things about primary sources: they give us information and opinions that would otherwise be lost to time.

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