The First Boycott

In the 1840s, Ireland’s citizens found themselves literally starving to death. Potato blight struck the nation, killing off huge swaths of Ireland’s staple food crop. Widespread famine followed. From 1845 through 1852, starvation conditions claimed the lives of approximately one million Irish, constituting as much as an eighth of the total population; another million, give or take, left their home nation in search for food. In total, Ireland’s population fell by more than 20%, and the scars of the plight were not forgotten. And there was plenty of blame to go around. While the blight killed the crops, many blamed bad agricultural policy — and abstintee-British landlords — for enabling the blight to spread.

But as the famine subsided, those agricultural policies didn’t change. Irish farmers rarely, if ever, owned their farms; instead, they rented them from the same British landlords are before. And they had virtually no recourse if crop yields were low. The rental price was unregulated. Leases were year-to-year and failure to pay one’s rent led to immediate eviction. And farmers couldn’t sublet parts of their property. Post-famine, Irish land-use reformers petitioned for a set of rights called the “Three Fs” — fair rent (i.e. demanding a regulatory framework), free sale (farmers could sublet or sell their interest to other farmers), and fixity of tenure (basically, an anti-eviction mechanism). But landlords were reluctant to agree, seeing little upside for themselves. 

Had crop yields been consistently high, perhaps nothing would have changed. But as the 1880s approached, fears of a new famine emerge. This sparked violence as land-use reformers took up arms; as the New York Times reported in December of 1880 (pdf), “landlords are shot, agents in cold blood brutally murdered with great violence,” and at least one other landlord was tarred and feathered. But the government dithered. As the Times noted, while this “reign of terror” spread, officials offered solutions that were best described as “absurd.” It looked like violence was the new normal.

But then, a new tactic emerged — one the Times said “proposes to be the turning-point of the present crisis.” The National Land League, an association of land reformers, asked the aggrieved to lay down their arms — and to also put down their wallets. As ThoughtCo explains, “tenants organized by the Land League would refuse to pay rents to the landlords,” but that didn’t work by itself, as “[these] protests would often end in evictions.” So the Land League expanded its tactics. As Irish Central explains, “when [one such landlord] set about evicting 11 tenants, the locals had had enough. The Mayo branch of the Irish Land League urged [the landlord’s] employees to withdraw their labor and began a campaign of isolation against [the landlord] in the local community.”

The tactic, while hardly novel — there are many examples throughout history predating the 1880s — but the landlord, a former Army captain, didn’t take kindly to it. He wrote a letter to The Times (the London newspaper) complaining about his mistreatment by his workers, finding allies back home. As JStor explains, “Orangemen (Protestants) and the state rallied to his cause. [A relief expedition] was the result, made up of 57 volunteer harvesters who came to ‘get in the Captain’s turnips’ and potatoes. Nine hundred soldiers were also sent to protect these volunteers.” The response was kind of ridiculous; per JStor, all that support cost about £10,000, and the crops were only worth about £350.

And this fact wasn’t lost on the Land League or its brethren. Because of the landlord’s complaint and the resultant overreaction, news of the events spread throughout Ireland, and other tenants replicated the tactic. But until then, the tactic didn’t have a name. Today, we have a word: boycott. And these actions were most definitely boycotts. And literally, they were the first-ever boycotts, despite having historical precedents. That’s because the landlord who wrote the letter accidentally wrote himself into history: he was named Charles Cunningham Boycott. 

Bonus fact: CEOs are no strangers to threats of boycotts, but if you want an olive for your salad while flying on American Airlines, you can request one (or could have, when they served salads) because of a successful boycott. The book “Corporate Creativity” explains:

Over many years of collecting meal trays in aircraft cabins, flight attendants had come to know that most passengers did not eat the olives in their salads. Somehow this fact came to the attention of [American Airlines President Robert] Crandall, who ordered a study to determine how much money would be saved if olives were eliminated from salads. The study showed that 72 percent of customers were not, in fact, eating their olives.

Moreover, the airline paid for salads based on the number of items in them sixty cents for up to four items and eight cents for five to eight items. The olive was the fifth item. The olives were discontinued for a savings of roughly $500,000 per year. Soon afterward, an association of olive growers found out about this. They contacted Crandall and threatened to boycott the airline if olives were not restored to the salads. After some negotiations, American agreed to stock every flight with olives and to make them available to any passenger who requested them. This arrangement required no extra catering, since some olives were already put aboard every airplane for martinis.

From the Archives: When Canadian Kids Protested Eight-Cent Candy: Another boycott.  (Involving actual boys, but no cots.)