When the Ottoman Empire sent a humanitarian fleet to Ireland during the Great Famine of the 19th century

Flashes of light usually appear in dramatic situations that awaken or confirm faith in Humanity above secondary considerations. This is what happened in the mid-nineteenth century, when the Ottoman Empire, despite the internal difficulties it was experiencing and the political, cultural and religious differences, turned to help an Ireland hit by the so-called Great Faminethe Great Famine caused by the loss of the potato crop due to a plague.

In 1845, a series of factors came together on the British island that were going to influence the situation in such a way that they would change its history. Since the country had been occupied by the British in Cromwell’s time, land ownership was basically in the hands of English landowners who had the Irish peasants hired on a sharecropping basis (transfer of the room and exploitation of a rural estate to exchange for a portion of profits).

This meant, in practice, that the cereal harvested, especially wheat, was delivered to England and the sharecroppers kept the products from the family garden for their own consumption.

A potato infected with Phytophthora infestans/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

Why? Because these could be cultivated up to four times a year, thus guaranteeing food for the four seasons. Although we speak in the plural, in reality it was the potato that formed the basis of those gardens, due to its adaptation and resistance to almost all types of soils and climates, so that this tuber was the staple food of a third of the Irish population along with with the buttermilk and occasionally some meat.

This reveals the harsh living conditions of those peasants, which, combined with the leonine legal conditions (contracts prevented them from buying, inheriting and leasing, just as being Catholic prevented them from voting, holding political office or living less than five miles from the cities until 1829), put them to the brink of the abyss at the slightest setback.

And it came in the form of Phytophthora infestansa parasitic fungus that produces in plants what they call late blight either potato blight and in Spanish we say late blight or mildew of the potato because it affects the latter especially. There were no other crops, since the smallness of the orchards prevented it (mostly 6 hectares on average, that’s why so many potatoes were grown, requiring little space), so the previous poverty already suffered by the sharecroppers, not having a salary, added to the dependence on potato monoculture.

With the plague, presumably imported from America (the previous year it had devastated Mexico), the peasants were left without their livelihood and could not use the wheat, which came out unscathed, since it was the payment for the landowners. They were not even fully aware of the extremely serious situation of the sharecroppers because they did not collect money personally but through intermediaries, who did so ruthlessly in exchange for a percentage. In fact, the British government downplayed the alarming news that was coming in, citing the Irish tendency to exaggerate.

However, in 1846 Phytophthora infestans it had already destroyed three quarters of the crops, condemning thousands of families to destitution. Three of the eight million Irish registered were completely dependent on the potato (after all, a plant introduced in the 17th century destined for the poor, both for food and for its very low-cost cultivation for wage earners) and close to one million them perished of starvation (or associated causes such as scurvy, cholera or typhus, among others) in the four years that it lasted, while another million more had to pack up their bags and emigrate, especially to the US (where the events prompted the birth of some nationalist groups, such as the Fenian Brotherhood).

The pressing urgent calls from the Irish administrations to the British government, demanding that measures be taken in the same way as would be done if England were affected (importation of foreign corn, prohibition of food exports, public employment…), fell on deaf ears; Parliament only seemed open to forcing landlords to lower rents.

Some voices that cried out for that negligence, remembering that Ireland was part of the United Kingdom and had the right to equal treatment with the other members, ended up being prosecuted and convicted of sedition; it was the case of John Mitchel or John Boyle O’Reilly, deported.

It was charity that got down to work, with a noble effort by the Quakers against the evangelists, who only gave food in exchange for conversions. The executive did not react until armed insurrectionary movements began to sprout which, although they failed, served to raise awareness of how much of a problem that disaster could become.

Prime Minister Robert Peel authorized the purchase of grain and cornmeal, but it was only a patchwork. When he tried to reform the Corn Laws (Grain Laws) to lower import tariffs, they accused him of attacking private initiative and had to resign, although he returned to his post shortly after and put the measure in motion.

It didn’t work; things kept getting worse and Peel fell a second time. His successor, John Russell, was against interventionism, trusting fully in the self-regulation of the market, so he suspended the export ban and social benefits (some cabinet members thought that this was a divine punishment for the Irish); however, he launched a public works program to employ people… that did not solve anything either. Thus came the new year, 1847, in which it was decided to promote an aid plan based on an amendment to the Irish Poor Law (Irish Poor Law), forcing landlords to help sharecroppers.

The latter was counterproductive because, protected by the Cheap Ejectment Acts (Cheap Expulsion Acts), those owners solved the issue of non-payment of rent by kicking out their tenants; more than a hundred thousand people were left homeless, especially in the east and southeast.

All this nonsense began to receive criticism from the press, which already identified England as co-responsible for the crisis because, at the same time, it imported thousands of tons of food from Ireland: wheat, cattle, vegetables, butter and the like, leaving the island destitute.

It should be noted that Russell’s insensitive attitude was not only towards Ireland; in 1848 England itself and Wales were hit by a cholera epidemic that affected seventy-two thousand people without lifting a finger. On the other hand, the Irish themselves maintained a passive attitude, as if accepting their dire fate with resignation, ignoring the classic uprisings that would occur elsewhere in such circumstances or ignoring the government campaign to resort to fish, for example. Something that already attracted attention in its time and, thus, it is not surprising that London did not realize the magnitude of what was happening.

It was then that this insensitivity of the environment was overshadowed by the initiative of the Ottoman sultan Abdulmayid I. Born in 1823, he had been on the throne since 1839 succeeding his father Mahmud II. Abdulmayid’s mandate was almost revolutionary because shortly after he began to reign he promulgated the Edict of Gulhanéa law that granted equality to all citizens of the empire regardless of their religion, continuing the work in this direction begun by his father and that in history has been baptized as Tanzimat (Regulation), a period of modernization that tried to bring Turkey to the level of Europe.

A good example of this was the suppression of an anomaly from another era, the Janissary Corps. But, above all, there was the recognition of human rights and fundamental freedoms, as well as the incorporation of infrastructures such as the railway or the telegraph and western military technology. Logically, such a process was not cheap and the empire had to request loans from European banks, being mortgaged without being able to pay the debts, which led to its economy being intervened de facto by the European powers.

Fall of the Irish population between 1841 and 1851 / Image: public domain in Wikimedia Commons

That was one of the factors valued by Russia to deduce that the Ottoman Empire was falling apart and that it could fish in a troubled river, taking advantage of it to try to plunder an outlet to the Mediterranean for its fleet in what would constitute the beginning of the Crimean War. But the conflict would not break out until 1853 and, meanwhile, world attention was focused on Europe for two reasons: one, the Revolution of 1848, which broke out in several countries on the continent; the other was the Great Famine in Ireland.

Moved by this tragedy and despite the situation in his own country, Abdulmayid decided to donate ten thousand pounds to help the Irish peasants. Surely he was stunned to learn that the British government asked him to reduce that amount to only one thousand because the one given by Queen Victoria was significantly lower, two thousand pounds, and it was not appropriate for a foreign president to exceed the sovereign of the nation in generosity .

To avoid diplomatic conflict, Turkey accepted and sent a thousand pounds to Ireland. But that in terms of money, because Abdulmayid did not want to give up the promised aid and the other nine thousand were invested in chartering five ships with shipments of food.

Surprisingly, London tried to prevent the access of this humanitarian fleet to British ports, but in the end the ships docked in Drogheda. We already talked about this town in County Louth, province of Leister (on the northeast coast of Ireland, fifty kilometers from Dublin), in the article dedicated to Arthur Aston.

The merchandise was unloaded there, which, at today’s exchange rate, is estimated to have a price of approximately eight hundred thousand pounds (almost one million euros). A historical episode as little known as it is unusual, considering that, in essence, it boils down to the fact that a Muslim country came to the rescue of another Catholic in the face of the ineptitude of a third Anglican and Presbyterian. In his honor, the Drogheda municipal crest (and that of the local football team), incorporated a crescent and a star.


Little known tale of generous Turkish aid to the Irish during the Great Hunger (Central Irish)/history of ireland (John O’Beirne Ranelagh)/Brief History of Ireland (Bruce Gaston)/Yearbook of muslims in Europe (VVAA)/Brief history of the Ottoman Empire (Eladio Romero García and Iván Romero Catalán)/Wikipedia

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