Potato jokes show how little people knowJune Tong

It’s been refreshing to see that the discussion around the way we teach and remember history has been reinvigorated in recent months. With Education Secretary Michael Gove’s controversial remarks about the teaching of the First World War coming under fire, and academics calling for us to have a debate about its legacy 100 years on, our history has again become the subject of scrutiny.

Cambridge has not escaped this discussion. Pearl Mahaga’s recent Varsity article calling on Cambridge students to acknowledge the many atrocities of the British Empire highlighted just how important a well-rounded education in history is if we want to stamp out ignorance in the adult population of the future.

Regardless of how far our right-wing politicians succeed in stemming the flow of immigration, Britons will not be able to avoid increasing levels of contact with people from all over their former Empire. India is currently the third-largest foreign investor in the UK. The two wealthiest property investors in the UK are Chinese. It is my personal hope that England will eventually become subsumed into a United Kingdom of Ireland, but that might be a couple of years off yet.

My point is that the last thing this country needs is a population of business people, political leaders and thinkers who are not fully aware of the suffering their ancestors once caused in the far corners of the Earth.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not going to write about how offensive it is to casually celebrate the glory of the Empire or to poke fun at famines that killed a million people (I’ll get to that shortly). I personally don’t get offended very easily and don’t mind a bit of friendly banter, especially if it involves Britain’s ridiculous monarchy.

However, I do want to give you an idea of just how ignorant you can make yourself look without really knowing about it. It’s a testament to just how little some British people seem to know about their past that it has become totally acceptable to direct casual ‘potato jokes’ at Irish people.

Very few British people in Cambridge seem to be aware that these jokes are a direct reference to the Great Famine of 1845-1852. Even fewer know anything about the causes of that famine.

When the Irish potato crop failed in 1845, there was more than enough food being produced in the country to feed the entire population. However, around 75 per cent of the land was being used to produce cash crops and to raise livestock for export to the British mainland. The vast majority of those who suffered during the famine were tenant farmers who paid their rent by working for absentee landlords.

In order to increase the amount of income that could be made from rent, these landlords had divided tenants’ land holdings until they were so small that the potato became the only suitable crop for growth on these holdings. When the potato blight hit and tenant farmers were no longer able to feed themselves or their families, not only did they not receive assistance from their (British) landlords, they were evicted from their tiny plots of land and left to fend for themselves.

At the time, the Assistant Secretary to Her Majesty’s Treasury, Sir Charles Edward Trevelyan, called the famine an “effective mechanism for reducing surplus population” and God’s own punishment for the selfishness and perversion of the Irish people.

This opinion was widely influential in Britain at the time and resulted in considerable foot-dragging and a sense that Irish people were responsible for their own problems.

One million Irish people died between 1845-1852 under British rule as a consequence of the deliberate uprooting of Irish people from their land, as well as the endemic attitude of antipathy towards Irish people which pervaded the ruling classes of Victorian Britain. To this day, the Irish population has not recovered to pre-famine levels.

That is what you’re poking fun at when you make potato jokes. But if you didn’t know that, I wouldn’t blame you. I have asked several of my British friends about this, and they’ve all assured me that they simply weren’t taught this stuff at school.

Providing secondary school students with a comprehensive education in history is already quite tricky given the highly specialised nature of A-levels. Michael Gove’s recent reforms to the GCSE history curriculum could very well make matters worse.

Gove wants to focus the history curriculum on the history of the British Islands, leaving out much of what the Brits got up to overseas. This all ties in very well with the jingoist rhetoric we’ve had to endure from Gove recently, but there’s one small problem.

There has always been more to Britain than Britain. This hasn’t always been for the best. Unless young British people are made more aware of this fact, then there’s no telling how embarrassing these ignorant jokes might get.