The Muslim who tried to save the Irish from British imperial crimes


We are in the forties of the nineteenth century, the British Empire is at its greatest extent, and the era is Victorian. Ireland is in the thrall of the throne of England, with famine hitting it full in the face.

While today’s United Kingdom is arguably one of the few remaining havens of peace and democracy in the world, this wasn’t always the case. For whoever is interested in the history of Britain, cruelty of the Victorian reign on subjected colonies is no secret. The Irish Potato Famine or The Great Famine is the name given to a major famine that raged in Ireland between 1845 and 1852 making one million dead and obliging six million Irish to emigrate. The disaster was largely due to fifty years of catastrophic interactions between British imperial economic policy, inappropriate agricultural methods and the appearance of the mildew on the island – a parasite that annihilated the local cultures of potatoes almost entirely, the basic food of Irish farmers who constituted the immense majority of the population at that time.

Since the title carries a claim calling into question the responsibility of the British Empire (or what I labeled ‘imperial crimes’) and since I am no fan of the arbitrary and the clickbait, wise is to briefly argue over its consistency.

British disastrous imperial policies

Firstly, the revolt of the Irish Catholics against Oliver Cromwell (1st Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland, and Ireland) entailed in 1649 a rough repression and the implementation of Penal laws intended to discriminate against them. Among this series of measures, Property Act established that the lands of Catholics, instead of being transmitted to the elder son, must be divided between all the sons of the same family. This has resulted in an important reduction in the size of farms and an increasing vulnerability of their owners. To subsist, the Irish practised mainly the culture of potato – nourishing tuber and requiring little space to be cultivated. Furthermore, many farmers were not owners of their lands and had to pay a rent to landlords, who were Protestant and British.

Secondly, Irish ports remained open under the pressure of Protestant traders and Ireland kept exporting food. While in regions of the island whole families starved, convoys of food belonging to landlords, escorted by the army, left towards England.

Thirdly, at the time, The British army possessed the biggest food reserves of Europe, which they refused nevertheless to share. This disaster is at the origin of a revival of the Irish nationalism, being translated in particular by the birth of the movement Young Ireland. John Mitchel, one of its leaders wrote in 1860 « The Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the Famine. » This brings us, in fine, to the story of the Muslim man.

The Muslim man

In 1845, the Ottoman sultan Abdulmejid declared his intention to send £10,000, a huge amount at the time, for the Irish farmers. To the general surprise, and instead of accepting this gesture of goodwill, Queen Victoria asked that the sultan sends only £1,000, for she had given only £2,000. Ego above all, and the weak suffer what they must. Thus, the sultan sent £1,000 and three or five ships filled with food. The British administration attempted to block the ships, but by local tradition, the food arrived secretly at Drogheda harbour and was left there by Ottoman sailors. The reports of newspapers suggest that the ships of Thessaloniki in Ottoman Empire navigated to the river Boyne in May 1847, although it also asserts that the river was dry at the time. In 1995, the city hall of Drogheda set up a sign of remembrance. In 2012, projects were announced to produce a movie about the story, starring Colin Farrell and several Turkish actors.

It is always good to remember these beautiful stories of fraternity between men, at a time when hatred is becoming the biggest hostis humani generis.

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Hassane Elayyadi
Passioné d’histoire, de sciences politiques et de questions internationales d’actualité. Étudiant en relations internationales à Goldsmiths, University of London.


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