Charles Cunningham Boycott

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Charles Cunningham Boycott was not a well-liked person amongst his neighbors in Ireland. No one would talk to him, no one would sell to him, and no one would work for him.

He was so disliked that his very name became synonymous with refusing to do business with someone. 

Learn more about Charles Cunningham Boycott and how his name became a part of the English language on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

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Charles Boycott was born Charles Cunningham Boycatt in 1832 in Norfolk, England. His parents were descended from French Hugonauts who fled to England 150 years earlier when Louis XIV removed all protections to the protestants in the country. 

In 1841, the family changed their name from Boycatt to Boycott. It is a fact that would probably otherwise be ignored, except in this story, the family’s name is the entire point of the story. 

Charles went to school at a military academy but flunked out. Thankfully, his family had enough money to buy him an officer’s commission in the British Army. 

…and yes, that was a thing which you could do for several centuries in the British Army and something I’ll be addressing in a future episode.

While in the army he was stationed in Ireland where he met his wife and ended up selling his commission after only 3 years in uniform. 

After leaving the army he decided to remain in Ireland and he moved to Achill Island in 1854 where he sublet 2,000 acres of land from the Irish Church Mission Society, which was an Anglican group that set out to convert Irish Catholics. 

 On Achill Island, he had difficulties with other people almost from the start. He was accused of assaulting one of his neighbors. He was accused of not paying debts. He also got into trouble with the organization that he was leasing his land from about a shipwreck off of the property.

It took years, but eventually, Charles became successful and built a large house on Achill Island. 

In 1873, he moved to a property on the shore of Lough Mask, which is a lake in Counties Mayo and Galway. He was working as a representative for Lord Erne, the third Earl Erne, who was one of the largest landowners in Ireland. 

Boycott was responsible for 1,500 acres of his land. 

Here I need to take a detour and explain what was happening in Ireland at the time. 

Ireland was a territory of Great Britain, and the vast majority of the land in Ireland was owned by a very small number of people. 750 families owned half of the land on the island. 10,000 people or 0.2% of the population owned almost everything. The vast majority of them didn’t live in Ireland and were absentee landlords. 

Most of the people in Ireland lived in small villages in rural areas and worked on land rented from the large landowners. Most of the leases were only for a single year, which meant that every year, almost everyone was a year away from being evicted.

The treatment of Irish farmers and the state of Irish land ownership lead to something called the Land War. 

This was an organized effort for land reform and advocacy for what they called the three F’s: fair rent, free sale, and fixity of tenure. 

It was in this environment Boycott found himself. 

He was not what you would call a great landlord or even a nice guy. He was personally very abrasive and he had very set views on the social order, with some people ordained to be over others. 

This all came to a head in 1880. 

The harvest that year wasn’t very good. 

On September 19, at a meeting of the Land League, one of the Irish members of parliament, Charles Stewart Parnell, gave a speech.

He asked the crowd, “What do you do with a tenant who bids for a farm from which his neighbor has been evicted?”

The crowd shouted “kill them” or “shoot them”.

Instead, Parnell suggested a different course of action. He said,

I wish to point out to you a very much better way – a more Christian and charitable way, which will give the lost man an opportunity of repenting. When a man takes a farm from which another has been evicted, you must shun him on the roadside when you meet him – you must shun him in the streets of the town – you must shun him in the shop – you must shun him on the fair green and in the market place, and even in the place of worship, by leaving him alone, by putting him in moral Coventry, by isolating him from the rest of the country, as if he were the leper of old – you must show him your detestation of the crime he committed.

Days after this speech, Boycott evicted 11 of the farmers on the property he managed. Due to the poor crop, they couldn’t make their rent. Boycott offered them a 10% reduction in rent, but they asked for a 25%. Boycott’s boss, Lord Erne, refused to offer 25%, so they were evicted. 

It was at this point when the people of the community decided to apply Parnell’s strategy to Boycott. 

According to British law at the time, to be evicted, you had to serve an eviction notice to the head of the household. 

As soon as the authorities showed up to serve the eviction notices, a signal went out and a group of women showed up to shower the constables with rocks and manure. 

They retreated and were unable to serve the eviction notices.

Word of the revolt spread. 

The servants and staff who worked for Boycott were convinced to quit. 

The movement then spread to the local village. The blacksmith and the postmaster refused to provide any services to Boycott.  When Boycott tried to get his nephew to deliver the mail, he was threatened.

Soon the shopkeepers refused to sell Boycott anything. He had to get all of his supplies brought in by boat. 

Word of this began to spread. Within weeks it was being reported in the London Times, and it was even being reported overseas.

By November, the word boycott began being used as a verb. 

Boycott then had a huge problem. The harvest had to be brought in and he couldn’t find anyone to actually do the work. 

This had now become a major political issue. 50 protestants from Ulster volunteered to come down and bring in the crops. However, they had to hire 1000 police officers to protect them along the way.

Even though the labor was free, the cost of the police protection was more than the value of the crops. 

Later, Boycott tried to go to Dublin, but he had great difficulty because he couldn’t find a driver. When he got to Dublin, the hotel with threatened with a boycott for hosting Boycott. 

The actions taken against Boycott spread across Ireland and there were dozens of cases of boycotts taking place against other landlords. 

These boycotts drove parliament to take action. In April of 1881, the Irish Land Law Act was passed. It granted the three F’s including setting a minimum lease of 15 years, instead of the single-year leases which were the norm.

It was one of the most important pieces of legislation passed in decades. 

Obviously, the world boycott has become part of the English language. There have been countless boycotts against all sorts of people and organizations for all sorts of reasons.

The word appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1888, just 8 years after the word was coined.

But who did first coin the term?

According to legend, it was Father John O’Malley who was active in the Land League. 

The story was told by one James Redpath who recounted the conversation he had with Father O’Malley. He noted:

I said, “I’m bothered about a word.”

“What is it?” asked Father John.

“Well,” I said, “When the people ostracise a land-grabber we call it social excommunication, but we ought to have an entirely different word to signify ostracism applied to a landlord or land-agent like Boycott. Ostracism won’t do – the peasantry would not know the meaning of the word – and I can’t think of any other.”

“No,” said Father John, “ostracism wouldn’t do.”

He looked down, tapped his big forehead, and said: “How would it do to call it to Boycott him?”