This January 1832 article in The Freeman’s Journal underscores the way in which England’s colonial administration wielded economic power to affect daily life and standard of living across its empire, a power particularly potent in a public health crisis such as the cholera epidemic. The article details the British decision to continue to enforce the duty on soap, despite the tax turning soap into a luxury commodity and thus making communities most vulnerable to the spread of infectious disease even more vulnerable. The article further tracks the spread of the pandemic in England, indicating the arrival of the disease in the British Isles, though at the time the article was published, cholera had not yet reached Ireland.
This article is published in The Freeman’s Journal, which served as the first nationalist newspaper in Dublin and Ireland’s first national newspaper, and was founded in 1763. The name of the paper itself evokes a nationalist, anti-imperialist political agenda. By the 19th century, it was the most widely read paper in Ireland and continued to be mostly nationalist in tone, publishing news and editorials with concern about what was best for Ireland over the British colonial government. While politically nationalist, the paper was more moderate compared to other Irish nationalist newspapers in circulation. The Freeman’s Journal’s large circulation indicates that its reporting was impactful in molding public opinion and moreover demonstrates the trust that the paper would publish news concerning Irish citizens, even when critical of the colonial regime, as we see in this article.
The Freeman’s Journal’s list of English cholera mortalities was a reflection of the growing fear in Ireland that a cholera outbreak would ultimately reach Irish shores. Cholera first became a major concern in 1817 when a devastating cholera outbreak in India quickly spread along trading routes (McGrew). Because India was a British territory, news of this disease reached the United Kingdom, meaning that when cholera began to spread westward, the United Kingdom was well aware of cholera’s horrors (Hardiman). Panic about cholera increased even more when Russia was hit hard by a cholera outbreak. Despite efforts to quarantine ships and prepare for the pandemic, cholera reached England at the end of 1831 and Ireland in March of 1832 (Tognotti). The attempts to control and treat cholera were largely inefficient due to lack of medical knowledge. Miasma theory was the prevailing scientific hypothesis of disease; as such, the public health officials recommended increasing fresh air circulation as cholera was believed to be spread by “bad air” (Sack). Now it is known that cholera is an infection caused by bacteria that can be spread by drinking infected water or eating improperly prepared foods. Modern medicine is aware that most cholera fatalities are caused by severe dehydration accompanying terrible diarrhea. However, this was not known in the nineteenth century and subsequently the death rate from cholera was very high. Many died from dehydration not only because physicians failed to rehydrate their patients but also because physicians tended to bleed their patients and restrict fluids (Barua). The list of cholera mortalities in English cities demonstrates the concern and panic over the spread of cholera and the desire to track and document the spread of cholera.
In the 1800s, the quality and care of the Irish healthcare system was largely dependent on region and class. Though the passage of the Poor Act and the founding of the Medical Charities in 1851 attempted to bring medical care to the Irish countryside, in the 1830s no such nationalized medical infrastructure existed. In the 1830s, while private medicine was practiced in large urban cities, medical professionals found rural areas unprofitable (White). The rural areas of Ireland, which made up most of Ireland, were serviced by medical charities. These charities were not established out of pure altruism, but rather from the utilitarian philosophy that medical care would increase labor output from the Irish working class (Geary). Because these hospitals were funded by the upper and middle class, the hospitals possessed an oppressive and paternalistic attitude towards their patients. Furthermore, these medical charities had shortages and scarcity as they were reliant on an irregular stream of donations (Geary). The inequity in medical care between rich and poor, urban and rural, set the stage for disparities in how these communities were affected by cholera.
Additionally, while the British governed and administered all of Ireland, the seat of the colonial administration was in Dublin. British influence was stronger in urban spaces than in the Irish countryside. As discussed, adequate healthcare was difficult to access in much of the country. As such, the British administration, in its treating and thus tallying of cholera cases and deaths did not reach into the countryside or the urban tenements, indicating inequitable access to medical and administrative infrastructure by the most vulnerable of colonial subjects.
While the causes of the spread of cholera were not known in the 1830s, and effective treatments were unavailable, there is evidence that the Irish to some extent understood the importance of hygiene as a means to staying healthy. For example, the Walking Nuns–who volunteered to take care of cholera patients– had always cleaned themselves and their clothes with lemon and water after every single shift they took (White). However, as the article in the Freeman’s Journal underscores, though hygienic practices such as washing oneself with soap were understood to potentially help prevent disease, access to soap products was not universal.
Beginning in 1712, England imposed an excise duty on soap, specifically meaning that the British government taxed soap manufacturers in England and Scotland on their revenues from the sale of soap. The 1832 parliamentary debates on repealing the soap tax reveal how this excise duty harmed the marginalized — in particular, the English poor and Irish colonial subjects. In the House of Commons debate, House of Commons representative Alderman Thompson pointed out the disparity of the tax, in that the duty was a set price for each block of soap sold, meaning that for high quality soaps used by the wealthy, the duty was trivial, but in poor quality, cheaper soaps accessible to the poor, the duty more than doubled the price of soap, rendering it inaccessible to the poor and transforming hygiene into an issue of class. Furthemore, another representative explained that the tax was particularly unforgiving to the Irish; because Ireland, as a colony, did not pay the duty on soap, English soap manufacturers exported soap in massive quantities to Ireland, charging the same price but keeping the “duty” for themselves (HC Deb 1832). They often sold the soap to a partner in Ireland and smuggled it back to England in order to avoid paying the duty outright. English manufacturers — and through them the British government — were enriched by this duty at the expense of Irish colonial subjects, particularly the urban poor. In a public health crisis such as the cholera epidemic of the 1830s, this exploitation by the colonial government was particularly damaging.
While the refusal to waive the duty on soap was disproportionately damaging to the urban poor of Ireland, the extent of its harm to the Irish population did not end there. The danger caused to the Irish people by this negation of universal access to soap (and in turn access to hygiene and protection against cholera) likely impacted citizens of various social classes, including a good portion of the rich. This notion stems from a domino effect relationship between the socioeconomic classes, wherein the failure of the Board to retract the duty on soap largely impacts the lower class’ ability to have access to that which aids in the prevention of cholera’s spread; in turn, those among the rich who hold professions that come into contact with the sick are exposed to a higher number of cases (Fenning 77). According to Fenning, in the article “The cholera epidemic in Ireland, 1832-3: priests, ministers, doctors,” “being contagious, cholera struck not only the destitute but even the rich. Among the higher classes, doctors, apothecaries, and clergymen were particularly at risk, for their duties brought them into close contact with the sick” (Fenning 77). Evidence of this is also shown in the article’s listing of several cases reflecting occupational fatalities that occurred during the pandemic. Thus, it becomes clear that the negligence of the Lords of the time served to exacerbate the struggles of the Irish peoples across the board in its disregard for the effects on Ireland. Irish society’s ability to protect themselves against a widespread pandemic was exchanged for England’s ability to financially exploit them in the decision to continue the duty.
Ultimately this article reports a failure of the British government to handle the cholera epidemic in a manner beneficial to the people, choosing to prioritize their tax revenue and the profits of wealthy English soap manufacturers over the health of the urban poor in Ireland and in England itself. In this instance, the colonial government chose to prioritize profit — the very thing the imperial system was designed to produce — over the welfare of its imperial subjects. Interestingly, in the House of Commons debates, one representative proposed repealing the soap duty and replacing it with a duty on tallow — effectively, from the consumer perspective, taxing candles — in Ireland in order to make soap accessible during the epidemic while also retaining government profits (HC Deb 1832). However, this proposal was turned down in fear that introducing a new tax into Ireland — which would be noted by Irish political elites as well as the Irish poor — might stoke unrest and nationalist sentiments in Ireland, whereas keeping the soap tax, a tax that primarily affected the poor, in place would not be perceived as aggressive by the Irish intelligentsia. This decision regarding a soap duty during a cholera epidemic thus reveals the careful balancing act England played in exerting power over and gaining profit from a fractious Ireland.
That the Freeman’s Journal reported the British decision to continue taxing soap, even under the recommendation that repealing the tax might help mitigate the spread of cholera, suggests that the Irish political elite noticed and resented the neglect of the colonial administration in the cholera epidemic. The coverage of the Freeman’s Journal indicates an inequitable public health system within the British empire, where the colonial government prioritized English citizens over Irish colonial subjects, the rich over the poor, political stability over public health, and profit over public welfare.
Alexa Black, Katrina Torio, Michelle LaJoie, Seongjun Park
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