Captain Boycott, Coventry and the origins of cancel culture

Captain Boycott by Spy, Vanity Fair 1881

Cancel culture is a hot topic in today’s world. It’s seen as a product of our aggressive, confrontational online society, with its culture wars.

But cancel culture is likely to have been a feature of life since early humans started living in communities. This thought only struck me when my son Owen was researching for a school talk on cancel culture. My mind went back to a class room at Cardiff High School, Wales, in 1979, and a lesson on British and Irish history with our wonderful O level teacher, Dr Davies. Back then, the name ‘Boycott’ was associated with cricket: the Yorkshire cricketer Geoffrey Boycott was in his pomp, having completed his 100th first-class century two years before. Dr Davies told us of another Boycott, who gave his name to the English language after he was ‘boycotted’ by a community in the west of Ireland in the 1880s. In other words, he was cancelled.

Charles Boycott was the agent of Lord Erne, a hated landowner in County Mayo in the west of Ireland. After Erne refused to accept the tenants’ plea for more affordable rents, Boycott tried to evict them. The community was outraged, and pressured people working for Boycott and local shops to refuse to deal with him. Boycott wrote a letter to The Times in London, which created sensational news stories around the world. Boycott left Ireland in disgrace soon after.

“The shopkeepers have been warned to stop all supplies to my house, and I have just received a message from the postmistress to say that the telegraph messenger was stopped and threatened on the road when bringing out a message to me and that she does not think it safe to send any telegrams which may come for me in the future for fear they should be abstracted and the messenger injured. My farm is public property; the people wander over it with impunity. My crops are trampled upon, carried away in quantities, and destroyed wholesale.

extract From charles boycott’s letter to the times, 14 october 1880

Essay in Irish history: my O level mock history paper, Cardiff High School, 1979

The treatment of Boycott gave a huge boost to the campaign for justice for Ireland’s rural tenants. Ireland was then part of the United Kingdom, and prime minister William Gladstone recognised that solving the land question was critical if he was to achieve his mission of ‘pacifying Ireland’. Parliament passed an Irish land act within months, in 1881, meeting the demand for the ‘three Fs’: fixed tenure, fair rents, and free sale of leases. A long-ago example of how cancel culture can force dramatic, historic reform.

Sent to … Coventry. Photo: BBC

As I reflected on that Irish boycott, I remembered another phrase that proves cancel culture’s long history. When I was growing up, it wasn’t unusual to hear of people being ‘sent to Coventry’ when they were being ostracised or given the cold shoulder. Some say that the expression dates back over 470 years to the English civil war, when Royalist prisoners would be taken to Coventry, where they would be shunned by the locals.

I will know better next time someone claims cancel culture is a uniquely 21st century issue!

Note: Charles Boycott was not an army captain. It seems he was given the title of captain by the local community, who did not intend it as a compliment.

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