Black Bread

Asenath Nicholson
Chapter VI (3) | Start of Chapter

We turn from the turnip and see what virtue there is in black bread; and my only regret is, that my powers of description are so faint, that I cannot describe one-half of what might be told of that novel article used for many a month in the county of Mayo. The relief officers there were under government pay, and, as they asserted, under government orders; but it is much to be doubted whether the government, had they been served with a loaf of that bread, would have ordered it for either man or beast. The first that greeted my wondering eyes was in a poor village between Achill and Newport, where, while stopping to feed the horse, a company of children who had been at school, and received a few ounces of this daily, came in with the boon in their hands. The woman of the house reached a piece to me, asking if I ever saw the like. Indeed, I never had, and had never tasted the like. Supposing it must have been accidental, and that no other of the kind had ever been made, I said,

"This is not such bread as the children usually eat." She answered, "They have had it for some weeks." It was sour, black, and of the consistency of liver; but thinking that the baker had been mostly to blame, this bread did not make such an impression on me as that which I saw for weeks afterward.

A few days after this, a gentleman, at whose house I stopped, brought into the room a loaf of the genuine "black bread." "Here," said he, "is the reward of a day's labor of a poor man, who has been sitting on the ground this cold day to break stones." Not one present could have told what it was, till taking it in the hand; and even then it was quite doubtful whether men would provide such a material to reward a laboring man for a day's work; but it was indeed so. The man who had come into possession of this boon was one among many, some of whom had walked three, four and even five miles, and had labored through a cold day in March without eating, and this bread weighed a pound. But the material and the color! The material could not have been analyzed but by a chemist, but the color was precisely that of dry turf, so much so that when a piece was placed upon a table by the side of a bit of turf, no eye could detect the difference, and it was very difficult to do so when taking it in hand. The next day, calling on a gentleman of respectability and a friend to his country, he inquired if in my excursions I had met with the bread that the relief officers were giving the poor, adding, "I will procure you a piece." He then sent to the shop where it was kept and bought a loaf; it was common unbolted flour-bread, of a middling quality. He sent it back; they denied having or selling any other kind to the poor, or ever having done so. "Go," said the gentlemen, "into the school where the bread is distributed, and then the facts will be palpable." I went. A school of one hundred and forty or one hundred and fifty girls were in waiting for this bread, which had been sent for to the shop. It came, was cut in slices, and having been baked that morning, the effluvia was fresh, and though standing at the extremity of a long room, with the street door open, the nausea became so offensive that after taking a slice for a pattern, and having ascertained from the teacher that this was the daily bread which she had been cutting for weeks, I hastened home with the prize, placed the bread upon paper where good air could reach it; the disagreeable smell gradually subsided, but the bread retained all its appearance for weeks, never becoming sour, but small spots of a greenish color like mould here and there dotted upon it. These spots were not abundant: the remainder appeared precisely like turf-mould, and was judged to be so.

Where these relief officers made out this article was not satisfactorily explained. "They did as they were bidden." Report said that some twenty-nine years before, the government had deposited in that region some continental material for bread, which had become damaged, and then could not be sold. But twenty-nine years it had withstood the ravages of rats, mice and vermin, and had now come out an eatable commodity for charity. And here it was scattered daily through mountain and glen; and for this equivalent the poor man must give up his land, take off the roof of his cabin with his own hand—for, as the government has not required this, the driver, like a slave one, ever faithful to his master's interest and good name, tells the starving cabiner if he will not ascend the roof of his hut and unthatch it, and tumble down the stones with his own hand, that he shall neither have the pound of meal or black bread. Then this driver screens himself behind the flimsy covering that the cabiner did it with his own hands, and the landlord gravely tells you that it was done without his orders, and probably without his knowledge. Slave-owners do precisely in the same way. They employ a faithful driver, pay him bountifully, and his duty is to get the most work done in the least time, and in the best way. If a delinquent be flogged to death, the owner is always away from home or somehow engaged—entirely ignorant of the matter. But mark! however often these cruelties may be repeated, the driver maintains his post and his salary. Are the public to be so duped in either case, that the slaveholder and landlord are not satisfied with this flogging and this pulling down of houses? Why, then, are they ever repeated?

The age of black bread and pulling down houses certainly has fallen peculiarly under the reign of the Queen and her agent John Russell; yet it might be wholly unjust to impute either to their orders or even consent. The black bread was a cheap substitute for good flour or meal; and if meddlesome people had staid at home, minding their own concerns, who would ever have thought of complaining about bread? The poor starving ones had reached that point that they would swallow anything in the shape of food that could have been swallowed, without uttering a murmur.

A few pieces of this bread were put in a letter, directed to a friend in London, that the Committee there, acting for the poor in Ireland, might have a sight. The letter was carried to the postmaster, and an explanation given him of the precious gift contained in it, and the object of so doing, &c.; that it was to let the people of England see if they acknowledged this article as a provision of theirs for the poor. The letter never reached its destination; the postmaster was interrogated by the writer; he affirmed that he had seen no such letter, nor heard one word about it; when lo! this forgetful postmaster was one of the said relief officers who managed the black bread! "Whoso readeth let him understand."

Whether the poor lived or whether they died on this bread, or by this bread, I do not pretend to say, only that death was doing its work by hunger, fever, and dysentery continually.