The First Boycott- Charles Cunningham Boycott, 39th Regiment of Foot

“Boycott”- A verb and noun in the English language used to describe ‘to refuse to deal with or engage’. Many of us have heard of (and maybe participated in) boycotts- but where does the term come from, and how is it connected to The Keep Military Museum?

Charles Cunningham Boycott was an English Land Agent, whose ostracism by his local community and the Irish National Land League in Ireland gave birth to the English language the term ‘boycott’.

image of Charles cunningham boycott, who inspired the first boycott in history

Charles Boycott was born on 12th March 1832 and joined the 39th of Foot (1st Battalion, Dorsetshire Regiment) in 1850, when his family purchased a commission for him. Boycott’s regiment transferred to Belfast shortly after his arrival. Later, the 39th were transferred to Dublin.

Boycott left the army in 1853 and sold his commission but decided to remain in Ireland. He went on to work as a land agent for Lord Erne, a landowner in County Mayo.

In 1880, as part of its campaign for the Three Fs (fair rent, fixity of tenure, and free sale) and specifically in resistance to proposed evictions on the estate, local activists of the Irish National Land League encouraged Boycott’s employees (including the seasonal workers required to harvest the crops on Lord Erne’s estate) to withdraw their labour, and began a campaign of isolation against Boycott in the local community. This campaign included shops refusing to serve him, and the withdrawal of other services. Some business owners were threatened with violence to ensure their compliance.

Opposition to the campaign against Boycott became a cause célèbre in the British press after he wrote a letter to The Times. Newspapers sent correspondents to the West of Ireland to highlight what they viewed as the victimisation of a servant of a peer of the realm by Irish nationalists.

Fifty Orangemen travelled to Lord Erne’s estate to harvest the crops, while the regiment of the 19th Royal Hussars and more than 1,000 men of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) were deployed to protect the harvesters. The episode was estimated to have cost the British government and others at least £10,000 to harvest about £500 worth of crops.

Charles Boycott left Ireland on 1 December 1880, and in 1886, became land agent in Suffolk. He died at the age of 65 on 19 June 1897 in his home in Flixton (Suffolk), after an illness earlier that year, but his name lives on.

Boycott and the events that led to his name entering the English language have been the subject of several works of fiction. The first was Captain Boycott, a 1946 romantic novel by Phillip Rooney. This was the basis for the 1947 film Captain Boycott—directed by Frank Lauder and starred Stewart Granger, Kathleen Ryan, Alastair Sim, and Cecil Parker as Charles Boycott.

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