Indian Corn or Maize

views updated

Indian Corn or Maize

Indian corn and meal were imported into Ireland as relief food for the poor during periods of shortages in the first half of the nineteenth century. Indian corn is derived from maize; Indian meal is the ground product. Maize is grown in warm climates such as Mediterranean countries and the southern states of North America. It is resistant to drought, gives a high yield per acre, and matures quickly. Maize has acquired the reputation of being the poor man's cereal; however, in societies where maize is the subsistence crop, the poor are vulnerable to the vitamin-deficiency disease pellagra.

Pellagra is caused by a deficiency of niacin (nicotinic acid), one of the B vitamins. Maize meal is a poor source of niacin, and what is present is in an unavailable form. Niacin can be synthesized in the body from a protein called tryptophan, but the principal protein in maize (zein) contains little tryptophan. Thus a diet composed essentially of maize is deficient in available niacin and is incapable of synthesizing the missing vitamin. The consequence is pellagra, a disease characterized by diarrhea, dementia, and dermatitis.

Maize first plugged food shortages in Ireland during the subsistence crisis of 1799 to 1801, when potato and grain yields were poor. Maize was imported again in the distressed year of 1827. When the potato harvest failed in 1845, Sir Robert Peel, the British prime minister, engaged Baring Brothers and Company to purchase the first consignment of Indian meal, worth 100,000 pounds, from the United States. Large imports followed: 7,000 tons in 1845, rising to a peak of 632,000 tons in 1847.

Initially, the population hated Indian meal. Early consignments were stale and improperly ground, and cooking was inadequate. The hard corn required steel grinders, and such equipment was not at first available in Ireland. The consequence was painful intestinal disorders among a populace unused to Indian meal; the irritation to the digestive system and its yellow color earned Indian meal the name "Peel's brimstone." When milling techniques improved and hunger intensified, Indian meal was more readily accepted, and many families subsisted solely upon it for prolonged periods. There is no direct evidence that pellagra was widespread during the Great Famine, but conditions suggest that it is likely, though its symptoms were masked by the many other diseases rife at the time. After the famine Indian meal gained a place in the more varied diet of the laboring classes until the end of the nineteenth century.

SEE ALSO Agriculture: 1845 to 1921; Family: Marriage Patterns and Family Life from 1690 to 1921; Famine Clearances; Great Famine; Poor Law Amendment Act of 1847 and the Gregory Clause; Population, Economy, and Society from 1750 to 1950; Potato and Potato Blight (Phytophthora infestans); Rural Life: 1850 to 1921; Town Life from 1690 to the Early Twentieth Century


Bourke, Austin. "The Irish Grain Trade, 1839–48." Irish Historical Studies 20 (September 1976): 156–169.

Crawford, E. Margaret. "Indian Meal and Pellagra in Nineteenth-Century Ireland." In Irish Population, Economy and Society: Essays in Honour of the Late K. H. Connell, edited by J. M. Goldstrom and L. A. Clarkson. 1981.

Donnelly, James S., Jr. "The Administration of Relief, 1846–7." In Ireland under the Union I, 1801–70. Vol. 5 of A New History of Ireland, edited by W. E. Vaughan. 1989.

Donnelly, James S., Jr. "Famine and Government Response, 1845–6." In Ireland under the Union I, 1801–70. Vol. 5 of A New History of Ireland, edited by W. E. Vaughan. 1989.

E. Margaret Crawford