Sir Charles Edward Trevelyan, 1st Baronet, (2 April 1807 – 19 June 1886) was a British civil servant and colonial administrator. As a young man, he worked with the colonial government in Calcutta, India; in the late 1850s and 1860s he served there in senior-level appointments. Trevelyan was instrumental in the process of reforming the British civil service in the 1850s.
Cecil Woodham-Smith wrote of him:
his mind was powerful, his character admirably scrupulous and upright, his devotion to duty praiseworthy, but he had a remarkable insensitiveness. Since he took action only after conscientiously satisfying himself what he proposed to do was ethical and justified he went forward impervious to other considerations, sustained but also blinded by his conviction of doing right.
However this legacy has largely been overshadowed by the controversial role he played in the British government’s response to the potato blight in Ireland and the subsequent Great Famine of the 1840s.
It has been said that:
Trevelyan’s most enduring mark on history may be the “quasi” genocidal anti-Irish racial sentiment he expressed during his term in the critical position of administrating relief for the millions of Irish peasants suffering under the potato blight as Assistant Secretary to HM Treasury (1840–1859) under the Whig administration of Lord Russell.
During the height of the famine, Trevelyan was slow to disburse direct government food and monetary aid to the Irish due to his strong belief in laissez-faire economics and the free hand of the market. He also wrote highly disparaging remarks about the Irish in a letter to an Irish peer, stating that that “the judgement of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson”.
Trevelyan never expressed remorse for his comments or actions. His defenders say that larger factors than Trevelyan’s own acts and beliefs were more central to the problem of the famine and its high mortality.