Beginning in the 12th century, England ruled its neighboring island Ireland, essentially treating it as a colony. English rule grew increasingly oppressive as it became a Protestant country, while the vast majority of the Irish remained Catholic. By 1729, Irish Catholics, though greater in number than their Protestant rulers, owned less of the land, and they couldn’t vote. To put it simply, a minority of wealthy, Protestant Englishman held all the power over a disenfranchised Irish-Catholic majority.
“A Modest Proposal” relentlessly lampoons this wealthy, educated, English, Protestant ruling class—a class, it should be mentioned, to which Swift himself partly belonged. Swift paints this group as vain, pompous, predatory, and disastrously out of touch with the humanity of the lower classes. The Proposer serves as the chief representative of this class. What he has in learning and rhetorical skill he seems to utterly lack in common sense and morality. He is blind not only to the clear ethical problems posed by his suggestions to cure the economic crisis through cannibalism, but also to the fact that anyone reading his pamphlet will quickly judge him to be psychotic.
At the same time, the Proposer’s inclination towards cannibalism illustrates, in painfully literal terms, the power dynamic between English colonial rule and the widely impoverished Irish populace. In Ireland, the wealthy were already (figuratively) devouring the poor. There is not much difference, Swift suggests, between the everyday activities of Ireland’s rich and the Proposer’s literal cannibalism. Like so many 18th-century colonialists, the Proposer cannot conceive of colonized people as anything other commodities, to be sold, bought, and eventually consumed.
In all, the Proposer serves as a caricature of the English colonial powers in Ireland, who Swift seems to suggest are inherently cannibalistic, exploitative, and inhumanly indifferent to the suffering of the colonized Irish.
Colonialism, Greed, and Inhumanity ThemeTracker
Colonialism, Greed, and Inhumanity Quotes in A Modest Proposal
I am assured by our merchants, that a boy or a girl before twelve years old is no saleable commodity; and even when they come to this age they will not yield above 3l. or 3l. 2s. 6d. at most on the exchange; which cannot turn to account either to the parents or kingdom, the charge of nutriment and rags having been at least four times that value.
I shall now therefore humbly propose my own thoughts, which I hope will not be liable to the least objection.
I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or broiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or ragout.
I grant that this food will be somewhat dear, and therefore very proper for landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children.
For first, as I have already observed, it would greatly lessen the number of papists, with whom we are yearly over-run, being the principal breeders of the nation as well as our most dangerous enemies; and who stay at home on purpose to deliver the kingdom to the pretender, hoping to take their advantage by the absence of so many good protestants, who have chosen rather to leave their country than stay at home and pay tithes against their conscience to an episcopal curate.
Therefore let no man talk to me of other expedients: of taxing our absentees at 5s. a pound: of using neither clothes nor household furniture except what is of our own growth and manufacture: of utterly rejecting the materials and instruments that promote foreign luxury: of curing the expensiveness of pride, vanity, idleness, and gaming in our women: of introducing a vein of parsimony, prudence, and temperance: of learning to love our country, in the want of which we differ even from Laplanders and the inhabitants of Topinamboo: of quitting our animosities and factions, nor acting any longer like the Jews, who were murdering one another at the very moment their city was taken: of being a little cautious not to sell our country and conscience for nothing: of teaching landlords to have at least one degree of mercy toward their tenants: lastly, of putting a spirit of honesty, industry, and skill into our shopkeepers…