Under the head of cottier rents, we may include all rents contracted to be paid in money, by peasant tenants, extracting their own maintenance from the soil.
They are found to some extent in various countries; but it is in Ireland alone that they exist in such a mass, as palpably to influence the general state of the country. They differ from the other classes of peasant rents in this the most materially; that it is not enough for the tenant to be prepared to give in return for the land which enables him to maintain himself, a part of his labor, as in the case of serf rents, or a definite proportion of the produce, as in the case of metayer or ryot rents. He is bound, whatever the quantity or value of his produce may be, to pay a fixed sum of money to the proprietor. This is a change most difficult to introduce, and very important when introduced. Money payments from the occupiers, are by no means essential, we must recollect, to the rise or progress of rents. Over by far the greater part of the globe such payments have never yet been established. Tenants yielding plentiful rents in produce, may be quite unable, from the infrequency of exchanges, to pay even small sums in money, and the owners of the land may, and do, form an affluent body, consuming and distributing a large proportion of the annual produce of a country, while it is extremely difficult for them to lay their hands on very insignificant sums in cash. Money rents, indeed, are so very rarely paid by peasant cultivators, that where they do exist among them, we may expect to find the power of discharging them founded on peculiar circumstances. In the case of Ireland, it is the neighbourhood of England, and the connection between the two countries, which supports the system of money rents paid by the peasantry. From all parts of Ireland, the access, direct or indirect, to the English market, gives the Irish cultivators means of obtaining cash for a portion of their produce. In some districts, it even appears that the rents are paid in money earnt by harvest-work in England; and it is repeatedly stated in the evidence before the Emigration Committee, that, were this resource to fail, the power of paying rents would cease in these districts at once. Were Ireland placed in a remoter part of the world, surrounded by nations not more advanced than herself, and were her cultivators dependent for their means of getting cash on her own internal opportunities of exchange; it seems highly probable, that the landlords would soon be driven by necessity to adopt a system of either labor or produce rents, similar to those which prevail over the large portion of the globe, cultivated by the other classes of peasant tenantry.
Once established, however, the effects of the prevalence of cottier rents among a peasant population are important: some advantageous, some prejudicial. In estimating them, we labor under the great disadvantage of having to form our general conclusions from a view of a single instance, that of Ireland. Did we know nothing of labor rents but what we collect from one country, Hungary for instance, how very deficient would have been notions of their characteristics.
The disadvantages of cottier rents may be ranged under three heads. First, the want of any external check to assist in repressing the increase of the peasant population beyond the bounds of an easy subsistence. Secondly, the want of any protection to their interests, from the influence of usage and prescription in determining the amount of their payments. And, thirdly, the absence of that obvious and direct common interest, between the owners and the occupiers of the soil, which under the other systems of peasant rents, secure to the tenants the forbearance and assistance of their landlords when calamity overtakes them.
The first, and certainly the most important disadvantage of cottier rents is the absence of those external checks (common to every other class of peasant rents) which assist in repressing the effects of the disposition found in all peasant cultivators, to increase up to the limits of a very scanty subsistence.
To explain this, we must, to a slight extent, anticipate the subject of population. It shall be as shortly as possible. We know that men's animal power of increase is such, as to admit of a very rapid replenishing of the districts they inhabit. When their numbers are as great as their territory will support in plenty, if the effects of such a power of increase are not diminished, their condition must get worse. If, however, the effects of their animal power of multiplication are diminished, this must happen, either from internal causes or motives, indisposing them to its full exercise, or from external causes acting independently of their will. But a peasant population, raising their own wages from the soil, and consuming them in kind, whatever may be the form of their rents, are universally acted upon very feebly by internal checks, or by motives disposing them to restraint. The causes of this peculiarity we shall have hereafter to point out. The consequence is, that unless some external cause, quite independent of their will, forces such peasant cultivators to slacken their rate of increase, they will, in a limited territory, whatever be the form of their rents, very rapidly approach a state of want and penury, and will be stopped at last only by the physical impossibility of procuring subsistence. Where labor or metayer rents prevail, such external causes of repression are found in the interests and interference of the landlords: where ryot rents are established, in the vices and mismanagement of the government:(1) where cottier rents prevail, no such external causes exist, and the unchecked disposition of the people leads to a multiplication which ends in wretchedness. Cottier rents, then, evidently differ for the worse in this respect from serf and metayer rents. It is not meant of course that serfs and metayers do not increase till their numbers and wants would alone place them very much at the mercy of the proprietors, but the obvious interests of those proprietors leads them to refuse their assent to the further division of the soil, and so to withhold the means of settling more families, long before the earth becomes thronged with a multitudinous tenantry, to which it can barely yield subsistence. The Russian or Hungarian noble wants no more serf tenants than are sufficient for the cultivation of his domain; and he refuses allotments of land to any greater number, or perhaps forbids them to marry. The power of doing this has at one time or other existed as a legal right wherever labor rents have prevailed. The owner of a domain cultivated by metayers, has an interest in not multiplying his tenants, and the mouths to be fed, beyond the number necessary to its complete cultivation. When he refuses to subdivide the ground further, fresh families can find no home, and the increase of the aggregate numbers of the people is checked. The thinness of the population in ryot countries is ordinarily caused by the vices and violence of the government, and there is no question that this is what keeps so large a portion of Asia ill peopled or desolate. But when cottier rents have established themselves, the influence of the landlord is not exerted to check the multiplication of the peasant cultivators, till an extreme case arrives. The first effects of the increasing numbers of the people, that is, the more ardent competition for allotments, and the general rise of rents, seem for a time unquestionable advantages to the landlords, and they have no direct or obvious motive to refuse further subdivision, or to interfere with the settlement of fresh families, till the evident impossibility of getting the stipulated rents, and perhaps the turbulence of peasants starving on insufficient patches of land, warn the proprietors that the time is come, when their own interests imperiously require that the multiplication of the tenantry should be moderated. We know, however, from the instance of Ireland, the only one on a large scale open to our observation, that while rents are actually rising, a conviction that their nominal increase is preparing a real diminution, comes slowly, and is received reluctantly; and that before such a conviction begins to be generally acted upon, the cultivators may be reduced to a situation, in which they are both wretched and dangerous.
The tardiness with which landlords exert their influence in repressing the multiplication of the people, must be ranked then among the disadvantages of cottier, when compared with serf or metayer rents.
Their second disadvantage is the want of any influence of custom and prescription, in keeping the terms of the contract between the proprietors and their tenantry, steady and fixed.
In surveying the habits of a serf or metayer country, we are usually able to trace some effects of ancient usage. The number of days' labor performed for the landlord by the serf remains the same, from generation to generation, in all the provinces of considerable empires. The metayer derived his old name of Colonus Medietarius from taking half the produce; and half the produce we see still his usual portion, throughout large districts containing soils of very different qualities. It is true that this influence of ancient usage does not always protect the tenant from want or oppression; its tendency however is decidedly in his favor. But cottier rents, contracted to be paid in money, must vary in nominal amount with the variations in the price of produce: after change has become habitual, all traces of a rent, considered equitable because it is prescriptive, are wholly lost, and each bargain is determined by competition.
There can be little doubt that the tendency to constancy in the terms of their contract, observable in serf and metayer countries, is on the whole a protection to the cultivators, and that change and competition, common amongst cottiers, are disadvantageous to them.
The third disadvantage of cottier rents is the absence of such a direct and obvious common interest between landlord and tenant, as might secure to the cultivator assistance when in distress.
There can be no case in which there is not, in reality, a community of interest between the proprietors of the soil, and those who cultivate it; but their common interest in the other forms of peasant holding, is more direct and obvious, and therefore more influential, upon the habits and feelings of both tenants and landlords. The owner of a serf relies upon the labor of his tenants for producing his own subsistence, and when his tenant becomes a more inefficient instrument of cultivation, he sustains a loss. The owner of a metairie, who takes a proportion of the produce, cannot but see that the energy and efficiency of his tenant, are his own gain: languid and imperfect cultivation his loss. The serf, therefore, relies upon his lord's sense of interest, or feelings of kindness for assistance, if his crops fail, or calamity overtakes him in any shape; and he seldom is repulsed or deceived. This half recognized claim to assistance seems, we know, occasionally, so valuable to the serfs, that they have rejected freedom from the fear of losing it. The metayers receive constantly loans of food and other assistance from the landlord, when from any causes their own resources fail. The fear of losing their stock, their revenue, and all the advances already made, prevent the most reluctant landlords from withholding aid on such occasions. Even the Ryot, miserable as he ordinarily is, and great as is the distance which separates him from the sovereign proprietor, is not always without some share in these advantages. His exertions are felt to be the great source of the revenue of the state, and under tolerably well regulated governments, the importance is felt and admitted, of aiding the cultivators when distressed, by forbearance, and sometimes by advances.(2) The interests of the cottier tenant are less obviously identified with those of the proprietor: changes of tenants, and variations of rent, are common occurrences, and the removal of an unlucky adventurer, and the acceptance of a more sanguine bidder, are expedients more easy and palateable to the proprietors, than that of mixing themselves up with the risks and burthens of cultivation, by advances to their tenants. In the highlands of Scotland, indeed, the chief assisted his clan largely. They were his kinsmen and defenders: bound to him by ties of blood, and the guardians of his personal safety. The habits engendered while these feelings were fresh, are not yet worn out. Lord Stafford has sent to Sutherland very large supplies of food. The chief of the isle of Rumsey supported his people to such an extent, that he has lately found it worth while to expend very considerable sums in enabling them to emigrate.(3) But the cottier merely as such, the Irish cottier, for instance, has no such hold on the sympathies of his landlord, and there can be no question that of the various classes of peasant tenantry, they stand the most thoroughly desolate and alone in the time of calamity: that they have the least protection from the ordinary effects of disastrous reverses, or of the failure of their scanty resources from any other causes.
Such are the disadvantages of this the least extensive system of peasant rents. The principal advantage the cottier derives from his form of tenure, is the great facility with which, when circumstances are favourable to him, he changes altogether his condition in society. In serf, metayer, or ryot countries, extensive changes must take place in the whole framework of society, before the peasants become capitalists, and independent farmers. The serf has many stages to go through before he arrives at this point, and we have seen how hard it is for him to advance one step. The metayer too must become the owner of the stock on his farm, and be able to undertake to pay a money rent. Both changes take place slowly and with difficulty, especially the last, the substitution of money rents, which supposes a considerable previous improvement in the internal commerce of the nation, and is ordinarily the result, not the commencement, of improvement in the condition of the cultivators. But the cottier is already the owner of his own stock, he exists in a society in which the power of paying money rents is already established. If he thrives in his occupation, there is nothing to prevent his enlarging his holding, increasing his stock, and becoming a capitalist, and a farmer in the proper sense of the word. It is pleasing to hear the resident Irish landlords, who have taken some pains, and made some sacrifices, to improve the character and condition of their tenantry, bearing their testimony to this fact, and stating the rapidity with which some of the cottiers have, under their auspices, acquired stock, and become small farmers. Most of the countries occupied by metayers, serfs, and ryots, will probably contain a similar race of tenantry for some ages. If the events of the next half century are favour able to Ireland, her cottiers are likely to disappear, and to be merged in a very different race of cultivators. This facility for gliding out of their actual condition to a higher and a better, is an advantage, and a very great advantage, of the cottier over the other systems of peasant rents, and atones for some of its gloomier features.
Making allowances for the peculiarities pointed out, the effects of cottier rents on the wages of labor, and other relations of society, will be similar to those of other peasant rents. The quantity of produce being determined by the fertility of the soil, the extent of the allotment, and the skill and industry of the cottier; the division of that produce on which his wages depend, is determined by his contract with the landlord; by the rent he pays. And again, the whole amount of produce being determined as before, the landlord's share, the rent, depends upon the maintenance left to the peasant, that is, upon his wages.
The existence of rent, under a system of cottier tenants, is in no degree dependent upon the existence of different qualities of soil, or of different returns to the stock and labor employed. Where, as has been repeatedly observed, no funds sufficient to support the body of the laborers, are in existence, they must raise food themselves from the earth, or starve; and. this circumstance would make them tributary to the landlords, and give rise to rents, and, as their number increased, to very high rents, though all the lands were perfectly equal in quality.
Cottier rents, like other peasant rents, may increase from two causes; first, from an increase of the whole produce, of which increase the landlord takes the whole or a part. Or, the produce remaining stationary, they may increase from an augmentation of the landlord's share, that of the tenant being diminished to the exact amount of the additional rent.
When the rent increases and the produce remains stationary, the increase of rent indicates no increase of the riches and revenue of the country: there has been a transfer of wealth, but no addition to it: one party is impoverished to the precise amount to which another is enriched.
When, on the other hand, increased rents are paid by increased produce, there is an addition to the wealth of the country, not a mere transfer of that already existing: the country is richer to the extent, at least, of the increased rent: and, probably, to a greater extent from the increased revenue of the cultivators.
It is obviously the interest of the landlord of cottier, as of other peasant tenants, that an increase of his rents should always originate in the prosperity of cultivation, not in pressure on the tenants. The power of increase from the last source is very limited: from improvement, indefinite.
It is clearly too the interest of the landlord, that the cottier tenantry should be replaced by capitalists, capable both of pushing cultivation to the full extent to which skill and means can carry it: instead of the land being entrusted to the hands of mere laborers, struggling to exist, unable to im prove, and when much impoverished by competition, degraded, turbulent, and dangerous.
As it is proposed to consider the present condition of both the Irish and English poor at the end of the work, when we shall have the assistance of all the more general principles we shall venture to unfold, the subject of cottier rents need not be farther pursued here. They have already been sufficiently examined, to shew the points in which they will agree with or differ from other peasant rents.
1. Where the phenomenon can be observed of a mild and efficient government over a race of ryot tenants, as in China, they are found to increase with extraordinary rapidity.
2. Aurenzebe's Instructions to his Collectors.
3. See Emigration Report.