Boycott, Charles Cunningham (1832–97), land agent, was born 12 March 1832 at Burgh St Peter, Norfolk, England, eldest surviving son of William Boycatt (1798–1877), rector of Wheatacrebury, Norfolk, and Elizabeth Georgiana Boycatt (née Beevor). William Boycatt changed the family name to Boycott in 1862. Educated at Blackheath and Woolwich, Charles was commissioned ensign in the 39th Foot (15 February 1850), and served briefly in Ireland. He sold his commission (17 December 1852), having attained the rank of captain, married Annie Dunne of Queen's Co. (Laois) in 1853, and leased a farm in south Tipperary. In 1855 he left for Achill Island, Co. Mayo, where he sub-leased 2,000 acres and acted as land agent for a friend, Murray McGregor Blacker, a local magistrate. He settled initially near Keem Strand but after some years built a fine house near Doagh overlooking Clew Bay. He clashed with local landowners and agents and was regularly involved in litigation. Twice summonsed unsuccessfully for assault (1856, 1859), he was involved (1859–60) in a bitter dispute with a land agent over salvage rights for shipwrecks, one of the few lucrative activities on the island. Achill's remoteness and the difficulties of wresting a living from its harsh environment added a roughness to the island's social relations and probably aggravated Boycott's tendency to high-handedness. In 1873 he inherited money and moved to mainland Co. Mayo, leasing Lough Mask house near Ballinrobe and its surrounding 300 acres; he also became agent for Lord Erne's neighbouring estate of 1,500 acres, home to thirty-eight tenant farmers paying rents of £500 a year, of which Boycott received 10 per cent as agent. He also served as a magistrate and was unpopular because of his brusque and authoritarian manner, and for denying locals such traditional indulgences as collecting wood from the Lough Mask estate or taking short cuts across his farm. In April 1879 he bought the 95-acre Kildarra estate (between Claremorris and Ballinlough) and an adjoining wood for £1,125, taking out a mortgage of £600 which stretched his finances.
Boycott was no brutal tyrant, but he was aloof, stubborn, and pugnacious, and believed that the Irish peasantry were prone to idleness and required firm handling. Such qualities and beliefs were unremarkable enough, but in the peculiar circumstances of the land war in Co. Mayo, they were enough to catapult this rather ordinary man to worldwide notoriety. In autumn 1879 concerted land agitation began in Mayo, and on 1 August 1879 Boycott received a notice threatening his life unless he reduced rents. He ignored it and evicted three tenants, which embittered relations on the estate; Lough Mask house was placed under RIC surveillance (November 1879–May 1880). In August 1880 his farm labourers, encouraged by the Land League, struck successfully for a wage increase from 7s. –11s. to 9s. –15s. Since the harvest was poor Erne allowed a 10 per cent rent abatement; but when in September 1880 Boycott demanded the rent, most tenants sought a 25 per cent abatement. Erne refused, and on 22 September Boycott attempted to serve processes against eleven defaulters. Servers and police were attacked by an angry crowd of local women and forced to take refuge in Boycott's house. Almost immediately he was subjected to the ostracism against land grabbers advocated by Charles Stewart Parnell (qv) in his speech at Ennis (19 September). This weapon proved as devastating against an English land agent as an Irish land-grabber. Boycott's servants left him, labourers would not work his land, his walls and fences were destroyed, and local traders refused to do business with him. He was jeered on the roads, was hissed and hustled by hostile crowds in Ballinrobe, and required police protection.
The campaign against Boycott was largely orchestrated Fr John O'Malley (qv), a local parish priest and president of The Neale branch of the Land League. It was probably O'Malley who coined the term ‘boycott’ as an alternative to the word ‘ostracise’, which he believed would mean little to the local peasantry. Propagated by O'Malley's friend, the American journalist, James Redpath, it was adopted by advocates and opponents alike.
On 22 October 1880, before his story broke on the world, Boycott gave evidence of his treatment to the Bessborough commission in Galway. He publicised his plight in a letter to The Times (18 October 1880), and in a long interview with the London Daily News (24 October) which was reprinted in Irish unionist newspapers and aroused considerable sympathy for him. Although Boycott rarely used his former military rank, he became universally known as ‘Captain Boycott’, since it suited both sides to portray him as someone of social standing. Letters of support appeared in unionist papers and the Belfast News-Letter set up a ‘Boycott Relief Fund’ and proposed a relief expedition, portraying Boycott as a peaceable English gentleman unjustly subjected to intimidation.
The prospect of hundreds of armed loyalists descending on Co. Mayo alarmed the government, who announced on 8 November that they would provide protection for a small group of labourers to harvest Boycott's crops. On 12 November fifty-seven loyalists from Cavan and Monaghan, ‘the Boycott Relief Expedition’, arrived at Lough Mask with an escort of almost a thousand troops. After harvesting Boycott's crops they left on 26 November; the whole operation cost £10,000 – about thirty times the value of the crops. Although the expedition passed off largely without incident, it focused international media attention on the affair and established the word ‘boycott’ in English and several other languages as a standard term for communal ostracism.
On 27 November Boycott and his wife went to the Hammam hotel, Dublin, where he received death threats. On 1 December he travelled to London and then to the USA (March–May 1881) to see his old friend Blacker in Virginia. In an interview with the New York Herald he criticised the liberal government's weakness towards the Land League, and claimed that the Irish land question was an intractable problem that could only be solved in the long term by emigration and industrialisation. He returned to Lough Mask 19 September 1881, and at an auction in Westport was mobbed and burnt in effigy. This, however, was the last outburst of hostility against him, and as the land agitation waned so did his unpopularity. Although unsuccessful in efforts to win compensation from the government, he received a public subscription of £2,000. He remained in Mayo as Lord Erne's agent until February 1886, when he obtained the post of land agent for Sir Hugh Adair in Flixton, Suffolk, but he kept the small Kildarra estate, where he continued to holiday. On 12 December 1888 he gave evidence of his treatment to the parliamentary commission on ‘Parnellism and crime’. After suffering from ill-health for some years, he died at Flixton 19 June 1897, and was buried in the churchyard of Burgh St Peter. A British-made film, Captain Boycott (1947), starred Cecil Parker in the title role.