Emigration and Coffin Ships
The fact that the horrors of the ‘Coffin Ships’ were virtually restricted to vessels making for Quebec during 1847-48 provided little solace to the tens of thousands who perished after buying bargain tickets for as little as £2. Other than these vessels there were few ships wrecked, and shipboard mortality seldom exceeded one in fifty persons. The same statistic applied to the even more hazardous and expensive voyage to Australia, which typically took three or four months. But, because most Australian emigrants received state subsidies, the shipboard conditions were far more closely supervised by government inspectors and surgeons-superintendent. Due to the introduction of passenger legislation at this time overcrowding and cross-infection were eventually curtailed on the shorter American routes. It appears, from the mortality figures among the many passengers that sailed from Ireland, the passage to Australia and North America while scarcely a pleasure cruise, was not a death sentence.
In Ireland the transition from panic-driven expulsion from the land to a calculated pursuit of economic betterment was already underway. As the Famine continued unabated, more and more emigrants sent reports home about their success in finding employment and marriage partners, which convinced others that emigration was a choice rather than a sufferance. Admittedly, emigrants faced formidable obstacles in securing a satisfactory livelihood in those new lands. The serious lack of capital, education and skills restricted many of the Irish settlers in Britain and America to undertaking poorly paid menial employment and living in insanitary housing.
The number of emigrants from Ireland continued to increase and some ships’ officers described the appalling conditions these poor people had to endure – “… friendless emigrants stowed away like bales of cotton, and packed like slaves in a slave ship; confined in a place that, during storm time, must be closed against both light and air, who can do no cooking, nor warm so much as a cup of water … Passengers are cut off from the most indispensable conveniences of a civilised dwelling … We had not been at sea one week, when to hold your head down the fore-hatchway was like holding it down a suddenly opened cess pool.”
Despite all the reasons to cause them to fear undertaking such a journey into the unknown, there was nothing that could stop desperate people who were determined to go. They would have to face seasickness, insanitary accommodation, violent fellow passengers and often the hostility of the crew. There would be rotten food and foul water, and they would have to fight off the crooks and touts who tried to rob and cheat them both before and after the journey. Meanwhile, thousands of emigrants had arrived already in the New World, where their numbers and their poverty had caused problems. In response various Passenger Acts were drawn up and passed, which forbid any emigrant without sufficient funds or subsistence to land. But, along with all the difficulties that emigration brought to North America, no one expected the ‘ship fever’ of 1847. This is now what they called the typhus fever, which had now crossed the Atlantic as well.
In May 1847, the ice on the St. Lawrence river had melted and the first emigrant ship arrived at Grosse Ile, the quarantine station. All passengers on board the ship had come from Ireland, via Britain, and there were 84 cases of fever among them, nine of whom had died. The quarantine hospital ship at Gross Ile could only accommodate 200 people, but eight more ships arrived carrying 430 fever cases and, three days later, seventeen more ships landed. By 26th May there were thirty vessels waiting at Grosse Ile to be cleared, with approximately 10,000 emigrants on board. By 31st May this had risen to a fleet of forty ships, which stretched two miles down the river. Conditions on board these ships quickly became intolerable. In an effort to ease the problems tents were hastily erected ashore but patients were often left for days on the ships without any treatment. Most of the ships had not one healthy person on board, and those few who had managed to escape the fever were severely weakened by starvation. There were processions of boats that carried the sick and dead from the ships, abandoning them upon the beach to crawl to the hospital if they could. By the middle of the summer it was impossible to quarantine people in a proper manner. The sick passengers were left to stay on the ships for fifteen days or more, instead of spending ten days in the hospital. This meant that the sick and healthy were still cooped up together, allowing the fever to spread as before. By the end of July all quarantine efforts had been abandoned and the hordes of emigrants, sick and healthy, were just sent on inland. The result of this foolishness was that Quebec and Montreal later suffered widespread fever epidemics.
The St. Lawrence River was the main artery through which the Irish emigrants flowed into the towns of Quebec, Montreal, Kingston, Toronto, the Ottawa Valley, and the rest of Canada. Others would use Canada only as a stop-over and would subsequently make their way into the United States. Grosse Ile is a small island on the St. Lawrence and was the place where the unhealthy emigrants were landed. It had already gained a horrific reputation even before the events of ‘Black ‘47.’ In 1832, for example, Coffin Ships that had been designed not as passenger vessels but as ships to carry timber from North America were filled with Irish people as fare paying ballast for the return journey. It was these ships that were instrumental in bringing cholera to Canada from Ireland and the flophouses of Liverpool. The fever victims that arrived in 1847 may have already been dead, or they may have been near death, but they were always able to spread the fever either through the conditions existing aboard the ‘coffin ships’, or on the overpacked island itself.
The authorities in both Canada and America condemned the conditions in which the emigrants were sent across the Atlantic. They knew about the Famine in Ireland, and the land clearances by the landlords, whom they held in contempt. Lord Palmerston’s expressed views on emigration caused more widespread shuddering at the Cabinet table than did his contribution on land clearances, and he became the subject of every public international controversy. Adam Ferrie, a member of Canada’s Legislative Council wrote a strongly worded letter to the British Colonial Secretary, Earl Grey. In it he condemned the dumping on Canadian soil of half-naked paupers, the aged, the infirm, beggars, and vagrants “without regard to humanity or even common decency.” Ferrie also itemised the crimes that had been committed against the emigrants, among which were the promise of clothes, food, and money. They would, however, only receive these when they arrived in Quebec. But, the £5 that was promised was never paid to the emigrant, nor did they receive the clothes or food. They were simply put on a ship that was carrying twice the number of passengers for which it had been built, and in conditions that were described to be, “as bad as the Slave Trade.”
As explained, none of the promised food or clothing was forthcoming. Palmerston’s tenants had formed part of a sizeable flotilla of nine ships, which picked up these paupers in Sligo and Liverpool. Some of these ships carried only the aged, the decrepit, and the widows with young children. No one on board had the necessary skills that would be required to survive in a fledgling colony. On one ship, carrying 477 passengers, the overcrowding on board made the passage a hellish experience for them all. But, in addition to the overcrowding, fever had broken out and 107 passengers had to be buried at sea. On arrival at their destination almost half the survivors were described as virtually naked, and eighty-seven of them had to be clothed before they could be allowed ashore. Even the crew had fallen into such a bad condition that the ship had to be sailed from the mouth of the St. Lawrence by five of the passengers.
It wasn’t long before the American press in New York began to take notice and began to comment on the condition of the Irish emigrants landing on their shores – “It is lamentable to see the vast number of unfortunate creatures that are almost daily cast on our shores, penniless and without physical energy to earn a day’s living. Yesterday, groups of these hapless beings were to be seen congregated about the (City Hall) Park and in Broadway, looking the very picture of despair, misery, disease and want. On enquiry, we ascertained that they had arrived here by the ship ‘Robert Peel’, and that they had been, for the most part, tenants of the Marquis of Lansdowne, on his County Kerry estate – ejected without mercy by him, and “shipped” for America in this wholesale way. Among them were grey haired and aged men and women, who had spent the heyday of their life as tillers of their native soil and are now sent to this country to find a grave. This is too bad – it is inhuman; and yet it is an act of indiscriminate and wholesale expatriation committed by the “liberal” President.”
Did no one in high places disagreed with him or pointed out that there were humane ways of dealing with the Irish land problem. Did no one in the government say that it was cruel and inhumane to subject old women and children, with no adult to support them, to the rigours of an Atlantic crossing in a Coffin Ship, followed by disembarkation in the snows of Canada, the stews of New York, or possibly worst of all, the sums of Liverpool? Did no one say that many of these people would die aboard ship and be buried at sea? Or that when they landed in a filthy, emaciated state, unskilled in anything but the lowest labouring work, for which disease had in any case unfitted most of them, they would be received in their new situations with fear and execration? The answer to this question is – of course there were voices continually protesting government policy, but to no avail. From the point of view of the landlords the emigration scheme was an unqualified economic success, and they held sway in Westminster.
New York was the main entry port for emigrants into America, and it did not welcome them warmly. In fact, the first reaction of the American Congress toward emigrants fleeing from the Famine in Ireland was to try to keep them out. Far from validating a subsequent inscription on the Statue of Liberty, which welcomed the poor and huddled masses of the world, Congress passed Navigation Acts that tightened up embarkation laws in a variety of ways. Captains either had to enter a bond that no passenger would become a burden on the city or pay a ‘commutation fee’, as it was known, of $10 per passenger. The port of Boston went further and placed a levy of $1,200 on aged or infirm persons. Ships with fever aboard were refused landing rights. This rejection meant that passengers who had already suffered the horrors of the Atlantic voyage were driven away from the American ports and sent to British ports, such as those in British Canada.
But the determination of the emigrants was such that, having landed in Canada, they proceeded to pour back across the American border by any means they could. This caused further antagonisms and tensions among the Americans that were directed against the Irish. Moreover, their own failure to prosper triggered a rather unpleasant trait among the emigrant population, which was deeply held anti-black feelings on their part. As the Irish strived to find their feet in their new home, they began to rail at the fact that black labour was undercutting their wages, and anti-black riots became part of the Irish-American experience. Meanwhile, the WASPs (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants) who controlled America, and nativist groups such as the ‘Know Nothings’ were also antagonistic to the hordes of ragged, starving Irish Catholics that were arriving daily. New York in those days was wild and unruly sort of city. Not only were the Irish accused of living like pigs they kept them, much as they had done in Ireland. The ‘New York Sun’ newspaper estimated in August 1847 that there were upward of ten thousand pigs roaming the streets of the city and causing a great threat to the health and welfare of its citizens. But, when public outcry led to a police crackdown on the keeping of pigs, the Irish put up such a stern resistance to police efforts to commandeer their animals that eventually they were left to continue with their piggeries. These only added to the miseries of the slum accommodation they had to endure. This was created principally in two ways, firstly was the old ‘Knickerbocker Houses’ (Apartment buildings) once owned by the wealthy who got out as soon as the emigrants started to come in. The second type of slum accommodation, however, was deliberately constructed by and for them. These flimsy, jerry-built ‘barracks’, as they were known, were rented out to emigrants by the room and very soon became overcrowded. All of these habitations in the slum areas had one thing in common, and that was dirt and lack of sanitation.
The ‘Barracks’ were generally built behind existing buildings and therefore had to be reached through narrow, noxious alleys in which dirt of all sorts quickly accumulated. Rubbish collection and disposal was rarely heard of, pigsties abounded, and there were piles of what was described as ‘decaying matter’ giving off awful smells. The buildings were surrounded by moats of sewerage that were just ‘pools of standing water’. Given their poverty and numbers, it was inevitable in the early decades of Irish mass emigration to North America that the words ‘slum’ and ‘Irish’ became synonymous. Being essentially a communal people, the Irish emigrants tended to congregate in ‘Irish Quarters’, and they stayed in the cities – only about ten per cent moved on to rural areas. The city dwelling Irish were fodder for the political bosses who ruled the various precincts and wards. They also became notorious for their drunken rows, street brawls, and violent crime. So low was the reputation of the Irish, in fact, that it took many years for the Famine emigrants to overcome their disadvantages, and to begin to make a positive contribution to the countries they had reached.
In Boston they congregated in what became known as the ‘Eighth Ward’ of the city, which is an area known today as the affluent ‘Back Bay District’. From there some of the more successful occasionally spread out, as in New York with the Knickerbocker houses, to the homes of wealthy Boston citizens in the North End. These old houses had large gardens that rapidly became covered in cabins reminiscent of those the emigrants had left behind in Ireland. Even the alleyways were built over, while the spaces between the houses and sometimes the houses themselves “had within them stores, shops and places where fruit, vegetables and refreshments (grog) were sold.” In 1849 the Board of Aldermen reported – “The Back Bay at this hour is nothing less than a great cesspool, into which is daily deposited all the filth of a large and constantly increasing population … A greenish scum, many yards wide stretches along the shore and the basin, while the surface of the water beyond is seen bubbling like a cauldron with the noxious gases that are escaping from the corrupting mass below.” Houses in the area were often reported to be “flooded with every tide” and yet the Irish packed themselves into the cellars of such houses. These cellars had low ceilings and, in one recorded case, a ceiling only five feet high, the same as the width of the cellar, which still held eighteen people. Poverty, disease and crime flourished in these conditions, which inevitably had the greatest effect upon the children, whose major outdoor activity was not playing football or childish games but begging. The Mortality Rate among Irish Catholics was estimated between 1841 and 1845 as having decimated the children, with 61.5 per cent dying before they reached the age of five years.
Generally, the emigrants who came to Canada fared better than many of those who had landed in Liverpool, which was the principal port of entry for Irish emigrants to England. Because England was closer to Ireland than North America it was the cheapest and shortest journey for the fleeing paupers, and they filled the large numbers of ferries and packet-boats that served Liverpool. Besides being a major port, Liverpool in the 1840s was a huge bustling city. Its vast wealth had been derived from the trade of empire, including slavery. These riches had created both mansion and slum, with the latter probably being among the very worst in Europe. It was an unfortunate feature of the city was the number of poor people who lived in cellars or in “courts”, which were streets of houses built facing each other that were often separated by roadways only nine feet wide. The filth and stench of these areas were almost indescribable, with sewage and surface water being carried off through open, and often clogged, drains. In 1841 the population of Liverpool numbered approximately 250,000, according to the census returns. Between December 1846 and the following June, the population of the city had increased to 300,00 by poverty-stricken and starving Irish.
The large numbers of emigrants and their terrible condition on arrival presented a threat to the city as well as to themselves. But, the only official relief provided by the authorities was a distribution of tents and the provision of two floating hulks on the river Mersey, which were used as hospital ships for fever victims. Dislocation, anxiety, hunger, and want created such mental stress among the Irish emigrants that many became mentally ill, patient levels in all Lancashire asylums reached incredibly high levels. Traditionally, the Irish who were forced by conditions to emigrate, considered themselves to be exiles rather than willing travellers. They, as a rural people, had no history of travel from their native place, no folk memory of it, and no idea of the society they were travelling to. They were buried in the mud they died in, and their dreadful working lives contributed to a pattern that would continue for decades, generating much hostility toward the Irish emigrants. They worked for lower wages than anyone else and in more dangerous conditions. In Louisiana, for example, the slave owners for example, would not allow their slaves to work on the New Orleans Canal, because they possessed a commercial value that the Irish did not. Such things were easily understood when you realise the frenzy and despair that forced the Irish out of Ireland during the years of Famine. It was a time when able-bodied, and law-abiding men actively sought transportation to Van Dieman’s Land and elsewhere, just to get out of Ireland. At home, death lay all around them and touched every the lives of every individual and every family.