Part 2
Home Up

Robert Whyte's The Journey of an Irish Coffin Ship. 1847


Thou shalt not be afraid for any terror by night, 
nor for the arrow that flieth by day; 
for the pestilence that walketh in darkness, 
nor for the sickness that destroyeth in the noon-day.
--Psalms of David

Monday, 7 June

The passengers elected four men to govern their commonwealth, the principal of whom had the title of 'head committee'. The other three being inactive, the sole authority was wielded by him much to the terror of the little boys who were often uproarious and to keep whom in order he frequently administered the 'cat'. The other duties of this functionary consisted in seeing that the hold was kept clean, in preventing smoking below, settling differences, etc. He was also the medium of communication with the 'other house' - he and Paddy alone being permitted to go aft.

Tuesday, 8 June

We steered southward course but gained very little longitude.

The two ships were again in sight, one was the Tamerlane of Aberystwyth, the other the Virginius of Liverpool; both fine vessels with passengers.

The head committee reported that two women were ill. They were therefore dosed according to the best skills of the mistress, who was desirous of going into the hold to see them, but the captain peremptorily desired her upon no account to do so and kept a sharp lookout that she might not visit them unknown to him. The boy, whom nothing ailed but seasickness and fatigue, had recovered. I saw him upon deck - miserable looking little animal, with a huge misshapen head, sallow, lantern-jaws and glassy eyes - apparently about twelve years of age; but his father said that he was twenty. I could scarcely credit him but was assured of the fact by his neighbours who said that he always had the same emaciated appearance, although he never before complained of illness. He went by the name of 'the little shoemaker'.

Wednesday, 9 June

As we were seated at dinner in the cabin discussing a savoury dish of lobscouse made by the mistress, we were alarmed by the shouting of men and screaming of women. We hurried on deck, thinking that someone was overboard and judge of our terror when we saw the fore part of the brig in a blaze. All hands having assisted, a plentiful supply of water in a short time subdued the fire which extended no further than the caboose; it arose from the negligence of Simon who fell asleep leaving a lighted candle stuck against the boards. This was the only brilliant act of which he was guilty during the voyage and as a reward for which the mate bestowed upon him a rope's end.

Thursday, 10 June

The only incidents of the day were breakfast, dinner and supper - and the meridianal observation and the temporary stir consequent on the captain coming upon deck after a snooze, and shouting, 'bout ship'. Some more cases of illness were reported and the mistress was kept busy mixing medicine and making drinks, hoping that by early attention the sickness might be prevented from spreading.

As I was pacing the deck in the afternoon I observed one of the passengers - a well-looking man with fine brown eyes - timidly approach me. After looking about him to assure himself that the captain was below, he doffed his hat and addressed me as follows: 'I beg your honour's pardon, but I hope it's no offence.' Having told him that he had given me none, he proceeded - 'Well then, Master, isn't it mighty quare entirely and how can the likes of us know the differ; but I hope your honour it's all right?'

I replied that I was not aware of anything being wrong and desired him to say what was the danger he feared which caused him to ask: 'Aragh! Why thin are we goin' back to ould Ireland?' I demanded his reason for such a supposition when, after scratching his head and casting a glance towards the cabin, looking rather perplexed, he went on. 'That little gossoon of mine, your honour - a mighty smart chap he is too and a great scholar entirely, he tould us - but faith! I dunno how to believe him though he got his larnin' at the national school and can cast up figures equal to the agent and can read the whole side of a book without stoppin'. He says, sir, that the sun, God bless it, sets in the West ...'

Here he paused and looked earnestly at me, as if for confirmation of the fact. I therefore said that the boy's knowledge was pretty accurate.

Seeming encouraged, he continued - 'Moreover than that, he says that Ameriky, where we are goin' to, if the Almighty God spares us. (Here he crossed himself.) Glory be to his name! it's in the west of the world too.' He again paused and looked enquiringly.

'Well,' said I, 'he is pretty right there also, America is west from Ireland.' 'Then, Master, here's what we want to come at, you see. If Ameriky is in the west, mustn't the sun set in it? Then why is it your honour, that instead of followin' it, we're runnin' away from it as hard as we can lick?'

Such was the fact - a fresh northerly breeze compelling us to bear to the south-east. I now saw the nature of the problem he wished to have solved and explained the matter as explicitly as I possibly could but it was some time before he comprehended me. At length he seemed to become enlightened on the subject, for, giving his thigh a slap of his open palm, he exclaimed: 'Och! By the powers, I see it all now, it's as plain as a pike-start and I'm sure I'm obliged to your honour and so is the gossoon too. Oh, that devil's clip Jack - wait till I ketch him. If I don't murder him it's not matter. What do you think, your honour, he told the little chap, when he axed him all about it? "Why," says he, "sure we're goin' back again for the mistress' knittin' needles that she forgot." So as he wouldn't tell him, nor none of the sailors, I made bold to ax your honour as the little chap was loath to make so free.'

On the conclusion of the dialogue, Jack, who was over our heads in the shrouds, burst into a hearty fit of laughter, in which I could not but participate when I noticed the comicality of the arch sailor-boy's appearance and the simplicity of my interlocutor, who, hearing the captain's heavy step coming up the ladder, hastily retired, vowing vengeance upon Jack.

Saturday, 12 June

I amused myself taking a sketch of the cabin 'interior'. It was about ten feet square and so low that the only part of it in which the captain could stand upright was under the skylight. At either side was a berth, both of which were filled with the mistress' boxes, the captain's old clothes, old sails and sundry other articles, which were there stowed away and concealed from view by chintz curtains trimmed with white cotton fringe.

The ceiling was garnished with numerous charts rolled up and confined by tapes running from beam to beam, from one of which - carefully covered by a cotton handkerchief was suspended the captain's new hat.

A small recess above the table contained a couple of wine glasses, one of them minus the shank; also an antique decanter resting upon an old quarto prayer book and guarded by a dangerous looking blunderbuss, which was supported by two brass hooks, from one of which hung a small bag containing the captain's spectacles, rule, pencil and compass. At each side of this recess was a locker, one of them containing a crock of butter and another of effects besides tobacco and soap; the other held a fine Cheshire cheese, a little keg of sprats and other articles too numerous to mention.

An unhappy canary, perched within a rusty cage, formed a pendant from the centre of the skylight, but a much more pleasing picture decorated one of the panels a still-life admirably delineating an enormous flitch of bacon which daily grew less.

A small door led into the captain's state-room the ceiling of which was tastefully ornamented by several bunches of dipped candles, while the narrow shelves groaned under the weight of jars of sugar, preserves, bottled porter, spices and the other usual necessaries for a long voyage. I was disturbed in the progress of my portraiture by the mistress who came down to warm a drink at the stove for some of the sick folks. The two women who first became ill were said to show symptoms of bad fever and additional cases of illness were reported by the head committee. The patients begged for an increased allowance of water, which could not be granted as the supply was very scanty, two casks having leaked.

Sunday, 13 June

The reports from the hold became very alarming and the mistress was occupied all day attending the numerous calls upon her. She already regretted having come on the voyage, but her kind heart did not allow her to consult her case- When she appeared upon deck she was beset by a crowd of poor creatures, each having some request to make, often of a most inconsiderate kind and few of which it was in her power to comply with. The day was cold and cheerless and I occupied myself reading in the cabin.

Monday, 14 June

The head committee brought a can of water to show it to l the captain; it was quite foul, muddy and bitter from having been in a wine cask. When allowed to settle it became clear, leaving considerable sediment in the bottom of the vessel but it retained its bad taste. The mate endeavoured to improve it by trying the effect of charcoal and of alum but some of the casks were beyond remedy and the contents, when pumped out, resembles nauseous ditch water. There were now eight cases of serious illness - six of them being fever and two dysentery. The former appeared to be of a peculiar character and very alarming, the latter disease did not seem to be so violent in degree.

Tuesday, 15 June

The reports this morning were very afflicting and I felt much that I was unable to render any assistance to my poor fellow passengers. The captain desired the mistress to give them everything out of his own stores that she considered would be of service to any of them. He felt much alarmed; nor was it to be wondered at that contagious fever - which under the most advantageous circumstances and under the watchful eyes of the most skilful physicians, baffles the highest ability - should terrify one having the charge of so many human beings likely to fall a prey to the unchecked progress of the dreadful disease; for once having shown itself in the unventilated hold of a small brig, containing one hundred and ten living creatures, how could it possibly be stayed without medicines, medical skill or even pure water to slake the patients' burning thirst? The prospect before us was indeed an awful one and there was no hope for us but in the mercy of God.

Wednesdat,16 June

The past night was very rough and I enjoyed little rest. No additional cases of sickness were reported, but there were apparent signs of insubordination amongst the healthy men, who complained of starvation and the want of water to make drinks for their sick wives and children. A deputation came aft to acquaint the captain with their grievances but he ordered them away and would not listen to a word from them. When he went below the ringleader threatened that they would break into the provision store.

The mate did not take any notice of the threat but repeat ed to me, in their hearing, an anecdote of his own experience, of a captain, showing with what determination he sup pressed an outbreak in his vessel. He concluded by alluding to cut-lasses and the firearms in the cabin. And in order to make a deeper impression on their minds he brought up the old blunderbuss from which be fired a shot, the report of which was equal to that of a small cannon. The deputation slunk away muttering complaints.

If they were resolute they might easily have seized upon the provisions. In fact, I was surprised how famished men could so patiently bear with their own and their starved children's sufferings, but the captain would willingly have listened to them if it were in his power to relieve their distress.

Thursday, 17 June

Two new cases of fever were announced and, from the representation of the mate, the poor creatures in the hold were in a shocking state. The men who suffered from dysentery were better; the mistress' prescription - flour porridge with a few drops of laudanum - having given them relief. The requests of the friends of the fever patients were most preposterous, some asking for beef, others wine. They were all desirous of laudanum being administered to them in order to procure sleep but we were afraid to dispense so dangerous a remedy except with extreme caution. Our progress was almost imperceptible and the captain began to grow very uneasy, there being at the rate of the already miserable allowance of food, but provisions for 50 days. It also now became necessary to reduce the complement of water and to urge the necessity of using sea water in cookery.

Friday, 18 June

The fireplaces were the scenes of endless contentions. The l sufferings they endured appeared to embitter the wretched emigrants one against another. Their quarrels were only ended when the fires were extinguished at 7 p.m. at which time they were surrounded by squabbling groups preparing their miserable evening meal. They would not leave until Jack mounted the shrouds of the foremast and precipitated a bucket full of water on each fire - when they snatched up their pots and pans and, half blinded by the steam, descended into the hold with their half-cooked suppers. Although Jack delighted in teasing them, they never complained of his pranks, however annoying.


I saw the seven angels which stood before God; 
and to them were given seven trumpets ...
And the seven angels which had the seven trumpets
prepared themselves to sound ...
And the seventh angel sounded ...
And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; 
and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them 
and they were judged every man ...
-- Revelations

Saturday, 19 June

A shark followed us all the day and the mate said it was a certain forerunner of death. The cabin was like an apothecary's shop and the mistress a perfect slave. I endeavoured to render her every assistance in my power. The mate also was indefatigable in his exertions to alleviate the miserable lot of our helpless human cargo. Not having seen the stowaway on deck for some time, upon inquiring after him, I learned that he was amongst the sick and was very bad but he was kindly attended by the young man from the County Clare who devoted himself to attending the afflicted, some of whom the members of their own families neglected to take care of.

Sunday, 20 June

Having hinted to the captain the propriety of having divine service read upon the Sabbath, he said that it could not be done. Indeed the sailors seldom had a spare moment and as to the mate, I often wondered how he got through so much work. This day, therefore, had no mark to distinguish it from any other. The poor emigrants were in their usual squalid attire, neither did the crew rig themselves out as on former Sundays.

All were dispirited and a cloud of melancholy hung over us. The poor mistress deplored that she could not get an opportunity of reading her Bible. I pitied her from my heart knowing how much she felt the distress that surrounded us and her anxiety to lighten the affliction of the passengers.

Monday, 21 June

I was surprised at the large allowance of food served out to the sailors. They had each 1-21bs of beef or pork daily, besides coffee and as much biscuit as they pleased, but it being a temperance vessel, they had no grog, in lieu of which they got lime-juice. However, there was a little cask of brandy in a corner of the cabin but the captain was afraid to broach it, knowing the mate's propensity. I noticed the latter often casting a wistful glance at it as he rose from dinner and he did not fail to tell me that it was the best possible preventive against the fever.

Tuesday, 22 June

One of the sailors was unable for duty and the mate fear ed he had the fever. The reports from the hold were growing even more alarming and some of the patients who were mending, had relapsed. One of the women was every moment expected to breathe her last and her friends - an aunt and cousins were inconsolable about her as they had persuaded her to leave her father and mother and come with them. The mate said that her feet were swollen to double their natural size and covered with black putrid spots. I spent a considerable part of the day watching a shark that followed in our wake with great constancy.

Wednesday, 23 June

At breakfast, I inquired of the mate after the young woman who was so ill yesterday, when he told me that she was dead and when I remarked that I feared her burial could cause great consternation, I learned that the sad ordeal was over, her remains having been consigned to the deep within an hour after she expired. When I went on deck heard the moans of her poor aunt who continued to gaze upon the ocean as if she could mark the spot where the waters opened for their prey. The majority of the wretched passengers who were not themselves ill were absorbed in grief for their relatives, but some of them, it astonished me to perceive, had no feeling whatever, either for their fellow creatures' woe or in the contemplation of being themselves overtaken by the dreadful disease. There was further addition to the sick list which now amounted to twenty.

Thursday 24 June

Being the festival of St John and a Catholic holiday, some young men and women got up a dance in the evening regardless of the moans and cries of those who were torture by the fiery fever. When the mate spoke to them of the impropriety of such conduct, they desisted and retired to the bow where they sat down and spent the remainder of the evening singing. The monotonous howling they kept up was quite in unison with the scene of desolation within and th dreary expanse of ocean without.

Friday 25 June

This morning there was a further accession to the names upon the sick roll. It was awful how suddenly some were stricken. A little child who was playing with its companions, suddenly fell down and for some time was sunk in a death like torpor from which, when she awoke, she commenced to scream violently and writhed in convulsive agony. A poor woman, who was warming a drink at the fire for her husband, also dropped down quite senseless and was borne to her berth. I found it very difficult to acquire precise information respecting the progressive symptoms of the disease, the different parties of whom I inquired disagreeing in some particulars, but I inferred that the first symptom was generally a reeling in the head, followed by swelling pain, as if the head were going to burst. Next came excruciating pains in the bones and then swelling of the limbs commencing with the feet, in some cases ascending the body and again descending before it reached the head, stopping at the throat. The period of each stage varied in different patients, some of whom were covered with yellow, watery pimples and others with red and purple spots that turned into putrid sores.

Saturday, 26 June

Some of those who the other day appeared to bid defiance to the fever, were seized in its relentless grasp and a few who were on the recovery, relapsed. It seemed miraculous to me that such subjects could struggle with so violent a disease without any effective aid.

Sunday, 27 June

The moaning and raving of the patients kept me awake nearly all the night and I could hear the mistress stirring about until a late hour. It made my heart bleed to listen to the cries for 'Water, for God's sake some water'. Oh! it was horrifying, yet strange to say I had no fear of taking the fever, which, perhaps, under the merciful providence of the Almighty was a preventive cause. The mate, who spent much of his time among the patients, described to me some revolting scenes he witnessed in the hold but they were too disgusting to be repeated. He became very much frightened and often looked quite bewildered.

Monday 28 June

The number of patients upon the list now amounted to thirty and the effluvium of the hold was shocking. The passengers suffered much for want of pure water and the mate tried the quality of all the casks. Fortunately he discovered a few which were better an the circumstance was rather cheering.

Tuesday 29 June

The wind kept us to the south but though occasionally becalmed, we were slowly gaining longitude. I could not keep my mind fixed upon a book so I was obliged to give over reading and spent the day watching the rolling of the dolphin, the aerial darts of the flying-fish wit the gambols of numbers of porpoises that danced in the waters around the prow. It being the mate's watch, I remained upon deck until midnight, listening to his yarns. Some them were rather incredible and, upon expressing such to E my opinion, he was inclined to take offence. Being the he of some of his stories himself, I could not doubt the veracity of them, though they were not the least marvellous. A though a well informed and intelligent man, he was very superstitious. But it is not uncommon for sailors to be so.

Wednesday 30 June

Passing the main hatch, I got a glimpse of one of the most awful sights I ever beheld. A poor female patient was lying in one of the upper berths - dying. Her head and face were swollen to almost unnatural size, the latter being hideously deformed. I recollected remarking the clearness of her complexion when I saw her in health, shortly after we sailed. She then was a picture of good humour and contentment, now how sadly altered! Her cheeks retained their ruddy hue but the rest of her distorted countenance was of a leprous whiteness- She had been nearly three weeks ill and suffered exceedingly until the swelling set in, commencing in her feet and creeping up her body to her head. Her afflicted husband stood by her holding a 'blessed candle' in his hand and awaiting the departure of her spirit. Death put a period to her existence shortly after I saw her. And as the sun was setting, the bereaved husband muttered a prayer over her enshrouded corpse which, as he said Amen, was lowered into the ocean.

Thursday 1 July

The wind was still unfavourable but we gained a little by constantly tacking and were approaching the banks of Newfoundland. Some new cases were announced making thirty-seven now lying. A convalescent was assisted on deck and seemed revived by the fresh air. He was a miserable object. His face, being yellow and withered, was rendered ghastly by the black streak that encircled his sunken eyes.

Szabo, L. (1996, May 1). The Irish Famine, 1845-1849: Research Materials. Retrieved January 7, 2002 from World Wide Web: