Robert Whyte's The Journey of an Irish Coffin Ship. 1847
"But soft! the tinges of the west decline And night falls dewy o'er these banks of pine. Among the reeds in which our idle host Is rocked to rest, the wind's complaining note Dies like a half breath'd whispering of flutes. Along the waves the gleaming porpoise shoots. And I can trace him like a wat'rv star Down the steep current, till he fades afar Amid the foaming breakers' silverv light Where yon rough rapids sparkle through the night." -- Moore
Feeling somewhat excited by the sudden acceleration of our progress, I determined to remain on deck until the turn of the tide would compel us to come to an anchor. There was something also most enchanting in being wafted by both wind and tide at the rate of 10 knots an hour, watching the lights upon the different islands and the myriads of 0 bright stars that studded the firmament and were reflected in the darkened surface of the broad river, which upon the north side was overshadowed by the mountainous banks, while the southern shore might be traced by a continuous line of flickering lamps within the cottages upon its border.
We soon left Green Island behind us, then Hare Island and Riviere du Loup, upon which is a large settlement with a population of about 1,500. There are some large sawmills here and a portage leading through Madawaska to the lower provinces. After passing The Pilgrims, a group of rocky islets, I went below and had not long turned in when I heard and felt the dropping of the anchor.
In the morning I found that we lay off Kamouraska which is charmingly situated in a rich district at the base of a chain of hills that rise behind the village and stretch far beyond it. This lovely spot, being one of the healthiest places in Lower Canada, attracts many visitors during the summer season. It is also enriched by the fisheries established upon the numerous islands that lie immediately in front supplying abundance of shad, salmon, herrings, etc. Directly opposite upon the other side of the river is Murray Bay, into which flows the Malbaie River, upon whose banks reside the descendants of Wolfe's highlanders many of whom settled there after the campaign. The bay is environed by an amphitheatre of majestic hills cultivated to the very summits, their sloping sides being dotted over with comfortable abodes.
We weighed anchor at noon and gently glided through a scene of indescribable loveliness. The noble river here unbroken by islands presented a lake-like expanse bounded by the lofty Cap Diable and Goose Cape. Village succeeded village upon the south shore and the gigantic hills upon the north were adorned by sweet alpine cots surrounded by cleared patches of land, embosomed by the dark green pines. The weather was very warm and nature basked in uninterrupted sunshine.
Oh! what a contrast to this magic beauty was presented within our floating pest-house, not that matters were worse than they had been, there was rather an abatement in the violence of the fever and I perceived some faces that I with difficulty recognised, so changed were they since I saw them before their illness. Simon and Jack were both on deck, the former being deprived of memory and partially deranged in his mind. Poor fellow having the previous voyage fallen from the topsail yard and injured his head, his intellect was thereby impaired and the fever confirmed the insanity which had not left him when I quitted the brig some three weeks after.
Being now in fresh water the passengers were relieved of one calamity and the women who were able were busy washing. Two or three men were also similarly engaged, their wives being unable and we endeavoured to impress upon them the fact that the length of our detention in quarantine would greatly depend on the cleanliness of their persons and of the hold. There were still some very bad cases and the poor head committee was in great trouble about his wife who was dying. The mate still kept up being afraid of going to hospital but it was quite evident that he was very ill indeed.
We passed two steamers that were going down the river to tow up ships. We also had a Scotch brig, the Delta, in company.
At 6 p.m. the tide being on the ebb, we once more anchored opposite to the Isle aux Coudres which lies in front of St Paul's Bay. This beautiful island was so named by Cartier who found upon it a profusion of filberts. A smaller island lies inside of it, whose origin is thus accounted for in a manuscript belonging to the Jesuit college of Quebec which relates the effects of the earthquake felt throughout Canada in 1663:
Near St Paul's Bay (fifty miles below Quebec on the north side) a mountain about a quarter of a league in circumference, situated on the shore of the St Lawrence, was precipitated into the river but, as if it had only made a plunge, it rose from the bottom and became a small island forming with the shore a convenient harbour, well sheltered from all winds.
The same authority says:
Lower down the river towards Point Alouette an entire forest of considerable extent was loosened from the main bank and slid into the river St Lawrence where the trees took fresh root.
The rivers Du Gouffre and Des Marees empty themselves into St Paul's Bay flowing through luxuriant valleys intervening between the detached mountains.
Delightfully located upon an eminence on the south bank stands the village of St Anne at the head of a bay of the same name into which flows the river Ouelle. It is large and has a Catholic college and some handsome churches. The surrounding country is highly cultivated, presenting every feature of softness and beauty that can adorn a landscape.
The evening was a charming one, clear and still. The water smooth as a mirror in which gleamed the reflection of the tin covered roofs and spires that glittered in the rays of the setting sun while occasionally a huge snow-white porpoise rose above the surface, plunging again beneath the water which, closing, formed circles becoming larger and larger until the unwieldy creature again appeared and formed them anew. I remained on deck long after all had retired to rest and watched the grey twilight creeping over day until it was illumined by the pale moon which soon smiled upon one of earth's most beauteous pictures.
I retired to my berth and took a short repose which was broken shortly after midnight by the weighing of the anchor. As I wished not to lose the sight of the least part of the river (which I loved to look upon by night as well as by day) I hurried on deck.
We passed through the Traverse, an intricate channel, marked by floating
lights and by the Pillars, a group of dangerous rocks on one of which is a
revolving light. At daybreak we were passing Goose Island which at low water is
connected with Crane Island on the northern extremity of which is the handsome
residence of the seigneur. The southern bank presented the same charming
features and in the distance I discerned the chain of hills claimed by the
United States as the boundary of the State of Maine. In a short time we arrived
before the village of St Thomas picturesquely situated on the banks of Riviere
du Sud in which were anchored some vessels which were being freighted with
lumber from the several saw-mills. The soil in this neighbourhood is exceedingly
productive and is well cultivated - on which account it is called the granary of
the lower province. The village is of considerable extent and is composed of
white houses clustering around a pretty church. A few miles further sail brought
us among a number of beautiful islets, so beautiful that they seemed like a
fairy scene. Their verdant turf was almost level with the blue water that wound
amongst them, submerging not a few so that the first that grew upon them
appeared to rise from the river. A vast fleet of vessels lying at anchor told
that we had arrived at Grosse Isle, and after wending our way amongst isles and
ships, we dropped anchor in the ground allotted for vessels upon arrival and
hoisted our ensign at the peak as a signal for the inspecting physician to board
And when I looked, behold, a hand was sent unto me, and, lo, a roll of a book was therein:And he spread it before me: and it was written within and without: and there was written therein lamentations and mourning, and woe.-- Ezekiel
Gross Isle, Tuesday, 28 July
By 6 a.m. we were settled in our new position before the quarantine station. The passengers that were able to be up were all busy clearing and washing, some clearing the hold of filth, others assisting the sailors in swabbing the deck. The mistress herself washed out the cabin last evening and put everything in order.
The captain commenced shaving himself at 7 and completed the operation in about an hour and a half. The mate was unable to do anything but kept repeatedly calling to the mistress for brandy and requested that his illness should be kept from the doctor as he was sure he had not fever. Breakfast was speedily dispatched and anxiety was depicted on every countenance. At 9 o'clock a boat was perceived pulling towards us with four oars and a steersman with broad-leafed straw hat and leather coat who, the pilot told us, was the inspecting physician. In a few minutes the boat was alongside and the doctor on deck. He hastily enquired for the captain and before he could be answered was down in the cabin where the mistress was finishing her toilet. Having introduced himself he enquired: if we had sickness aboard? Its nature? How many patients at present? These questions being answered and the replies noted upon his table, he snatched up his hat ran up the ladder along the deck and down into the hold. Arrived there, 'Ha!' said he sagaciously, 'there is fever here.' He stopped beside the first berth in which a patient was lying, felt his pulse, examined his tongue and ran up the ladder again. As he passed by me he handed me some papers to be filled up by the captain and to have ready 'tomorrow or next day'. In an instant he was in his boat from which, while the men were taking up their oars, he shouted out to me that I was not obliged to remain in quarantine and might go up to Quebec when I pleased.
I brought the papers to the captain who remained in the cabin, supposing that the doctor would return thither, in order to give directions for our guidance, and when he learned that that gentleman had gone, he was desperately enraged. The mistress endeavoured to pacify him by suggesting that it was likely he would visit us again in the course of the day or at least that he would send a message to us. When I acquainted the mistress that I was at liberty to leave the brig she looked at me most pitifully as if she would say, 'Are you too going to desert us?' But I had no such intention and was determined to remain with them at all events until they reached Quebec.
The poor passengers, expecting that they would be all reviewed, were dressed in their best clothes and were clean, though haggard and weak. They were greatly disappointed in their expectations as they were under the impression that the sick would be immediately admitted to the hospital and the healthy landed upon the island, there to remain until taken to Quebec by a steamer. Indeed, such was the procedure to be inferred from the book of directions given to the captain by the pilot when he came aboard.
When the mistress appeared on deck I scarcely knew her. She usually wore a black stuff gown, a red worsted 'bosom friend', which she told me (at least once a day) was knit for her by her niece, with a cap, having three full borders which projected beyond the leaf of the little straw bon- , net, covered with the accumulated stains and smoke of many a a voyage. Now she had on a new fancy striped calico dress as showy as deep reds, yellows, blues and greens could make it; a black satin bonnet with no lack of red ribbons and a little conservatory of artifficials around her good-natured face, not forgetting her silver spectacles. All day long we kept looking out for a message from shore and in watching the doctor's boat going from vessel to vessel. His visit to each occupying about the same as to us - which was exactly five minutes. We sometimes fancied that he was making for us but the boat the next moment would be concealed by some large ship. Then we were sure we would be the next but no, the rowers poled for shore. The day wore away before we gave up hope.
I could not believe it possible that here, within reach of help, we should be left as neglected as when upon the ocean. That after a voyage of two months' duration we were tube left still enveloped by reeking pestilence, the sick without medicine, medical skill, nourishment or so much as a drop of pure water - for the river, although not saline here, was polluted by the most disgusting objects thrown overboard from the several vessels. In short, it was a floating mass of filthy straw, the refuse of foul beds, barrels containing the vilest matter, old rags and tattered clothes, etc.
The head committee was greatly grieved for his wife whose death he momentarily expected. He had looked anxiously forward to the time when we should arrive here, hoping that at least the doctor would see her, but his hopes - as well as those of others - were suddenly blasted. The brig that arrived with us sailed for Quebec immediately after the doctor's visit, possibly not having had any sickness. Five other vessels also were discharged. How long they were detained we could not tell but the captain was so provoked that he vowed he would sail without permission. The pilot, who did not well understand his hasty disposition, ventured to remonstrate with him and fell in for a hurricane of curses and abuse to which, though ignorant of many of the expressions, he replied in French, not finding himself sufficiently eloquent in the English tongue.
Four vessels arrived with the evening tide and hoisted their signals but were not visited. Several sailed by us without stopping, not having passengers, and a vast number went down the river during the day.
Two huge steamers also arrived and in the afternoon brought off hundreds of human beings from the island.
Thursday, 29 July
This morning, a boat was perceived making towards us l which at first was thought to be the doctor's but when it approached nearer there appeared but two persons in it, both of whom were rowing. In a few minutes more the boat was alongside and from the cassocks and bands of the two gentlemen we learned that they were Canadian priests They came on deck, each carrying a large black bag. They inquired for the captain who received them courteously and introduced them to the mistress and to me, after which they conversed a while in French with the pilot whom they knew. When having put on their vestments, they descended into the hold. They there spent a few minutes with each of the sick and administered the last rites to the dying woman and an old man, terminating their duties by baptising the infant. They remained in the hold for about an hour and, when they returned, complimented the captain on the cleanliness of the vessel.
They stayed a short time talking to us upon deck and the account they gave of the horrid condition of many of the ships in quarantine was frightful. In the holds of some of them they said that they were up to their ankles in filth. The wretched emigrants crowded together like cattle and corpses remaining long unburied - the sailors being ill and the passengers unwilling to touch them. They also told us of the vast numbers of sick in the hospitals and in tents upon the island and that many nuns, clergymen and doctors were lying in typhus fever, taken from the patients.
They were exceedingly intelligent and gentlemanly men and, telling us that we had great case of thankfulness in having escaped much better than so many others, they politely bowed and got into their little boat, amid the blessings of the passengers who watched them until they arrived beside a distant ship.
The head committee expressed himself satisfied that his wife saw a priest before her death which occurred about an hour after, and as the pilot said that the remains should not be thrown into the river - there being a burial ground upon the island - the corpse lay in the hold until the next day.
The mate continued to grow worse and the mistress was unceasing in her attention to him. The day was exceedingly hot and sultry and I could not have remained on deck but the captain spread an awning over it which kept the cabin cool. We lay at some distance from the island, the distant view of which was exceedingly beautiful. At the far end were rows of white tents and marquees, resembling the encampment of an army. Somewhat nearer was the little fort and residence of the superintendent physician and nearer still the chapel, seaman's hospital and little village with its wharf and a few sail boats, the most adjacent extremity being rugged rocks, among which grew beautiful fir trees. At high water this portion was detached from the main island and formed a most picturesque islet.
However, this scene of natural beauty was sadly deformed by the dismal display of human suffering that it presented - helpless creatures being carried by sailors over the rocks on their way to the hospital, boats arriving with patients some of whom died in their transmission from their ships. Another, and still more awful sight, was a continuous line of boats, each carrying its freight of dead to the burial ground and forming an endless funeral procession. Some had several corpses so tied up in canvas that the stiff, sharp outline of death was easily traceable. Others had rude coffins constructed by the sailors from the boards of their berths, or I should rather say, cribs. In a few, a solitary mourner attended the remains but the majority contained no living beings save the rowers. I would not remove my eyes until boat after boat was hid by the projecting point of the island, round which they steered their gloomy way. From one ship a boat proceeded four times during the day, each time laden with a cargo of dead. I ventured to count the number of boats that passed but had to give up the sickening task.
The inspecting doctor went about from vessel to vessel, six of which came in each tide and as many sailed. We expected him to visit us every moment but he did not come near us.
In the afternoon a boat made for our brig and the mistress, who was on deck,
was greatly delighted to find that it contained two 'captains', one of whom was
her nephew. One arrived the day before we came, the other a day previous. They
were as ignorant of the course of proceeding as we and before they went away it
was agreed on that they, our captain and I should wait on the superintendent
physician the next day.
As from the wing no scar the sky retains, The parted wave no farrow from the keel, So dies in human hearts the thought of death. E'en with the tears which nature shed O'er those we love, we drop it in their graves. -- Young
Friday 30 July
This morning when I came on deck, a sailor was busily employed constructing a coffin for the remains of the head committee's wife and it was afflicting to bear the husband's groans and sobs accompanying each sound of the saw and hammer, while, with his motherless infant in his arms, he looked on. About an hour after, the boat was lower ed and the bereaved husband, with four rowers, proceeded to the burial ground to inter the corpse, and they were followed by many a tearful eye until the boat disappeared behind the rocky point.
At 10 a.m. we descried the doctor making for us, his boatmen pulling lustily through the heavy sea. A few minutes brought him alongside and on board, when he ran down to the cabin and demanded: if the papers were filled up with a return of the number of deaths at sea? How many cases of sickness? etc. He was handed them by the captain, when he enquired how many patients we then had. He was told there were twelve, when he wrote an order to admit six to hospital, saying that the rest should be admitted when there was room - there being 2,500 at that time upon the island and hundreds lying in the various vessels before it. The order written, he returned to his boat and then boarded a ship lying close to us, which lowered her signal when he approached. Several other vessels that arrived in the morning had their ensigns flying at the peak until each was visited in turn. Immediately after the doctor left us, the captain gave orders to have the patients in readiness. Shortly after, our second boat was launched and four of the passengers volunteered to row - the sailors that were able to work, being with the other. O God! May I never again witness such a scene as that which followed: the husband, the only support of an emaciated wife and helpless family, torn away forcibly from them in a strange land; the mother dragged from her orphan children that clung to her until she was lifted over the bulwarks, rending the air with their shrieks; children snatched from their bereaved parents who were perhaps ever to remain ignorant of their recovery, or death. The screams pierced my brain and the excessive agony so rent my heart that I was obliged to retire to the cabin where the mistress sat weeping bitterly.
The captain went in the boat and returned in about an hour, giving us a frightful account of what he witnessed upon the island.
The steamers returned and all the afternoon were engaged taking the healthy passengers out of some of the vessels. They went alongside several until their cargo was complete when they sailed for Montreal, their decks thickly crowded with human beings and - most extraordinary to relate - each of them had a fiddler and a dancing party in the prow.
Early in the evening the captain's nephew came to take us in his boat, on shore. After a long pull through a heavy swell, we landed upon the Isle of Pestilence and, climbing over the rocks, passed through the little town and by the hospitals, behind which were piles upon piles of unsightly coffins. A little further on, at the edge of a beautiful sandy beach, were several tents, into one of which I looked but had no desire to see the interior of any others. We pursued our way by a road cut through a romantic grove of firs, birch, beech and ash, beneath the shade of which grew and blossomed charming wild flowers, while the most curious fungi vegetated upon odd, decayed stumps. The path led us into a cleared lawn, passing through which we arrived in front of the superintendent physician's cottage, placed upon a sloping bank at the river's side, on which were mounted two pieces of ordnance guarded by a sentinel. The view from this spot was exquisitely beautiful; upon the distant bank of the broad river were the smiling, happy-looking Canadian villages backed by deep blue hills, while the agitated water in front tossed the noble vessels that lay at anchor and which were being swung round by the turning tide.
The doctor not being within, we walked about until his return when he invited us into his cottage and heard what the captains had to say, after which he promised to discharge our friend the next day and that he would send a steamer to take our passengers. He also gave the captain an order for the admission of the mate to the seaman's hospital. Our mission having been so successful, we thanked the doctor and departed. Upon our return we called at the store licensed to sell provisions upon the island. It was well stocked with various commodities among which were carrion beef and cattish mutton, bread, flour, cheese, etc. Although the captain wished to treat the mistress to fresh meat, he declined purchasing what we saw and merely bought some flour. The storekeeper did not lack better customers, however, for there was a vast concourse of mates, stewards, seamen and boys buying his different articles and stowing them away in their boats. The demand for bread was very great and several batches were yielded from a large oven while we remained.
Hearing the music of a fiddle accompanied by the stamping of feet in time with the tune, I walked up to the shed from which it issued. There were two men dancing a jig, one of them a Canadian, the other a sailor - both fine fellows who were evidently pitted against each other in a trial of skill. The former wore huge boots coming above the knees and, drawn over his grey trousers composed of etoffe do pays, a light blue flannel shirt confined at the waist by a scarlet scarf whose particoloured ends hung at one side. On his head was a woolen bonnet rouge whose tassel jumped about with the wearer's movements. His brilliant black eyes lighted up his swallow visage and his arms were as busily engaged as his legs. The sailor was rigged out in pumps, white trousers, blue jacket and straw hat with streaming black ribbons, his ruddy face glowing with the exercise. The fiddler's costume was similar to that of his brother Canadian except that his bonnet was blue. He stood upon a barrel and around the dancers was a circle of habitants and sailors who encouraged them by repeated 'bravo's'. I did not remain X long nor could I enjoy the amusement in such a place and therefore joined my companions in the boat where we were detained a few moments while one of the men returned for lime which the captain had forgotten to procure. He soon re- + turned and, again ploughing through the waves, we shortly arrived beneath the Leander, after examining which noble ship, the captain and I returned to the brig and acquainted the mistress with the issue of our adventure.
Our boat returned just at the same time, the men having been away all the day. It appeared that they could not find the burial ground and consequently dug a grave upon an island when as they were depositing the remains they were discovered and obliged to decamp. They were returning to the brig when they perceived several boats proceeding in another direction and, having joined them, were conducted to the right place. The wretched husband was a very picture of desperation and misery that increased the ugliness of his countenance, for he was sadly disfigured by the marks of small pox and was blind of an eye. He walked moodily along the deck, snatched his child from a woman's arms and went down into the hold without speaking a word. Shortly after, one of the sailors who was with the boat told me that after the grave was filled up he took the shovels and placing them cross-wise upon it, calling heaven to witness said, 'By that cross, Mary, I swear to revenge your death - as soon as I earn the price of my passage home, I'll go back and shoot the man that murdered you and that's the landlord.'
Saturday, 31 July
It was with great reluctance that the mate consented to go to hospital, and as he went into the boat he charged the captain, the mistress and me with cruelty. The captain went with him and gave him in charge of a doctor.
In consequence of the superintendent's promise to send a steamer to take our passengers and give us clean bills if the vessel were well whitewashed between decks, the passengers' berths were all knocked away and the filthy boards thrown into the river, after which four men worked away cleaning and whitening all the day - but no steamer arrived that day. One which lay overnight took 250 passengers from the captain's nephew who sailed not long after.
Vessels were arriving with every tide; two ships from Bremen came in the morning and were discharged at once, having no sickness. Some others sailed up with the evening tide, after which there were more than 30 in quarantine. Boats were plying all day long between the several vessels and the island and, the sea being high, the miserable patients were drenched by the spray, after which they had to clamber over the slimy rocks or were carried by sailors. There was also an almost unbroken line of boats carrying the dead for interment. Then there was the doctor's boat, unceasingly shooting about, besides several others containing captains of ships, many of whom had handsome gigs with six oars and uniformly dressed rowers. It was indeed a busy scene of life and death. To complete the picture, the rigging of the vessels was covered over with the passengers' linen hanging out to dry - by the character of which as they fluttered in the breeze, I could tell with accuracy from what country they came; alas! the wretched rags of the majority told but too plainly that they were Irish.
O the tender ties Close twisted with the fibres of the heart Which broken break them, and drain off the soul Of human joy; and make it pain to live. -- Young
Sunday 1 August
The passengers passed a miserable night, huddled up as they were without room to stretch their weary limbs. I pitied them from my soul and it was sickening to see them drink the filthy water. I could not refuse to give one or two of them a mouthful from the cask upon the quarter deck which fortunately was filled lower down the river. They asked for it so pitifully and were so thankful - but I could not satisfy all and regretted the disappointment of many.
They had on their best clothes and were all clean, with the exception of one incorrigible family. The doctor came on board in the forenoon to inspect the passengers, who were all called on deck but those who were unable. Placing himself at a barrier, he allowed each to pass, one by one, making those he suspected of being feverish show their tongues. This proceeding lasted about a quarter of an hour when the doctor went into the hold to examine those below and to see if it were clean. He then wrote out the order to admit the six patients to hospital and promised to send the steamer to take the remainder, after which we should have clean bills. When he had gone, the patients were lowered into the boat amid a renewal of the indescribable woe that followed the previous separations. Two of them were orphan sisters who were sent for by a brother in Upper Canada. Another was a mother who had tended all her family through illness, now careworn and heart-broken, she became herself a prey.
In the early part of the voyage I observed the un-filial conduct of a boy who frequently abused and even cursed his mother, following the example set by his wretched father. On one occasion his hand was raised to strike her when his arm was arrested by a bystander, but the poor woman begged of the man not to punish him and wept for the depravity of her son. It was she who was now being carried to the boat while the boy who cursed and would have stricken her, clung to her, crying and imploring her blessing and forgiveness but she was unable to utter a word and, by an effort, raised her arm feebly and looked sadly upon the afflicted boy who seized her hand and bathed it with his tears until he was torn away and she dropped into the boat which, a moment after, rowed off. I felt much for the poor fellow who was conscious that he should never again see his mother for there was no hope of her recovery and I little thought that any one could be so heartless as to aggravate his sufferings as did two or three women who surrounded him, one of them saying, 'Ha! You villain there's the mother you abused and cursed, you rascal! You may now take your last look at her.' He followed the boat with his eyes until it reached the shore when he beheld the inanimate figure borne to the hospital. It was evident from the poignancy of his sorrow that his heart was not depraved but that his conduct arose from education.
The morning was fine, clear and warm and many of the vessels were decorated
with their flags giving a cheerful aspect to the scene which, alas, was marred
by the ensigns of two ships (one on either side of us) which were hoisted
half-mast high, the captain of one and the chief mate of the other, being dead.
While the captain was away with the boat, the steamer came alongside of us to
take our passengers. It did not take very long to transship them as few of them
had any luggage. Many of them were sadly disappointed when they learned that
they were to be carried on to Montreal, as those who had left their relatives
upon Grosse Isle hoped that, as vessel. At 7 p.m. the anchor was weighed, the
sails un-reefed and we glided slowly along.
Szabo, L. (1996, May 1). The Irish Famine, 1845-1849: Research Materials. Retrieved January 7, 2002 from World Wide Web: http://www.people.virginia.edu/~eas5e/Irish/RWhyte4.html