Robert Whyte's The Journey of an Irish Coffin Ship. 1847
Sail on, sail on, thou fearless bark, Wherever blows the welcome wind; It cannot lead to scenes more dark More sad than those we leave behind. -Moore
Monday, 2 August
It was indeed with gratefulness to the Almighty for having preserved me scatheless in the midst of the dread pestilence that I left Grosse Isle, and a more beautiful panorama I never beheld than the country through which we passed - the churches of St Thomas and St Pierre's, surrounded by handsome cottages and beautiful fields. On our right, Isle Madame, the largest of the numerous islands that clustered in the centre of the river, embosomed in the mighty steam beyond which rose Cap Tourment with the village of St Joachim at its base. And Mount St Anne, sheltering its village also - both of these lofty hills being of a deep purple hue. At sunset, we had reached the eastern extremity of the Isle of Orleans and an hour after, dropped anchor before St Francois, a sweet village composed of quaint looking cottages whose walls were as white as snow with red roofs, bright yellow doors and green Venetian window blinds. Such was the universal style, all of them appearing as if they had been newly painted.
We again set sail soon after daybreak this morning with a breeze against us which compelled us to tack about. I did not regret this as I had many near views of the southern bank of the river and of the beautiful shore of Orleans Island with its luxuriant orchards and well cultivated farms flopping down to the water's edge, and dark forest upon the crest of its elevated interior. This fine island, which is 20 miles in length and 5 in width, is divided into five parishes and has a population of 5,000 Canadians. While it is an object of the greatest beauty, it is at the same time of great usefulness - affording shelter to the harbour of Quebec on the east side and producing large supplies of fruits and vegetables of the finest description. The northern shore consists of low and marshy beaches that abound with game. It is surprising that there is no regular communication between the island and the city during the summer season, but in winter it is easy of access over the frozen river when the inhabitants convey their produce to market. When Cartier visited it in the year 1535, the island was covered with vines, on which account he called it the Isle of Bacchus. It was on it also that Wolfe took up his quarters previous to the attack upon Quebec. At 8 a.m. we passed St Vallier and St John's; the latter upon the island consisting of entirely white cottages which are chiefly inhabited by the branch pilots upwards of 250 of whom find lucrative employment in the river navigation during the season, enabling them and their families to live comfortably through the long winter in which they are unemployed.
At noon, we dropped anchor again before St Michel's, where we lay until 6 p.m. when we once more renewed our tacks, passing the sheltered cove called Patrick's hole, in which a fine ship rode previous to leaving port for sea.
This little natural harbour is very valuable as it securely shelters vessels that arrive before the winter's ice is sufficiently broken up to allow them to gain the city.
At Anseau Maraud which is adjacent, there were launched, in the year 1824, two enormous ships- the Columbus and the Baron of Renfrew - which were built with the intention of being broken up in England, the projectors thinking thereby to save the duty on the timber of which they were constructed. But their object was frustrated by the decision that a voyage should previously be made out of an English port. The Columbus traversed the Atlantic and returned in safety but was wrecked upon her second voyage. The Baron, in whose construction 6,000 tons of timber were consumed, was 309 feet long and of proportionate breadth. She sailed for London on 25 August 1825 with a cargo (it is said of 10,000 tons) of lumber, her four masts crowded with sails, and followed down the river by a fleet of steamers and pleasure yachts. After a voyage of 50 days she arrived at Dover where she took on board both deal and river pilots but, her draft of water being 30 feet, she could not be taken through the queen's channel which is safe for ships of war. She was therefore obliged to remain outside of the Goodwin sands, near the entrance of the king's channel. Having encountered a violent gale, she grounded upon the Long sands but was got off on the following day. She safely rode out a second gale upon 19 October but successive storms and strong northerly winds eventually drove her upon the Flemish banks and, after being buffeted for several weeks by the waves, she was shattered to atoms; the fragments of the wreck and her cargo being wafted along the coast from Calais to Ostend.
Such was the history of these monster ships whose ill fortune deterred Canadian builders from again constructing such unwieldy vessels.
We next passed Beaumont where the south bank becomes elevated, increasing in height to Point Levi, the tin spire of whose church was visible, and on Orleans Island, St Famille.
The magnificent fall of Montmorenci then was revealed to view, in a sheet of tumbling snow-white foam, set between the dark green banks covered with fir and other trees. As we approached nearer, the low thundering sound of the 'many waters' broke on the ear, which died away as we sailed upon the other tack, and night spread its curtain over the splendid picture when we reached the mouth of the St Charles River where we dropped anchor.
Tuesday 3 August
I was charmed with the splendid prospect I enjoyed this Morning when I came on deck. The harbour was thickly covered with vessels, many of them noble ships of the largest class.
The city upon the side of Cape Diamond, with its tin-covered dome and spires sparkling in the morning sun and surrounded by its walls and batteries bristling with cannon, was crowned by the impregnable citadel, while a line of villages spread along the northern shore reaching to Beauport and Montmorenci. The lofty Mount St Anne bounding the view upon the east. Opposite the city lay Point Levi with the village of D'Aubigne. Crossing the river were steam ferryboats, horse-boats and canoes and up the stream, far as the eye could reach, the banks were lined by wharves and timber ponds while the breeze wafted along a fleet of bateaux with great white sails, and numberless pilot boats were in constant motion.
We could not go ashore, neither dare any one come on board until we were discharged from quarantine by the harbour master and medical inspector. These functionaries approached us in a long six-oared boat with the Union Jack flying in her stern. When they came on board they demanded the ship's papers and clean bills of health which the captain gave them, in return for which he received a release from quarantine. Soon after they left us, a butcher brought us fresh meat, milk, eggs and vegetables to which we did ample justice at breakfast, when I went with the captain on shore. we remained with the brig during her stay in Quebec harbour land sailed in her for Montreal on the evening of Thursday, 5 August. We were towed up the river by a steamboat and by daylight the following morning were passing the mouth of the river Batiscan. The sail during the day was extremely pleasing; true the St Lawrence did not present the same grand features as below Quebec but there was something of exceeding interest or beauty to be seen every moment. The banks varied in height but did not gain any great elevation and were lined by an almost unbroken chain of settlements, with villages upon either side at intervals of about 10 miles. At noon we sailed by Trois Rivieres upon the River St Maurice which divides into three branches before it empties itself into the St Lawrence, forming two pretty islands connected with each other and the mainland by three handsome bridges. A couple of hours brought us into Lake St Peter which is an extension of the river and of intricate navigation, affording but a narrow channel which is marked out by buoys and beacons. Towards its western extremity it is full of low, marshy islands surrounded by rushes, between which lies the winding passage. At sunset we had a charming view of Sorel upon the eastern bank of the Richelieu which discharges the waters of lakes George and Champlain.
The river again narrowed and presented similar features as below the expansion. We anchored for the night and early next morning were forcing our way through the rapids called current St Mary, passing the village of Longueil and the charming isle St Helens. Montreal then opened to our view, and by 8 a.m. we were moored to its fine quay.
The brig, having completed her cargo, sailed for London on 19 August when I bade the captain and the mistress adieu and followed them some distance down the river until the favourable breeze that filled her sails wafted the brig out of sight.
I have represented these worthy people just as they appeared to me, and if I
have spoken too plainly, I would crave their pardon should they ever recognise
their lineaments in these sheets (which I do not think probable). Indeed, I
should much regret causing their displeasure, having received from them every
attention, their conduct towards me extending even to unwonted kindness and for
which I shall never cease to feel grateful.
I was anxious to learn if the mate recovered and, in compliance with my desire, the captain wrote to me from Quebec and also from Green Island. The first of these letters was dated 23 August, and the following is an extract from it:
I got doun hear on satterday and saled all the way down which was a great saving to me it was bubful sale we Ankered all night and saled in the day which gave hus opertunety of seeinz every Curisitv we went on Shore and got Eags and milk and sead a little of the Contry this Mornning I am gowing on Shore if there be any Letters for you I will forward them to you I have not heard of my Mate Ariving hear yet which Disapoints me Greatly I wish you had bean with hus Yeasterday we had a Drive in the Countrey 9 Miles which was a plesent drive and toke tea in the Countrey a long with Cpt --. I will sale on Tuesday Morning My Wlfe Joyns me in Cinde Regards to you.
In justice I must also quote the postscript: 'you must Excuse this as I am in
The second letter was written on 27 August. In it the captain says:
I am sorey to inform you of my Mate being so hill I coled at Gruss Ile for him and went on shore and it would have hurt you much to have sean him he was mostly but a Skellitan but though as hill as he was, I should have brought him on Boord if the Docter would Aload me, I have not any hopes of him, he got nerely well, and mite have come up to the ship but as I told you made two frea with is self putting Bottel to is head Docter to my Wife and we are all well at present which I hope you cape you Helth, my Wife Joyns me in Cind regards to you.
I learned with satisfaction that the brig arrived at her destination in
safety, but of the mate's fate I still remain ignorant. Of the passengers I
never afterwards saw but two, both of them young men who got employment upon the
Lachine Canal. The rest wandered over the country, carrying nothing with them
but disease, and that but few of them survived the severity of the succeeding
winter (ruined as their constitutions were) I am quite confident.
Of comfort not man seek. Let's talk of graves, or worms and epitaphs. Make dust our paper, and with rainy eyes Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth Let's choose executors and talk of walls And yet not so - for what can we bequeath Save our deposed bodies to the ground. -- Shakespeare
That the system of quarantine pursued at Grosse Isle afforded but a very slight protection to the people of Canada is too evident from the awful amount of sickness and the vast number of deaths that occurred amongst them during the navigable season of 1847. From the plan that was adopted of sending the majority of the emigrants from the island directly up to Montreal, Quebec did not suffer so much as that city. However, during the three days I was there in the month of August too many signs of death were visible and upon a second and more prolonged visit, later in the season, it presented an aspect of universal gloom - the churches being hung in mourning, the citizens clothed in weeds and the newspapers recording daily deaths by fever contracted from the emigrants. To their honour and praise be it spoken, these alarming consequences did not deter either clergymen or physicians from the most unremitting zeal in performing their duty, and it is to be lamented that so many valuable lives were sacrificed. A paper of the month of September contained the following paragraph:
QUARANTINE STATION, GROSSE ISLE.
The Rev. J. Butler, missionary at Kingsey, went down on Tuesday morning to make his turn in attendance upon the sick at the quarantine station.
The Rev. Richard Anderson and Rev. N. Gueront came up on the evening of the same day. The former felt indisposed and thought it prudent to remain in town for the benefit of medical advice. If he should have an attack of fever the precaution thus 85 early taken will, it is hoped, prevent its proving severe. We regret to say that the Rev. C.J. Morris recently returned from the station, is now seriously ill with Typhus Fever.
The death of the last gentleman is recorded as follows:
Died this morning at the private hospital at Beauport of typhus fever, the Rev. Charles J. Morris A.M. missionary of the Church of England, at Portneuf in this district. Mr. Morris contracted the disease which has thus proved fatal to him, in his ministrations to the sick at Grosse Isle. The funeral will take place in the Cathedral church, tomorrow afternoon, at 3 o'clock.
The Rev. Mr. Anderson also died within a few days of the same period, and that the mortality continued to a late part of the season appears by the following from the Boston Journal of 1 December:
We learn from Quebec that Drs Painchaud and Jackson and seven or eight nuns of the Hotel Dieu were sick with the ship fever. One of the Quebec physicians says that mortality among the physicians during the past season has been greater than it was during the Cholera.
On Sunday, 10 October, I had the pleasure of listening to a discourse delivered in St Patrick's chapel by Rev. Mr. McMahon before he commenced which he read a list of the names of several persons (emigrants) who were separated from their families and who took this method of endeavouring to find them out. The Rev. gentleman also acknowledged having received several sums of money remitted from parties in Ireland to friends in Canada, amongst which he said were some without signatures, and one of these was directed 'To my Aunt Biddy', upon which his Reverence remarked that people should be more particular where money was concerned.
Although (as I have already stated) the great body of emigrants were sent out to Montreal by steamers, all of them could not be so transferred and many were detained in Quebec where the Marine and Emigrant Hospital contained during the season several hundreds - the number that remained upon 2 October being 113, of whom 93 were admitted during the week previous, and in which time there were discharged 132 and 46 died.
One of the first objects that appeared to my view upon my arrival in Montreal was the Emigrant Hospital upon Point St Charles, a low tract of ground cut off from the city by the Lachine Canal and on which the Indians were in the habit of encamping every summer before it was turned to its present purpose. On the day I arrived, 7 August, it contained 907 patients, 16 having died during the last 21 hours. An official return of burials in the city was furnished up to the same day, by which it appeared that during the previous nine weeks the number was 1,730, of which 924 were residents and 806 were emigrants. Exclusive of these, there died in the sheds 1,519 emigrants making a total of 3,240 - being 2,752 more than occurred during the corresponding period of the preceding year. Upon 23 August, the emigrant sheds contained 1,330 - 27 having died during twenty-four hours and so late as 11 October, there remained 746 patients in them.
Montreal lost many of her most valuable citizens in consequence of the contagion, among whom were Dr Cushing and the mayor. Neither was the pestilence stayed here, for the inhabitants of Kingston, Bytown, Toronto and other places were infected and a great number died of the fever, amongst whom was the Rev. Dr Power, RC Bishop of Toronto who contracted the disease in the discharge of his sacred functions among the sick. The following extract taken from the Toronto Standard serves to the manner in which the people of Canada suffered, and their sympathy for those who brought so much woe amongst them:
The health of the city remains in much the same state as it did several weeks ago. The individual cases of fever have abated nothing of their violence and several families have caught the infection from having admitted emigrants into their houses. The greatest caution should be observed in this respect as it does not require contact alone, to infect a healthy person with the deadly virus of the fever. Breathing the same atmosphere with the infected or coming under the influence of the effluvia rising from their clothes is, in some states of the healthy body perfectly sufficient for effecting a lodgement of the disease m the human frame. On Monday evening last the report of the Finance Committee on the subject of erecting a House of Refuge for the destitute persons who have sought refuge in our City, was received by the Council. This committee report in favour of erecting immediately such a building as would shield those from the securities of winter and recommend that a sum not exceeding $5,000 should be expended for that purpose and that this sum should be put under the joint superintendence of the Board of Works and the Finance Committee so that now we have from the praiseworthy benevolence and alacrity of the Council, an assured hope that the emigrants will not be exposed to any hardships which it is in the power of the city authorities to ward off.
The reader will bear in mind that the above relates in the city of Toronto, in Western Canada, at a distance of upwards of 500 miles from the Quarantine station whose stringent regulations were intended to protect the country from contagion. It now only remains for me to say a few words respecting the people that endured and reproduced so much tribulation.
The vast number of persons who quitted Europe to seek new homes in the western hemisphere in the year 1847, is without a precedent in history. Of the aggregate I cannot definitely speak but to be within the limits of truth, they exceeded 350,000. More than one half of these emigrants were from Ireland and to this portion was confined the devouring pestilence. It is a painful task to trace the causes that led to such fatal consequences - some of them may perhaps be hidden but many are too plainly visible. These wretched people were flying from known misery into unknown and tenfold aggravated misfortune. That famine which compelled so many to emigrate became itself a cause of the pestilence. But that the principal causes were produced by injustice and neglect, is plainly proven.
Many, as I have already stated, were sent out at the expense of their landlords. These were consequently the poorest and most abject of the whole and suffered the most. No doubt the motives of some landlords were benevolent but all they did was to pay for the emigrants' passage - this done, these gentlemen washed their hands of all accountability transferring them to the shipping agent whose object was to stow away the greatest possible number between the decks of the vessels chartered for the purpose. That unwarrantable inducements were held out to many I am aware, causing some to leave their homes who would not otherwise have done so. They were given to understand that they would be abundantly provided for during the voyage and that they were certain of finding immediate employment upon their arrival at a dollar per day.
Another serious injury was done to many families who had previously experienced the blessings of temperance from being, upon their arrival at the different ports where they were to embark, obliged to lodge in public houses of the worst description whose proprietors, knowing that they possessed a little stock of money, seduced them to violate their 'pledge' under the specious pretext that they were no longer bound by its obligations and that whiskey was the very best preventive of seasickness.
After a detention, often of many days, the vessel at length ready for sea, numbers were shipped that were quite unfit for a long voyage. True they were inspected and so were the ships but from the limited number of officers appointed for the purpose, many oversights occurred. In Liverpool, for instance, if I am rightly informed, there was staff of but five or six men to inspect the mass of emigrants and survey the ships in which there sailed from that port 107,474.
An additional heavy infliction was their sufferings on ship-board from famine - the legal allowance for an adult being one pound of food in twenty-four hours. But perhaps the most cruel wrong was in allowing crowds of already infected beings to be huddled up together in the confined holds, there to propagate the distemper which there was no physician to stay. The sufferings consequent upon such treatment I have endeavoured to portray in the previous narrative which - alas! - is but a feeble picture of the unmitigated trials endured by these most unhappy beings. Nor were their sufferings ended with the voyage. Oh, no! far from it. Would that I could represent the afflictions I witnessed at Grosse Isle! I would not be supposed to think that the medical officers situated there did not exercise the greatest humanity in administering their disagreeable duties which consisted not in relieving the distress of the emigrants but in protecting their country from contamination. Still, it was most afflicting that after combating the dangers of the sea, enduring famine, drought and sickness, the wretched survivors should still have to lie as uncared for as when in the centre of the Atlantic Ocean.
The inefficacy of the quarantine system is so apparent that it is needless to particularize its defects, neither need I repeat the details of the grievous aggravations of their trials heaped by it upon the already tortured emigrants. My heart bleeds when I think of the agony of the poor families - who, as yet undivided, had patiently borne their trials, ministering to each other's wants - when torn from each other. Painful as it was to behold the bodies of those who died at sea committed to the deep, yet the separation of families was fraught with much greater misery. And as if to reach the climax of endurance, the relatives and friends of those landed upon the island were at once carried away from them to a distance of 200 miles. On their way to Montreal many died on board the steamers. There, those who sickened in their progress were received into the hospital and the survivors of this second sifting were sent on to Kingston, 180 miles further, from thence to Toronto and so on, every city and town being anxious to be rid of them. Nor were there wanting, villains who preyed upon these stricken people. The Montreal Herald 90 of 13 October thus writes:
The rapid closing of the season of course diminishes the number of arrivals of emigrants and thus the hospitals and asylums are less crowded than they have been at an earlier period of the year. The statements are, however, still extremely distressing. An assertion has been made in the Common Council and is generally believed to be true that considerable sums have been brought here by some of these people and consigned by them in their last moments, to persons who have in many instances appropriated the money to their own use. An Alderman named Tully who is known to have the means of information, calculates the average of the sums brought to Canada by emigrants at £10 each, we suppose heads of families.
In a tour which I made through Upper Canada I met in every quarter some of my poor wandering fellow-countrypeople. Travelling from Prescott to Bytown by stage, I saw a poor woman with an infant in her arms and a child pulling at her skirt and crying as they went along. The driver compassionately took them up and the wayfarer wept her thanks. She had lost her husband upon the voyage and was going to Bytown to her brother who came out the previous year and, having made some money by lumbering in the woods, remitted to her the means of joining him. She told her sad tale most plaintively and the passengers all sympathised with her. The road being of that description called 'corduroy' and the machine very crazy, the latter broke down within 5 miles of our destination and as she was unable to carry her two children, the poor creature was obliged to remain upon the road all the night. She came into Bytown the following morning and I had the satisfaction to learn that she found her brother.
A large proportion of the emigrants who arrived in Canada, crossed the frontiers in order to settle in the United States, so that they were to be seen in the most remote places. At St Catherine's upon the Welland Canal, 600 miles from Quebec, I saw a family who were on their way to the western part of the state of New York. One of them was taken ill and they were obliged to remain by the wayside with nothing but a few boards to protect them from the weather. There is no means of learning how many of the survivors of so many ordeals were cut off by the inclemency of a Canadian winter so that the grand total of the human sacrifice will never be known but by 'Him who knoweth all things'.
As I cannot so well convey my sentiments in my own language I will conclude with the following quotation from England's most popular writer, and would that his suggestions uttered five years before the commencement of the tragic drama had been attended to in time: if they had, much evil had been spared humanity.
The whole system of shipping and conveying these unfortunate persons is one that stands in need of thorough revision. If any class deserve to be protected and assisted by the government, it is that class who are banished from their native land in search of the bare means of subsistence. All that could be done for those poor people by the great compassion and humanity of the captain and officers, was done but they require much more. The law is bound, at least upon the English side, to see that too many of them are not put on board one ship and that their accommodations are decent, not demoralising and profligate. It is bound too, in common humanity to declare that no man shall be taken on board without his stock of provisions being previously inspected by some proper officer and pronounced moderately sufficient for his support upon the voyage. It is bound to provide or to require that there be provided a medical attendant; whereas in these ships there are none, though sickness of adults and deaths of children on the passage are matters of the very commonest occurrence. Above all it is the duty of any government, be it monarchy or republic, to interpose and put an end to that system by which a firm of traders in emigrants purchase of the owners the whole 'tween decks of a ship and send on board as many wretched people as they can get hold of on any terms they can get, without the smallest reference to the conveniences of the steerage, the number of berths, the slightest separation of sexes, or any thing but their own immediate profit. Nor is this the worst of the vicious system, for certain crimping agents of these houses, who have a percentage of all the passengers they inveigle, are constantly travelling about those districts where poverty and discontent are rife and tempting the credulous into more misery, by holding out monstrous inducements to emigration which never can be realised.
Dickens, American Ketes
E P I L O G U E
Men judge by the complexion of the sky, The state and inclination of the day: So may you by my dull and heavy eye, My tongue hath but a heavier tale to say. I play the torturer by small and small To lengthen out the worst that may be spoken. -- Shakespeare
Emigration has for a long time been considered by British political economists the most effective means of alleviating the grievous ills under which the Irish peasantry labour. It is not our province to enquire into its expediency; but viewing the subject with the single eye of common sense it is difficult to see the necessity of expatriating the superfluous population of a country wherein hundreds of thousands of acres of land susceptible of the highest culture, lie waste, whose mines teeming with wealth remain unworked and which is bordered by more than 2,000 miles of sea coast whose banks swarm with ling, cod, mackerel, etc. while salt-fish is largely imported from Scotland.
Many years previous to legislators taking up the matter, emigration from Ireland existed - and that of a class of persons which could be badly spared from the already impoverished island, consisting as it did of small but substantial farmers who, perceiving but a gloomy prospect before them, sold off their land and, turning their capital into cash, availed themselves of the opportunities that existed to find comfort and independence by settling in America.
The majority of these adventurers being successful in their undertakings, they induced their relatives and friends to follow them and thus a strong tide of emigrants whose number gradually increased each season, set toward the West.
This progressive and natural system of emigration, however, gave place within the last few years to a violent rush of famished, reckless human beings, flying from their native land to seek food in a distant and unknown country.
The cause of this sudden change is easily ascertained. Everyone is familiar with the wretched lot of the Irish peasantry: obliged to work for a miserable pittance, their chief reliance was upon the crop of potatoes grown by each family in the little patch of ground attached to their hut - a poor dependence indeed, not only as regards the inferiority of the potato as the sole diet of a people, but from the great uncertainty always attending its propagation. The consequences of even a partial failure - an event of common occurrence - were, therefore, of the most serious nature.
In the year 1822, the deficiency was so general that the price quadrupled and the peasantry of the south and west were reduced to actual starvation. To alleviate the distress, a committee was formed in London and subcommittees throughout England, and such was the benevolence of individuals that large funds were in a short time at their disposal. By the end of the year, subscriptions had been raised in Great Britain amounting to £350,000 to which parliament added a grant of £150,000, making altogether £500,000 - a large sum, but how inadequate to meet the wants of some three or four millions of starving people!
This serious warning it should be supposed would have opened the eyes of the country to the necessity of having something else as a resource under similar emergency, but a plentiful season lulled them into forgetfulness of what they had suffered, and apathy concerning the future.
So abundant was the produce of the seasons 1842 and 1843 that the poorest beggar refused potatoes and they were commonly used to manure the land.
However, the blight of the crop of 1845 and the total destruction of that of 1846 brought the country to the lowest ebb, and famine with its attendant, disease, stalked through the land.
Charity stretched forth her hand from far and near, America giving liberally of her abundance. But all that could be done fell far short of the wants of the dying sufferers. The government stepped forward and advanced funds for the establishment of public works; this was attended with much advantage and mitigated a great deal of distress but unfortunately all the money had to be returned in the shape of onerous taxation upon the landowners.
The gentry became seriously alarmed and some of them, perceiving that the evil was likely to increase year after year, took into their consideration what would be the surest method of terminating it.
At length it was discovered that the best plan would be to get completely rid of those who were so heavy a burden upon them by shipping them to America; at the same time publishing to the world as an act of brotherly love and kindness, a deed of crafty, calculating selfishness: for the expense of transporting each individual was less than the cost of one year's support in a workhouse.
It required but little argument to induce the prostrated people to accede to their landlords' proposal by quitting their poverty-stricken country for 'a land flowing with milk and honey' - poor creatures, they thought that any change would be for the better. They had nothing to risk, everything to gain. 'Ah! Sir,' said a fellow passenger to me after bewailing the folly that tempted him to plunge his family into aggravated misfortune, 'we thought we couldn't be worse off than we war but now to our sorrow we know the differ for sure supposin' we were dyin' of starvation or if sickness overtuk us, we had a chance of a doctor and if he could do no good for our bodies sure the priest could for our souls and then we'd be buried along wid our own people, in the ould churchyard, with the green sod over us, instead of dying like rotten sheep thrown into a pit, and the minit the breath is out of our bodies flung into the sea to be eaten up by them horrid sharks.' It cannot excite the least surprise that these wretched beings should carry with them the seeds of that plague from which they were flying and it was but natural that these seeds should rapidly germinate in the hot-bed holds of ships crammed almost to suffocation with their distempered bodies. In short, nothing was wanted to encourage the speedy development of the direst disease and misery but alas! everything that could check their spread was absent.
My heart sickens when I think upon the fatal scenes of the awfully tragic drama enacted upon the wide stage of the Atlantic Ocean in the floating lazar houses that were wafted upon its bosom during the never-to-be-forgotten year 1847.
Without a precedent in history, may God grant that this account of it may descend to posterity without a parallel.
Laws for the regulation of passenger ships were in existence but, whether on account of difficulty arising from the vast augmentation of number or some other cause, they (if at all put in force) proved quite ineffectual.
What a different picture was presented by the Germans who migrated in large bodies who - although the transmission of human beings from Fatherland must always be attended by more or less pain and trouble - underwent none of those heartrending trials reserved exclusively for the Irish emigrant.
Never did so many souls tempt all the dangers of the deep to seek asylum in an adopted country and, could we draw a veil over the sad story of the ship pestilence, "... this migration of masses, numbering of late years more than 100,000 annually, now to nearly 300,000 annually, not in the warlike spirit of the Goths and Vandals who over-ran the Roman Empire and destroyed the monuments of art and evidences of civilization but in the spirit of peace, anxious to pro vide for themselves and their children the necessaries of life and apparently ordained by Providence to relieve the countries of the old world and to serve great purposes of good to man kind, is one of the most interesting spectacles the world ever saw."
J J. Chickering, Immigration into the United States, Boston,1848
The reader must not expect to find anything more in these pages than a faithful detail of the occurrences on board an emigrant vessel. The author has no desire to exaggerate, were it possible to do so. And he who wishes to arrive at any conclusion as to the amount of suffering he must calculate, from the affliction that I have faintly portrayed upon a small scale what must have been the unutterable 'weight of woe' in ships whose holds contained five or six hundred tainted, famished, dying mortals.
The following extract from the London Times newspaper presents a faithful and graphic review of the dire tragedy:
The great Irish famine and pestilence will have a place in that melancholy series of similar calamities to which historians and poets have contributed so many harrowing details and touching expressions. Did Ireland possess a writer endued with the laborious truth of Thucydides, the graceful felicity of Virgil, or the happy invention of De Foe, the events of this miserable year might be quoted by the scholar for ages to come, together with the sufferings of the pent-up multitudes of Athens, the distempered plains of northern Italy, or the hideous ravages of our own great plague. But time is ever improving on the past. There is one horrible feature of the recent, not to say present, visitation, which is entirely new. The fact of more than a hundred thousand souls flying from the very midst of a calamity across a great ocean to a new world, crowding into insufficient vessels, scrambling for a footing on a deck, or a berth in a hold, committing themselves to these worse than prisons while their frames were wasted with ill fare and their blood infected with disease, fighting for months of unutterable wretchedness against the elements without and pestilence within, giving almost hourly victims to the deep, landing at length on shores already terrified and diseased, consigned to encampments of the dying and the dead, spreading death wherever they roam and having no other prospect before them than a long continuance of these horrors in a still farther flight across forests and lakes under a Canadian sun and a Canadian frost - all these are circumstances beyond the experience of the Greek historian or Latin poet and such as an Irish Destilence alone could produce.
By the end of the season there is little doubt that the emigration into Canada alone will have amounted to 100,000 nearly all from Ireland. We know the condition in which these poor creatures embarked on their perilous adventure. They were only flying from one form of death. On the authority of the Montreal Board of Health we are enabled to say that they were allowed to ship in numbers two or three times greater than the same vessels would have presumed to carry to any United States port.
The worse horrors of that slave-trade which it is the boast or the ambition of this empire to suppress at any cost, have been reenacted in the flight of Irish subjects from their native shores. In only ten of the vessels that arrived at Montreal in July - four from Cork and six from Liverpool - out of 4,427 passengers, 804 had died on the passage and 847 were sick on their arrival; that is 847 were visibly diseased for the result proves that a far larger number had in them the seeds of disease. The Larch says the Board of Health, on 12 August - reported this morning from Sligo - sailed with 440 passengers of whom 108 died on the passage and 150 were sick.
The Virgirlius sailed with 596; 158 died on the passage, 186 were sick and the remainder landed feeble and tottering; the captain, mates and crew were all sick.
The Blackhole of Calcutta was a mercy compared to the holds of these vessels. Yet simultaneously, as if m reproof of those on whom the blame of all this wretchedness must fall foreigners Germans from Hamburg and Bremen - are daily arriving, healthy, robust and cheerful.
This vast unmanageable tide of population thus thrown upon Montreal, like the fugitives from some bloody defeat or devastated country, has been greatly augmented by the prudent and we must add, most necessary precautions adopted in time by the United States, where most stringent sanitary regulations, enforced by severe penalties, have been adopted to save the ports of the Union from those very horrors which a paternal government has suffered to fall upon Montreal. Many of these pest ships have been obliged to alter their destination even while at sea, for the St Lawrence.
At Montreal a large proportion of these outcasts have lingered from sheer inability to proceed. The inhabitants of course have been infected.
A still more horrible sequel is to come. The survivors have to wander forth and find homes. Who can say how many will Perish on the wav or the masses of houseless, famished and half-naked wretches that will be strewed on the inhospitable snow when a Canadian winter sets in?
Of these awful occurrences some account must be given. Historians and politicians will some day sift and weigh the conflicting narratives and documents of this lamentable year and pronounce with or without affectation, how much is due to the inclemency of heaven and how much to the cruelty, heartlessness or improvidence of man. The boasted institutions and spirit of the empire are on trial. They are weighed in the balance.
Famine and pestilence are at the gates and the conscience-stricken nation will almost fear to see the 'writing on the wall'.
We are forced to confess that, whether it be the fault of our laws or our men, this new act in the terrible drama has not been met as humanity and common sense would enjoin. The result was quite within the scope of calculation and even of care. Miscalculation and want of care, are terms far too mild to apply to such wanton negligence as resulted in the immediate sacrifice of upwards of 25,000 souls, four-fifths of whom fell upon their way to Canada. From the report issued at the end of the season, it appears that, of the 98,105 (of whom 60,00 were Irish) that were shipped for Quebec,
There died at sea--5,293 At Grosse Isle and Quebec--8,072 In and above Montreal,-- 7,000 Making--20,365
besides those who afterwards perished, whose number can never be ascertained. Allowing an average of 300 persons to each, 200 vessels were employed in the transmission to Canada of Irish emigrants alone, and each of these vessels lost one-third of her living cargo ere she again set sail upon her return to Europe.
If we suppose those 60,000 persons to be an army on their way to invade some hostile power, how serious would appear the loss of one-third of their number before a battle was fought? Yet the 40,000 who landed upon the Canadian shores had to fight many a deadly battle before they could find peace or rest. Or, in order to make the matter sensible to those who know the value of money better than of human life, let us multiply 20,000 by 5, the cost in pounds sterling of the passage of each individual and we perceive a loss of £100,000 or $500,000.
However, it may be thought that the immolation of so many wretched
starvelings was rather a benefit than a loss to the world. It may be so. Yet,
untutored, degraded, famished and plague-stricken, as they were I assert that
there was more true heroism, more faith, more forgiveness to their enemies and
submission to the Divine Will exemplified in these victims, than could be found
in ten times the number of their oppressors.
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/RWhyte5.html