Coffin Ships

Illustration taken from The Illustrated London News, July 6, 1850.
"Scene between decks" of an emigrant ship.

We, the folks who live in eastern Iowa , know about the Famine Irish. Most folks don't. Death from starvation and disease is perhaps the ultimate reason to migrate. For almost one-fourth of all Irish in Ireland to survive the Great Famine (c. 1845-1849), they would have to drag up from their disparate petty kingdoms and counties, live long enough to reach a port of embarkation, leaving Ireland by whatever means available, and reestablish their Irish identity in new lands. And, our Irish Immigrant ancestors were part of this history.

The following recounts the story of the Famine Irish to Canada . At least the Famine Irish migration to America was slightly better received.

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 DeFoe, the events of this miserable year might be quoted by the scholars of the age 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 the present, visitation which is entirely new. The fact of more than a hundred thousand souls flying from the very midst of the calamity [famine] into insufficient vessels, scrambling for a footing on a deck and 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 onshore already terrified and diseased, consigned to encampments of the dying and of 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 the Latin poet, and such as an Irish pestilence alone could produce.

By the end of the season there is little doubt that the immigration 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 Board of Health we are enabled to state that they were allowed to ship in numbers two or three times greater than the same vessels would have presumed to carry to a United States port. The worst horrors of the slave trade which it is the boast of the ambition of this empire to suppress at any cost have been reenacted in the flight of British 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 August 12, "reported this morning from Sligo , sailed with 440 passengers, of whom 108 died on the passage, and 150 were sick. The Virginius sailed with 496 -- 158 died on the passage, 186 were sick, and the remainder landed feeble and tottering -- the captain, mates, and crew were all sick. The Black Hole of Calcutta was a mercy compared to the holds of these vessels. Yet simultaneously, as if in reproof of those on whom the blames of all this wretchedness must fall foreigners, Germans from Hamburgh and Bremen , are daily arriving, all health, 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 more stringent sanitary regulations, enforced by severer penalties, have been adopted to save the ports of the Union from those very horrors which a paternal Government [Britain] has suffered to fall upon Montreal. Many of these 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 have of course been infected. From the official return of burials at Montreal , for the weeks ending August 7, it appears that in the city there died during that period 924 residents and 896 emigrants, making a total of 1,730 deaths. Besides these, 1510 emigrants died there at the sheds, making a grand total of 3240 in the city of Montreal and its ex tempore Lazaretto; against only 488, including residents and emigrants, for the corresponding weeks last year. 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 way, or the masses of houseless, famished, and half-naked wretches that will be strewed on the inhospitable snow when a Canadian winter once sets in?

Of these awful occurrences some account must be given. Historians and politicians will some day sift and weigh the conflicting narrations 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 this empire are on trial. They are weighed in the balance. Famine and pestilence are at the gates, and a conscience-stricken nation might almost fear to see the "writing on the wall." We are forced to confess that whether it be the fault of our own 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 cure. For our own part, before one emigrant left our ports, and when thoughtless and selfish men were first beginning to talk of a great systematic plan of emigration, we called the attention of the Legislature to the dreadful scenes that would be witnessed on board the emigrant fleet, crowded with wretches already at death's door, predisposed to almost any malady, and certain victims to the first existing cause of disease. We subsequently exposed the wickedness of transporting our pauperism to shores where no provision was made for its reception, and to a climate where the necessities of life were at least as indispensable as our own. . . .

    The Tide of immigration to the United States and to the British colonies, The Illustrated London News, 17 September 1847 <> 10 January 2016.


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