THIS IS THE SECOND ARTICLE IN OUR GREAT FAMINE SERIES WHERE WE WILL EXAMINE THE PERILS FACED BY EMIGRANTS AS THEY JOURNEYED TO THE NEW WORLD.
WE HOPE THESE ARTICLES WILL PROVIDE A BETTER UNDERSTANDING OF THE LIVES OF YOUR ANCESTORS AND WILL INFORM YOUR FUTURE HERITAGE TRAVEL IN IRELAND.
Irish Famine Migration To The New World
The Great Famine triggered Ireland’s greatest exodus. Fleeing from the human tragedy that killed over a million people, 1.5 million Irish emigrated between 1845-1855, with the majority sailing to North America. For the Irish, with a culture so deeply rooted in the landscape, the decision to leave was not taken lightly. However, as the ravages of the Famine took their toll, emigration was seen as the only answer.
Although fraught with danger, the 3,000-mile journey across the Atlantic offered escape and hope of a better life.
Emigrants could not conceive the perils they would endure. Shut-up within the wretched confines of ships’ holds, emigrants faced the same horrors that they had hoped to outrun, starvation, disease and death.
The Business of Emigration
In the 19th century, a number of elements facilitated the unprecedented movement of people across the Atlantic. Most significant were political manoeuvrings of the Napoleonic Wars. In 1807, France and Russia signed the Treaty of Tilsit, effectively blocking British timber imports from Northern Europe. Forced to look for an alternate source, Britain turned to their colonies in North America and by 1845 there were 2,000 timber ships crossing the Atlantic annually.
The ships initially returned to North America with empty holds, but it was soon realized that a profit could be made in the transport of people. As timber-laden ships were unloaded at British ports, their holds were hastily converted into steerage quarters. Transatlantic passages were offered at fares as low as £2-3 making emigration accessible to even the poorest of individuals.
Approximately 300,000 Irish landed in British North America (Canada) and because passage to the colonies was significantly cheaper than passage to the United States, the ports of Quebec and New Brunswick received some of the most destitute migrants.
Increased emigration spurred the emergence of passenger brokers who established themselves in every sizable town in Ireland and travelled the countryside booking passages to North America. Playing on people’s desperation, they made empty promises and downplayed the distance and dangers of a transatlantic crossing. With no government control over their activities, brokers profited on the miserable plight of the Irish people, prompting The Times to describe them as “unprincipled, heartless adventurers.”
The first wave of Irish famine migration began in the spring of 1846. These migrants were well prepared, and had the means to purchase comfortable passage. At Dublin’s port, large numbers of respectable looking farmers were observed with stockpiles of luggage and sea store (food provisions for the voyage). In Clare, the roads were filled with emigrants, each with carts laden with their belongings. Consequently, when the first wave of emigrants arrived in Quebec, they were reported to be healthy, well-to-do and all possessing some capital.
Unfortunately, the situation would soon deteriorate. By August 1846, it was apparent that the potato crop had failed again and panic ensued. Throughout September and until winter set in, Quebec received an unprecedented number of late season sailings. However, in contrast to earlier arrivals, these emigrants were of the poorest class.
The warm attachment of the Irish peasant to the locality where he was born and brought
up… will always make the best and most carefully conducted scheme of emigration a
matter of painful sacrifice for the emigrant.
~Lord Stanley, (1845)
Meanwhile, in Ireland, the winter of 1846/47 was unusually severe; icy gales brought sleet and snow as disease preyed on the weak and malnourished. When spring arrived, people began to flee in droves. Ireland’s ports were thronged with frenzied crowds and one bystander observed: “There was nothing but joy at their escape, as from a doomed land.” Many emigrants were so poor that they could not afford the passage, relying on assistance from charities, parishes and landlords. Large numbers also sailed with pre-paid certificates sent from relatives already settled in the New World. The poorest sailed without sea store, hoping to rely on the meagre rations supplied onboard.
As millions attempted to escape the horrors of the Famine, passenger brokers were not alone in their exploitation of the Irish people; unscrupulous ship owners and captains capitalized on emigrants’ desperation with tragic consequences. Although there was a Passenger Act in place that required ships to maintain a certain level of health and safety standards, it only provided for the bare minimum and was rarely enforced.
Timber ships that conveyed passengers were notorious for their deplorable conditions and fittingly earned the name coffin ships. In squalid surroundings, people died of starvation, thirst and disease. Ships were often overcrowded and passengers were not provided with government-mandated requirements for food or water.
Water supplies were often rendered undrinkable by dishonest provisioning merchants that bought casks that were leaky or been previously used for wine, vinegar or chemicals. Water was in short supply for the unfortunates that sailed on the Elizabeth and Sarah in 1847. Though required to carry 12,532 gallons, it carried only 8,700 gallons and 42 passengers died before they reached landfall.
“The desire to reach America being exceedingly strong… many of the emigrants are
content.. to submit to very great hardships during the voyage.”
Early Grey, Secretary of State for the Colonies (1847)
Ships’ food rations were often insufficient or inedible. Although the Passenger Act allocated for weekly rations of seven pounds per person, this was intended as a supplement, and never expected to sustain an individual through the voyage. Nevertheless, many impoverished emigrants relied on these rations, enduring the voyage in a state of starvation.
Many coffin ships lacked latrines and captains failed to enforce hygiene regulations that dictated regular cleanings of the hold and the airing of bedding. Often straw mattresses remained in place for the entirety of the voyage and if ships failed to provide adequate numbers of sleeping berths, passengers were forced to sleep in squalor on the floor.
The lack of hygienic conditions and overcrowding proved to be a breeding ground for a number of infectious diseases, the most deadly being typhus or ship fever. The typhus that was raging across Ireland also found its way onto outgoing ships. Already weakened by malnutrition and dehydration, passengers were defenceless against the highly contagious disease that spread swiftly through ships’ holds.
Robert Whyte was a wealthier passenger who travelled to Quebec in 1847. Keeping a diary, he reported on the appalling conditions that poorer emigrants were subjected to. When typhus broke out onboard, he wrote: “110 passengers are shut up in the unventilated hold of a small brig, without a doctor, medicines or even water.”
Of the 100,000 emigrants that left for British North America in 1847, 17,000 would die at sea, the majority succumbing to typhus.
In British North America, Quebec received the greatest number of emigrants and incoming vessels were mandated to anchor at the quarantine station of Grosse Isle. In May of 1847, the season’s first ship landed with 84 fever cases onboard; four days later, eight ships arrived with 430 cases. By May 31, there was a two-mile line of 40 vessels waiting to disembark.
In the following months, thousands of emigrants who were ragged, feeble and diseased landed in Quebec. So weakened by the voyage, many were unable to climb out of their ship’s hold. Shocked by the appearance of so many destitute, officials described the emigrants as “emaciated”, “cadaverous” and “spectre-like wretches”.
Emigrants were confined to disease-ridden ships for days, as officials were unable to keep up with the influx of arrivals and in an attempt to contain the spread of typhus. The healthy became infected and the death toll rose. In July, two priests rowed out to the line of waiting ships and in two hours, they had administered the Last Rites to 200 unfortunate souls.
Forced to escape the deprivations of the Great Famine, the Irish had little choice but to abandon their beloved homeland. Emigrants were subjected to appalling conditions on the ships that conveyed them, enduring starvation, dehydration and disease. They had dreamed of a better life, but thousands were buried at sea or within days of reaching their destination.
Disclaimer: We thank Views of the Famine and Steve Taylor for use of his carefully collected images used within this article.
Famine quote in top photograph taken from The Great Hunger (1962). Quote attributed to 19th century Commissioner for Emigration in the United States.