The Coffin Ships

Above is the replica of the “good ship” Jeanie Johnson, which sailed between Ireland and North America  in the mid-1800’s.  Unlike most of the other ships making the journey, no one ever died on the “good ship” Jeanie Johnson.

 Deathly Passage To The New World

Legislation to protect emigrant passengers, the Passenger Vessels Act, was first enacted in Britain in 1803 and continued to evolve in the following decades. A revised Act in 1828, for example, marked the first time that the British government took an active interest in emigration matters. Within a few years, regulations were in force to determine the maximum number of passengers that a ship could carry, and to ensure that sufficient food and water be provided for the voyage.

But the legislation was not always enforceable, and unscrupulous shipowners and shipmasters found ways to circumvent the law. In addition, ships sailing from non-British ports were not subject to the legislation. As a consequence, thousands of emigrants experienced a miserable and often dangerous journey.

During the Famine period, an estimated half-million Irish were evicted from their cottages. Unscrupulous landlords used two methods to remove their penniless tenants. The first involved applying for a legal judgment against the male head of a family owing back-rent. After the local barrister pronounced judgment, the man would be thrown in jail and his wife and children dumped out on the streets. A ‘notice to appear’ was usually enough to cause most pauper families to flee and they were handed out by the hundreds.

The second method was for the landlord to simply pay to send pauper families overseas to British North America. Landlords would first make phony promises of money, food and clothing, then pack the half-naked people in overcrowded British sailing ships, poorly built and often unseaworthy, that became known as coffin ships.

The first coffin ships headed for Quebec, Canada. The three thousand mile journey, depending on winds and the captain’s skill, could take from 40 days to three months. Upon arrival in the Saint Lawrence River, the ships were supposed to be inspected for disease and any sick passengers removed to quarantine facilities on Grosse Isle, a small island thirty miles downstream from Quebec City.

Shipload after shipload of fevered Irish arrived, quickly overwhelming the small medical inspection facility, which only had 150 beds. Up to forty vessels containing 14,000 Irish immigrants waited in a line extending two miles down the St. Lawrence. It took up to five days to see a doctor, many of whom were becoming ill from contact with the typhus-infected passengers. By mid-the summer, the line of ships had grown several miles long. A fifteen-day general quarantine was then imposed for all of the waiting ships. Many healthy Irish thus succumbed to typhus as they were forced to remain in their lice-infested holds. With so many dead on board the waiting ships, hundreds of bodies were simply dumped overboard into the St. Lawrence.

Others, half-alive, were placed in small boats and then deposited on the beach at Grosse Isle, left to crawl to the hospital on their hands and knees if they could manage. Thousands of Irish, ill with typhus and dysentery, eventually wound up in hastily constructed wooden fever sheds. These makeshift hospitals, badly understaffed and unsanitary, simply became places to die, with corpses piled “like cordwood” in nearby mass graves. Those who couldn’t get into the hospital died along the roadsides.

The quarantine efforts were soon abandoned and the Irish were sent on to their next destination without any medical inspection or treatment. From Grosse Isle, the Irish were given free passage up the St. Lawrence to Montreal and cities such as Kingston and Toronto. The crowded open-aired river barges used to transport them exposed the fair-skinned Irish to all-day-long summer sun causing many bad sunburns. At night, they laid down close to each other to ward off the chilly air, spreading more lice and fever.

Many pauper families had been told by their landlords that once they arrived in Canada, an agent would meet them and pay out between two and five pounds depending on the size of the family. But no agents were ever found. Promises of money, food and clothing had been utterly false. Landlords knew that once the paupers arrived in Canada there was virtually no way for them to ever return to Ireland and make a claim. Thus, they had promised them anything just to get them out of the country.

Montreal received the biggest influx of Irish during this time. Many of those arriving were quite ill from typhus and long-term malnutrition. Montreal’s limited medical facilities at Point St. Charles were quickly overwhelmed. Homeless Irish wandered the countryside begging for help as temperatures dropped and the frosty Canadian winter set in. But they were shunned everywhere by Canadians afraid of contracting fever.

Americans, unfortunately, not only had an anti-British tradition dating back to the Revolutionary era, but also had an anti-Catholic tradition dating back to the Puritan era. America in the 1840s was a nation of about 23 million inhabitants, mainly Protestant. Many of the Puritan descendants now viewed the growing influx of Roman Catholic Irish with increasing dismay.

One way to limit immigration was to make it more expensive to get to America. Ports along the eastern seaboard of the U.S. required a bond to be posted by the captain of a ship guaranteeing that his passengers would not become wards of the city. Passenger fares to the U.S. in 1847 were up to three times higher than fares to Canada. The British government intentionally kept fares to Quebec low to encourage the Irish to populate Canada and also to discourage them from emigrating to England.

British shipping laws were lax. Ships of every shape and size sailed from Liverpool and other ports crammed full of people up to double each ship’s capacity. In one case, an unseaworthy ship full of Irish sailed out of port then sank within sight of those on land who had just said farewell to the Irish emigrants departing Liverpool for North America.

During the trans-Atlantic voyage, British ships were only required to supply 7 lbs. of food per week per passenger. Most passengers, it was assumed, would bring along their own food for the journey. But most of the poor Irish boarded ships with no food, depending entirely on the pound-a-day handout which amounted to starvation rations. Food on board was also haphazardly cooked in makeshift brick fireplaces and was often undercooked, causing upset stomachs and diarrhea.

Many of the passengers were already ill with typhus as they boarded the ships. Before boarding, they had been given the once-over by doctors on shore who usually rejected no one for the trip, even those seemingly on the verge of death. British ships were not required to carry doctors. Anyone that died during the sea voyage was simply dumped overboard, without any religious rites.

Belowdecks, hundreds of men, women and children huddled together in the dark on bare wooden floors with no ventilation, breathing a stench of vomit and the effects of diarrhea amid no sanitary facilities. On ships that actually had sleeping berths, there were no mattresses and the berths were never cleaned. Many sick persons remained in bare wooden bunks lying in their own filth for the entire voyage.

Another big problem was the lack of good drinking water. Sometimes the water was stored in leaky wooden casks, or in casks that previously stored wine, vinegar, or chemicals which contaminated the water and caused dysentery. Many ships ran out of water long before reaching North America, making life especially miserable for fevered passengers suffering from burning thirsts.