The Fever Ships:
The most ferocious obstacle
facing the Irish immigrant was the Atlantic Ocean. Making the crossing
by sail and steam ship was perilous and claimed thousands of lives. Canada
had a long and profitable trade route across the Atlantic, shipping wood
and furs to Europe. These timber ships, some already out of service, were
quickly converted to make-shift passenger ships. They were filled with
human cargo, a paying ballast for the trip back to Canada that was usually
made with an empty hull. The living conditions were appalling, and gave
rise to the term, "coffin ships." The lower decks were cramped and fetid,
food was scarce and "ship fever" - typhus and cholera - ran rampant. Those
who died en route were cast into the ocean(9).
After arriving in Canada,
the coffin ships set anchor and waited in the Gulf of St. Lawrence to
deliver their passengers to the quarantine station on Grosse Isle, near
Québec City. Immigrants had to get a health certificate to be allowed
to proceed to their final destinations of Québec, Montreal, Ottawa,
Toronto, and the United States. At a time when the United States was closing
its doors to the Famine Irish, Canada allowed them refuge(10).
Father Bernard McGauran, the
chaplain at Grosse Isle during the summer of 1847, describes the horrid
conditions on board the ships in a letter he wrote at the time to Québec's
Grosse Isle, Monday, May 24, 1847
I hasten to give you a few
notes on the very sad state of Grosse Isle. Tonight we can count seven
hundred sick in the hospitals, all in desperate condition. Doctor Douglas
does not want to receive any more on the island; since we truly have
no place for them, he forces the captains to keep them on board, and
we have at present thirty-two of these vessels which are like floating
hospitals, where death makes the most frightful inroads, and the sick
are crowded in among the more healthy, with the result that all are
victims to this terrible sickness...
...If we do not land the
sick, which we cannot do under the present circumstances, all the ships
off the Island being already full of sick, we will need as many priests
as there are ships. There are usually four or five hundred on board.
Today I spent five hours in the hold of one of these where I administered
the sacraments to a hundred people, while my very welcome colleague
was on board another. ...While we are on the ships, there are people
dying in the hospital without the sacraments. I have not taken off my
surplice today...I have not gone to bed for five nights. The spectacle,
My Lord, is heart-rending...
I recommend myself to your
My Lord, and remain your Grace's very devoted servant,
Bernard McGauran Priest(11)
- 11 - Eyewitness, Grosse
by Marianna O'Gallagher(Carraig Books, Sainte Foy, Québec, 1995).
9 - The Irish Famine,
an Illustrated History
by Helen Litton (Wolfhound Press, Dublin, 1996)
10 - Grosse Ile, Gateway
to Canada, 1832-1937
by Marianna O'Gallagher (Carraig Books, Sainte Foy, 1984).
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