The emigrant ship Rodena set sail from County Cork, Ireland, June 1st, 1847 and arrived at the quarantine station at Grosse Isle July 12th. Two hundred and fifty four immigrants were on board. On the same day in July, The Princess arrived at Grosse Isle. She had left Bremen on May 24th with a cargo of passengers numbering 318. The Lloyd arrived from London with 204, the Roy Adelaide from Waterford with 198; the Sarah, Triton and Thistle came from Liverpool with a combined total of 1,113 immigrants packed into their bowels(1).
That is the official entry in the record book for a single day. Just as many vessels arrived the day before, and the day after, and every day from May to October during the summer of 1847(2). The famine emigrants left a broken Ireland with a fierce hope. But even after they'd escaped on their voyage to the New World, misery followed. It would trail them even onto the vessels--the coffin ships--and to their new homeland. As if the death and despair and degradation they had suffered in Ireland wasn't enough.
EVICTION AND EMIGRATION
Many of the Irish immigrants who came to Canada escaping the Irish Potato Famine must have thought of emigration as a blessing. The famine emigrants were the poorest of Ireland's poor. Many of them could not afford passage in the years before. But now they had become too much of a burden for Ireland to sustain. The imposition of England's Poor Law made each landlord responsible for subsidizing tenants who paid less than four pounds in yearly rent. Their land was crowded with poor tenants amassing huge tax debts that they could no longer afford. One solution was "assisted emigration." Landlords evicted the poor from the land, and, to be sure to get rid of them, paid for their passage on one of the emigrant ships bound for Canada, Australia or America(3).
In 1847 alone, at the height of the Famine, 250, 000 people left Ireland, 5, 000 of whom are on record as being landlord-assisted. Many other emigrants received aid from charities, parishes, or had money sent by family who had already left(4).
THE LURE OF THE NEW WORLD
The prospect of emigration seemed simple enough. Newspapers carried advertisements and placards were pasted up everywhere announcing departures: the Jane from Ireland for Montreal on the 20th of April next, the Superior for Québec on the 13th of July(5). Emigrants were lured by agents, sent into the countryside to recruit as many emigrants as possible to fill space. These agents were paid by the number of passengers they could attract. They often gave exaggerated descriptions of shipboard facilities, with assurances that the voyage would be short and provisions abundant(6).
Few emigrant ships had been built to carry passengers. For shipowners and captains, the emigrant trade, which began in significant force in the early nineteen hundreds, was only an afterthought. It was a means of making profit on the empty, westward home run of the timber ships(7).
The timber trade between Canada and Europe had been long established. At the end of the eighteenth century, both Upper and Lower Canada's timber trade received a major boost from the Napoleonic Wars. Britain needed timber for rebuilding and repairing its Navy ships. The French blockade of the Baltic Sea during the wars had cut off Britain's traditional source of timber. Canada had an abundance of timber and the great, straight white pines of the Ottawa Valley were of particular value for building masts(8).
The Famine offered a new kind of trade. Once the timber ships had unloaded their cargo in Ireland or Britain, shipmasters quickly converted the cargo compartment into a makeshift steerage for emigrants, the "paying ballast"(9). Loose boards were laid over the bilges as temporary flooring and rows of rough berths about the size of dog kennels were fitted in place and covered with straw for bedding(10).
BROKEN PROMISES AND HORRIBLE CONDITIONS
The evils of the voyage to the New World began even before emigrants crowded into the dark and dank quarters of the vessels. There were numerous complaints of ships failing to depart on the advertised dates by as much as a month. While they waited emigrants had to find shelter and food, using up whatever savings they had put aside to start their new lives. They got no compensation, and in some cases had to return home, penniless, after waiting for weeks(11).
Once on board, emigrants faced horrible conditions: overcrowding, dirt, a lack of food and clean water or privies. And then there was the prevalence of disease and death.
THE ATLANTIC CROSSING
Crossing the Atlantic to the New World took an average of one month, good weather permitting. Sinkings at sea didn't happen very often, but the wrecks that did occur were widely reported and vividly described, adding to the fears of the emigrant voyage(12).Causes of shipwrecks included drunkenness of the captain, faulty navigation due to decrepit tools, and treacherous gales(13). One emigrant reported that his ship, a timber drogher, almost sank when one of the bow ports, cut to receive tree-length timber, sprang open, allowing in streams of water that threatened to sink the vessel(14). Clearly, some ships were trying to make as much profit as possible, no matter how much it threatened the safety of its passengers.
Some crossings were drawn out as long as two months. Short supplies of food and water ran out and ship fever; typhus and cholera, attacked the already sick and hungry. It was on these crossings that the vessels became known as the coffin ships, with numerous deaths at sea. The worst emigrant death rate occurred in 1847. One hundred thousand emigrants made the trip to Canada that year and an estimated 6,000 died on board ship or shortly after(15). Those who died en route were given a customary prayer and a burial at sea(16).
The emigrant ships were bound not only for Canada. Many were en route to the United States. But the hoped-for welcome was cold. The American authorities were appalled at the sudden influx of starving, impoverished emigrants, many of them too ill or weak to work. The Americans enforced the Passenger Acts, which had long been in existence but generally ignored(17), and refused the destitute emigrants landing privileges. They were turned back to sea. Many of them then headed to Canada, hoping for a second chance(18).
Opinions about Irish immigration filled Canadian newspapers and informed much public debate. Unlike its southern neighbour, Canada accepted the Irish though sometimes reluctantly. The first emigrant ship arrived at Grosse Isle on May 14, 1847, and had 84 cases of fever on board. Nine passengers had died at sea. From then on, ship after ship after ship arrived, hauling the dead and dying and overwhelming the quarantine station. Grosse Isle had the capacity to treat only 200 people at a time.
By the end of May, forty ships, with a total of over 10,000 immigrants on board, were waiting at Grosse Isle. Their hulls stretched for two miles down the St. Lawrence River(19). Many more were just setting out from the other side of the Atlantic: The George, from Dublin on May 28, with 104 emigrants on board, The Vergenicus, again on the 28th, from Liverpool with 476. On the 29th, The Sir H. Pattinger from Cork left with 399 packed into steerage. And The Heroine, from Aberdeen, with a mere 74(20).
By the end of the Summer of Sorrow, close to another 6,000 deaths would be officially recorded at Grosse Isle. Unofficially, it might have been as many as 20,000. No one could count the bodies that had fallen in the woods or on isolated stretches of beach and rock. Many Irish immigrants died of cholera and typhus in the fever sheds that had been quickly erected to accommodate them. Others languished on the ground or in the white military tents that dotted the beach. Amid the moans and cries of the sick and dying were the sounds of hammering and the building of more coffins and sheds; and of the creaking wheels of the death carts that hauled the bodies away. There were never enough coffins. Bodies were buried in mass graves. Today on Grosse Isle, you can visit the cemetery on the eastern side of the island. Amid the poplars and evergreens are the rows of wooden crosses that mark the final resting place of Irish mothers, fathers and children. It is a haunting scene of hope cut short and dreams unlived(21).
Sixty two years after the horror of 1847, the Ancient Order of Hiberians built a monument to commemorate the Irish immigrants who had perished. The huge granite Celtic cross was erected on Telegraph Hill, the highest point of the island. These words are inscribed in French and English:
Sacred to the memory of thousands of Irish emigrants, who, to preserve the faith, suffered hunger and exile in 1847-48, and stricken with fever, ended here their sorrowful pilgrimage.An Irish inscription reads:
Thousands of the children of the Gael were lost on this island while fleeing from foreign tyrannical laws and an artificial famine in the years 1847-48. GOD SAVE IRELAND!(21)
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