The Coffin Ships

National Famine Memorial Cuimhneachán Náisiúnta ar an n Gorta Mór in Murrisk, Connacht, in County Mayo

(I first wrote this March of 2011. I’ve reposted it this month for our Irish Heritage celebration. Enjoy! – BS)

Coffin Ships are a rather sad part of Irish history. Originating during the Great Irish Famine, and of course the prison ships to Botany Bay. The first vessel with Irish convicts for Botany Bay arrived in Port Jackson on 26 September 1791.

They were called “coffin ships,” because so many poor souls had been dying on them as of late, leaving behind widows and orphans and broken families. Typically untrustworthy vessels, these ships were purchased literally from salvage yards (where they awaiting dismantling) by unscrupulous owners who had no intention of repairing them. Sailors who agreed to serve on board these floating wrecks typically knew nothing of the dangers until they were well out at sea, vagabonds, and those desperate for work (of which there were plenty) quickly volunteered.

Concerned only with profits, these same ship owners heavily overburdened the ships then insured them against expected losses of cargo. They were quite literally worth more at the bottom of the sea than upon it.

…there was a general muster in the afternoon, affording me an opportunity of seeing all the emigrants – and a more motley crowd I never beheld; of all ages, from the infant to the feeble grandsire and withered crone.

While they were on deck, the hold was searched, but without any further discovery, no one having been found below but a boy who was unable to leave his berth from debility. Many of them appeared to me to be quite unfit to undergo the hardship of a long voyage, but they were inspected and passed by a doctor, although the captain protested against taking some of them. One old man was so infirm that he seemed to me to be in the last stage of consumption.

The next matter to be accomplished was to regulate the allowance of provisions to which each family was entitled, one pound of meal or of bread being allowed for each adult, half a pound for each individual under fourteen years of age, and one-third of a pound for each child under seven years. Thus, although there were 110 souls, great and small, they counted as 84 adults. That was, therefore, the number of pounds to be issued daily. On coming on board, provisions for a week were distributed but as they wasted them most improvidently, they had to be served again today. The mate consequently determined to give out the day’s rations every morning.

Excerpt from The Journey of an Irish Coffin Ship by Robert Whyte 1847

In the ancient Celtic law, the Brehon Law, the most severe punishment an offender faced was banishment. These offenders were often loaded upon the coffin ships for Botany Bay. The ships had another purpose however than just prisoners, they also transported those emigrants seeking to leave the famine of Ireland.

While the famine is often cited as the primary cause for the coffin ships, as well as prisoners, the economy was another prime reason. 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 to the barely serviceable British sailing ships.

The skeletons on the memorial were to honor the dead. “To honour the memory of all who died, suffered and emigrated due to the Great Famine of 1845 – 1850, and the victims of all famines.” reads the marker in stone for the memorial

In the spring of 1847, shipload after shipload of fevered Irish arrived in Quebec, quickly overwhelming the small medical inspection facility located there, which only had 150 beds. By June, 40 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 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.

Of the 100,000 Irish that sailed to British North America in 1847, an estimated one out of five died from disease and malnutrition, including over five thousand at Grosse Isle.Over 1 million people emigrated from Ireland, during the famine, and when added to the deaths the country’s population fell between 20% and 25% in all.

The Memorial was unveiled by the President of Ireland, Mary Robinson, on 20 July 1997.

While the famine was responsible for a significant increase in emigration from Ireland, of anywhere from 45 percent to nearly 85%, depending on the year and the county it was not the sole cause. Nor was it even the era when mass emigration from Ireland commenced. That can be traced to the middle of the 18th century, when some 250,000 people left Ireland to settle in the New World alone, over a period of some 50 years.(For those interested in such things check out Gráda, C.Ó (1975), A Note on Nineteenth Emigration Statistics, Population Studies, Vol. 29 – your ever over reading buddy BS)

The number of emigrant vessels proceeding to America direct from Irish ports is quite unprecedented, and is one of the most extraordinary circumstances of the time. Within eight days, the following eleven vessels, carrying 1568 passengers, sailed from the single port of Cork:–The Dominique, for Quebec, 150 passengers; the Don, for New York, 160; the Lockwoods, for new York, 280; the Marchioness of Bute, for Quebec, 120; the Sara, for Boston, 104; the Solway, for New York, 196; the Try Again, for Quebec, 130; the Favourite, for Boston, 120; the Clarinda, for New York, 100; the Swift, for Boston, 120; the Field Marshal Radetzsky, for New York, 88 passengers. In addition to those vessels, the Hottspur went down the Cork river, on Tuesday, with 100 paupers on board, from the Kenmare Union-house.
The Depopulation of Ireland The Illustrated London News (10 May 1851)

With a mortality rate running over 30%, the coffin ships were aptly named. It was said that sharks could be seen following the ships, because so many bodies were thrown overboard. Or as as the Irish Times described it, their passengers “were only flying from one form of death.”

While they may have left starvation behind, many of these passengers were already in extremely bad health after a year or more of inadequate nutrition and exposure to illness. With their physical state already desperate, the last thing they needed was to be crammed into overcrowded, insanitary conditions with hundreds of others.

Just one case of typhus, which was rampant among the poor at this time, could spread like wildfire in the conditions on the coffin ships, and many were to die before, or shortly after, reaching the other side of the Atlantic. Others drowned when their ships were overwhelmed by ocean storms or fell upon rocks. 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 emigrants.

The coffin ship Jeanie Johnston, replica of the original Jeanie Johnston whom made her maiden emigrant voyage from Blennerville, Co. Kerry to Quebec on April 24, 1848, with 193 emigrants on board. The original sank in 1858, en route to Quebec from Hull.

By1846, the most severe winter in living memory had hit the British North America, but immigration ships continued to sail from Ireland.  Due to the weather, most the sea going vessels headed southwest, to US ports.

Alarmed at the level of destitution and illness arriving with these vessels, the US Congress quickly passed two new Passenger Acts in order to make the voyage even more expensive. That following March, the minimum fare to New York rose to £7, an amount way beyond the majority of families facing starvation in Ireland. Even with these actions, all tickets had been sold by the middle of April.

The decision to raise the cost on people who were almost destitute was made for a different reason that just fear of disease. 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. The U.S. fares after the act in 1847 raised them up to three times higher than the 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.

April 9. We sailed at daybreak this morning. Our shop, the Naparima, with estimated accommodation for three hundred, has over five hundred on board. It will indeed be a prosperous voyage for the charterers and the Captain who gets five pounds for each passenger. The Naparima is an ancient tub of a vessel that has reached a ripe old age. Her creaking timbers will be severely tested if we run into rough weather.

After dropping the pilot at Kingstown three days’ rations of sea biscuits were served.
They were tough and somewhat mouldy but the people were so famished that they ate them without complaint. Unfortunately almost all of them were consumed the first day. About half of the passengers had no place to bed down for the night. They tried to rest on bundles and chests on the floor of the steerage quarters. What I have seen today of the Naparima bears out some of the details I have already quoted about the whole system of transporting Irish emigrants. It is not an exaggeration to say that anything that will stay afloat and carry a sizable number of passengers is being put into service. I heard that a lot of the boats were built for Canadian lumber export. Some are dismantled when they reach England so that the structural timbers can be used. Others return to Canada with a human cargo as ballast. They take from six weeks to three months to cross the ocean. The holds are dark, cavernous dungeons fitted with narrow movable bunks for the emigrants. There are no lights, no portholes, and no ventilation except for what fresh air enters from the two hatchways.

The legal allowance is thirty-three inches, in width, for each passenger, but the crowding on the Naparima allows only about half of that. By noon hour today the air was already foul and if fever breaks out I fear for the worst. It is an ideal place for disease to spread.

Extract from Gerard Keegan’s Famine Diary 1847

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.

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, too ill to get up.

Water was the final nail in the proverbial coffin. The water was often stored in leaky old 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 British North America, creating dehydration and desperation. Some unscrupulous captains profited by selling large amounts of alcohol to the passenger, instead of water, pushing them to the brink, and sometimes over, of death.

The Statistics for July 1847 grant the simplest indication of the horrors that were being endured. Ten vessels arrived in that month alone and of the 4,427 Irish immigrants that had started their journeys 804 had died on the passage while 847 were sick on arrival.

By the end of 1847, the death toll could be calculated from the 200 immigrations ships that had made the crossing. Of 98,105 passengers (of whom 60,000 were Irish), 5293 died at sea, 8072 died at Grosse Isle and Quebec, 7,000 in and above Montreal. In total, then, at least 20,365 people perished (the numbers of those that died further along in their journey from illnesses contracted on the coffin ships cannot be ascertained) .

Or to put it simply: one-third of each vessel’s passenger list.

Ireland, my Ireland,
To a new world, I must depart,
Today, I travel from your bosom
And it breaks my grieving heart.
I lay by my mother’s graveside
Were a litany of saints, I did pray,
I heard the voice of St.Patrick speak,
Calling for St.Brendan to take me away.
The famine has killed your children,
Left your land barren and diseased,
Now the coffins ships depart from your shore,
Sailing the waters of the Irish Sea.

Daniel McDonagh, Mother Ireland

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