Memorial to the “coffin ships” – County Mayo
It is Ireland in the late 1840s and the Irish are literally starving. Millions of Irish men, women and children who subsisted primarily or entirely on potatoes are foodless as the blight has utterly destroyed the crop. Famine would continue for years.
Some 1.2 million Irish would die of starvation while 25% of the pre-famine population would flee the country, a million and a half coming to America. For the impoverished Irish, the key to leaving was “chain migration.” Scrimping, saving and selling possessions would finance the trip for one family member who, upon landing, would scrape every penny and work to exhaustion in order to send enough money home to finance the trip of the next family member. Then those two would work and remit funds etc. until all one’s loved ones arrived in New York.
Before they could embrace fathers, sons, daughters and mothers however they had to endure the trans-Atlantic crossing in a wooden sailing ship.
So what did your Irish ancestors fleeing the famine have to endure to get here?
Well first of all you needed the money for passage. Three of four famine Irish left for New York or Canada from Liverpool and virtually all traveled “steerage” class. More about that later. The fare across the Atlantic from Liverpool cost about three pounds sterling in 1845; equivalent to about 350 pounds today. Plus one had to bring one’s own food for a four to six weeks voyage which, with bad weather or storms could stretch to two months.
As the ship floated away from the Liverpool docks and headed down the river Mersey toward the Atlantic, the famine immigrants were less likely to feel a sense of regret at leaving Ireland than previous generations. Nevertheless, many were overcome with sadnness with the idea that they would likely never see home again.
But before long sea sickness set in and within hours of departure, rivers of vomit might be flowing back and forth across the floor of steerage quarters if these passengers were not permitted to go on deck and heave over the side.
Once the seasickness subsided they soon became overwhelmed by the tedium of the voyage. Even the speediest of immigrant ships traversed the Atlantic at no more than 4 miless per hour; most only made 3 mph.
And many of the impoverished immigrants could not afford to bring food supplies with them for a 5 or 6 week journey. Many arrived in New York or Canada at death’s door, starving skeletons, having eaten only what they could beg from other passengers.
In 1803 Parliament had passed its first Passengers Act requiring ships leaving English ports to provide enough food for each passenger to ensure no one would starve to death crossing the Atlantic. The law mandated that passengers receive at least one gallon of water per day, one and a half pounds of bread, biscuit or oatmeal, half a pound of meat and half a pint of molasses.
In 1835 however, in the face of more impoverishment among Irish emmigrants, Parliament cut the water to three quarts, the bread or biscuit to one pound daily and eliminated the meat and molasses all together. Flour or rice was added as an acceptable substitute for bread or biscuit.
Remember now, none of this “food” was cooked or prepared by a kitchen staff. The ship’s cook only prepared meals for the sailors – not the passengers, who had to muscle their way to a “public galley” to get near a stove. The meek, the sick and the elderly were the most likely to suffer from hunger.
Not only did the famine Irish not get much food but what they got was simply awful. “Bread and biscuit” was typically months old and rock hard. Passengers had to soak them in their precious water to make them edible and sometimes even that didn’t help. Often foodstuffs were infested with maggots or otherwise spoiled; so foul even the pigs on board wouldn’t eat it. Many a famine immigrant had to toss the food he brought with him overboard, thereafter begging for food. And when it came to begging for food, it was everyman for himself. Making matters still worse, the ship’s crew often short-changed the food allowance mandated to passengers, many getting less than 50% of what was promised.
Even preparing the food that was edible was an ordeal. Rice and oatmeal require large quantities of water to prepare; one might quench hunger then be overwhelmed from thirst. It wasn’t until after the famine had passed in late 1852 that Parliament required that food be cooked and ready for consumption before serving to passengers.
Passenger quarters were divided into “cabins” and “steerage”. Cabin passengers were those who paid a premium in exchange for less crowded conditions and a berth on the first level below deck. Steerage passengers were crammed into the middle level with the lowest level reserved for cargo. The steerage compartments were even more dreadful than the food situation
“Cabin” passengers, who might have paid five pounds for their ticket rather than four got “roomier” accommodations with only two person per bunk and a dozen passengers per “cabin.” They did get better ventilation and slightly more food.
Steerage compartments, far below deck were pitch black unless lit by candles (which were frowned upon by the crew) or dim lamps. While cabin passengers slept two to a bunk, in steerage four adult passengers were shoehorned into each six by six foot bunk, each getting a mere 18 inches of space. Those 13 or under got 9 inches.
The bunks, simple boards, were placed one next to another with no dividers of any kind for a hundred feet or more; two long slabs of humanity, one on each side of the compartment. Each ship usually had two steerage compartments, one at the bow and one at the stern.
Traveling steerage at the time was, of course, quite mortifying. One had to often sleep with total strangers. A family of three could not fully occupy a bunk for four and a total stranger would squeeze in with them. Women alone would try to bunk with one another but if they were the last to arrive or there were only three, a strange man might sleep with them.
Changing clothes and using a chamber pot was done in public, in front of everyone, male and female. It wasn’t until after the American Civil War that British ships were required to provide separate steerage compartments for single men, single women and families.
And then of course, there was disease.
It was always a distinct possibility that any sailing ship traversing the north Atlantic might encounter storms or heavy weather. Famine immigrants would be locked into their pitch dark compartments and would begin to vomit from seasickness. It was rarely cleared away from steerage compartments; certainly not by the crew.
Chamber pots would spill their contents of feces and urine into the vomit slosh on the cabin floor along with seawater which leaked into the cabin during storms. The vile muck swirling around the passenger’s feet along with those sick with diarrhea who had taken to their bunks was the perfect breeding ground for the spread of disease in close quarters.
Typhus, caused by body lice which spread quickly in the cabins, brought infected immigrants headaches, high fever, chills and nausea. They had neither the strength or desire to leave their bunks. Three of four Typhus infected immigrants survived but were debilitated for months. Twenty five percent would develop delirium, gangrene and succumb to cardiac or kidney failure.
Immigrants sailing across the Atlantic feared Cholera even more, contracted by ingesting water or food contaminated by the feces of someone who already had the disease. Once ill there was a good chance of death from “rice water” diarrhea; the “rice” was actually pieces of the victim’s colon flaking away as the bacteria destroyed the digestive system.
The disease was terrifying – one could seem perfectly healthy one moment, come down with a fever a few hours later and be dead the next morning. The Cholera germ sloshed around in the liquid filth of many a steerage cabin during the famine migration – especially in 1849 and 1853 when arriving Irish brought Cholera epidemics to the tenements of New York.
Immigrant ships arriving in New York during the famine years usually suffered an average 3% death rate from the voyage. The death toll is quite understated as many others would die after landing from debilitating malnutrition or contracted disease which didn’t kill them at sea. Th.e death toll during the cholera epidemics was much higher
Conditions on ships to Canada, which charged lower fares and carried the most impoverished, were much worse and suffered much higher death rate; 20 – 30% was not uncommon.
If you have Irish ancestors who made the journey across the sea during the famine, you should light a candle to their memory everyday. It was always dark in steerage.