Possibly the swiftest route to your roots.

Robert Whyte's 'The Journey Of An Irish Coffin Ship, 1847', Chapter 3

"Thou shalt not be afraid for any terror by night, nor for the arrow that flieth by day; for the pestilence that walketh in darkness, nor for the sickness that destroyeth in the noon-day."
Psalms of David

Monday, 7 June

The passengers elected four men to govern their commonwealth, the principal of whom had the title of 'head committee'. The other three being inactive, the sole authority was wielded by him much to the terror of the little boys who were often uproarious and to keep whom in order he frequently administered the 'cat'. The other duties of this functionary consisted in seeing that the hold was kept clean, in preventing smoking below, settling differences, etc. He was also the medium of communication with the 'other house' - he and Paddy alone being permitted to go aft.

Tuesday, 8 June

We steered southward course but gained very little longitude. The two ships were again in sight, one was the Tamerlane of Aberystwyth, the other the Virginius of Liverpool; both fine vessels with passengers. The head committee reported that two women were ill. They were therefore dosed according to the best skills of the mistress, who was desirous of going into the hold to see them, but the captain peremptorily desired her upon no account to do so and kept a sharp lookout that she might not visit them unknown to him. The boy, whom nothing ailed but seasickness and fatigue, had recovered. I saw him upon deck - miserable looking little animal, with a huge misshapen head, sallow, lantern-jaws and glassy eyes - apparently about twelve years of age; but his father said that he was twenty. I could scarcely credit him but was assured of the fact by his neighbours who said that he always had the same emaciated appearance, although he never before complained of illness. He went by the name of 'the little shoemaker'.

Wednesday, 9 June

As we were seated at dinner in the cabin discussing a savoury dish of lobscouse made by the mistress, we were alarmed by the shouting of men and screaming of women. We hurried on deck, thinking that someone was overboard and judge of our terror when we saw the fore part of the brig in a blaze. All hands having assisted, a plentiful supply of water in a short time subdued the fire which extended no further than the caboose; it arose from the negligence of Simon who fell asleep leaving a lighted candle stuck against the boards. This was the only brilliant act of which he was guilty during the voyage and as a reward for which the mate bestowed upon him a rope's end.

Thursday, 10 June

The only incidents of the day were breakfast, dinner and supper - and the meridional observation and the temporary stir consequent on the captain coming upon deck after a snooze, and shouting, 'bout ship'. Some more cases of illness were reported and the mistress was kept busy mixing medicine and making drinks, hoping that by early attention the sickness might be prevented from spreading. As I was pacing the deck in the afternoon I observed one of the passengers - a well-looking man with fine brown eyes - timidly approach me. After looking about him to assure himself that the captain was below, he doffed his hat and addressed me as follows: 'I beg your honour's pardon, but I hope it's no offence.' Having told him that he had given me none, he proceeded - 'Well then, Master, isn't it mighty quare intirely and how can the likes of us know the differ; but I hope your honour it's all right?' I replied that I was not aware of anything being wrong and desired him to say what was the danger he feared which caused him to ask: 'Aragh! Why thin are we goin' back to ould Ireland?' I demanded his reason for such a upposition when, after scratching his head and casting a glance towards the cabin, looking rather perplexed, he went on. 'That little gossoon of mine, your honour - a mighty smart chap he is too and a great scholar entirely, he tould us - but faith! I dunno how to believe him though he got his larnin' at the national school and can cast up figures equal to the agent and can read the whole side of a book without stoppin'. He says, sir, that the sun, God bless it, sets in the wist ...' Here he paused and looked earnestly at me, as if for confirmation of the fact. I therefore said that the boy's knowledge was pretty accurate. Seeming encouraged, he continued - 'Moreover than that, he says that Ameriky, where we are goin' to, if the Almighty God spares us. (Here he crossed himself.) Glory be to his name! it's in the wist of the world too.' He again paused and looked enquiringly. 'Well,' said I, 'he is pretty right there also, America is west from Ireland.' 'Then, Master, here's what we want to come at, you see. If Ameriky is in the wist, mustn't the sun set in it? Then why is it your honour, that instead of followin' it, we're runnin' away from it as hard as we can lick?' Such was the fact - a fresh northerly breeze compelling us to bear to the south-east. I now saw the nature of the problem he wished to have solved and explained the matter as explicitly as I possibly could but it was some time before he comprehended me. At length he seemed to become enlightened on the subject, for, giving his thigh a slap of his open palm, he exclaimed: 'Och! By the powers, I see it all now, it's as plain as a pike-start and I'm sure I'm obleeged to your honour and so is the gossoon too. Oh, that divil's clip Jack - wait till I ketch him. If I don't murder him it's not matter. What do you think, your honour, he tould the little chap, when he axed him all about it? "Why," says he, "sure we're goin' back again for the mistress' knittin' needles that she forgot." So as he wouldn't tell him, nor none of the sailors, I made bould to ax your honour as the little chap mtas loath to make so free.' On the conclusion of the dialogue, Jack, who was over our heads in the shrouds, burst into a hearty fit of laughter, in which I could not but participate when I noticed the comicality of the arch sailor-boy's appearance and the simplicity of my interlocutor, who, hearing the captain's heavy step coming up the ladder, hastily retired, vowing vengeance upon Jack.

Saturday, 12 June

I amused myself taking a sketch of the cabin 'interior'. It was about ten feet square and so low that the only part of it in which the captain could stand upright was under the skylight. At either side was a berth, both of which were filled with the mistress' boxes, the captain's old clothes, old sails and sundry other articles, which were there stowed away and concealed from view by chintz curtains trimmed with white cotton fringe. The ceiling was garnished with numerous charts rolled up and confined by tapes running from beam to beam, from one of which - carefully covered by a cotton handkerchief was suspended the captain's new hat. A small recess above the table contained a couple of wine glasses, one of them minus the shank; also an antique decanter resting upon an old quarto prayer book and guarded by a dangerous looking blunderbuss, which was supported by two brass hooks, from one of which hung a small bag containing the captain's spectacles, rule, pencil and compass. At each side of this recess was a locker, one of them containing a crock of butter and another of effects besides tobacco and soap; the other held a fine Cheshire cheese, a little keg of sprats and other articles too numerous to mention. An unhappy canary, perched within a rusty cage, formed a pendant from the centre of the skylight, but a much more pleasing picture decorated one of the panels a stilllife admirably delineating an enormous flitch of bacon which daily grew less. A small door led into the captain's state-room the ceiling of which was tastefully ornamented by several bunches of dipped candles, while the narrow shelves groaned under the weight of jars of sugar, preserves, bottled porter, spices and the other usual necessaries for a long voyage. I was disturbed in the progress of my portraiture by the mistress who came down to warm a drink at the stove for some of the sick folks. The two women who first became ill were said to show symptoms of bad fever and additional cases of illness were reported by the head committee. The patients begged for an increased allowance of water, which could not be granted as the supply was very scanty, two casks having leaked.

Sunday, 13 June

The reports from the hold became very alarming and the mistress was occupied all day attending the numerous calls upon her. She already regretted having come on the voyage, but her kind heart did not allow her to consult her case- When she appeared upon deck she was beset by a crowd of poor creatures, each having some request to make, often of a most inconsiderate kind and few of which it was in her power to comply with. The day was cold and cheerless and I occupied myself reading in the cabin.

Monday, 14 June

The head committee brought a can of water to show it to l the captain; it was quite foul, muddy and bitter from having been in a wine cask. When allowed to settle it became clear, leaving considerable sediment in the bottom of the vessel but it retained its bad taste. The mate endeavoured to improve it by trying the effect of charcoal and of alum but some of the casks were beyond remedy and the contents, when pumped out, resembles nauseous ditch water. There were now eight cases of serious illness - six of them being fever and two dysentery. The former appeared to be of a peculiar character and very alarming, the latter disease did not seem to be so violent in degree.

Tuesday, 15 June

The reports this morning were very afflicting and I felt much that I was unable to render any assistance to my poor fellow passengers. The captain desired the mistress to give them everything out of his own stores that she considered would be of service to any of them. He felt much alarmed; nor was it to be wondered at that contagious fever - which under the most advantageous circumstances and under the watchful eyes of the most skilful physicians, baffles the highest ability - should terrify one having the charge of so many human beings likely to fall a prey to the unchecked progress of the dreadful disease; for once having shown itself in the unventilated hold of a small brig, containing one hundred and ten living creatures, how could it possibly be stayed without medicines, medical skill or even pure water to slake the patients' burning thirst? The prospect before us was indeed an awful one and there was no hope for us but in the mercy of God.

Wednesdat,16 June

The past night was very rough and I enjoyed little rest. No additional cases of sickness were reported, but there were apparent signs of insubordination amongst the healthy men, who complained of starvation and the want of water tc make drinks for their sick wives and children. A deputation came aft to acquaint the captain with their grievances but he ordered them away and would not listen to a word from them. When he went below the ringleader threatened tha they would break into the provision store. The mate did not take any notice of the threat but repeat ed to me, in their hearing, an anecdote of his own experi ence, of a captain, showing with what determination he sup pressed an outbreak in his vessel. He concluded by alludinE to cut-lasses and the firearms in the cabin. And in order to make a deeper impression on their minds he brought up the old blunderbuss from which be fired a shot, the report of which was equal to that of a small cannon. The deputation slunk away muttering complaints. If they were resolute they might easily have seized upon the provisions. In fact, I was surprised how famished men could so patiently bear with their own and their starved children's sufferings, but the captain would willingly have listened to them if it were in his power to relieve their distress.

Thursday, 17 June

Two new cases of fever were announced and, from the rel presentation of the mate, the poor creatures in the hold were in a shocking state. The men who suffered from dysentery were better; the mistress' prescription - flour porridge with a few drops of laudanum - having given them relief. The requests of the friends of the fever patients were most preposterous, some asking for beef, others wine. They were all desirous of laudanum being administered to them in order to procure sleep but we were afraid to dispense so dangerous a remedy except with extreme caution. Our progress was almost imperceptible and the captain began to grow very uneasy, there being at the rate of the already miserable allowance of food, but provisions for 50 days. It also now became necessary to reduce the complement of water and to urge the necessity of using sea water in cookery.

Friday, 18 June

The fireplaces were the scenes of endless contentions. The l sufferings they endured appeared to embitter the wretched emigrants one against another. Their quarrels were only ended when the fires were extinguished at 7 p.m. at which time they were surrounded by squabbling groups preparing their miserable evening meal. They would not leave until Jack mounted the shrouds of the foremast and precipitated a bucket full of water on each fire - when they snatched up their pots and pans and, half blinded by the steam, descended into the hold with their half-cooked suppers. Although Jack delighted in teasing them, they never complained of his pranks, however annoying.  
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