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Robert Whyte's 'The Journey Of An Irish Coffin Ship, 1847', Chapter 10
"And when I looked, behold, a hand was sent unto me, and, lo, a roll of a book was therein:
"And he spread it before me: and it was written within and without: and there was written therein lamentations and mourning, and woe.
Gross Isle, Tuesday, 28 July
By 6 a.m. we were settled in our new position before the quarantine station. The passengers that were able to be up were all busy clearing and washing, some clearing the hold of filth, others assisting the sailors in swabbing the deck. The mistress herself washed out the cabin last evening and put everything in order. The captain commenced shaving himself at 7 and completed the operation in about an hour and a half. The mate was unable to do anything but kept repeatedly calling to the mistress for brandy and requested that his illness should be kept from the doctor as he was sure he had not fever. Breakfast was speedily despatched and anxiety was depicted on every countenance. At 9 o'clock a boat was perceived pulling towards us with four oars and a steersman with broad-leafed straw hat and leather coat who, the pilot told us, was the inspecting physician. In a few minutes the boat was alongside and the doctor on deck. He hastily enquired for the captain and before he could be answered was down in the cabin where the mistress was finishing her toilet. Having introduced himself he enquired: if we had sickness aboard? Its nature? How many patients at present? These questions being answered and the replies noted upon his table, he snatched up his hat ran up the ladder along the deck and down into the hold. Arrived there, 'Ha!' said he sagaciously, 'there is fever here.' He stopped beside the first berth in which a patient was lying, felt his pulse, examined his tongue and ran up the ladder again. As he passed by me he handed me some papers to be filled up by the captain and to have ready 'tomorrow or next day'. In an instant he was in his boat from which, while the men were taking up their oars, he shouted out to me that I was not obliged to remain in quarantine and might go up to Quebec when I pleased. I brought the papers to the captain who remained in the cabin, supposing that the doctor would return thither, in order to give directions for our guidance, and when he learned that that gentleman had gone, he was desperately enraged. The mistress endeavoured to pacify him by suggesting that it was likely he would visit us again in the course of the day or at least that he would send a message to us. When I acquainted the mistress that I was at liberty to leave the brig she looked at me most pitifully as if she would say, 'Are you too going to desert us?' But I had no such intention and was determined to remain with them at all events until they reached Quebec. The poor passengers, expecting that they would be all reviewed, were dressed in their best clothes and were clean, though haggard and weak. They were greatly disappointed in their expectations as they were under the impression that the sick would be immediately admitted to the hospital and the healthy landed upon the island, there to remain until taken to Quebec by a steamer. Indeed, such was the procedure to be inferred from the book of directions given to the captain by the pilot when he came aboard. When the mistress appeared on deck I scarcely knew her. She usually wore a black stuff gown, a red worsted 'bosom friend', which she told me (at least once a day) was knit for her by her niece, with a cap, having three full borders which projected beyond the leaf of the little straw bon- , net, covered with the accumulated stains and smoke of many a a voyage. Now she had on a new fancy striped calico dress as showy as deep reds, yellows, blues and greens could make it; a black satin bonnet with no lack of red ribands and a little conservatory of artificials around her goodnatured face, not forgetting her silver spectacles. All day long we kept looking out for a message from shore and in watching the doctor's boat going from vessel to vessel. His visit to each occupying about the same as to us - which was exactly five minutes. We sometimes fancied that he was making for us but the boat the next moment would be concealed by some large ship. Then we were sure we would be the next but no, the rowers poled for shore. The day wore away before we gave up hope. I could not believe it possible that here, within reach of help, we should be left as neglected as when upon the ocean. That after a voyage of two months' duration we were tube left still enveloped by reeking pestilence, the sick without medicine, medical skill, nourishment or so much as a drop of pure water - for the river, although not saline here, was polluted by the most disgusting objects thrown overboard from the several vessels. In short, it was a floating mass of filthy straw, the refuse of foul beds, barrels containing the vilest matter, old rags and tattered clothes, etc. The head committee was greatly grieved for his wife whose death he momentarily expected. He had looked anxiously forward to the time when we should arrive here, hoping that at least the doctor would see her, but his hopes - as well as those of others - were suddenly blasted. The brig that arrived with us sailed for Quebec immediately after the doctor's visit, possibly not having had any sickness. Five other vessels also were discharged. How long they were detained we could not tell but the captain was so provoked that he vowed he would sail without permission. The pilot, who did not well understand his hasty disposition, ventured to remonstrate with him and fell in for a hurricane of curses and abuse to which, though ignorant of many of the expressions, he replied in French, not finding himself sufficiently elo65 quent in the English tongue. Four vessels arrived with the evening tide and hoisted their signals but were not visited. Several sailed by us without stopping, not having passengers, and a vast number went down the river during the day. Two huge steamers also arrived and in the afternoon brought off hundreds of human beings from the island.
Thursday, 29 July
This morning, a boat was perceived making towards us l which at first was thought to be the doctor's but when it approached nearer there appeared but two persons in it, both of whom were rowing. In a few minutes more the boat was alongside and from the cassocks and bands of the two gentlemen we learned that they were Canadian priests They came on deck, each carrying a large black bag. They inquired for the captain who received them courteously and introduced them to the mistress and to me, after which they conversed a while in French with the pilot whom they knew. When having put on their vestments, they descended into the hold. They there spent a few minutes with each of the sick and administered the last rites to the dying woman and an old man, terminating their duties by baptising the infant. They remained in the hold for about an hour and, when they returned, complimented the captain on the cleanliness of the vessel. They stayed a short time talking to us upon deck and the account they gave of the horrid condition of many of the ships in quarantine was frightful. In the holds of some of them they said that they were up to their ankles in filth. The wretched emigrants crowded together like cattle and corpses remaining long unburied - the sailors being ill and the passengers unwilling to touch them. They also told us of the vast numbers of sick in the hospitals and in tents upon the island and that many nuns, clergymen and doctors were lying in typhus fever, taken from the patients. They were exceedingly intelligent and gentlemanly men and, telling us that we had great case of thankfulness in having escaped much better than so many others, they politely bowed and got into their little boat, amid the blessings of the passengers who watched them until they arrived beside a distant ship. The head committee expressed himself satisfied that his wife saw a priest before her death which occurred about an hour after, and as the pilot said that the remains should not be thrown into the river - there being a burial ground upon the island - the corpse lay in the hold until the next day. The mate continued to grow worse and the mistress was unceasing in her attention to him. The day was exceedingly hot and sultry and I could not have remained on deck but the captain spread an awning over it which kept the cabin cool. We lay at some distance from the island, the distant view of which was exceedingly beautiful. At the far end were rows of white tents and marquees, resembling the encampment of an army. Somewhat nearer was the little fort and residence of the superintendent physician and nearer still the chapel, seaman's hospital and little village with its wharf and a few sail boats, the most adjacent extremity being rugged rocks, among which grew beautiful fir trees. At high water this portion was detached from the main island and formed a most picturesque islet. However, this scene of natural beauty was sadly deformed by the dismal display of human suffering that it presented - helpless creatures being carried by sailors over the rocks on their way to the hospital, boats arriving with patients some of whom died in their transmission from their ships. Another, and still more awful sight, was a continuous line of boats, each carrying its freight of dead to the burial ground and forming an endless funeral procession. Some had several corpses so tied up in canvas that the stiff, sharp outline of death was easily traceable. Others had rude coffins constructed by the sailors from the boards of their berths, or I should rather say, cribs. In a few, a solitary mourner attended the remains but the majority contained no living beings save the rowers. I would not remove my eyes until boat after boat was hid by the projecting point of the island, round which they steered their gloomy way. From one ship a boat proceeded four times during the day, each time laden with a cargo of dead. I ventured to count the number of boats that passed but had to give up the sickening task. The inspecting doctor went about from vessel to vessel, six of which came in each tide and as many sailed. We expected him to visit us every moment but he did not come near us. In the afternoon a boat made for our brig and the mistress, who was on deck, was greatly delighted to find that it contained two 'captains', one of whom was her nephew. One arrived the day before we came, the other a day previous. They were as ignorant of the course of proceeding as we and before they went away it was agreed on that they, our captain and I should wait on the superintendent physician the next day.
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