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Robert Whyte's 'The Journey Of An Irish Coffin Ship, 1847', Chapter 14
Of comfort not man seek.
Let's talk of graves, orworms and epitaphs
Make dust our paper, and with rainy eyes
Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth.
Let's choose executors and talk of walls
And yet not so - for what can we bequeath
Save our deposed bodies to the ground.
That the system of quarantine pursued at Grosse Isle afforded but a very slight protection to the people of Canada is too evident from the awful amounttof sickness and the vast number of deaths that occurred amongst them during the navigable season of 1847. From the plan that was adopted of sending the majority of the emigrants from the island directly up to Montreal, Quebec did not suffer so much as that city. However, during the three days I was there in the month of August too many signs of death were visible and upon a second and more prolonged visit, later in the season, it presented an aspect of universal gloom - the churches being hung in mourning, the citizens clothed in weeds and the newspapers recording daily deaths by fever contracted from the emigrants. To their honour and praise be it spoken, these alarming consequences did not deter either clergymen or physicians from the most unremitting zeal in performing their duty, and it is to be lamented that so many valuable lives were sacrificed. A paper of the month of September contained the following paragraph: QUARANTINE STATION, GROSSE ISLE. The Rev. J. Butler, missionary at Kingsey, went down on Tuesday morning to make his turn in attendance upon the sick at the quarantine station. The Rev. Richard Anderson and Rev. N. Gueront came up on the evening of the same day. The former felt indisposed and thought it prudent to remain in town for the benefit of medical advice. If he should have an attack of fever the precaution thus 85 early taken will, it is hoped, prevent its proving severe. We regret to say that the Rev. C.J. Morris recently returned from the station, is now seriously ill with Typhus Fever. The death of the last gentleman is recorded as follows: Died this morning at the private hospital at Beauport of typhus fever, the Rev. Charles J. Morris A.M. missionary of the Church of England, at Portneuf in this district. Mr Morris contracted the disease which has thus proved fatal to him, in his ministrations to the sick at Grosse Isle. The funeral will take place in the Cathedral church, tomorrow afternoon, at 3 o'clock. The Rev. Mr Anderson also died within a few days of the same period, and that the mortality continued to a late part of the season appears by the following from the Boston Journal of 1 December: We learn from Quebec that Drs Painchaud and Jackson and seven or eight nuns of the Hotel Dieu were sick with the ship fever. One of the Quebec physicians says that mortality among the physicians during the past season has been greater than it was during the Cholera. On Sunday, 10 October, I had the pleasure of listening to a discourse delivered in St Patrick's chapel by Rev. Mr McMahon before he commenced which he read a list of the names of several persons (emigrants) who were separated from their families and who took this method of endeavouring to find them out. The Rev. gentleman also acknowledged having received several sums of money remitted from parties in Ireland to friends in Canada, amongst which he said were some without signatures, and one of these was directed 'To my Aunt Biddy', upon which his Reverence remarked that people should be more particular where money was concerned. Although (as I have already stated) the great body of emigrants were sent out to Montreal by steamers, all of them could not be so transferred and many were detained in Quebec where the Marine and Emigrant Hospital contained during the season several hundreds - the number that remained upon 2 October being 113, of whom 93 were admitted during the week previous, and in which time there were discharged 132 and 46 died. One of the first objects that appeared to my view upon my arrival in Montreal was the Emigrant Hospital upon Point St Charles, a low tract of ground cut off from the city by the Lachine Canal and on which the Indians were in the habit of encamping every summer before it was turned to its present purpose. On the day I arrived, 7 August, it contained 907 patients, 16 having died during the last 21 hours. An official return of burials in the city was furnished up to the same day, by which it appeared that during the previotus nine weeks the number was 1,730, of which 924 were residents and 806 were emigrants. Exclusive of these, there died in the sheds 1,519 emigrants making a total of 3,240 - being 2,752 more than occurred during the corresponding period of the preceding year. Upon 23 August, the emigrant sheds contained 1,330 - 27 having died during twenty-four hours and so late as 11 October, there remained 746 patients in them. Montreal lost many of her most valuable citizens in consequence of the contagion, among whom were Dr Cushing and the mayor. Neither was the pestilence stayed here, for the inhabitants of Kingston, Bytown, Toronto and other places were infected and a great number died of the fever, amongst whom was the Rev. Dr Power, RC Bishop of Toronto who contracted the disease in the discharge of his sacred functions among the sick. The following extract taken from the Toronto Standard serves to the manner in which the people of Canada suffered, and their sympathy for those who brought so much woe amongst them: The health of the city remains in much the same state as it did several weeks ago. The individual cases of fever have abated nothing of their violence and several families have caught the infection from having admitted emigrants into their houses. The greatest caution should be observed in this respect as it does not require contact alone, to infect a healthy person with the deadly virus of the fever. Breathing the same atmosphere with the infected or coming under the mfluence of the effluvia rising from their clothes is, in some states of the healthy body perfectly sufficient for effecting a lodgement of the disease m the human frame. On Monday evening last the report of the Finance Committee on the subject of erecting a House of Refuge for the destitute persons who have sought refuge in our City, was received by the Council. This committee report in favour of erecting immediately such a building as would shield those from the securities of winter and recommend that a sum not exceeding $5,000 should be expended for that purpose and that this sum should be put under the joint superintendence of the Board of Works and the Finance Committee so that now we have from the praiseworthy benevolence and alacrity of the Council, an assured hope that the emigrants will not be exposed to any hardships which it is in the power of the city authorities to ward off. The reader will bear in mind that the above relates in the city of Toronto, in Western Canada, at a distance of upwards of 500 miles from the Quarantine station whose stringent regulations were intended to protect the country from contagion. It now only remains for me to say a few words respecting the people that endured and reproduced so much tribulation. The vast number of persons who quitted Europe to seek new homes in the western hemisphere in the year 1847, is without a precedent in history. Of the aggregate I cannot definitely speak but to be within the limits of truth, they exceeded 350,000. More than one half of these emigrants were from Ireland and to this portion was confined the devouring pestilence. It is a painful task to trace the causes that led to such fatal consequences - some of them may perhaps be hidden but many are too plainly visible. These wretched people were flying from known misery into unknown and tenfold aggravated misfortune. That famine which compelled so many to emigrate became itself a cause of the pestilence. But that the principal causes were produced by injustice and neglect, is plainly proven. Many, as I have already stated, were sent out at the expense of their landlords. These were consequently the poorest and most abject of the whole and suffered the most. No doubt the motives of some landlords were benevolent but all they did was to pay for the emigrants' passage - this done, these gentlemen washed their hands of all accountability transferring them to the shipping agent whose object was to stow away the greatest possible number between the decks of the vessels chartered for the purpose. That unwarrantable inducements were held out to many I am aware, causing some to leave their homes who would not otherwise have done so. They were given to understand that they would be abundantly provided for during the voyage and that they were certain of finding immediate employment upon their arrival at a dollar per day. Another serious injury was done to many families who had previously experienced the blessings of temperance from being, upon their arrival at the different ports where they were to embark, obliged to lodge in public houses of the worst description whose proprietors, knowing that they possessed a little stock of money, seduced them to violate their 'pledge' under the specious pretext that they were no longer bound by its obligations and that whiskey was the very best preventive of seasickness. After a detention, often of many days, the vessel at length ready for sea, numbers were shipped that were quite unfit for a long voyage. True they were inspected and so were the ships but from the limited number of officers appointed for the purpose, many oversights occurred. In Liverpool, for instance, if I am rightly informed, there was staff of but five or six men to inspect the mass of emigrants and survey the ships in which there sailed from that port 107,474. An additional heavy infliction was their sufferings on ship-board from famine - the legal allowance for an adult being one pound of food in twenty-four hours. But perhaps the most cruel wrong was in allowing crowds of already infected beings to be huddled up together in the confined holds, there to propagate the distemper which there was no physician to stay. The sufferings consequent upon such treatment I have endeavoured to portray in the previous narrative which - alas! - is but a feeble picture of the unmitigated trials endured by these most unhappy beings. Nor were their sufferings ended with the voyage. Oh, no! far from it. Would that I could represent the afflictions I witnessed at Grosse Isle! I would not be supposed to think that the medical officers situated there did not exercise the greatest humanity in administering their disagreeable duties which consisted not in relieving the distress of the emigrants but in protecting their country from contamination. Still, it was most afflicting that after combating the dangers of the sea, enduring famine, drought and sickness, the wretched survivors should still have to lie as uncared for as when in the centre of the Atlantic Ocean. The inefficacy of the quarantine system is so apparent that it is needless to particularize its defects, neither need I repeat the details of the grievous aggravations of their trials heaped by it upon the already tortured emigrants. My heart bleeds when I think of the agony of the poor families - who, as yet undivided, had patiently borne their trials, ministering to each other's wants - when torn from each other. Painful as it was to behold the bodies of those who died at sea committed to the deep, yet the separation of families was fraught with much greater misery. And as if to reach the climax of endurance, the relatives and friends of those landed upon the island were at once carried away from them to a distance of 200 miles. On their way to Montreal many died on board the steamers. There, those who sickened in their progress were received into the hospital and the survivors of this second sifting were sent on to Kingston, 180 miles further, from thence to Toronto and so on, every city and town being anxious to be rid of them. Nor were there wanting, villains who preyed upon these stricken people. The Montreal Herald 90 of 13 October thus writes: The rapid closing of the season of course diminishes the number of arrivals of emigrants and thus the hospitals and asylums are less crowded than they have been at an earlier period of the year. The statements are, however, still extremely distressing. An assertion has been made in the Common Council and is generally believed to be true that considerable sums have beenbrought here by some of these people and consigned by them in their last moments, to persons who have in many instances appropriated the money to their own use. An Alderman named Tully who is known to have the means of information, calculates the average of the sums brought to Canada by emigrants at ? each, we suppose heads of families. In a tour which I made through Upper Canada I met in every quarter some of my poor wandering fellow-countrypeople. Travelling from Prescott to Bytown by stage, I saw a poor woman with an infant in her arms and a child pulling at her skirt and crying as they went along. The driver compassionately took them up and the wayfarer wept her thanks. She had lost her husband upon the voyage and was going to Bytown to her brother who came out the previous year and, having made some money by lumbering in the woods, remitted to her the means of joining him. She told her sad tale most plaintively and the passengers all sympathised with her. The road being of that description called 'corduroy' and the machine very crazy, the latter broke down within 5 miles of our destination and as she was unable to carry her two children, the poor creature was obliged to remain upon the road all the night. She came into Bytown the following morning and I had the satisfaction to learn that she found her brother. A large proportion of the emigrants who arrived in Canada, crossed the frontiers in order to settle in the United States, so that they were to be seen in the most remote places. At St Catherine's upon the Welland Canal, 600 miles from Quebec, I saw a family who were on their way to the western part of the state of New York. One of them was taken ill and they were obliged to remain by the wayside with nothing but a few boards to protect them from the weather. There is no means of learning how many of the survivors of so many ordeals were cut off by the inclemency of a Canadian winter so that the grand total of the human sacrifice will never be known but by 'Him who knoweth all things'. As I cannot so well convey my sentiments in my own language I will conclude with the following quotation from England's most popular writer, and would that his suggestions uttered five years before the commencement of the tragic drama had been attended to in time: if they had, much evil had been spared humanity. The whole system of shipping and conveying these unfortunate persons is one that stands in need of thorough revision. If any class deserve to be protected and assisted by the government, it is that class who are banished from their native land in search of the bare means of subsistence. All that could be done for those poor people by the great compassion and humanity of the captain and officers, was done but they require much more. The law is bound, at least upon the English side, to see that too many of them are not put on board one ship and that their accommodations are decent, not demoralising and profligate. It is bound too, in common humanity to dechare that no man shall be taken on board without his stock of provisions being previously inspected by some proper officer and pronounced moderately sufficient for his support upon the voyage. It is bound to provide or to require that there be provided a medical attendant; whereas in these ships there are none, though sickness of adults and deaths of children on the passage are matters of the very commonest occurrence. Above all it is the duty of any government, be it monarchy or republic, to interpose and put an end to that system by which a firm of traders in emigrants purchase of the owners the whole 'tween decks of a ship and send on board as many wretched people as they can get hold of on any terms they can get, without the smallest reference to the conveniences of the steerage, the number of berths, the slightest separation of sexes, or any thing but their own immediate profit. Nor is this the worst of the vicious system, for certain crimping agents of these houses, who have a percentage of all the passengers they inveigle, are constantly travelling about those districts where pov
rty and discontent are rife and tempting the credulous into more misery, by holdmg out monstrous inducements to emigration which never can be realised.
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