But what they hadn’t figured on was the extraordinary cruelty of the crew. When they docked the next day, 76 of the passengers were dead.
Much has been written about the “coffin ships” taken by hundreds of thousands of Irish immigrants to Canada and the United States during the Famine. The name derived from the fact that thousands perished on the high seas, mostly from disease. During the Famine’s worst year — Black ’47 — approximately 20,000 of 100,000 emigrants died before arriving in North America. Dr. J. Custis, a physician who traveled aboard six famine ships, wrote that although he had witnessed the devastation of the Famine in the workhouses of Ireland, “it was not half so shocking as what I subsequently witnessed on board the very first emigrant ship I ever sailed on.”
Many Irish immigrants also died in more than 60 shipwrecks that occurred during the Famine years. The Exmouth, for example, foundered in 1847 just off the coast of Scotland, taking with it all but three of its 251 passengers. A few months later, the St. John fared only slightly better, losing at least 99 passengers when it smashed on the rocks near Cohasset, Mass. Hundreds came to see the wreck, including Henry David Thoreau. “I sought many marble feet and matted heads as the cloths were raised,” he wrote, “and one livid, swollen and mangled body of a drowned girl — who probably had intended to go out to [domestic] service in some American family.”
But in addition to disease and disaster, immigrants faced still a third threat: abuse and mistreatment by callous crewmen. This took many forms, from overcrowding to violence, and occurred mainly on the shorter trips of Ireland to England. The worst incident occurred aboard the steamer Londonderry in the winter of 1849.
The two-day voyage began like so many others in that era. The ship was first loaded with cattle, followed by 178 men, women, and children. A small number of passengers were allowed in the hold near the cattle, but most, preferring icy air to the unspeakable stench below, spread out on the deck. Both groups could expect a harrowing journey, for this was the stormy season. Indeed, the suffering of Famine immigrants on the Ireland-to-England route was by now a matter of public record. No long before one observer wrote a letter of protest to government officials deploring the conditions aboard the ships: “[N]o language at my command can describe the scenes I have witnessed there; the people were positively prostrated from the inclemency of the weather — seasick all the way — drenched from the sea and rain — suffering from cold an night — debilitated — scarcely able to walk after they got out of the steamers. In fact, I consider the manner in which passengers are conveyed from Irish to English ports disgraceful, dangerous, and inhuman.”
But these immigrants, like so many before them, had no choice but to board the Londonderry and take their chances. Luck, as it turned out, would not be with them.
A storm blew up shortly after they hit deep water and the captain ordered all the passengers into the hold. Despite the lack of room, the crew forced everyone down below and then bolted the hatch. They were so crammed — only two square feet per person — there was no room to sit. Soon the lights failed and then a general panic broke out. Fights broke out and people clawed and scratched their way to the ladders leading up to the hatch. Stumbling through the pitch black dark, the crowd stampeded people caught in its path and crushed others against the walls. The crew heard the commotion below and dismissed it as “only Irishmen fighting among themselves.”
Two days later the steamer arrived bearing a grisly scene of panic and death in its hold. Town magistrates were summoned and they proceeded to inspect the vessel. They found the suffocated remains of 76 men, women, and children. “The steerage,” reported a local newspaper, “presented a most hideous spectacle of mortality.” The captain and his mates were arrested and charged with manslaughter. The jury that subsequently found the captain and crew guilty of manslaughter noted that the cattle aboard the ship had received far more humane treatment than the passengers.
The Londonderry tragedy was the most outrageous example of cruelty aboard the Irish-to-England passage during the Famine, but it was certainly not the only one. The records of the years 1845-1850 are full of stories of people killed by callous captains who overloaded their ships to gain the greatest possible profit from the misery besetting Ireland. These incidents underscore the grim fact that when it came to fleeing Ireland during the Famine, there was no easy way out.
HIBERNIAN HISTORY WEEK
Nov. 29, 1952: Placed in a deep hypnotic trance, Virginia Tighe speaks of a “past life” as Bridey Murphy, touching off a national sensation.
Nov. 30, 1900: Playwright Oscar Wilde dies in Paris.
Dec. 1, 1917: Father Edward Flanagan opens Boys Town, in an area west of Omaha, Neb.
Nov. 29, 1898: Writer C. S. Lewis is born in Belfast.
Nov. 29, 1927: Broadcasting Hall of Fame announcer Vin Scully is born in New York City.
Nov. 30, 1667: Writer and dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, Jonathan Swift is born in Dublin.
Nov. 30, 1931: Pro Football Hall of Fame Coach Bill Walsh is born in Los Angeles.