Tuesday, June 22, 2010


Lord Lansdowne's Assisted Emigration plan brought starving paupers from the workhouses of Kerry to New York's Five Points district and other North American slums. The plan was costly but it was also cost-effective. The aristocrat both avoided the expense of feeding and maintaining thousands of unproductive tenants and moved them far enough away that they would never trouble him again. In fact, there was the prospect of a bonus to him, since it was the practice of Irish emigrants to save pennies and send them back to those of their impoverished relatives who remained in the homeland. Much of this donated money ended up in Lansdowne's pockets in the form of payment for arrears of rent.

There were plentiful complaints from Irish commentators about the "forced" depopulation of the country, but I've found no complaints from the emigrants or those to whom they sent their few saved-up sawbucks. It's also a Malthusian fact that post-exodus Ireland was more prosperous than it was before.

Unfortunately, though willing to go to America, the beneficiaries of "assisted emigration" did not make the passage easily; in fact the sufferings of many continued unabated until sometime after they finally settled in the new land (assuming they survived that long). Their trek from the hovels in which they lived, to the overcrowded workhouses where their starvation was only partly alleviated was difficult and painful. So too the trek from the workhouses to the docks at Cork where they set sail for Liverpool. Their experience on these docks and those of Liverpool was no less degrading. The trans-Atlantic voyage was likely to be even worse and their reception at New York no better.

All in all, as one contemporary noted: "These wretched people were flying from known misery into unknown and tenfold aggravated misfortune."[1]

Here's an extract from a history, taken largely from public records, made a half century afterward. It's written from the English point of view and is mainly about English attempts to cope with gross exploitation of a desperate people.
In 1851 the entire business connected with the carriage of emigrants had become so corrupt that a Royal Commission was appointed to enquire into the matter. The Commission directed its attention more particularly to the conditions which prevailed on voyages to North America rather than to other parts of the world; first, because this quarter of the globe attracted the largest number of British emigrants, and, secondly, because the people who journeyed there were "ignorant, helpless, an easy prey to fraud, and least able to obtain redress." The emigrants as a class were uneducated and lacking in mental training, and therefore were easily imposed upon. They arrived at the port of embarkation with various bundles which unmistakably proclaimed their mission. Here dishonest porters and crimps seized upon them, more by force than persuasion, and took them to boarding-houses kept by equally dishonest landlords. As lights were prohibited on board ships that were lying in dock, no one was allowed to embark until within a few hours of the sailing time. The interval between the moment of setting foot in the port and the time for weighing anchor was thus necessarily spent in the clutches of the evil boarding-house keepers. These latter used every device for extorting money from their guests. Affecting the role of a friendly adviser, they would provide the gullible traveller with all sorts of useless utensils at exorbitant prices, telling him that they were necessary articles for the voyage. They would change English into American money, and, needless to say, "dollared" their victim, as frauds connected with money changing were technically termed. Passage tickets were also pressed on to the bewildered emigrant, but naturally at an enhanced figure. In some cases, even, the landlords drugged their lodgers, and took from them the savings with which they had intended to start life afresh in the New World. No form of theft or extortion seemed too mean to be undertaken by these rapacious people.

Unfortunately, acts of dishonesty were not confined to the keepers of boarding-houses. Once out at sea, the harassed traveller found that the ship's captain was no more dependable than the crimps and the runners on shore. The rations which he distributed were inferior in quality and less in quantity than those stipulated by the Government regulations, and frequently they were unfit for consumption. Overcrowding was usual, and, more often than not, the passengers were bullied and ill-treated by the crew. It must not be thought that proper food and humane treatment were unobtainable; they were procurable by those who cared to pay handsomely for them. Extortion was as rife aboard as on shore, and few dared to complain, as it was common knowledge that the working of the law was slow and costly.

Though the home officials worked strenuously to ensure the shipment of the proper kind and the necessary quantities of food, it was a simple matter for a captain to evade the vigilance of these men, were he so minded. Stores of an unsound nature were freely shipped with the knowledge that, though feeding passengers on decayed food was an offence at law, no penalty could be imposed for merely shipping unsound supplies. Were the nature of the food to be detected by the authorities, the only punishment was that incurred by a waste of time and labour in providing a fresh cargo. For many years it was a frequent practice for certain captains to put into one of the many obscure ports on the coast of Ireland, and there to exchange good barrels of oatmeal for unsound ones. Their log-books recorded a halt at such and such a port owing to stress of weather. Captains who wished to sail with short supplies, complained that their ships when fully laden were unable to ride over the sill of the dock. A clearance was then given them on condition that they took aboard whatever supplies they lacked when the exterior of the harbour was reached. On reaching a point without the harbour, they were met by small boats carrying the necessary provisions, but these were left unshipped.

Once out on the open sea, the lot of the emigrant was usually a terrible one. Mr. Vere Foster, a philanthropist who sent, at different times, no less than sixteen thousand women to Canada at his own expense, embarked in 1850 on the Washington as a steerage passenger. His identity he kept a secret, wishing to obtain a true insight into the treatment of the poorer classes who travelled across the Atlantic. In a letter written to a friend, he said, the medical examination consisted of What's your name? Are you well? Hold out your tongue. All right. It was all said in one breath, and lasted one or two seconds. On the first day, the nine hundred people mustered on deck for their water. While it was being pumped into their cans, the mates cursed, abused, cuffed and kicked the people without any provocation, and only served thirty of them; the others having to go without. In spite of what the contract promised, no provisions were served on that or on the following day, and, as many people were almost starving, a letter of complaint was written to the captain. The man who composed it was knocked down by a blow in the face from the first mate. The next day half rations were served. Supplies were always given out raw; to get near the cooking fires many people bribed the sailors; those who were too poor to offer them money only managed their turn once in two or three days. Several serious injuries were wantonly inflicted on the passengers by the mates. Twelve children died from dysentery or, more truthfully, from want of nourishing food. From this letter, we may picture, not the life experienced on board an isolated ship managed by an exceptionally brutal master, but the existence endured by hundreds and thousands of people, many of them ill, underfed and wretched, who left Britain for North America during the first half of the nineteenth century. It is interesting to know that, on reaching the United States, Mr. Vere Foster took legal proceedings against the defaulting captain, but withdrew them when he discovered how much time and money they would entail if pursued. We can but conclude that the law was in a very useless state if Mr. Foster, a wealthy man, felt himself beyond its protection.

On landing in America, the emigrant was required to face yet further troubles. Awaiting him on the quays were gangs of porters known as runners, who pestered him with even more audacity than was displayed by the crimps of the old country. Seizing his baggage, they led him to a lodging-house kept by a confederate, and there began over again the extortion which was practised at the port of embarkation. Not until he had purchased a transportation ticket to some distant inland town, probably at a fabulous price, was he rid of the terrors inseparable from an Atlantic passage.

-- A history of emigration from the United Kingdom to North America, 1763-1912, Issue 34 of Studies in economics and political science, by Stanley Currie Johnson (Routledge, 1914)

{I've reproduced this before; it shows "assisted emigration" paupers enroute to New York; source: victoriana.com}

{interior of a cabin, 1846, A contemporary lithograph drawn by A. S. G. Stopford; source: vassar.edu}

{caption: "The accompanying is a sketch of a party of emigrants who have arrived on the quay after a long journey, in some cases close upon one hundred miles:-- They are stretched and tumbled about upon boxes and straw to seek some few moments' repose; source: vassar.edu}

{Cork: departure of the Nimrod and Athlone Steamers with Emigrants on Board for Liverpool, Illustrated London News; source: munsterbusiness.ie}

{caption: The embarkation, Waterloo Docks, Liverpool -- The Illustrated London News, 1850; source:quarantotto.altervista.org}

W.S. Trench described the Lansdowne migrants at quay-side:
It must be admitted that the paupers dispatched to America on such a sudden pressure as this, were of a very motley type; and a strange figure these wild batches of two hundred each — most of them speaking only the Irish language — made in the streets of Cork, as well as on the quays of Liverpool and America. There was great difficulty in keeping them from breaking loose from the ship, not only in Cork but in Liverpool, where the ships touched before they left for the West. Their chief device was to escape out of the ships almost naked, to hide all their good clothes which had been furnished them as an outfit, and to appear only in their worst rags. In this costume they took delight in rushing through the streets of Cork and Liverpool in large bodies, to the real terror of the inhabitants. In short, I do believe that so strange, unmanageable, and wild a crew had never before left the shores of Ireland. But notwithstanding their apparent poverty, they were all in the most uproarious spirits; there was no crying nor lamentation, as is usual on such occasions; all was delight at having escaped the deadly workhouse.
-- -- Realities of Irish life by William Steuart Trench (Roberts Brothers, 1880)

{caption: Sketch of the row at the office-door, where some of the emigrants are seen paying their passage-money, will show the extent to which the ruffianly touters and mancatchers carry their interference, and from which they are only obliged to desist upon the application of superior force; source: vassar.edu}

{caption: Having thus shown you what was picturesque in the passage of the group of emigrants from the home of their infancy to the office of the emigration agent who provides them with a ship direct from the port, it may not now be out of place for me to send you a sketch of the interior of one of those vessels, which I accordingly do, and which I trust will readily explain the mode in which those vessels are fitted up, and where each party gets so many square inches to her or his share of ship, as the case may be, and where, if I am given rightly to understand, man woman, and child are obliged to huddle together like pigs at a fair. But then the ship is partitioned, divided, and formed exactly according to the strict letter of the law, and none can grumble, yet few can go on board one of them without being instantly struck with the chances tat appear of the complete demoralization of the whole group; and what it must be when the sea rolls heavily, when the hatches are all closed, and the ship heaves and labours in the storm, can be much better imagined by others than described by me. The answer given to a party who, upon seeing the way in which these unfortunate beings were left toss and tumble about, asked if even a plank in the shape of a table was not to be provided for them was, 'Cock them up with it, indeed! How badly off they're for a table!' And yet this man is known to be a kind, generous-hearted man in other respects. Every inquiry or remonstrance is answered by the allegation, that all is according to the Act of Parliament, or 'the Act so directs it;' so that you will perceive what little chances of extra comforts the emigrant has who emigrates in the smaller vessels belonging to men, some of whom are making lordly fortunes by their new trade. Before one emigrant left our ports, and when thoughtless and selfish men were first beginning to talk of a great systematic plan of emigration, we called the attention of the Legislature to the dreadful scenes that would be witnessed on board the emigrant fleet, crowded with wretches already at death's door, predisposed to almost any malady, and certain victims to the first existing cause of disease. We subsequently exposed the wickedness of transporting our pauperism to shores where no provision was made for its reception, and to a climate where the necessities of life were at least as indispensable as our own.
-- The Times of London wrote a lead editorial about the plight of famine immigrants on Friday, September 17, 1847' source: vassar.edu, munsterbusiness.ie, and rootsweb}

{Between decks, Illustrated London News; source: heritagecanterbury.org}

{Emigrants at dinner, Illustrated London News; source: heritagecanterbury.org}

{caption: Steerage in a "coffin ship." In 1851 there were often as many as fifteen ships a day sailing to America from Liverpool. In the first half of the century conditions on the trans-Atlantic ships were often appalling. The worst death rates occurred during the famine on the notorious “coffin ships” with death rates a high as 30% on some of them. Some idea of the conditions endured by people on the coffin ships of the famine period can be gleaned from the story of the "Elizabeth and Sarah", which sailed from Co. Mayo in July 1847. She carried 276 persons, instead of the 212 listed, and had only 8,700 gallons of water for the voyage, instead of the 12,532 gallons she should have had. Each passenger was entitled to be given 7 lbs of provisions each week, but none was ever distributed. The 276 passengers shared 32 berths, and there was no sanitary facility of any kind. The voyage took eight weeks, because the captain took the wrong course, and by the time the ship broke down and was towed into the St. Lawrence River in September, 42 people had died. Source: emigrantletters.com}


Some sources:


Coffin Ships

Assisted Emigration from the Shirley Estate in County Monaghan, 1846-1853 on bytown.net


Emigration from Europe, 1815-1930 Volume 11 of New studies in economic and social history, by Dudley Baines (Cambridge University Press, 1995)

Emigration and immigration: a study in social science by Richmond Mayo-Smith (C. Scribner's sons, 1912)

A history of emigration from the United Kingdom to North America, 1763-1912 Issue 34 of Studies in economics and political science, by Stanley Currie Johnson (Routledge, 1914)

Irish Immigrants in America during the 19th Century

From Famine to Five Points: Lord Lansdowne's Irish Tenants Encounter North America's Most Notorious Slum by Tyler Anbinder

Lansdowne's Estate in Kenmare Assisted Emigration Plan, Shea Family History in Ireland, Dick Shea, December 2009

Eyewitness Accounts of the Famine

The Great Famine of 1845 - 1849

Irish Views of the Famine

Henry Petty-Fitzmaurice, 3rd Marquis of Lansdowne

The Night side of New York. A picture of the great metropolis after nightfall by Frank Beard (New York, J.C. Haney & Co. 1866)

Interpreting The Irish Famine, 1846-1850



[1] From Robert Whyte, The Ocean Plague: The Diary of a Cabin Passenger (1848). "Robert Whyte's immigrant diary, The Ocean Plague: The Diary of a Cabin Passenger, appeared in print in 1848, one year after the author said he made his journey from famine-stricken Ireland to Canada. Whyte later crossed the boarder into the United States. Nothing is known about Robert Whyte, including whether such a person even existed; the name could very well be a pseudonym. All that is left is this diary, published in 1994 by Mercier Press and edited by James Mangan under the title Robert Whyte's 1847 Famine Ship Diary. Mangan also edited the fictionalization of Gerald Keegan's famine journal. Unlike this earlier work (1991), however, Robert Whyte's 1847 Famine Ship Diary is an authentic reproduction of the original text, rather than a dramatization. One could assume, therefore, that Whyte's diary is a relatively more trustworthy account of the ocean crossing." -- from the curator of the Mary anne Sadlier Archive at U. of Virginia.

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