Captain and Crew well matched

John Francis Maguire
CHAPTER X (3) start of chapter

The ships, of which such glowing accounts were read on Sunday by the Irish peasant, on the flaming placards posted near the chapel gate, were but too often old and unseaworthy, insufficient in accommodation, without the means of maintaining the most ordinary decency, with bad or scanty provisions, not having even an adequate supply of water for a long voyage; and to render matters worse, they, as a rule rather than as the exception, were shamefully underhanded. True, the provisions and the crew passed muster in Liverpool—for, twenty years since, and long after, it was from that port the greater number of the emigrants to America sailed; but there were tenders and lighters to follow the vessel out to sea; and over the sides of that vessel several of the mustered men would pass, and casks, and boxes, and sacks would be expeditiously hoisted, to the amazement of the simple people, who looked on at the strange, and to them unaccountable operation. And thus the great ship with its living freight would turn her prow towards the West, depending on her male passengers, as upon so many impressed seamen, to handle her ropes, or to work her pumps in case of accident, which was only too common under such circumstances. What with bad or scanty provisions, scarcity of water, severe hardship, and long confinement in a foul den, ship fever reaped a glorious harvest between decks, as frequent ominous splashes of shot-weighted corpses into the deep but too terribly testified. Whatever the cause, the deaths on board the British ships enormously exceeded the mortality on board the ships of any other country. For instance, according to the records of the Commissioners of Emigration for the State of New York, the quota of sick per thousand stood thus in 1847 and 1848—British vessels, 30; American, 9 3/5; Germans, 8 3/5. It was no unusual occurrence for the survivor of a family of ten or twelve to land alone, bewildered and broken-hearted, on the wharf at New York; the rest—the family—parents and children, had been swallowed in the sea, their bodies marking the course of the ship to the New World.

But there were worse dangers than sickness, greater calamities than death and a grave in the ocean, with the chance of becoming food for the hungry shark. There was no protection against lawless violence and brutal lust on the one hand, or physical helplessness and moral prostration on the other. To the clergyman, the physician, and the magistrate, are known many a sad tale of human wreck and dishonour, having their origin in the emigrant sailing ship of not many years since. Even so late as 1860, an Act was passed by Congress 'to regulate the carriage of passengers in steamships and other vessels, for the better protection of female passengers'; and a single clause of this Act, which it is necessary to quote, is a conclusive proof of the constant and daily existence of the most fearful danger to the safety of the poor emigrant girl. Every line of the clause is an evidence of the evil it endeavours to arrest:—

That every master or other officer, seaman, or other person employed on board of any ship or vessel of the United States, who shall, during the voyage of such ship or vessel, under promise of marriage, or by threats, or by the exercise of his authority, or by solicitation, or the making of gifts or presents, seduce . . . any female passenger, shall be guilty of a misdemeanour, and upon conviction shall be punished by imprisonment for a term not exceeding one year, or by a fine not exceeding one thousand dollars; provided that the subsequent intermarriage of the parties seducing and seduced may be pleaded in bar of conviction.

It is further provided, by the second clause, that neither officers, nor seamen, nor others employed on board, shall visit or frequent any part of such ship or vessel assigned to emigrant passengers, except by direction or permission of the master or commander, 'first made or given for such purpose.' Forfeiture of his wages for the voyage is the penalty attaching to any officer or seaman violating this wholesome rule; and the master or commander who shall direct or permit any of his officers or seamen to visit or frequent any part of the ship assigned to emigrant passengers, except for the purpose of performing some necessary act or duty, shall, upon conviction, be punished by a fine of 50 dollars for each separate offence. And the master or commander who does not 'post a written or printed notice, in the English, French, and German languages,' containing the provision of the foregoing or second section, in a conspicuous place on the forecastle, and in the several parts of the ships assigned to emigrant passengers, and keep it posted during the voyage, shall be liable to a penalty not exceeding 500 dollars.

This is a wise and humane Act, passed at any time; but what lives of shame and deaths of misery would it not have prevented had it been in active operation for the last quarter of a century as a restraint upon lawless brutality!

Before leaving the ship for the land, it may not be out of place to afford the reader, through the testimony of a reliable witness, Mr. Vere Foster, a notion of the manner in which emigrants were treated in some vessels, the dishonesty of whose owners or charterers was only equalled by the ruffianism of their officers and crews. The letter from which the extract was taken was published in 1851 by order of the House of Commons; but facts similar to those described by Mr. Foster have been frequently complained of since then. The ship in question had 900 passengers on board, and this is a sample of the manner in which the luckless people were supplied with a great necessary of life:—

The serving out of the water was twice capriciously stopped by the mates of the ship, who during the whole time, without any provocation, cursed and abused, and cuffed and kicked, the passengers and their tin cans, and, having served out water to about 30 persons, in two separate times, said they would give no more water out till the next morning, and kept their word.

A very simple mode was adopted of economising the ship's stores—namely, that of not issuing provisions of any kind for four days; and had it not been for the following remonstrance, it is probable that as many more days would have passed without their being issued:—

RESPECTED SIR,—We, the undersigned passengers on board the ship .... paid for and secured our passages in her in the confident expectation that the allowance of provisions promised in our contract tickets would be faithfully delivered to us. Four entire days having expired since the day on which (some of us having been on board from that day, and most of us from before that day) the ship was appointed to sail, and three entire days since she actually sailed from the port of Liverpool, without our having received one particle of the stipulated provisions excepting water, and many of us having made no provision to meet such an emergency, we request that you will inform us when we may expect to commence receiving the allowance which is our due.

It may be interesting to know in what manner this application was received by the mild-mannered gentleman in command. It appears that captain and mate were singularly well-matched; indeed, it would be difficult to decide to which of the two amiable beings the merit of gentleness and good temper should be awarded. Mr. Foster thus describes the agreeable nature of his reception:—

On the morning of the 31st October, I presented the letter to Captain ——. He asked me the purport of it, and bade me read it. Having read out one-third of it, he said that was enough, and that he knew what I was; I was a damned pirate, a damned rascal, and that he would put me in irons and on bread and water throughout the rest of the voyage. The first mate then came up, and abused me foully and blasphemously, and pushed me down, bidding me get out of that, as I was a damned b————. He was found by one of the passengers soon afterwards heating a thick bar of iron at the kitchen fire; the cook said, 'What is he doing that for?' and the mate said, 'There is a damned b——— on board, to whom I intend giving a singeing before he leaves the ship.'

As a single example of the treatment to which the helpless and the feeble are exposed from brutes who luxuriate in violence and blasphemy, this incident, the more impressive because of the homely language in which it is told, may be given:—

A delicate old man, named John M'Corcoran, of berth No. 111, informed me that on Sunday last he had just come on deck, and, after washing, was wringing a pair of stockings, when the first mate gave him such a severe kick with his knee on his backside as he was stooping down, that he threw him down upon the deck, since which he has been obliged to go to the watercloset three or four times a day, passing blood every time.

These extracts, quoted with the purpose of illustrating the harsh, brutal, and dishonest conduct too often practised against emigrants in some ships—-mostly sailing ships—are relied on as accurate, being vouched for by the signature of a gentleman whose name has long been associated with deeds of active humanity and practical benevolence.

Within sight of the wished-for land, the trials of the emigrant might be said to have begun rather than to have ended: or, rather, the trials on land succeeded to the trials on sea.

The Irish in America, first published in 1868, provides an invaluable account of the extreme difficulties that 19th Century Irish immigrants faced in their new homeland and the progress which they had nonetheless made in the years since arriving on a foreign shore. A new edition, including additional notes and an index, has been published by Books Ulster/LibraryIreland:

Paperback: 700+ pages The Irish in America

ebook: The Irish in America