This path was created by Derek James Rachel.  The last update was by Erika Strandjord.

Star of the Sea : A Postcolonial/Postmodern Voyage into the Irish Famine

Diseases and Conditions Aboard Coffin Ships

Coffin ships were generally known as having horrible health conditions, which greatly led to a rising death toll and the spreading of disease. Due to regulations, there was a certain water ration the passengers were supposed to receive. Per day there was supposed to be distributed 6 pints per person, but if the supplies were running low the daily water allocation would be lowered. According to Peter Gray, “Ship captains often refused to issue the rations of food and fresh water laid down by law and ignored basic hygiene precautions” (The Irish Famine 100). Therefore, the passengers grew sicklier as they digested no nutrition and ended up dehydrated. With the little food they did have, their only way of cooking “took place on the open deck leaving passengers open to bad weather and the danger of fire” (“The Crossing”). If there was a storm, the passengers were unable to make food and therefore had to starve until the storm was over.

However, lack of food and water was not the main problem on certain coffin ships. Overcrowded ships did not allow for much space, and since they were steerage passengers, the environment was even worse: “Hundreds of men, women and children [were] huddled together in the dark on bare wooden floors with no ventilation, breathing a stench of vomit” (“Coffin Ships”). In such close proximity, they were unable to get exercise, and disease spread a lot quicker. Since their quarters were small, there was no way of keeping a satisfactory hygiene during the sailing. According to William Henry, “The filth and dirt on board some of these vessels created such an ‘effluvium as to make it hard to breathe’” (57). This filth would make the probability of starting an epidemic even higher, and all the passengers could do was to wait it out until they could step onto dry land.

Because of the lack of hygiene on these ships, there were plenty of diseases spreading to both the passengers and its destination. The most common disease would be typhus, but smallpox, cholera, and dysentery also hit passengers. Anelise H. Shrout states: “Many immigrants had been ill when they left Ireland, or were simply too young or too old to safely make the six-week transatlantic journey” (539). An unimaginable number of passengers died on these coffin ships, but also in the ports where they disembarked. In 1848 there was a cholera epidemic in London, and English physician John Snow carried out a scientific investigation that led him to suggest that it was contaminated water and not bad air that caused a transmission of cholera. Around the same time, an English newspaper described the cholera victims as someone who were “one minute warm, palpitating, human organisms—the next a sort of galvanized corpse, with icy breath, stopped pulse, and blood congealed—blue, shriveled up, convulsed” (qtd. in Aldridge, “Cholera” 180). These symptoms were the exact same as the ones that happened during the ship sailings. John Snow’s conclusion that contaminated water helped the transmission of cholera provides an explanation as to why it was spread on the coffin ships. Dirty water and close proximity to those infected with cholera would cause it spread at a rapid rate.

Another rapidly spread disease on the coffin ships was dysentery, which is essentially an inflammation of the intestines and colon with painful abdominal pain. Bacteria, worms, protozoa, or non-infectious agents are usually the cause of it. Dysentery is frequently referred to as “traveler’s diarrhea” due to its high frequency on travels. The number of people infected with dysentery increased at a rapid rate during the famine, though mostly due to the fact that “overcrowding and poor hygiene are major risk factors for dysentery” (Aldridge, “Dysentery” 257). On coffin ships, the hygiene would be virtually non-existent, and there would rarely be a ship that was not overcrowded, therefore increasing the number.

Typhus is a disease of many names, including typhoid fever, hospital fever, ship fever, gaol fever, and camp fever. According to Edward Laxton, it is “one of the most contagious diseases in existence” (38). Symptoms of the fever include chills, stomach pain, rash, and high fever. Typhus is categorized as a gastrointestinal disease “caused by the bacterium Salmonella typhi” (Aldridge, “Typhoid Fever” 849). Usually it is spread through food and water that has been contaminated by people already infected by typhus. It took many coffin ship passengers, and most of the ones that died were from steerage. In the case of Joseph O'Connor's Star of the Sea, one of the captains logs state: "The total of those who have died since the voyage commenced is eighteen. Five are in the hold this night, suspected of Typhus. Two, it is certain, will not see the morning" (O'Connor 32). This captain's descriptions was quite common on the coffin ships due to its horrible health conditions. However, there were also many Irish emigrants that were infected already at the time when they stepped onto the ship. While they were in the port, “passengers were bitten by lice carrying the bacteria Rickettsia prowazekii, which caused outbreaks of typhus” (McGowan 526). There was no escape from typhus, and it claimed a multitude of lives in or around the coffin ships.

In the year of 1847 alone, there were 17,465 documented deaths alone (“Emigration and Coffin Ships”). However, this does not take into account the undocumented deaths, or divide further into how many passengers died of which disease. In some cases, they did not know why the passengers died; they simply fell like flies. At one of the sailings of Marchioness of Abercorn, 140 passengers died from a total of 400, and most of these died of typhus (Dobson 2015). It was rare during the famine years for a ship to arrive at its destination with all passengers alive and healthy, and most of the ones that perished were either due to starvation or diseases such as typhus or cholera. According to Kevin Hannan, an emigration officer in Boston once stated that “if headstones could be erected on the ocean on the route of the emigrant ships from Ireland the sea would look like one great cemetery” (146). This metaphor puts into perspective the amount of Irish emigrants that died due to horrible hygiene and health conditions on coffin ships that were supposed to take them to safety. Coffin ships during the famine years were so horrible that for some people they would have been better off remaining in Ireland.

Works Cited 
Aldridge, Susan. “Cholera.” Infectious Diseases: In Context, vol 1. Ed. Brenda Wilmot Lerner and K. Lee Lerner. Detroit: Thomson Gale, 2008. Print.

---------------------. “Dysentery.” Infectious Diseases: In Context, vol 1. Ed. Brenda Wilmot Lerner and K. Lee Lerner. Detroit: Thomson Gale, 2008. Print.

---------------------. “Typhoid Fever.” Infectious Diseases: In Context, vol 1. Ed. Brenda Wilmot Lerner and K. Lee Lerner. Detroit: Thomson Gale, 2008. Print.

Dobson, Ben. “The Marchioness of Abercorn.” Cornish Story, 2015. Web. 10 February 2016.

“Emigration and Coffin Ships.” Ireland’s Greatest Hunger Museum, Connecticut. Web.
Gray, Peter. The Irish Famine. New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc. Publishers, 1995. Print.

Hannan, Kevin. “The Coffin Ships.” The Old Limerick Journal 32 (1996): 145-148. Web.

Henry, William. Coffin Ship: The Wreck of the Brig St. John. Dublin: Mercier Press, 2009. Print.

Laxton, Edward. The Famine Ships: The Irish Exodus to America. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1996. Print.

O'Connor, Joseph. Star of the Sea. Florida: Harcourt Books, 2002. Print.

Researcher/Writer: Ellen-Marie Pedersen
Technical Designers: Derek Rachel and Amanda Lundeen

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