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Canada: Where Disease Attacked the Land and Its People
Many coffin ships made the long trip to Canada, even though the journey during the winter was both harsh and difficult. Conditions were horrible, and Irish emigrants were storming cities such as Quebec, St. John, and Grosse Ile. In fact, around 110,000 people immigrated to these ports in 1847 through the coffin ship system. One of the reasons why it was such a popular destination was because it was under the rule of England and therefore “could not refuse entrance to ships from the mother country. There were no restrictions on passengers disembarking from the British Isles and Ireland” (O’Gallagher 81). Because of this, the emigrants preferred to travel here since there was no way they would be forced back to famine-stricken Ireland.
In May 1847, there were forty vessels waiting outside Grosse Ile “with as many as 13,000 emigrants under quarantine, stretching in an unbroken line two miles down the St Lawrence” (Donnelly 180). Countless ships contained disease-ridden and starved Irish, and when they came to the quarantine hospital at Grosse Ile, there were too many ships for Canada to process efficiently. Therefore, many people died waiting to be admitted onto dry land. According to Seamus MacManus, “it is recorded that 6,100 died on the voyage; 4,100 died on arrival; 5,200 died in hospitals, and 1,900 soon died in the towns” (610). With the large influx of emigrants, the Canadians could do little in keeping the death toll down. Their system simply could not take care of all the sickly and half-dead Irishmen.
Grosse Ile is known as the infamous quarantine island of death and disease. The more ships that came in, the worse the conditions got. Therefore, tents were erected and hospital buildings commandeered in order to have room for as many emigrants as possible. But the problem was that “most of the ships had not one healthy person on board, and those who had escaped fever were weakened by starvation” (Litton 107). Since all emigrants were in such close proximity, the dangers of being infected grew by the second. There was a strong attempt to reach all the sick, but many Irishmen were forced to remain on the ship until they could be taken care of. According to Edward Laxton, a “Dr. Douglas reported he had 850 patients in his hospital with almost 500 awaiting admission, still on board their ships” (44). Doctors and nurses became more and more desperate since the people died before they were seen by a doctor, and were simply dumped into the St. Lawrence River.
In some cases, the emigrants were taken off the ship and evacuated into the hospital or chapels in the nearby area. However, what many people don’t know is that for the first seven years “the military controlled the island and the medical staff consisted of army surgeons” (McGowan 532). Therefore the staff was used to working with any supplies in an attempt to save the Irish emigrants. But as the disease-ridden Irish flocked into Canada, there was another issue that surfaced. When the quarantine island was closed and the Irish settled down in Canadian cities such as Quebec and Montreal in 1847, diseases spread to the rest of the population in the form of fever epidemics that were difficult to stop.
In addition to fever epidemics spreading through the area around St. Lawrence, there was a catastrophic typhus epidemic spreading in 1847 that “left as many as 5,000 men, women and children […] dead and buried on the island, many in mass graves” (Black 2011). Typhus was a common disease during the famine years, but became catastrophic since it was not only Irish emigrants that perished from this epidemic. Many Canadians suffered under famine-related disease after accepting such a large number of emigrants. However, the ones surrounding Grosse Ile struggled the most.
Black, Peter. “Grosse Ile—Quebec’s Irish Island.” Canadian Geographic, 2011. Web.
Donnelly, James S. The Great Irish Potato Famine. Phoenix Mill: Sutton Publishing, 2001. Print.
Laxton, Edward. The Famine Ships: The Irish Exodus to America. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1996. Print.
Litton, Helen. The Irish Famine: An Illustrated History. Dublin: Wolfhound Press, 1994. Print.
MacManus, Seamus. “The Great Famine.” The Story of the Irish Race: A Popular History of Ireland, Revised Edition. New York: The Devin-Adair Company, 1972. Print.
McGowan, Mark G. “Black ’47 and Toronto, Canada.” Atlas of the Great Irish Famine. Ed. John Crowley, William J. Smyth, and Mike Murphy. New York: New York University Press, 2012. Print.
O’Gallagher, Marianna. “The Orphans of Grosse Ile: Canada and the Adoption of Irish Famine Orphans, 1847-48.” The Meaning of the Famine: The Irish World Wide History, Heritage, Identity, vol 6. Ed. Patrick O’Sullivan. London: Leicester University Press, 2000. Print.
Researcehr/Writer: Ellen-Marie Pedersen
Technical Designers: Derek Rachel and Amanda Lundeen