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

Horrible Coffin Ships of the Irish Famine

Most of the coffin ships that sailed during the famine years received a horrible reputation due to their bad health conditions and disrespectful crew. With all the ships travelling from Ireland, there were far too many ships that were categorized as coffin ships, with good reason. The Naomi was well known around the world, but it was not for a good reason: “Death seemed daily omnipresent on the Naomi—196 people died aboard. Waking in the unspeakable steerage, in which nearly 700 were crowded in an infectious stew, people found the dead beside them” (Keneally, Three Famines, 168). These conditions were despicable, and there were ships like the Naomi that contributed to this bad reputation. Despite of this, Irish emigrants still boarded these types of ships in order to escape the horrible conditions back home. Another ship that was famous for its death toll was the Erin Queen that arrived in 1847 at its destination with 78 dead passengers and 104 deathly ill. Primary documents state that: “On this ship the captain had to bribe the seamen with a sovereign for each body brought out from the hold. The dead sometimes had to be dragged out with boat hooks, since even their own relatives refused to touch them” (“Emigration and ‘Coffin Ships”). The fear of being infected, even by relatives, was in the back of everyone’s mind. The health conditions in the ships like Naomi and Erin Queen was the main reason why the death tolls went through the roof.

Another reason as to why a coffin ship would be horrible is the lack of supplies. The ship was either not prepared for the masses they admitted onto the ship, or the crew did not care enough to give out the necessary supplies. The Elizabeth and Sarah made two trips from County Mayo to Canada, one in 1846 and one in 1847. In the 1846 journey, she admitted 276 passengers instead of the 212 listed in the manifest. This was rather common for a coffin ship, though mostly due to the expensive fees on overloading ships. Therefore, they would attempt to hide passengers deep in the corners of steerage. Unfortunately, the crew failed to supply the passengers with the food and drinks necessary: “[They] 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” (Litton 107). These supplies would have been essential to the passengers, but the crew refused to give them what the regulation had decided. Therefore, they had to depend on whatever they brought from Ireland, or just starve yet again.

On Elizabeth and Sarah’s journey in 1847 they carried 276 passengers instead of the 155 decided by the ship laws. Even though the death toll was minor compared to other journeys, the health conditions were despicable: “Many of the hastily erected berths in the 83-year-old ship had falled down as soon as she sailed and there were only 32 to be shared by all those in the hold; the rest spent the voyage on the floor.” (Laxton 39). The crew failed to provide appropriate supplies such as clean water and food. Unfortunately, conditions shown aboard the Elizabeth and Sarah was not uncommon, and the Syria had similar conditions to this coffin ship. The Syria had a reputation of a gruesome death toll due to the lack of care for passengers: “Nine died before they reached Quebec; forty died at Grosse Ile and the haggard remnant of the human cargo was pushed on” (McGowan 526). The conditions on the ship made the disease spread faster among the passengers, and that lead to the death toll spiking even after they disembarked the ship and walked among the Canadians.

Conditions on the coffin ships led to the passenger death toll rapidly increasing. The Virginius travelled from Liverpool with 476 passengers, and experienced 236 deaths on its journey to Grosse Ile, Canada. A medical officer at the quarantine station reported: “the few who were able to come on deck were ghastly, yellow-looking spectres, unshaven and hollow-cheeked… not more than 6 or 8 were really healthy and able to exert themselves” (qtd. in “Emigration and Coffin Ships”). Whether the passengers were already sick or if the coffin ship conditions made them sick is impossible to know, but it is evident that the cramped conditions on the ship at least made them worse. If the health conditions were too horrible, the coffin ship needed to be held in quarantine until it was safe to enter the port. The Agnes travelled to St. Lawrence with 427 passengers, but due to bad health conditions it lost so many passengers that it was forced into quarantine. By the time it entered the port only 150 passengers were still alive in addition to the crew (Laxton 47). The health conditions were so bad that the passengers could not even be allowed to disembark. 

One of the most famous bad coffin ships was the Hannah, and it became one of the most famous shipwrecks in coffin ship history. In 1849 it was bound for Quebec from Newry with around 200 emigrants. Unfortunately it struck an iceberg in the darkness and was going down. Without taking care of the steerage passengers, “the captain, first and second mates, expecting the ship to capsize instantly, apparently abandoned their passengers, seized a lifeboat and made their escape” (Laxton 126). Their utter lack of responsibility was shocking to the entire world, but luckily 129 passengers clambered onto the ice and huddled together. Captain Marshall at the Nicaragua, who received an award for their rescue, quickly saved them. Four days later the deserters were found and brought to Quebec. It was called “one of the most revolting acts of inhumanity possible to be conceived” (“Loss of the Hannah, 1849”). After this, the Hannah became an example of the failed leadership on the coffin ships, and there were attempts to help prevent situations like this from happening again.

The Hannah was not the only ship that became famous for a despicable crew as the John was wrecked off the English coast with plenty of passengers dying. However, not a single part of the crew died. But “Captain Rawle was arrested & a verdict of manslaughter was returned against him” (“Shipwrecks”). Many other captains and crew of a variety of coffin ships were charged with manslaughter or gross human negligence. In 1848, the Londonderry carried three cabin passengers and 174 steerage passengers, but all steerage passengers were required to spend the majority of it under deck due to strong storms. They struggled dearly for breath and space and some people were crushed to death. According to Edward Laxton, “When the cabin door was opened the following morning, shortly before the ship tied up at Derry, 31 women, 23 men and 18 children had died” (114). Due to this large number and gross negligence, the captain and two shipmates were arrested but claimed that he had cleared the deck for the passengers’ own safety. Despite of his excuse, he was made an example of, and charged for manslaughter. Coffin ships like all of these prove how despicable the conditions were to the desperate Irish emigrants, and how the crew on the ships contributed to making them so horrible.

Works Cited 
“Emigration and ‘Coffin Ships’.” Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum, Connecticut. Web.

Keneally, Thomas. Three Famines: Starvation and Politics. New York: The Serpentine Publishing, 2011. 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.

“Loss of the Hannah, 1849.” Extract from Armagh Guardian, June 4th and 11th, 1849. The Ships List. 10 February 2016.

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.

“Shipwrecks.” Clarke Historical Library. Central Michigan University. Web. 10 February 2016. 
Researcher/Writer: Ellen-Marie Pedersen
Technical Designers: Derek Rachel and Amanda Lundeen

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