- Historic Sites
“damned Plague Ships And Swimming Coffins”
On the long voyage from Bremen to America, the promised land, emigrants from eastern Europe endured a cramped, dangerous, and disease-haunted pilgrimage
August 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 5
The grandparents, or the great-grandparents, or the great-great-grandparents of millions of Americans had as their last view of Europe the diked lowlands where the Weser River leaves Bremen, widens, and Hows into the North Sea. This coastal country is austere and lonely, and looks today much as it must have looked for generations, sparsely dotted with thatched farmhouses that have the sturdy but not particularly cordial air of the house that the smart little pig built. When the sun shines, the light has the diffused and tender quality of the light in a Dutch landscape painting. But there are more storms here than sunshine; and the hostile weather may have struck more than one emigrant as symbolic of the ordeals he had to pass through.
Bremen, which until the unification of Germany in 1871 was an independent city-state and member of the Hanseatic League, has a thousand-year history of making a living at sea. Navigare necesse est, vivere non est necesse , a motto inscribed above the doorway of a fifteenth-century Bremen home for sailors, expresses the town’s tough and realistic temper. It took a tough people to stay free and prosperous; Bremen was hemmed in to the south by various small duchies and principalities (Lüneburg, Brunswick, Oldenburg, and others) and to the north by Hanover, which owned part of the Weser River between Bremen and the sea. All these neighbors exacted duties and tolls from ships that came and went from Bremen, and constantly threatened the city-state’s independence. Wy hebben eyne Vrye Stad! (“We have a free city”), a Bremen Bürgermeister wrote a predatory Graf of Oldenburg in 1404; and in spite of harassments from all the other North Sea powers, a free city Bremen remained.
The great flood of German emigration did not be gin until after the American Revolution, but three times before that Bremen had a taste of the profits and advantages of being a port of emigration: in 1757, when several shiploads of German emigrants bound for William Penn’s colony at German town left by way of Bremen; in 1757, when the Seven Years’ War brought about such a mass exodus from Prussia that the Holy Roman Emperor forbade the shipowners of Bremen and the other Hanseatic cities, on pain of death, to carry emigrants; and in 1776, when twelve thousand Hessian troops on their way to America passed through Bremen and were provisioned there.
Bremen had no objection to provisioning the Hessians, but hoped earnestly for their defeat. Under England’s Navigation Act of 1651, no European ships could trade with the English colonies; and Bremen ships bound for or returning from North America had always to call at an English port and pay duty. The end of England’s control of the thirteen colonies would mean a rich business for Bremen in tobacco and cotton. As it turned out, there was an even richer business in store—the wholesale transportation of human cargo—which was to make Bremen the greatest emigrant port in Europe.
In the spring of 1782, just a few months after Cornwallis’ defeat, a Bremen ship, the Fama , sailed for Baltimore, carrying a mixed cargo of freight and emigrants. One of these people was a prosperous Bremen glassmaker who was taking with him sixty glass blowers recruited in Brunswick-Luneburg and Thuringia, and $10,000. “The Bremen shipowners are trading in souls—a most sordid business,” said an official note sent by Brunswick-Luneburg to the Bremen Senate; and other governments protested, too. No one particularly objected to trading in the souls of the poor and the unskilled, but there was alarm everywhere at the departure of good and useful craftsmen like these glass blowers, and of the capital they took with them. Bremen decided to mollify its neighbors and passed a law that its ships could carry only non-German emigrants; Germans would be required to give a guarantee of their intention to return. But as nothing was done to prevent American ships from loading German emigrants, it was soon seen to be absurd to allow the Americans to grow rich on emigrant fares while Bremen ships sailed half empty; and in 1800, the Senate decided to permit local ships to be chartered tor mass expeditions under the Redemption system.
The Redemption system was indeed “a most sordid business.” Emigrants who could not pay for their passage were carried without prepayment, and then, on arrival in an American port, were auctioned off as bond servants. The system was prevalent throughout the eighteenth century, and even governments had been known to indulge in it; in 1709, England brought over several hundred German Redemptioners and gave them land in what is now Ncwburgh. New York, in return for their labor in manufacturing naval stores. Sometimes everything event off well, the Redemptioner being kindly treated by his American master and eventually becoming a prosperous American himself. A German theological student, emigrating as a Redemptioner in 1753, was bought by a Lutheran congregation in Frederick, Maryland, and respectfully installed as their new pastor. Germans, in general, had a reputation for hard work and no back talk. “Robust farmers and sturdy mechanic find a very easy market,” said a German traveler, D. von Bulow, writing from New York in 1791. “At times, however, an unsaleable article creeps in which remains a long time on the shelf. The worst of these articles are military officers and scholars. The captain who imports that kind of goods does not know the market. I have seen a Russian officer for more than a week on board of a vessel, heavy as ballast … He was, in fact, unsaleable.”