- 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
Sometimes parents sold their children in order to remain free themselves, and whole families were separated forever. Most people who emigrated as Redemptioners were talked into it by shipping-company agents who carried them off from their native villages in gaily colored wagons drawn by plumed horses, with bugles blowing and a glass of schnapps all around. The gaiety ended there. Just before they boarded the ship, the travelers were given a paper to sign or to mark with “X”: in case of deaths at sea, the surviving Redemptioners were to work out the time of those who had died as well as their own. Many a Redemp tioner reached North America to find that instead of serving three to six years, as he had been led to expect, he was supposed to spend the rest of his life as an indentured servant.
The agents had, of course, failed to mention that it was a fortunate ship indeed that crossed the Atlantic without deaths at sea; on Redemption ships it was far from rare to lose a third of the passengers. One lost 250 out of 312; another, 350 out of 400. Ships were still built along the lines of medieval galleys and were square, top-heavy, and slow. The captain’s aids to navigation were a compass and chronometer, which were usually faulty and caused him to sail too far south, and a thermometer with which to locate the Gulf Stream. The voyage could take anywhere from fourteen to twenty-four weeks.
In 1819, the American Congress passed a law limiting the number of passengers in a ship to two to every five tons of the ship’s weight; the Redemption system had been profitable only when the steerage was packed like a slave ship, and it soon died out.
In the second decade of the nineteenth century, immigration began in real earnest. ‘They [immigrants] were commonly treated with the least possible attention, with the inmost disregard of decency and humanity,” wrote Friedrich Kapp, a New York gentleman who several decades later served on a board set up for the aid and succor of hapless immigrants. With rare exceptions they were robbed and plundered from the day of their departure to the moment of their arrival at their new homes, by almost everyone with whom they came in contact. … There seemed to be a secret league, a tacit conspiracy, on the part of all parties dealing with immigrants to fleece and pluck them without mercy, and hand them from hand to hand as long as anything could be made of them. … If crosses and tombstones could be erected on the water … the routes of the emigrant vessels from Europe to America would long since have assumed the appearance of crowded cemeteries.
Yet still they came; life for most people in Germany under despotic, extravagant, and stupid petty princes was unendurable. The people had no rights and were cruelly taxed so that their rulers could live in an anachronistic world of Versailles-like pleasures; for those below, the future held nothing but overwork or unemployment. Germans left the fatherland in streams, and when their governments intervened to detain them, they resorted (if they could afford it) to illegal agents who smuggled them out.
For most Germans going to America, the ports most easily reached were Le Havre and, by way of the Rhine, Antwerp and Rotterdam. Paris, under the restored Bourbon monarchy, teemed with German emigrants who arrived by wagon, sold their horses at the great Paris horse market, camped out along the Seine and even in the gardens of the Louvre, and made the trip to Le Havre by river boat. But in 1830, revolution in France, plus cholera epidemics in Antwerp and Rotterdam, diverted emigrant traffic northward.
Bremen, meantime, had taken two foresighted measures. First, it had bought a strip of coastal land from Hanover, and was in the process of building a new port, Bremerhaven, on the North Sea, capable of handling more and larger ships than Bremen itself. Second, Bremen had concluded a treaty with the United States permitting citizens of each to do business in the other’s ports without the restrictions placed on other foreigners; Bremen thus was able to operate more cheaply than its competitors and to capture a monopoly of the German and central European tobacco market. The city’s shipyards were now rapidly turning out new ships alter the lighter, faster American design; and by 1833, a Bremen packet ship was putting to sea regularly on the first and fifteenth of each month. Eastbound, the cargo was tobacco; west-bound, temporary flooring and bunks were installed in the between-decks, and human beings stowed in to capacity.
Small dealers in tobacco all over Germany and middle Europe found it profitable to spend their spare time recruiting passengers for Bremen emigrant ships —the more ships that sailed loaded with paying emigrants, the more came back loaded with tobacco, for which there was an ever-ready market. “Germany is caught in a net of Bremen agents,” complained a Baden newspaper. The agents were paid by ship brokers, who in return for guaranteeing the delivery to a ship of a specified number of emigrants received a percentage (sometimes up to 25 per cent) of the fares.