- 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
Who emigrated? The steerage passenger list of the Meta , a 349-ton frigate sailing for New York on the seventeenth of April, 1843, gives an idea. Out of ninety-six passengers, all Germans, there were: 27 farmers, 2 salesmen, 4 tailors, 3 shoemakers, 2 smiths, 2 turners, 2 cabinetmakers, 2 carpenters, 1 plasterer, 1 saddler, 1 baker, 1 butcher, 1 musician, 1 basketmaker, 1 clockmaker, 1 soapboiler. The other fortyfour were women, children, and old people. One family had nineteen members. Most emigrants were between twenty and thirty, but this shipload included two old women in their seventies; and it is quite likely that among the lot were several criminals, insane persons, idiots, and persons ill with contagious diseases. Skilled craftsmen who brought tools with them had the best chance of making good; sturdy peasants could find work in factories, on farms, or as laborers building canals or railways, but the language barrier and the risks of being cheated were often too much for them. And of artists, scholars, and students, a great percentage ended tragically in hospitals and almshouses. Not a few German immigrants, of course, were men of some means, who could see no way to use these means to advantage in the old country; and there was alarm in the German states at the steady departure of small capital. A survey in 1856 in New York disclosed that the average immigrant possessed about $70, or more money than the average American. One German farmer admitted to possessing Sar,, but when assured that his money would not be taxed or taken away from him, he produced evidence of a bank account of $2,700. In addition to cash, many Germans took tools, jewelry, and other valuables with them.
For those who could afford to travel first class, however, an emigrant ship was not unpleasant. One firstclass passenger in the 1830’s reported that the day was filled with “the noise of calling the steward and drawing the corks,” and he wondered at the excessive amount of food and liquor which “sonic individuals stoivcd under their belts.” The American ship Victoria , making her maiden voyage in 1813, was described as having her thief cabin lined with satin wood, in panels, handed with rose and zebra woods and American bird’s-eye maple, and the ceiling white and gold. There is a centre table of choice white marble. The apartment is lit through ground glass; and one of the large panes bears a picturesque view of Windsor Castle, and at the opposite end is Buckingham Palace, surrounded by the rose, shamrock, and thistle. The decorator has not, however, lavished all his taste upon this apartment, for the berths are fitted en suite the ceiling is in white and gold and the handles of the doors are of glass. Ships with first-class accommodations carried cows, pigs, and chickens to provide milk, eggs, and fresh meat. The menu aboard the Victoria included: Breakfast—black tea, green tea, coffee, biscuit, bread, hot rolls, cold mutton, ham, eggs, chocolate; Lunch—bread, cheese, cold tongue, port wine, liqueurs; Dinnersoup, fresh milk, beef, pork, veal, fowl, plum pudding, oranges, preserves, raisins, almonds, Spanish nuts, figs, prunes. There were wines and, every other day, champagne. The Victoria also carried a ship’s orchestra for dancing and concerts. Ten or twelve was usually the maximum number of first-class passengers.
American ships, being lighter than most European ships, were at a disadvantage under the old 1819 law that allowed two passengers to every five tons ol a ship’s weight, and in 1817 Congress passed a law stipulating that each immigrant must have loin teen square feet of horizontal space; a law passed the following year decreed that if the ceiling was less than six feet high, then there must be sixteen square feet, and if less than five feet high, twenty-two square feet. Kadi berth had to be six feet long and eighteen inches wide, and lower berths had to be six inches off the door. Families must be separated by latticed partitions that could be opened and closed. Under the passenger-tonnage ratio, passengers had had more space than this; and now shipowners everywhere hastened to downgrade their facilities. The Bremen ship Gallia , for example, which under the passenger-tonnage ratio had carried 476 passengers, was now altered to carry 812: 18 in first class, 44 in second, and 750 in steerage. A child under eight was counted as half an adult (with half-rations), infants were not counted at all. Often the ship would be so crowded that the people, who had to provide their own mattresses and bedding, were obliged to sleep in the gangways. When even this space was filled, wooden shacks were thrown up on the top deck. Here the wind howled through the walls, rain and sea water leaked in, and sometimes the whole flimsy construction was broken to pieces by waves and swept overboard.