- 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
“Damned plague ships and swimming coffins,” cried the New York Journal of Commerce in December, 1853, succinctly expressing general opinion. A Bremen sailing ship, the Anna , had just arrived in Baltimore with an epidemic of cholera on board, twelve pas sengers having died at sea. Checked at quarantine, the Anna was lound to be carrying forty passengers tod many. The voyage of another Bremen ship, the Johanna , was described as follows before a New York notary by one of the passengers: “After two weeks, the potatoes gave out; the peas were musty, the meat and butter spoiled and had to be thrown into the sea. The passengers lived on hard branny bread, prunes, and watery barley soup. In New York, the cook jumped ship.” The Howard , out of Hamburg, arrived in New York after a ninety-six day voyage. The passen gers had been without decent drinking water for forty two days, thirty-seven out of two hundred and eightysix had died of cholera, and more than a third of the rest could not move from their beds to disembark when the ship reached port.
Fortunately lor the future reputation of Bremen as a good port from which to emigrate, the ships of France and England were usually much worse. A German clergyman who booked second-class passage on the English ship Indiana found that although he had been told by the agents in his native Baden-Wurtemberg that he would have an iron bed with comfortable bedding, fresh bread and meat daily, and a ration of wine, he found that he and his traveling companion were expected to share a wooden plank, a straw mattress, and one horse blanket. Only on the first day out was there fresh bread and meat; for the rest of the voyage there was herring and potatoes, weak coffee, and brackish water. The stairs were not lit, the sleeping quarters were filthy; there was space enough for only one-fourth of the steerage passengers to eat at table, and the rest had to eat on deck—or, in bad weather, crouched in the gangways. There were sixtyfour Germans aboard, and all agreed that they were treated like second-class citizens and that in case of emergency it would be British first.
The English ships carrying Irish immigrants were probably most consistently horrifying. A Quebec newspaper report of 1847 said: The Larch , reported this morning from Sligo, sailed with 440 passengers, of whom 108 died on the passage and 150 were sick. The Virginius sailed with 496; 158 died on the passage, 187 were sick, and the remainder landed feeble and tottering; the captain, mates and crew were all sick. The Black Hole of Calcutta was a mercy, compared to the holds oi these vessels. Yet simultaneously, as il in reproof of those on whom the blame of all this wretchedness must fall, Germans from Hamburg and Bremen are daily arriving, all healthful, robust, and cheerful.
A New York doctor, inspecting a ship from Liverpool at about the same period, reported: We passed through the steerage, making a more or less minute examination of the place and its inhabitants; but the indescribable filth, the emaciated, half-nude figures, many with the petechial erupture disfiguring their faces, crouching in the bunks or strewed over the decks, and cumbering the gangways; broken utensils and debris of food spread recklessly about, presented a picture of which neither pen nor pencil can convey a full idea. Some were just rising from their berths for the first time since leaving Liverpool, having been suffered to lie there all the voyage, wallowing in their own filth.
It was said in every port that one could always tell an immigrant ship without inquiring what it carried: by its stink. Yet, even though by 1854 one out of every six passengers died or became dangerously ill at sea, there were still those who saw no reason for concern. An attorney general of Nova Scotia, opposing contemplated reforms, wrote: The Irish emigrant, before he comes out, knows not what it is to lie on a bed; he has not been accustomed to a bed; if you put him in a bed and give him pork and flour, you make the man sick; but when a man gets no more than his breadth and length upon the deck of the ship, and he has no provisions but a few herrings, he comes out a hearty man; and he has no doctor.
In 1854, Congress ordered an inquiry into the “Sickness and Mortality on Board Emigrant Ships.” The investigating committee, which was headed by Hamilton Fish, reported that Bremen had the lowest percentage of ships arriving in North America with cases of cholera on board. The figures were: Bremen, 6 per cent; Le Havre, 12 per cent; Liverpool, 21½ per cent; London, 25 per cent. One of the committee’s recommendations was that food should be furnished and cooked by shipowners and not by the passengers, as was the case aboard most English and French ships. So far as cholera was concerned, the committee stated: … experience has shown that nothing will produce it in cases of predisposition that way, sooner than the consumption of meats or vegetables improperly cooked. What chance then, the committee would ask, have these miserable creatures, closely confined and breathing a noisome atmosphere, seasick, and depressed in spirit, and withal required to prepare their own food, from which they are prevented by the selfish and hardhearted. … The Bremen ships, so celebrated for the general good condition of their passengers, adopt this course and find it to work admirably.