- 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
Fortified by this newly acquired knowledge of the land of his destination, the emigrant in Bremen boarded a Weser ferry for Bremerhaven, a short trip in miles but one that could take two or three days in foggy weather, during which time the passengers sat or stood on deck and were without hot food. At Bremerhaven, there was a state-owned 2,000-bed dormitory, where food and lodging were provided at 66 pfennigless than a quarter—a night. Law required that each emigrant have a medical examination before embarking—though, when one doctor had to inspect five thousand people in a day or two, this was often limited to “Are you in good health? Put out your tongue.”
Bremen officials inspected each ship as it lay in the Weser ready to depart. Did it have provisions to last ninety days? Were the water tanks freshly filled? Were there sufficient lifeboats, life preservers, fuel, and medicine? Were the steerage gangways, privies, and stairs lit by lanterns? And did the passengers understand clearly that there were to be no matches or candles in their quarters?
Even if the ship was well-run, if no epidemics broke out, and if the voyage was not so long as to exhaust the provisions, formidable dangers attended the crossing: dampness, lack of oxygen, seasickness, fever and headache, diarrhea, constipation, swellings, scurvy, ulcers, and trenchmouth. During storms, the packed people screamed and prayed, and in the pitch-dark steerage the sick and the well were tossed about like marbles. “A sudden heave of the ship,” observed the report of Hamilton Fish’s congressional committee in 1854, “often dislodged whole families from their berths and hurled them headlong among their companions who lay on the opposite side.”
The voyage from Bremen to New York in a fast sailing ship of the 1850’s averaged about six weeks. During all this time, the steerage dinner menu was as follows:
Sundays: salt meat, meal pudding, and prunes.
Monday: salt bacon, pea soup, and potatoes.
Tuesday: salt meat, rice, and prunes.
Wednesday: smoked bacon, sauerkraut, potatoes.
Thursday: salt meat, potatoes, and bean soup.
Friday: herring, meal, and prunes.
Saturday: salt bacon, pea soup, and potatoes.
Breakfast was coffee or tea and bread and butter, and supper was the same.
Steerage passengers were regimented like soldiers. Chosen by numbers, which were rotated each day, they helped in the galley, swabbed the gangways, emptied the chamber pots, and washed clothes, all under the direction of the second mate. Passengers were ordered to stay on deck as much as possible, for reasons of health, and only in very cold, sleety, or stormy weather was anyone, no matter how sick, allowed to remain in his bunk.
But already there were steamships carrying immigrants. In 1847, the George Washington , of the Ocean Steam Navy Company, had crossed the Atlantic, reaching New York from Bremen in seventeen days. The fares on steamships were at first too high for immigrants, but by the mid-sixties they had become low enough to ruin the business of the sailing ships, which still took six weeks to make the crossing. The last transatlantic sailing ship to carry passengers out of Bremen was taken off the line in 1875.
From the early 1880’s onward, a common sight in the Bremen railroad station was a Polish or Russian peasant—with his babushka -ed wife and children—who could not speak German or read any language but who had traveled thousands of miles from eastern Europe with the card of a Bremen emigrants’ agent stuck in his hat. This card was all he needed to get himself and his family safely aboard a North German Lloyd steamship, where he would have his own bed and better food than he had ever eaten in his life, and in ten or twelve days would be in New York. On such a voyage, emigrants of the old sailing ships would have thought themselves already in the promised land.