Summer of Sorrow: Grosse-Île, 1847: Part 2

News of the Famine in Ireland as the Crisis Intensifies

While the situation on Grosse-Île was worsening, news of the disastrous famine in Ireland was being circulated throughout Canada. On the 24th of May, 1847, for example, there were eyewitness accounts, taken directly from newspapers in the affected areas, on the front page of Québec’s Morning Chronicle. Not only were the people well informed about the famine in Ireland, and in the Scottish Highlands and Islands also, but they enthusiastically set about raising money for the relief of the Gaels. And the native Indians too, a group which itself had endured the worst effects of colonisation, collected a sum out of all proportion to their resources. This is how the Governor General described the matter in a letter to the Secretary of State for the Colonies in London on the 28th. of May, 1847:

“I have the honor to state for your Lordship’s information that very large subscriptions for the relief of Irish & Scotch distress have been made in this Province. I have no means of ascertaining with accuracy the amount which has been raised but I am disposed to think from enquiries which I have made that it does not fall short of £20,000 (about £2million today - Ed.). To this fund, the inhabitants of all creeds and origins have liberally contributed. It will be gratifying to your Lordship to learn that several of the Indian tribes have expressed a desire to share in relieving the wants of their suffering white Brethren. The sum subscribed by them already exceeds £175 (about £17,500 today - Ed.).”

But if Ireland’s dire distress was far away, it was not long before the people of Canada became aware of the fever on their own doorsteps, an unrelenting threat. On the 4th of June, 1847, Québec’s Morning Chronicle was trying to calm public fears about Grosse-Île itself, stating that although the state of the people on the ships was wretched indeed the rumours going around about the number of people who were sick or who had died up to then were greatly exaggerated. However, in the same edition, they had published a disturbing letter from Alexander Mitchell, master of the Argo, which was anchored at Grosse-Île. Unless a comprehensive relief plan was put into effect immediately the situation would become quite alarming, he said.

“There is not one of my sick removed out of the ship, not for the want of will on the part of Dr. Douglas here, but the want of accommodation to put the sick in, on shore; there are many of the ships here in the same state – the only relief we get is in carrying them to the grave which is a daily occurrence. While I am writing, I have three corpses on board, and have had more or less every day since I wrote you last, with the exception of yesterday. We have now some eight or nine cases of fever on board, and it will no doubt get worse.”

And that’s just what happened, as the Captain had predicted. By the time the letter was being drafted nineteen people had died on board and a further twenty three would die on the Argo itself before the end of the affair and a further twenty nine in the quarantine hospital, a total of sixty nine all told, according to the official documents.
On the 7th June 1847 the Montreal Witness published an editorial dealing with the Governor General’s address from the throne at the start of the legislative session. If urgent decisions were being taken in secret to deal with the most calamitous situation, which they were, the reorganisation of the postal services and miscellaneous bills were the main topics aired in public by James Bruce Elgin, or Lord Elgin as he was better known, as he spoke on behalf of Alexandrina Victoria Hanover.
By this time the Medical Commissioners had got down to work and press reports of the local crisis were spreading. The Québec Morning Chronicle published a list of fifteen ships that had arrived during the previous week with more than five thousand passengers together with the names of a further fifty two ships, with almost 15,000 passengers that were expected to arrive shortly. Alongside that list was a report on the health of Daniel O’Connell as he journeyed to Rome. At the same time the Marine Hospital in the city of Québec was overflowing with hapless Irish people, immigrants who had been discharged from the quarantine in the belief that they were well, and additional fever sheds were being erected.
It was not long before thousands of Irish reached Montreal on the steamers. 1,200 persons had been packed into each one and infectious disease was spreading like wildfire. Typhus has an incubation period of seven days. The disease itself then strikes with a sudden headache, a chill, and a raging fever. Death comes late in the second week after that. There were no antibiotics then nor preventative vaccines. The disease killed 60% of those infected. Very soon there were thousands of Irish people in sheds in Montreal, with the numbers dying increasing at an alarming rate day by day.
The crisis deepened. Fear spread. On the 15th of June four hundred and ninety inhabitants of Pointe Levi, across the river from Québec city, appealed to the Governor General not to permit hospitals or sheds for the immigrants in their parish. They recommended other locations, including the farm on Grosse-Île itself, but without mentioning Dr. Douglas, who owned it, by name. On the 21st of June the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada in Montreal established a Special Committee, with power to summon witnesses and to ask for documents, to inquire into the running of the quarantine station on Grosse-Île. Nine members of the Legislative Assembly as well as three from the Executive Council (the cabinet) were among those nominated. Four days later the Legislative Assembly decided to send a humble address to the British Queen beseeching her to save them from “…the infliction with which this land has been visited, and is still further threatened, not to permit the helpless, the starving, the sick and the diseased, unequal and unfit as they are to face the hardships of a settler’s life, to embark for these shores, which, if they reach, they reach in too many instances only to find a grave.”
They called for the enactment of legislation that would ensure that the emigrant ships were large and well ventilated, that passengers would have sufficient space in them, that there would be a greater provision of more wholesome food than currently provided, and that adequate medical care would be available on board at all times.

Summer of Sorrow – Part 3

Summer of Sorrow – Part 1

Summer of Sorrow – Part 4

Published in The Green Dragon No 6, Spring 1998