Summer of Sorrow: Grosse-Île, 1847: Part 3.

Colonisation from Ireland Discussed in London

Back in London T. Frederick Elliott gave evidence before a Select Committee of the House of Lords on Colonisation from Ireland on the 11th of June, 1847. He was Chairman of the Colonial Board Land and Emigration Board. He said that almost 150,000 emigrants had already been sent that year and that on the previous day he had heard of a ship at sea which had fever on board and nine of its passengers had died. In his view, however, very good arrangements had been made for the sick because there was “a very efficient Quarantine Establishment at Grosse Island, which is about thirty miles below Québec; and there is also a good Hospital at Québec.” During that summer the Committee heard witnesses such as John Robert Godley, the son of a landlord in counties Leitrim and Limerick, who explained that two million people would have to be taken out of Ireland in order to afford effective relief to the remainder.
Then Francis Spaight, magistrate, ship owner and a landlord in Tipperary, described the “immense Number of Widows and Poor Persons, Paupers” he had found on lands that had come into his possession on the shores of Lough Derg. He had arranged to provide them with free passage on condition that they demolished their dwellings and surrendered their holdings to him. At first a hundred had gone, then 710 that year, 1847, at a cost of £3 -10s per adult; “and,” he added with brutal frankness, “I consider the failure of the potato crop to be of the greatest possible value in one respect – in enabling us to carry out the Emigration System.”
He also described the export of wheat and foodstuffs from Limerick, more than 400,000 barrels of wheat, almost 8,000 barrels of pork and so on in the year to the end of May, 1847, claiming that the exports had facilitated the importing of cheaper food, especially Indian corn. Later in the summer, on the 16th of July, Robert Carter from a shipping company described the trade in “passengers out to Québec, timber back”, and the Sisters, one of their ships, on which fifty passengers had died during the voyage and a further forty six after they had reached Grosse-Île. Information about the emergency on Grosse-Île was not a close secret in the House of Lords; by the middle of June messages about the plight of the passengers at the quarantine station had reached Albert Henry George Grey, Secretary of State for the Colonies. It shall suffice to say that the Government authorities in London were well aware of what was going on.

The Committee of Inquiry in Montreal

Back in Canada the Special Committee of the Legislative Assembly went about its duties of inquiry with vigour. They collected evidence about the running of the quarantine station on Grosse-Île, especially the treatment of the sick and the condition of the passengers kept on the ships. Eyewitnesses were summoned to appear before them and were questioned in detail about what they had seen themselves. They published their report on the 28th of July, 1847.
Father Moylan, a Catholic priest, gave evidence to the Committee on the 13th of July. He stated that sufficient food was provided on land, although the system of distribution was faulty due to a shortage of nurses. “In one instance,” he said, “I supplied water to the sick in a tent, who had been there for the space of eighteen hours without any assistance.” Concerning the passengers who had been confined on board ship, he said that they were on short rations. The following are excerpts from his evidence:

10. Were the sleeping arrangements for the Emigrants such as you approved of? – In the old sheds there is a double tier of beds, the upper tier being only about three or four feet above the lower, and the planks of the upper tier not being close together, the consequence is, that the filth of the upper patients fell on the lower ones, who consequently could not breathe a pure air, being confined in so narrow a space.”
12. Was cleanliness pretty well observed? – In the new buildings and hospital cleanliness was pretty well observed, but not so in the old sheds and tents, where filth was allowed to accumulate in the chamber vessels, and to create a most disagreeable stench. I have seen both in the tents and sheds, sick persons who have been lying a whole night, until late in the morning, in close proximity. There were often two, and sometimes three, in a bed; and in the old sheds such was almost invariably the case, and in the tents very often so, but not in the old hospital and new buildings. Corpses were allowed to remain all night in the places where death had occurred, even when they had a companion in the same bed. I, on one occasion, observed to Orderly Smith, that a corpse was in the same bed with a patient, and his reply was, that in those cases they were left until the following morning. In the buildings, old sheds and tents, men and women were put into the same apartments without reference to sex.”
18. What was the treatment of the sick on board ship? – During my first visit, the patients on board ship were nearly equal in number to those on shore, amounting to 1,100, all almost entirely without medical attendance. Some vessels with sick on board were four or five days without any visit from the medical gentlemen. The sick on board might have been sent on shore, and accommodated under tents, of which there was a sufficient quantity at the time; and if there had not been hands enough on shore to erect them, I was informed by several masters of vessels that they would willingly have lent their crews for the purpose. The sick would have been better ashore under tents, having medical attendance close at hand, and besides would not have affected the healthy Emigrants confined in the holds of the vessels with them. The consequence of this was, as I and my brother clergymen observed, that the mortality on board was proportionably at least twice as great as on shore.”
20. State the attention and treatment the passengers received from the Captains of the vessels and crew? – In many cases, I can venture to say, the passengers were very badly treated.”
21. Did it appear to you that the wants of the passengers during the voyage had been properly attended to? – I think, in many cases where sickness had occurred, it arose from want of attention on the part of the master to keep the vessel in a clean condition, and also from the insufficient supply of food.”
23. Was it customary to separate the sick from the healthy on the voyage? – I am not aware of any instances.”
31. Which were the duties, during the present season, with which Dr. Douglas particularly occupied himself? – Principally the inspection of the vessels, and general control and superintendence.”
32. In what way did he perform his duties? – Having so many to attend to, it was impossible to discharge them satisfactorily.”
33. Did you hear any complaints on the island as to the management – state those complaints, and whether you consider them well or ill founded? – Many of the abuses existing this year might have been avoided, had there been a Medical Superintendent entrusted with the charge of the hospitals alone. Many of the complaints made this year, can be traced to this source alone.”

Among other things, Father Moylan stated that it would have been better had the hospitals been built on the level ground, that is, on Dr. Douglas’s farm, than where they had been built; and he said that it was known to him and to the clergy in general that some of the nurses and hospital orderlies were robbing the sick and the immigrants in the very throes of death.
Evidence from Dr. Douglas himself was presented to the Special Committee. He said that it was not easy to recruit nurses and that it was difficult to attend to two thousand patients gathered together. Though he agreed that the mortality rate on the ships was high, he said that it arose perhaps from the practice of keeping on board the bodies of those who had died in the two or three days before reaching the quarantine in order to bury them on land. Two ships, the Rose and Erin’s Queen had brought ashore thirteen and nine bodies respectively on the day they arrived.
He agreed with Father Moylan about the mistreatment of passengers and about the lack of cleanliness and the shortage of food on the ships. He confirmed that corpses had been left in their beds for long periods after death:

“I have seen them myself and know instances, as on board the Sisters, late Captain Christian, where both passengers and seamen refused to remove the dead, and the Captain himself had to go down and carry up the corpses on his back. This truly good and humane man has since died of fever. In the Erin’s Queen, now here, the Captain has had to bribe the seamen with a sovereign for each body brought out of the hold. In other instances I have been told that the dead had to be dragged out with boat hooks, their nearest relatives refusing to touch them.”

In describing the burying of the dead, Dr. Douglas stated that six men were working constantly digging trenches to a depth of five or six feet for the dead. Concerning his ability to carry out the duties of the two posts, that is Medical Superintendent and Medical Boarding Officer, he claimed that it would not help to separate the duties that year, since it was difficult to get doctors and attendants, and those that he did find were taken ill within two or three weeks, just when they were beginning to understand the working methods. Dr. Douglas referred to the drunkenness and immorality among the soldiers who had been based on the island for five weeks, but he considered the police to be beyond reproach. He conceded that the nurses and attendants robbed the sick and the dying from time to time but “the only persons who can be induced to take charge of the sick in times of pestilence are often the most abandoned of both sexes.”
Dr. Morin of Québec was brought before the Committee on the 17th of July. He laid the blame on the British authorities for their methods of selecting emigrants. He said that too many people were crowded into every vessel and that the food supply was often inadequate. Three days after that the evidence of Edward Boxer, the Harbour Master of Québec, supported Father Moylan’s description of the filth of the ships and of the distress on land, and Dr. Douglas’s responsibilities in that regard. He said that he considered that Dr. Douglas and Mr. Buchanan, the Immigration Agent, were too cautious about the fundamental reorganisation that was desperately needed because of the responsibility and the high costs that would be involved.
The depressing presentation of eyewitness accounts went on day after day, like the exorcism of demons. On the 23rd of July, 1847, Father Jean Baptiste Farland, Director of Nicolet College, spoke of patients lying in their own ordure, of people suffering only slight illnesses being shoved in among people with fever, so that they all died, under an Imperial Government that emptied the poorhouses and threw their human refuse as rack and ruin on the shores of the St. Lawrence. The Anglican Bishop of Montreal spoke of “scenes of loathsomeness, suffering and horror, in the holds of ships, and in the receptacles for the patients.” As a result of his visit to the island he had no doubt but that the sacrifice of hundreds of human lives resulted from the harshness of the treatment and the lack of attention.
The responses of Father O’Reilly, an Irish Catholic priest, were among the most extensive and emotional of the submissions to the Special Committee:

“I was eight days at Grosse Isle, and during that period I could convince myself that, if things continue as they now exist, very few of those who land on its rocky shores, shall ever leave them. Thousands have already found there a premature and unhonoured grave – thousands must yet swell the present list of victims, if the Legislature and the Government do not immediately take the necessary steps, not indeed to repair the irreparable errors of the past, but to prevent, at least, their recurrence for the future.”

He said that it was essential to spend more money on attendance and on erecting sheds, or, as an alternative to that, “consent to the wholesale murder of thousands who are just now on the ocean, or preparing to leave home for Canada”. Although claiming that he had no wish to apportion blame he went on:

“I cannot, however, forbear from expressing my grief that so many thousands of my fellow-creatures, my fellow-countrymen, and subjects of this Empire, should have been sacrificed to neglect and improvidence. Nor is it to be imagined that the prospects before us can be much brighter, or that mortality can, to any extent decrease among the Emigrants. So long as they are sent away from the ports of Great Britain and Ireland crammed up by hundreds in the hold of a ship, without air, food or the necessary means of procuring cleanliness and ventilation, as on board the Avon and the Triton, they must die by hundreds; disease must seize on the strongest frames and soon consume them. The fever-tainted remnant, on landing at Grosse Isle, will find a very slight change for the better in their condition. The greater number must sink under the united influence of fever and dysentery; those who are healthy, if sent up as hitherto to Montreal, must bring with them the seeds of sickness, and become the inmates of the sheds in that City; while out of the numbers who can leave Montreal for a further destination, the large majority are pre-doomed to expire on the wharves of Kingston or Toronto and to carry with them whithersoever they direct their steps, the dreadful malady that now hangs over the country like a funeral pall.”

Most of the witnesses considered that Dr. Douglas was not capable of carrying out satisfactorily all of his appointed duties. Despite that, even though Fathers Farland and O’Reilly asserted that it was necessary to divide his duties between two or three doctors, they both characterised him as a “superhuman” worker, energetic and assiduous. If he had the tirelessness of the workaholic, it was also evident that he had traces of an obsessive-compulsive personality, he was cautious, authoritarian and reluctant to share his responsibilities. It begins to look as though thousands died because of his inflexibility. But still, he did not know, neither did his contemporaries, what was the immediate cause of typhus, nor its incubation period. And, as Father Farland had said, “Emigration came like a torrent, and overthrew all the dams opposed to it.” Or as Bishop Mountain stated:

“Upon the whole, the impression produced upon my mind was that of the hopelessness of doing anything effectual to stay the consequences of such a visitation from the hand of God. A little abatement, a momentary breathing space, was followed by a thickening influx of squalid misery and fatal disease.”

The Spread of the Fever

As Father O’Reilly had predicted, the Irish took the seeds of the contagion with them to Montreal. The cursory examination on board ship at Grosse-Île was not succeeding in telling the healthy from the sick. The usual drill was for the doctor to walk past a line of passengers, observing their appearance, sometimes looking at their tongues; those that seemed to be sick were sent into quarantine, and the others were let go without further ado. Another humble address was being sent by the Legislative Assembly in Montreal to the Governor General on the 19th of July concerning the alarming spread of the contagious fever among the immigrants. There were 1,600 sick Irish in the sheds in Montreal. The Medical Commissioners in charge stated that the inhabitants of the city would be safe if they kept away from the sheds, and that the effect on their health of unreasonable or groundless anxiety preying on their minds would be much greater than the effect of the presence of the immigrants themselves.
The same appeal for calm was expressed in the report of the Chairman of the Commissioners for Immigration, John Easton Mills. Mills, who was at the same time Mayor of Montreal, had a decisive and practical approach. Sheds and hospitals were being erected the whole time. But that was not enough for him. He went himself among the poor and the sick, giving them food and water and comfort, and he died as a result. It was the Sisters of Charity, the Grey Nuns, who did most of the work among the sick and seventeen of them died, “consumed by the fire of love,”as was said of them. Eight priests, including an Anglican clergyman, also died. Jesuits from Fordham, New York, came to help. Twelve years later, workers who were excavating for a bridge discovered bones and they erected a large black stone as a memorial, “to preserve from desecration the remains of 6,000 immigrants who died of ship fever.”

Today, close to the stone, there is an explanatory plaque in three languages, Irish, French and English. The English version reads as follows:

“In 1847, six thousand Irish people, seeking refuge in a new land, died here of typhus and other ailments, and were buried in mass graves. The stone marks approximately the centre of the cemetery. Immediately to the east of here, twenty-two hospital sheds had been constructed. Many Grey Nuns, several priests, and also John Easton Mills, Mayor of the City of Montréal, who selflessly came to care for the sick, themselves contracted typhus and died.
May they rest in peace.”

Passengers were taken on from Montreal to Kingston and Toronto in the steam boats, 1,200 persons at a time, “The dead and the living huddled together.” as Stephen de Vere observed in a letter to the Select Commission of the House of Lords on Colonisation from Ireland dated 30 November, 1847. And again the prophecy was fulfilled: “Wherever they go the route is almost strewed with corpses.” as The Witness of Montreal had stated in a leading article on the 21st. of June, 1847.

The Number of Deaths in Quarantine

We cannot say precisely how many died during that summer of sorrow on Grosse-Île, nor on the coffin ships as well. Official reports state that more than 9,000 died on route or in quarantine, more than a further 1,000 in the Immigrants’ Hospital in Québec, more than 4,000 in Montreal, and almost 4,000 more in Canada West; that is more than 18,000 in all, according to the rolls.
It is to be understood, however, that the accounts of the disaster would be moderated in official documents. It suited Dr. Douglas, the Quarantine Superintendent, and Alexander Buchanan, the Chief Immigration Agent, and the authorities on both sides of the Atlantic to reduce numbers of deaths to be recorded in official documents. For example, reports from Dr. Douglas and the Legislative Assembly mention that over 5,300 died at sea.
That conceals the number who died on board ships at anchor at Grosse-Île. Buchanan went into details in his own report, claiming that 4,100 died at sea and 1,200 on board ship at Grosse-Île. According to Buchanan a further 3,400 died in the “Quarantine Hospital”. It is possible to show from Buchanan’s own papers that the figures were being reduced by him. On the 28th of May, 1847, he confirmed in an official report that 24 persons had died on the ship Bee from Cork, before reaching Grosse-Île. However, in his Annual Report at the end of March, 1848, he states that 77 people had died on that voyage, as well as 29 on board ship at the island, together with 59 in the hospital itself.
It would appear that 82 died on board ship at the quarantine, more than died on land, a fact that rebuts Dr. Douglas’s claim that it was better to keep the sick on the ships as he had done. About a quarter of all those of whom it was claimed that they had died at sea actually died at the island. Even Dr. Douglas himself, when, some years later, he erected a memorial on the site of one of the mass graves of 1847, avoided the official figures he had provided. Engraved on the memorial is the following:

“In this secluded spot lie the mortal remains of 5424 persons who flying from Pestilence and Famine in Ireland in the year 1847 found in America but a grave.”

Eyewitnesses and the general public believed that many more had died at Grosse-Île that summer than was officially acknowledged. It was said that many people had died in the woods on the mountain and on the north side of the island. Dr. Douglas would not have counted them among the dead, nor any other person not officially admitted to the quarantine hospital. There were accounts of bodies being piled up, like driftwood, in various places.
In the nineteenth century the historian Auguste Béchard estimated that at least 11,000 had been buried on the island in 1847. At the beginning of the twentieth century the figure of 12,000 was widely accepted, even by representatives of the Canadian Government. At any rate, many died and Erin was left with cause to grieve. And among those who ministered to them, nurses and doctors, supervisors and attendants, cooks and police, priests, carters and others, 42 in all, died of the fever they caught from them.

Major Denis Mahon’s Tenants

We have already described how Major Denis Mahon had planned to send overseas his tenants from Strokestown (Roscommon) and elsewhere. Later on, much was to be said about the generous and effective way these plans were put into effect. But this is how Dr. Douglas described the arrival of one of these ships, the Virginius:

“The Virginius sailed from Liverpool, May 28, with 476 passengers. Fever and dysentery cases came on board this vessel in Liverpool, and deaths occurred before leaving the Mersey. On mustering the passengers for inspection yesterday, it was found that 106 were ill with fever, including nine of the crew, and the large number of 158 had died on the passage, including the first and second officers and seven of the crew, and the master and the steward dying, the few that were able to come on deck were ghastly yellow looking spectres, unshaven and hollow cheeked, and without exception, the worst looking passengers I have ever seen; not more than six or eight were really healthy and able to exert themselves.”

Not more than 209 persons would survive to leave Grosse-Île, 44% of those who had embarked. Stories spread about how poor the immigrants were, how famished, how pitiable, about women and children who were naked or nearly naked as they came ashore, and about the landlords who had left them in such a plight – people like Major Denis Mahon and Henry John Temple, better known as Lord Palmerston.

Summer of Sorrow – Part 4

Summer of Sorrow – Part 1

Summer of Sorrow – Part 2

Published in The Green Dragon No 6, Spring 1998