EMIGRATION AND “COFFIN SHIPS”

Between 1845 and 1855, nearly 2 million people emigrated from Ireland to America and Australia, and another 750,000 to Britain. The Poor Law Extension Act, which made landlords responsible for the maintenance of their own poor, induced some to clear their estates by paying for emigration of the poorer tenants. Although some landlords did so out of humanitarian motives, there were undoubtedly benefits to them, especially those who wanted to consolidate their land holdings or change from the cultivation of land to beef and dairy farming. Emigration soared from 75,000 in 1845 to 250,000 in 1851. This chaotic, panic-stricken and unregulated exodus was the largest single population movement of the 19th century.

Thousands of emigrants died during the Atlantic crossing. There were 17,465 documented deaths in 1847 alone. “Coffin ships,” plying a speculative trade, were often little more than rotting hulks. Thousands more died at disembarkation centers. On August 4, 1847, The Toronto Globe reported on the arrival of emigrant ships: “The Virginius from Liverpool, with 496 passengers, had lost 158 by death, nearly one third of the whole, and she had 180 sick; above one half of the whole will never see their home in the New World. A medical officer at the quarantine station on Grosse Île off Quebec reported that “the few who were able to come on deck were ghastly, yellow-looking spectres, unshaven and hollow-cheeked…not more than 6 or 8 were really healthy and able to exert themselves.” The crew of the ship were all ill, and 7 had died. On the Erin’s Queen, 78 passengers had died and 104 were sick. On this ship the captain had to bribe the seamen with a sovereign for each body brought out from the hold. The dead sometimes had to be dragged out with boat hooks, since even their own relatives refused to touch them.” •