January 20, 2013

Author Q & A: Safety in numbers

Kathryn Miles' new book recalls the only so-called 'coffin ship' to keep every one of its passengers – refugees of the Irish potato famine – alive.

By Meredith Goad mgoad@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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Kathryn Miles

Q: Describe life on a typical coffin ship. How miserable was it, and what made it so dangerous?

A: There were about 5,000 of these coffin ships. Most of them were very tired old timber haulers.

On the previous generation's slave ships, where the captains were paid based on how many people walked off the ship in America, there was an incentive for these slave ship captains to keep alive as many slaves as they could. There was no such incentive for these (coffin ship) captains. Once the Irish passengers paid to step aboard, what became of them was no one's concern.

The ships were very old. They were in very bad condition. Some of them would just disintegrate in the middle of a storm and all of the passengers would drown. Others were obviously not built to carry people, and so they would stack these bunks, if you will, which were about the size of two kitchen tables put together -- they were about 6 feet square -- and an entire family, that would be the only space they had in the entire ship. They would have to lay head to foot to accommodate a family of four. There was not enough room to sit up. And usually the only sort of facilities they had on board were a bucket that would get overturned and that would more than overflow and people were seasick. And so you have these deplorable conditions on board to begin with, you have people who are already very emaciated and fatigued and compromised because of the famine.

Ship captains by British law were supposed to give a pound of either oatmeal or cornmeal to them a day, but oftentimes it was moldy or had gone bad with bilge water and so there was no food. When a storm came, they would be just shut in down below. There was also a belief at the time that contagious diseases were spread through the air, and so the best way to prevent contagious diseases was to prevent the flow of fresh air. There were these appalling stories of them showing up in North America knee-deep in human waste down below. People, when they died, if they were lucky their bodies were thrown overboard, but sometimes they were just left in their bunks And then you have these waves of cholera and typhus taking hold, and we start to see these increasing mortality rates -- 30 percent, 40 percent, 50 percent -- there were some ships that were as high as 75 percent mortality rates. 

Q: What was daily life like for them? Would they just lay in their bunk all day?

A: It depended on the captain. It depended a lot on the captain. And so if you had a benevolent captain like, for instance, Attridge, the captain of the Jeanie Johnston, he had a lot of mandates about how they would spend their time. Everyone was woken at 7 a.m. If you were well, you were asked to make your bunk, come above deck, and they would have the chance to walk around. They had cookstoves where they could cook their food.

The doctor, who is I think one of my favorite characters in the book, Richard Blennerhassett, he was a fringe figure because he was going against this no fresh air mentality. So he was mandating whenever possible the immigrants got up on deck. They were able to walk around. He mandated that they air out their bedding too, so there was a much better cleaniness record. He would deputize some of the male passengers to serve as sort of like stewards down below and they would have to sweep up and they would empty out the slop pails and things like that as well. He also started quarantining anyone who was sick. He had built a little ship's hospital where people would be settled from the others.

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