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On Friday, May 14th, 1847, a 543 ton barque, The Syria, the first ship of that navigation season from Europe, arrived from Liverpool packed with Irish refugees after 46 days at sea and anchored off Grosse Ile in a stretch known as Quarantine Pass.

The Syria’s master, Captain Cox, declared that 9 of his 245 passengers had died at sea and a further 52 (according to Grosse Ile records, though as many as 84 in other reports) were seriously ill with dysentery and typhus. In their introduction to 1847, Grosse Ile: A Record of Daily Events, authors Charbounean & Savigny summarised the commencement of the horrific events of the following six months as follows: “The sinister procession of sick and dying emigrants had begun. Involving mostly frail, destitute Irish, it came to an end 171 days later, on Monday, November 1, when the Lord Ashburton left the quarantine island bound for Quebec city. All the tragic events of the 1847 navigation season took place during this six-month period, when about 400 vessels unwittingly took part in this ghastly cortege”.

During that terrible year, tens of thousands of Irish emigrants died during their Atlantic crossing or while sailing upriver to their inland destinations. Within two weeks of The Syria’s arrival, more than half of its passengers were hospitalized on the island and The Syria had given Grosse Ile its first victim of many thousands – young Ellen Keane, four years and three months old! The sick from the first ship to arrive had already stretched the quarantine station’s facilities to its limit and beyond.

By the end of May, just two weeks after the arrival of The Syria, the island was in total chaos. Hundreds of marquees and hospital tents arrived but there were insufficient workers healthy enough to erect them and many refused to work near the sick for fear of contagious contact. A few extra medical staff had also arrived but the workload was such that they were soon as exhausted as those who had been there since The Syria’s arrival.

As the situation grew even more chaotic, Dr. Douglas wrote to the Governor General expressing his “regret to have to call attention to the state of illness and distress among the newly arrived emigrants, unprecedented in this country even during the prevalence of cholera in 1832 and 1834. Every vessel bringing Irish passengers (but more especially those from Liverpool and Cork), has lost many by fever and dysentery on the voyage, and has arrived here with large numbers sick”. The Governor General immediately ordered a commission of three doctors to report on ‘the crisis’.

The commission was confronted by such incredible, horrific scenes so far beyond their experience and comprehension that their well-intentioned suggestions were mostly so ill-advised and ineffective as to prove counter-productive. Their main recommendation was that all the healthy passengers in quarantine were to be sent by steamship to Quebec, Montreal and Toronto after ten days on land or fifteen days on their ships without needing to wait until their vessels had been disinfected. Douglas recognised the folly of this recommendation and warned that as many as half of those allowed to travel onward would fall ill soon after their arrival at the inland cities. His prediction proved tragically accurate.

On July 24th, The Quebec Mercury reported that “at Montreal things seemed to be even worse than at Quebec… 1,712 wretched emigrants lay sick and dying in the fever sheds… in the city itself the disease was spreading fast, bringing terror to all the citizens”. David Hollet tells us that “of 100,000 emigrants landed at Quebec, 40,000 had been forwarded to Toronto, which had resulted in an amount of pauperism, suffering and disease unparalleled in the history of the city… it had all been caused by a very serious degree of neglect, indifference, and mismanagement”.

Over 85% of the arrivals at Grosse Ile during that six-month period of 1847 were Irish. Ships from Liverpool and Cork, with passengers, averaging 250-300 per vessel, already debilitated by the Great Hunger, had the highest disease and death rates.

Ships from Germany, although just as overcrowded, usually arrived with relatively healthy passengers and stopped at Grosse Ile only long enough to be inspected. This underlined the assertion by Dr. Douglas that most of those who died were doomed before they ever left Ireland: “all the Cork and Liverpool passengers are half dead from starvation and want before embarking, and the least bowel complaint, which is sure to come with change of food, finishes them without a struggle”.

Of course Grosse Ile was by no means the only quarantine station where Irish emigrants arrived in such condition on the Atlantic coast of Canada. Partridge Island in St. John Harbour, Pictou Harbour and the Halifax Immigration Facility all witnessed similar horrors to Grosse Ile, albeit not on the same scale. However, none are as well documented for that horrific six-month period between the arrival of The Syria on May 14th and the departure of the Lord Ashburton on November 1st in the year 1847.

As both Canada and Ireland were under British rule at that time, a series of letters were sent to Queen Victoria in England by Quebec officials expressing grave concern at “the shipping out of countless sick and destitute people… that the mortality rate among the new arrivals was appalling… and the number of orphans had risen to 500 within the first two weeks of the emigrant season”.

They also noted “with equal surprise and pain, that some Irish landlords, among whom is said to be one of your Majesty’s ministers, have resorted to the expedient of transporting the refuse population of their estates to Canada”. The government minister referred to was the Foreign Secretary, Lord Palmerston, who packed nine ships with thousands of ‘refuse’ tenants from his huge Sligo estates.

The Montreal officials were appalled at these emigrants’ condition of utter destitution and misery and the fact that they had been persuaded to leave Ireland in the first place by false promises made by Palmerston’s representitives.

These promises included a cash settlement on arrival in Canada. Hollet points out that, when the promises were not kept, Palmerston’s ‘refuse tenants’ were “left to beg in the snow, barefoot and in rags, during their first Canadian winter”. Hollet also states that “the last ‘cargo’ of human beings which was received from Palmerston’s estates in 1847 was by the ship Lord Ashburton” and of these emigrants “87 were in a state of nudity”.

Even by today’s standards of over-exposure in the media to the horrors of man’s inhumanity to his fellow man, the image of thousands of penniless, nude or near-naked human beings being abandoned in strange surroundings in sub-zero temperatures is indeed truly shocking.

When Palmerston was asked for an official explanation, Hollet reports that “he ducked for cover behind his agents, but it is inconceivable that he was not aware of this emigration, and the full implications of such actions. Palmerston, and his fellow landowners, were actually pursuing a cynical policy of clearing their estates – by throwing half-clad and penniless tenants on the shores of the St. Lawrence”.
Ironically, Palmerston went on to become British Prime Minister in 1855 and, when he died ten years later, his obituary in The Illustrated London News described him as “a kind-hearted gentlemen who loved his countrymen”. One can but wonder how much Palmerston loved those wretched and doomed ‘refuse tenants’ cleared from his estates to perish on the shores of the St. Lawrence in that particularly severe Canadian winter of 1847.

Credit: The Syria & Grosse Ile, Ron Kavana, http://www.aliasronkavana.com/#!commencing-with-the-syria-the-cortege-ha/c24pi