During the 18th century, the Merseyside harbour of Liverpool had been known as the Slavers’ Port, but by the mid-19th century it was primarily known for its trade in a more willing human cargo: the Irish peasants who would pay to escape the nightmare conditions in their homeland.
The conditions of travel they experienced are believed to have often been even worse than those of the slave ships which were at least required by law to provide adequate food for the slaves.
By the mid-1840s, Liverpool’s thirty-six miles of quays servicing lumber ships to and from Canada, together with its large Irish population, proximity to Ireland and subsidised fares made it the most popular port of departure for Irish emigrants bound for the New World.
As the Great Hunger worsened, hundreds of thousands of destitute Irish flooded into the Lancashire city causing enormous problems of overcrowding and disease.
In the Liverpool Press on January 1st, 1847 – according to author David Hollet in his book Passage To The New World: Packet Ships and Irish Famine Emigrants – reports appeared indicating that the arrival of paupers from Ireland was “actually on the increase, to the extent that the Relief Offices had been besieged during the previous week”.
As the influx of emigrants escalated during 1847, the worst year of the Great Hunger – commonly referred to as “Black ‘47” – it is estimated that 300,000 Irish arrived in Liverpool. In April of that year, the Liverpool Times estimated that of the 90,000 Irish who had arrived during the first three months of the year, one third had succeeded in finding trans-Atlantic passage while the remainder stayed in Liverpool, or moved to other areas of Britain in search of work.
In Liverpool: A People’s History, Aughton summarised that “those who had no money for their passage, those in the worst and lowest states of poverty, remained perforce to swell the misery of the Liverpool slums”. He goes on to address the rise in Liverpool’s population from 223,003 in 1841 to 376,065 just ten years later, stating that “the greater part of this huge increase was in the lower classes, many of whom were the unfortunate victims of the famine in Ireland”.
In her book This Great Calamity, author Christine Kinealy states that “as the Irish emigrants continued to flood into Liverpool, the association of Irish emigrants with poverty, and increasingly with dirt and disease, created an uncomfortable and unpalatable impression on the mind of the host country. As in other British cities, these large numbers of unskilled Irish congregated in the cheapest and poorest housing of slum areas commonly known as “Little Irelands”.
On Merseyside these Irish slum districts were on the dockside areas north and south of what was then the city centre as well as the more suburban areas of Vauxhall and Exchange.
The cheap, unskilled labour provided by these slums was deeply resented by the indigenous population and according to Graham Davis in The Irish In Britain 1815-1914, caused “both English prejudice and an Irish sense of injustice”.
For most of the Irish emigrants – often cynically referred to as “paying ballast” – who sailed from Liverpool during the 1840s, their destination was Canada as fares to its colony were subsidised by the British government.
In this way the British planned to populate their sparsely inhabited trans-Atlantic colony where financial assistance was available for the purchase of farm and timberland.
So Canada’s eastern ports were the favoured points of entry for Irish emigrants most of whom headed for Upper Canada as much of the best land in the Maritimes had already been taken.
Because of the subsidized fares, these ports were also often chosen by migrants whose ultimate destinations were American cities such as Boston, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and even as far south as New Orleans (second only to New York as the preferred U.S. destination of Irish migrants of this period mainly because of Louisiana tolerance for Catholicism as a consequence of previous French rule).
The extremes of the Canadian climate, poor job prospects, dominance of French as the spoken language in many areas and, of course, the fact that it was under dreaded and despised British rule, made Canada a much less enticing prospect for resettlement than America for many Irish.
Nevertheless, Canada had two major ‘pull factors’ which attracted the impoverished Irish to remain on the northern side of the 49th Parallel: the easy availability of cheap, sometimes even free land and, as in Louisiana, because of the large French population, a tolerance for Catholicism not usually found in British colonies.
The official quarterly publication The Colonization Circular (popularly known simply as The Circular), included details of land – limited to 100 acres per head – available for purchase by easy installments.
By the mid-19th century, cleared farmland in mainland Canada cost an average of five shillings per acre, while in Nova Scotia it was possible to buy land for less than two shillings per acre!
Following the blockade by Napoleon of Baltic ports from which the British navy obtained much of its timber for ship building, the abundance of cheap lumber in Canada became a new source of considerable profit for British and Canadian shipping firms as suppliers to the British whose fleet was then the biggest in the world.
On the other hand, the outgoing, empty ships sailing back from Britain to Canada had mainly been operating at a loss.
However, the sudden flood of emigrant passengers wishing to travel one-way from Irish and British ports to Canada reversed this situation and created a whole new source of profitable revenue for the owners, agents and crews of the shipping industry.
Initially, these passengers were accommodated between decks on the existing cargo ships, but by the late 1840s, such was the profit in human cargo that one-thousand tonner, triple-deck packet ships capable of carrying over 400 passengers were being built in America specifically for the emigrant trade.
However, prior to the introduction of these custom built passenger ships in the 1850s, trans-Atlantic passengers endured the most dangerous and disgusting conditions aboard unsuitable, under-regulated and inadequately converted cargo vessels.
These were commonly known as ‘coffin ships’ because as many as one in three of all passengers died on board or shortly after arrival at their destinations.
“The perils of shipboard life” according to David Fitzpatrick’s paper ‘Flight From Famine’ in The Great Irish Famine, “were compounded by the weakness of many undernourished and diseased emigrants, and Famine Fever raged before, during and after passage”.
Every stage of the emigrants’ journey from the family home to arrival at their eventual destinations in the New World was fraught with danger and terror.
Credit: ~ University of Warsaw, Faculty of history. Antsar. A Abed, Irish immigration to the United States of America 1815 – 1850 https://depotuw.ceon.pl/bitstream/handle/item/750/dissertation.pdf?sequence=1