A 46-foot granite Celtic Cross, the Irish Memorial Historic Site at Grosse Île, commemorates the Irish famine refugees who died in Canada during the Great Potato Famine. Erected by the Ancient Order of the Hibernians in America, 1909.
From my book, About Canada, Toronto, Civil Sector Press, 2012.
Ireland lost a quarter of her population to the great potato famine, from 1845 to 1850.There are no accurate figures, but as many as 1.5 million perished, including many of more than one million who emigrated to England, Scotland, North America and elsewhere in the famine years. Only the United States took more Irish refugees than Canada, and the United States took care to accept the healthiest and least distressed. One hundred thousand Irish sailed for Canada in 1847; as many as 20,000 perished, mostly from typhus. Canadian doctors, nurses, clergy and others sacrificed their lives in heroic efforts to save or help the refugees.
The plight of the Irish
Ireland, in the census year of 1841, was a country of at least 8.2 million people, “On the verge of starving, her population rapidly increasing, three-quarters of her labourers unemployed, housing conditions appalling, and the standard of living unbelievably low,” historian Cecil Woodham Smith writes in The Great Hunger. Two-thirds of the Irish, most of them tenants of the great landowners, lived on potatoes grown on small plots of land. Potatoes were fed to people, pigs and cows, providing, at best, a diet of potatoes, milk and meat. “In many districts, their only food is the potato, their only beverage water,” William Courtenay, Earl of Devon, wrote in an 1845 Royal Commission report. “Their cabins are seldom a protection against the weather… a bed and a blanket is a rare luxury… and nearly in all their pig and a manure heap constitute their only property.”
Hunger was common, especially in the summer months when there were no old potatoes left and new ones not ready for picking. Then there were the famine years: 23 potato crop failures during a span of 118 years. None were as bad as the famine that struck with a potato blight on September 1845, and peaked in 1847. Before the blight hit, the fields were green with the promise of a bumper crop of potatoes. With great suddenness, “The leaves were all scorched black,” a relief official wrote. “It was the work of a night.”
British Prime Minister Robert Peel averted tragedy in the first famine year. He paid £100,000 to buy corn from the United States and launched public works that employed half a million people. “No man died of famine during his administration,” acknowledged the Irish Freeman’s Journal. It was during the 1846-1852 administration of Prime Minister John Russell that 2.5 million Irish perished or emigrated.
To feed themselves, the Irish sold or pawned whatever they could. “A stranger would wonder how these wretched beings find food,” a policeman wrote. “Clothes being in pawn, there is nothing to change. They sleep in their rags and have pawned their bedding.” But still they perished. “The people died by the roadside with grass in their mouths,” wrote Canadian Catholic historian John Gallagher.
Yet “Huge quantities of food were exported from Ireland to England throughout the period when the people of Ireland were starving,” Woodham Smith wrote. People starved because they had no money. “The face of the country is covered with ripe corn while the people dread starvation,” wrote an official in Limerick. “The grain will go out of the country, sold to pay rent.”
The Russell government saw the answer to an over-populated and underfed Ireland in emigration, larger and more productive farms, and the unrestrained operation of free market capitalism. The policies were applied with criminal disregard of human life; fueled by racial and religious animosity; exacerbated by the ruthlessness of too many landlords, and an economic depression in England. Charles Trevelyan, the government official in charge of relief, despised the Irish. “The great evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the famine,” he wrote, “but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people.” He also claimed that “The judgment of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson.”
The Russell government cancelled the Peel program of public works and distribution of food. In their place it relied on workhouses and soup kitchens. Workhouses housed entire families in conditions not much better than jail, but could not begin to accommodate the bursting number of the destitute and hungry. The government soup kitchens lasted barely more than 18 months, shut down in the summer of 1847. The Irish were intended to live on the fall crop of potatoes. That fall crop was the smallest of the famine years, less than one-seventh the size of the 1844 crop, before the blight hit. The worst of the starvation started.
At the same time, the Poor Law Amendment Act placed the entire burden of relief on the shoulders of the landlords, who were now to collect not only their rents, but £10 million in taxes. It was utterly impossible. Money could not be collected from millions of people who had none. Some landlords were still very wealthy, but with little or no rent, many were on the brink of bankruptcy.
To help landlords collect blood from stone, the government provided troops, and instructions. “Arrest, remand, do anything you can” to collect taxes, Charles Wood, chancellor of the Exchequer told George Villiers (Lord Clarendon), the top British official in Ireland. “Send horse, foot and dragoons,” Wood added. “I should not be at all squeamish as to what I did, to the verge of the law and a little beyond.” The tax collectors seized livestock, furniture, tools, even clothing, managing to collect property worth less than £1 million.
Government policies gave landlords every incentive to ship their destitute tenants far away. One of the first to do so was Denis Mahon, a major in the British cavalry who had inherited 9,000 acres and 28 tiny villages in County Roscommon. Mahon spent £4,000 to send 800 of his tenants to Canada. They were promised agents would meet them in Canada and provide money, clothing and assistance. Other landlords made the same promises. Almost all were lies.
When others tenants refused to leave, Mahon evicted 3,000. They were among the first of half a million torn from their homes, children screaming, mothers weeping, one woman still clinging to her torn-away doorpost. Cottages and cabins were torn down; pottery, beds and clothing confiscated. The homeless were left to survive in “scalps,” holes dug two or three feet deep and roofed with twigs and turf, or bigger holes covered with the timber from tumbled homes. Troops hated evicting. A detachment of highlanders gave money to people they evicted.
Lord (Henry) Brougham, an acerbic Scot and former Lord Chancellor of Great Britain, defended the right of landlords to treat their tenants like cattle. “Property would be valueless and capital would no longer be invested in the cultivation of the land” if landlords could not do as they wished with their land and their tenants, he told the House of Lords in London.
Private charity, in Ireland and from around the world, tried to rectify the criminal conditions created by the public sector. In Ireland, everyone from school children to landlords either donated or helped raise funds—although one absentee landlord limited his kitchen soup donation to £1. A Church of Ireland minister gave a daily pint of soup to 1,149 people; a Belfast committee gave daily soup to more than 12,000. Queen Victoria, the Pope and the U.S. President made personal donations. Victoria issued two fund-raising appeals to the English, who responded with £200,000. Irish soldiers in Calcutta sent £14,000. Ottoman Sultan Abdülmecid sent £1,000 and three shiploads of food. The Choctaw Indians of Oklahoma, who had faced starvation 16 years earlier, sent $710. The rector of the Irish College in Rome sold his horse and gig to make his donation. Catholic priests and parishioners alike sent large amounts of money.
The most effective relief organization was a special committee of the Friends of Society, the Quakers. Quaker aid amounted to £200,000, but more important were the Quaker volunteers who operated soup kitchens where they were most needed. At least 15 of the Quaker volunteers died of typhus. The Quakers neither preached nor proselytized, but Catholic priests condemned parishioners who accepted Protestant food.
Heroic though it was, private aid provided only buckets of help in an ocean of need. “The condition of our country has not improved in spite of the great exertions made by charitable bodies,” the Quaker committee wrote to Prime Minister Russell. The need, it said, was “…far beyond the reach of private exertion, the Government alone could raise the funds and carry the measures necessary in many districts to save the lives of the people.”
“The people sink,” wrote an Irish official; “they have no stamina left, they say, ‘It is the Will of God,’ and they die.”
All the coffin ships were sailing vessels. Paddle wheel steamships plied rivers and coastal waters, and steamships were now starting to cross the Atlantic. Fourteen years earlier, the Canadian wooden paddle wheeler Royal William, was the first under steam alone, carrying Nova Scotia coal and seven passengers on a 25-day voyage to Gravesand on the Thames River, England. In 1840, Nova Scotia’s Sam Cunard, an investor in the Royal William, launched the British and North American Steam Packet Company, the ancestor of the Cunard line that dominated trans-Atlantic passenger service for a century, including the famous Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth ships.
The coffin ships carried timber to Britain in their holds, and on the westward backhaul, in place of ballast, they carried as many as 600 refugees in their holds, the ship owners happy to get extra revenue from very low fares. A few passengers sometimes travelled in the relative comfort and safety of deck cabins. Those in the holds died from typhus, dysentery, diarrhea, and malnutrition, but mostly typhus.
Typhus is carried by lice, which flourish in unsanitary conditions. More unsanitary conditions could hardly be found than in the grim holds of the coffin ships. Typhus was fatal to as many as half who caught the fever in the 1847 exodus to Canada.
The 300-ton barque Elizabeth and Sarah was typical. The 85-year-old tub carried 64 more passengers and crew than her legal limit of 212 on her voyage from Killala, Ireland, to Quebec. She had 32 bunks for 276 passengers. She was required by regulations to carry 12,532 gallons of water, but carried only, 8,700. The required weekly ration of seven pounds of bread, biscuits, flour or oatmeal for each steerage passenger was also short, as it was on many coffin ships. Below decks there were no sanitary facilities, little light or ventilation. Forty emigrants died on the voyage. The Elizabeth and Sarah broke down as it entered the broad St. Lawrence. Alexander Buchanan, Canada’s chief emigration officer, had her towed to the Grosse Île quarantine station near Quebec, at his own expense.
A prominent Quebec resident and businessman, Buchanan was dedicated in his efforts to help emigrants with information about transportation, employment, land purchase, and protection against unscrupulous employers, merchants, and fraudsters. On occasion he paid the steamship fare to Montreal, Kingston or Toronto for emigrants intending to settle in Canada, rather than moving to the United States, and provided additional food, until overwhelmed by the need.
If coffin-ship typhus wasn’t bad enough, hundreds more perished in shipwrecks. One ship, sailing from Ireland, sank before it was out of sight of those on land. The Exmouth, bound from Londonderry to Quebec with 240 immigrants and 11 crew, sank after striking the Isle of Islay in the Scottish Hebrides during a gale, the Quebec Morning Chronicle reported May 17. All perished except three seamen who made it to a cleft in the rocky coast. The Toronto Globe reported the wreck of the Crofton off the west coast of Scotland, “…with the loss of 400 emigrants.”
The Globe, with a tinge of tragic comedy, reported the story of the Swatara. She “was driven on the coast of the Isle of Man in a gale, and to save the ship the masts were cut away. Having refitted, she sailed for the United States. In a few days, off the south of Ireland, she again lost one of her masts, and, with several of the emigrants on board dead, put into an Irish port. Having again refitted, she recently sailed a second time for her destination. Intelligence has been received that the unfortunate ship has put into Derry, having lost her masts a third time, and with more of the passengers dead.”
The Irish who emigrated1 to North America during the four famine years 1846-49 emigrated mostly to the United States. They may have been starving, but they’d had a bellyful of British rule, and wanted no more of it.
Official British figures for those four years say that 632,076 people (mostly Irish) left the British Isles for the United States, and 225,552 for British North America, i.e., the Maritime colonies and Canada. Emigration to British North America peaked at 109,680 in 1847, while 142,154 sailed to the United States. Probably 100,000 of those who emigrated to British North America that year were Irish. And of these, an estimated 15,000 sailed for Saint John, New Brunswick, and 85,000 for Grosse Île and Quebec’s entry port to Canada.
But whether from New Brunswick or from Canada, many sought to flee to the United States as fast as they could. They were far from welcomed.
If the Irish, especially the Catholic Irish, were detested by many in England, they were hardly less so in the United States. Antipathy rose from a perceived burden and risk imposed by destitute people; from sectarian conflict; from ethnic bigotry; and from fear that cheap foreign labour posed a threat to American workers. In Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love, a church, a seminary and houses were burned in three days of anti-Irish rioting in 1844. Thirteen people were killed, and a greater number wounded.
At the crest of the tide of famine refugees, the United States sought to prevent the most destitute both from sailing to U.S. ports, and from crossing from British North America to American soil. When an 1847 law reduced by one-third the number of passengers permitted on ships sailing for U.S. ports, the Quebec Chronicle, May 5, 1847 presciently saw it as an effort “to check the influx of emigrants to the states. The immediate effect will be to raise fares and divert a larger portion of the multitude from the Union to British America.”
And that’s what happened. American ships were more comfortable, healthier and safer than the British coffin ships, but the fare was more than three times as great. U.S. state and port authorities also took measures aimed at preventing the aged, sick and destitute from disembarking on U.S. soil. “To the United States go the people of good character and in comfortable circumstances; to British North America, the evil and ill-disposed,” wrote the U.S. consul in Londonderry. “They go to Canada either because the fare is cheaper or their landlords are getting rid of them.”
Equally stern were the efforts to prevent the famine refugees in Canada and New Brunswick from crossing the border. They were refused aboard ships heading to U.S. ports from Saint John, and from Canada through Lake Champlain. Officials at U.S. border customs turned the Irish back. At Lewiston, New York, an official who allowed Irish ferry passengers to disembark on American soil was jailed.
It was all to no avail. There were hundreds of miles of border where even the destitute and sick could enter the United States undetected, and many thousands did. Some men left their wives and children in Canada, promising to send for them once there were established in the United States. Some wives never heard from them.
From the start of 1847 there was widespread apprehension in both Quebec and Montreal that the year would bring a deluge of famine refugees, with a risk of typhus, the fever, as it was generally called. In March, a Quebec citizens’ committee sent a petition to colonial secretary Earl Grey in London, seeking help to prepare for the deluge. The Montreal Gazette warned that Canada was about to be “inundated with an enormous crowd of poor and destitute emigrants.” Yet the government did almost nothing to prepare the ill-equipped Grosse Île quarantine station.
Dr. George Mellis Douglas knew about crises at Grosse Île. During the 1832 cholera panic he was assistant to the station’s medical director, and four years later he was the medical director. On February 19, Douglas asked Governor General Lord Elgin (James Bruce) for £3,000 to prepare the station for a record number of emigrants. He was given £300, the use of a small steamer, the St. George, to ply between Grosse Île and Quebec, and authority to hire a sailing vessel for not more than £25.
The first emigrant ship of the year, the Syria from Liverpool, dropped anchor at Grosse Île at 4:30 p.m. on May 14. She arrived with 241 passengers, all Irish, nine having died on the voyage. Douglas found 84 typhus patients aboard the Syria, and expected another 20 to 24 to come down with the fever.
The number of patients from the first ship approached the station hospital’s intended capacity of 150. Ten thousand more were already on their way. Three days before the Syria arrived, Buchanan issued a list of vessels that had left for Quebec between April 3 and 17. “It appears there are now on their way to this port, 34 vessels, having on board 10,636 passengers,” the Morning Chronicle summarized. All but one of the ships, the Favourite from Glasgow, came from Irish ports or from Liverpool, a major port of embarkation for the Irish. Almost all would be Irish. The number of passengers on each ship varied from 80 aboard the Favourite to 580 aboard the John Bolton from Liverpool.
If 241 emigrants and a little more than 100 fever patients represented about half the Grosse Île hospital capacity, how could it handle ten thousand? It couldn’t. Yet more than twice that number would crowd the island.
By the end of May there were 40 vessels lined up at Grosse Île, with some 13,000 passengers. In a letter dated June 2 published in the Quebec Mercury, Dr. Douglas says there were 1,100 patients housed in “hospitals, schools, churches and tents,” with “six medical men in attendance.” There had been 116 deaths, while “The number of orphans does not exceed twenty.” The orphans, he said, were “…specially cared for, and receive milk and nourishment… There is no distress from want of food,” with the daily ration of one pound per person. In addition, the ever helpful Alexander Buchanan sent a steamer with additional biscuits, oatmeal, soft bread, tea, sugar and pork for “the most unfortunate.”
Matters, however, were rapidly worsening. Grosse Île became crowded with as many as 25,000 emigrants. The line of waiting ships grew longer. The ships were quarantined for as long as 12 weeks. The longer the refugees were held on the waiting ships, the more the fever spread. Despite a prohibition, many bodies were said to have been dumped overboard, while other bodies from the ships were among the 5,424 buried on Grosse Île.
It was impossible to hold 25,000 people for an effective four-week quarantine period. Many were released early; 4,000 to 5,000 on one particular Sunday in June; 2,000 of whom Dr. Douglas expected to fall ill within three weeks. “Good God!” he wrote in a letter, warning authorities. “What evils will befall the city wherever they alight?”
The last of 398 emigrant ships to stop at Grosse Île in 1847 was the Richard Watson on November 7. Forty-three ships are thought to have unloaded their passengers at Quebec without stopping at Grosse Île. The quarantine station was able to offer but little help to the sick immigrants, and no effective quarantine protection to Canada.
Up the river
From Grosse Île, up the river and across Lake Ontario, came tens of thousands of the unfortunate Irish, thousands of them to die at Quebec, Montreal, Kingston, Toronto, Niagara, and elsewhere.
In Quebec, the Morning Chronicle warned that “Something must be done by ourselves, and that immediately, or else the whole city will be one general hospital,” July 27.
While the great majority of the Irish who left Grosse Île sailed directly for Montreal, Quebec had its ample share of sickness, death, and stench. In addition to the refugees who did land at Quebec, there was constant travel between the city and the quarantine station during the entire quarantine period. It started the day after the first quarantine ship, the Syria, arrived, when the ship’s captain and a passenger visited Quebec.
What was needed at Quebec was a hospital for its own patients. The city’s Marine and Emigrant Hospital, by late July, was crammed full of Irish refugees, Quebec patients had been turned away, and the city had no other hospital. “The disease is spreading in the suburbs and coves, and will soon reach the heart of the city,” said the Chronicle.
At a citizens’ meeting the day before, the mayor, doctors, clergy, and merchants clamoured for use of the city’s parliament building for a hospital. The building had housed the legislature of Lower Canada until 1841 when Lower and Upper Canada were combined under one government. The capital of what was now officially called Canada East and Canada West was, in 1847, located in Montreal. (Two year’s later, Montreal’s parliament building was burned down in two days of rioting and the peripatetic capital moved again, eventually to Ottawa).
The day after the Chronicle sounded its plea for a hospital for Quebec citizens, word from Montreal was reached that Governor General Bruce had approved the use of one of the buildings of the Cavalry Barracks, lying outside of the barrack gates on the Plains of Abraham, for a city hospital. “The citizens will be provided with a temporary receptacle for their sick poor, in an excellent location,” said the Chronicle.
Still the crisis grew. By August 16, no more burials were to be allowed at the burying ground near the Emigrant and Marine hospital since the grounds were “full of bodies, emitting a most noisome effluvia, highly dangerous to the health of the citizens.” During the week, three children—two aged five and one 2-1/2 years—died on the city’s wharves. One man from Grosse Île arrived with his dead wife, wrapped in a blanket.
On July 21, a soup kitchen was busy feeding some 200 emigrant families, but two kitchen employees “have fallen sick from the fever.”
The Chronicle appealed for help for the growing number of orphans at Grosse Île: “We are confident that these helpless little wanderers… will be cared for and protected by those of our citizens who have been blessed with enough to spare of this world’s goods.”
Some 80,000 Irish landed at Montreal, most of them later moving farther up the river and across lake Ontario. They were doctored by Montreal doctors, nursed by the Order of Grey Nuns, attended by Catholic and Protestant clergy. Housed at first in emigrant sheds in the heart of the city, leftover from the 1832 cholera epidemic, they were moved in August to a new hospital and more extensive sheds at Point St. Charles, a short distance upstream.
When an Irish woman gave birth to a baby in Montreal, the Grey Nuns placed it in a hospital room with 18 other orphans. The mother may have perished, or very possibly, struggling to keep herself alive, was unable to support her infant. It was “apparently healthy,” the Montreal Pilot reported. Yet it came down with the fever, affected others, and 10 of the 19 orphans died.
Typhus claimed 3,579 victims in Montreal according to the official count of the Executive Council. In the chaotic situation, the official count likely missed a good many deaths. An inscription on Montreal’s “Black Rock” claims a much higher total. Irish workers building the Victoria Bridge across the St. Lawrence 12 years later, were unnerved by the discovery of a mass grave in Windmill Point, near where the Point St. Charles emigration hospital and sheds had stood. On December 1, 1859, they inscribed on the boulder: “To Preserve from Desecration the Remains of 6000 Immigrants Who died of Ship Fever A.D. 1847-48 This Stone is erected by the Workmen of Messrs. Peto, Brassey and Betts Employed in the Construction of the Victoria Bridge A.D. 1859.”
A city of some 20,000 bordered by forest and Lake Ontario, Toronto received, from May to November, 38,560 Irish emigrants at Reese’s Wharf, as noted by historians Mark McGowan and Michael Chard. Most passed through Toronto for scattered settlements, as near as Hamilton or as far as London or Niagara, where many fled to the United States (including the grandfather of car maker Henry Ford). Of fewer than 3,000 that remained in the city by year’s end, more than 1,100 lay buried in three graveyards.
Toronto set up a Board of Health to care for the emigrants and protect Torontonians from their diseases. Cabs and carters were told not to move into the city any who appeared ill; local residents, hotels and even the General Hospital were prohibited from accommodating them. A new hospital was prepared for Torontonians and the General Hospital became the Emigrant Hospital.
Jane Black, from Limerick, was the year’s first emigrant ship to dock at Toronto, on May 23. The tide of emigrants quickly swelled. On June 8, the City of Toronto brought 700 to its namesake city. One thousand were reported to have arrived aboard the Sovereign on July 6. The facilities at Reese’s Wharf were soon overwhelmed, and the new emigrant hospital had to be enlarged. By August, almost 700 patients crowded the Emigrant Hospital and many more sat in 14 sheds hastily built (by a contractor for $250 each) on the hospital grounds. The sheds were opened-sided roofs, some 50 by 10 feet, most 75 by 20 feet. With rows of benches, they were shelters from summer heat and rain for emigrants who waited for admittance to the hospital, to the burying grounds, or to be hustled out of Toronto.
Among emigrant stories, none are more poignant than that of the Willis family, related by McGowan and Chard. Parents and five children boarded the Jessie at Limerick, Ireland on April 18. Before the ship weighed anchor, one son fell ill, and was left behind for an early death. An 18-year-old-son and a 10-year-old daughter died on the 56-day Atlantic crossing. Another daughter died at Grosse Île. At Brantford, their final destination, 90 kilometres southwest of Toronto, typhus claimed the father and the remaining son. Only the mother survived.
In the 1848 census, the Irish were 39 percent of Toronto’s 23,505 people, the largest ethnic group, more than the English and Scots combined, according to Catholic historian D.S. Shea. By now, some of the Irish who had passed through in 1847 had returned to establish their homes in Toronto. Not all Toronto welcomed them. Among those who did not was George Brown, the Scottish journalist and politician, a leading crusader for “responsible government,” founder and editor of the powerful Globe newspaper, and an undoubted bigot. “Irish beggars are to be met everywhere, and they are as ignorant and vicious as they are poor,” he wailed in the Globe. “They are lazy, improvident, and unthankful; they fill our poorhouses and our prisons, and are as brutish in their superstitions as Hindoos.”
Of the 15,000 who sailed for Saint John, 800 died aboard their coffin ships, 600 died and were buried on Partridge Isle quarantine station, and 595 died in the city’s poorhouse, Catholic historian Rev. John A. Gallagher reported.
When the first ship, the Eliza Liddell, arrived in July, it was greeted with storms of protests about the conditions of the refugees, widows, small children, and the elderly, destitute and sick. The Aeolus was the last to arrive, in November. She was one of nine ships that carried displaced Irish tenants from the Sligo estate of a future British prime minister, Lord Palmerston (John Temple).
The city council wrote to Palmerston to “deeply regret” that he “…or his authorized agent should have exposed such a numerous and distressed portion of his tenantry to the severity and privations of a New Brunswick winter… unprovided with the common means of support, with broken down constitutions, and almost in a state of nudity.” It is doubtful, wrote Woodham Smith, that Palmerston was aware of the conditions in which his tenants were shipped by his agents.
Those who gave their lives
The scores of Canadian doctors, nurses, clergy and other who gave their lives trying to save or help the famine refugees varied from a bishop to at least one immigration officer.
Dr. Benson of Dublin, where he had worked with typhus patients, was probably the first. He arrived as a cabin passenger on aboard the Wandsworth on May 21, volunteered to help the doctors on Grosse Île, and died six days later. Among the deaths of other caregivers reported by the Chronicle, on July 16 there was “Rev. W. Chaderston, who has worked 12 hours a day “in attendance upon the sea faring men and emigrants” at Quebec’s Marine and Emigrant hospital. The next day, in Montreal, it was Dr. McGale, an assistant physician who left “a widow and a large family of children, entirely destitute.”
Historian John Gallagher’s says 44 Catholic priests and 17 Anglican ministers served on Grosse Île, and seven of them died. At Montreal, three priests and 17 Grey Nuns working in the hospitals perished. “There are at the present moment 48 nuns sick from exposure, fatigue and attacks of the disease,” the Montreal Pilot reported July 8. The fever claimed the life of Montreal’s popular mayor, John Mills, who visited the fever hospital and sheds regularly. A priest and a nun perished at Kingston.
Prominent among those who fell in Toronto were Roman Catholic Bishop Michael Power; Dr. George Grassett, chief medical officer at the Emigrant Hospital; and Edward McElderry, the emigration agent who met all the arriving refugees at Reese’s Wharf.
Many seamen caught the fever on the coffin ships and perished—including at least two captains reported by the Chronicle, the skippers of the Sisters and Paragon. Also, “The lady of the doctor of the Goliath died.”
Was this genocide?
The British treatment of the Irish has been described as genocide, not only by the Irish but also by others, including some American historians. Judged by today’s international rules there can be little doubt that Britain would have at least been investigated by the Canadian-initiated International Criminal Court. But if genocide it was, it was no greater than the genocide of American Indians by American settlers, among scores of genocides from the eighteenth to twenty-first centuries.
It was little enough, but the continuing impoverishment of the Irish was somewhat alleviated in the decades following the famine. Ireland’s population fell from 8.2 million in the 1841 census to 6.5 million a decade later, some larger farms became more productive, “In some respects, death and clearance improved,” Woodham Smith writes after 400 pages chronicling details of the disaster. Even housing conditions improved: “Nearly 300,000 mud huts disappeared.”
This could have been accomplished, and much greater achieved by the government’s vaunted free market capitalism, without the death of more than a million Irish—were it not for the disregard of human life, the greed of landlords, sectarian persecution, ethnic animosity, and ignorance. Capitalism may be like the fire that heats our homes, drives our cars and flies our planes. Both fuel great benefits, but only when properly controlled.
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