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Coffin Ships carried refugees to Canada

 (The October issue of Celtic Life International finds our hero writing of the Coffin Ships that brought famine victims to North America.)

Last June, scientists confirmed the identification of the human remains found on the beach at Cap des Rosiers, Quebec. They had come from the 1847 shipwreck of the Carricks of Whitehaven, a famine ship that had sailed from Sligo on the west coast of Ireland. Bound for Quebec City, the two-masted vessel had been approaching the mouth of the St. Lawrence when on April 28 a fierce storm came up, drove the wooden ship onto a shoal, and smashed her to pieces.
Now, more than 200 years later, Parks Canada anthropologists confirmed that the remains – bones and skeletons uncovered by storms mostly in 2011 and 2016 – were indeed those of Irish men, women and children who had sailed on the Carricks during the Great Famine in its worst year.
As I tracked the story from my home in Toronto, I could imagine the terrible demise of those last survivors all too vividly. Less than one month before the story surfaced, I had gone aboard two replica famine ships in Ireland – the Jeanie Johnston in Dublin and the Dunbrody in New Ross, County Wexford. And in 2018, in Pictou, Nova Scotia, I had explored the replica of the Hector, which famously sailed from Scotland in 1773, decades before the term “coffin ship” was coined. In size and weight, the 200-ton Hector was closest to the 242-ton Carricks.
At 301 tons or more, the three-masted Jeanie Johnston was significantly larger. On deck, the JJ was 123 feet long and 26 wide and it had a draught or pass-over depth of 15 feet. The original ship, built in Quebec in 1847, had two diesel engines in addition to sails. But according to tour guide Sean Gilmore, the vessel was dead slow: “Once, in a race with 65 other ships, it placed 60th.”
Between 1848 and 1855, the Jeanie Johnston made 16 voyages to North America, carrying an average of 198 passengers and as many as 254 passengers. Was it crowded? Put it this way: the replica ship is licensed to carry 40 people, including crew. The vessel’s great distinction, Gilmore said, was that, “On the Jeanie Johnston, nobody ever died.” This he attributed to the skill of the doctor on board. The two main killers on these voyages, he explained, were cholera and typhus. Cholera was transmitted by fecal matter in the water: “If you got it, you were dead within 48 hours.” Typhus brought a slower death, more miserable, and was carried by lice-infected rats.
The Jeanie Johnston went down in October 1858 when, crossing the Atlantic with a cargo of timber, she became waterlogged. The crew climbed into the rigging and hung on as the ship slowly sank. On the ninth day, as things grew desperate – “no fresh water “-- a Dutch ship happened by and rescued all hands. “Why were they saved?” Gilmore asked rhetorically. “Because no one ever died on the Jeanie Johnston.”
The same cannot be said of the Dunbrody, the largest of the three replica ships I visited. Built in Quebec as a cargo vessel in 1845, it was 176 feet long, 28 wide, and weighed 500 tons – more than twice the Carricks. Sailing out of New Ross during the famine years, the Dunbrody carried an average of 200 passengers, though in March 1847, it sailed to Manhattan with 313. . . .
Steamers operating out of Liverpool could reach North America in two weeks. But these sailing vessels usually required six to eight weeks, during which passengers survived on oatmeal, rice and ship biscuit or hard tack. Two small cabins on the Dunbrody gave first-class voyagers some privacy but most passengers were crammed into 40 bunk beds that were six feet square and made to accommodate four to eight people each. . . .
The vessel nearest in size to the Carricks of Whitehaven was the older ship Hector, best known for its 1773 voyage from Scotland to Pictou, Nova Scotia, where today a replica is tied up at Heritage Quay. The original was already in rough shape when she collected passengers at Loch Broom, and those who went aboard found they could scrape slivers from her rotting hull with their fingernails. The Hector had three masts but was just 85 feet long and 22 wide. She weighed 200 tons.  She sailed with 189 passengers -- 23 families and 25 single men. To say that the ship was overflowing is a gross understatement.
In 2018, while visiting the replica, I descended the ladder into the hold and stepped to the middle of the ship where, at just over six feet in height, I could at least stand upright.  I could hardly believe my eyes. What with the captain, the two mates, the sail maker, the carpenter, the cook, several seamen and three soldiers, 200 people were crowded onto this ship. Most of them spent the voyage confined here below decks, jammed tight. Men, women, and children – 30 of them under two years of age – slept on rough pine boards with twenty-four inches between each rack. Eighteen people died during the 1773 crossing, most of them children. . . .
(To read the complete article, pick up the October issue of Celtic Life International. To read more about sailing on the Hector, check out Flight of the Highlanders: The Making of Canada, publishing in September.)

Ken McGoogan
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Chasing Lemurs will surface next Spring

Spring, 2020. Mark your calendar. That’s when Prometheus Books will bring out Chasing Lemurs: My Journey into the Heart of Madagascar. You know: Keriann McGoogan’s first book?
The one I heard about ten months ago, while striding into the night with my super-fit, thirty-something daughter? “Oh, I meant to tell you,” Keriann said.
“Yes?” I responded. Often, after a movie night, and if Travis is out of town, Sheena and I will walk her home from our house, half a dozen city blocks. But tonight, I forget why, it was just the two of us.
“I’m writing a book,” she said.
Over the years, I’d badgered her sporadically to do just that. Still, I was surprised. “You’re writing a book? What kind of book?”
“A memoir,” she said. “The Madagascar story?”
“Of course! But that’s fantastic!”
My next question, one that I am hard-wired to ask, just popped out: “How many words have you got in the can?” I figured she would say 5,000, maybe 10,000. And when I heard her say, “Just over 7,000,” I started cheer. “Over 7,000! That’s a solid beginning.”
“No, dad,” she said. “Not seven. Seventy. Just over 70,000.”
“70,000? 70,000 words?" I clasped my head and reeled around. "But that’s . . . that’s an entire book!  You must be nearly finished.”
“First draft, yes. Maybe 10,000 words to go.”
So that’s how I found out what Keriann was up to. Ten or so months ago, while striding into the night. Next thing I knew, she had a book deal. With Prometheus Books of New York. Prometheus will publish Chasing Lemurs under its own imprint as part of the Rowman and Littlefield Publishing Group.
Keriann describes the book as “a memoir of scientific exploration and emerging womanhood, a celebration of biodiversity, and a love letter to the people of Madagascar.” When she was twenty-five, which to me seems like yesterday, she traveled to Madagascar to study lemurs in their natural habitat and to set up a permanent field site where, in the remote northwest, she could do research for her PhD in Biological Anthropology. “Despite careful planning, the trip spiraled out of control." she writes. "A simple reconnaissance turned into an epic adventure marked by food poisoning, hairy back-country roads, grueling hikes, challenging local politics, malaria, and an emergency evacuation.”
The book will include a fair bit of science and photos of lemurs (like the one above) by Travis Steffens, founder of Planet Madagascar and (not incidentally) Keriann's husband. Come to think of it, you needn't mark your calendar just yet. As the occasion draws nigh, probably I will have occasion to remind you of it.

Ken McGoogan
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Highlanders preparing to march on Toronto

The Introduction begins:

I was an eyewitness of the scene,” the stonemason Donald Macleod wrote. Strong parties of men “commenced setting fire to the dwellings till about three hundred houses were in flames, the people striving to remove the sick, the helpless, before the re should reach them. The cries of women and children—the roaring of cattle—the barking of dogs—the smoke of the fire—the soldiers—it required to be seen to be believed!” Macleod was writing of a Clearance, a forced eviction of families living in a glen or a valley in the Scottish Highlands. He was describing events of 1814, the Year of the Burnings, as they unfolded in Strathnaver, a wide river valley in the Highland county of Sutherland.
The man supervising the destruction, acting for the aristocratic landlord, had already ordered his men to burn the hill-grazing areas so there would be no food for cattle and the people would have no choice but to leave. When this failed, he escalated the action to the destruction and burning of villages. He had the roofs of houses pulled down and timbers set ablaze to prevent rebuilding. In the month of May alone, he dispossessed and rendered homeless at least 430 people.
Those 430 farmers were among the approximately 200,000 Highlanders driven from their ancestral lands during the Clearances, with estimates varying from 170,750 to more than 300,000. To argue that the Clearances were the result of the inexorable advance of capitalism is to ignore the cultural targeting of Gaelic- speaking, Roman Catholic, clan-oriented Highlanders. . . .

Ken McGoogan
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Before turning mainly to books about arctic exploration and Canadian history, Ken McGoogan worked for two decades as a journalist at major dailies in Toronto, Calgary, and Montreal. He teaches creative nonfiction writing through the University of Toronto and in the MFA program at King’s College in Halifax. Ken served as chair of the Public Lending Right Commission, has written recently for Canada’s History, Canadian Geographic, and Maclean’s, and sails with Adventure Canada as a resource historian. Based in Toronto, he has given talks and presentations across Canada, from Dawson City to Dartmouth, and in places as different as Edinburgh, Melbourne, and Hobart.