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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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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.