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Grosse Isle

by Padraic O Laighin

Padraic O Laighin called Grosse Isle "the nadir of Ireland's holocaust, a veritable isle of death". Here is an excerpt from his article found in The Irish in Canada:The Untold Story.

On 15 August, 1909, a large Celtic cross of grey Stanstead granite was unveiled high above the water on the rocky promontory at the western end of Grosse Isle. The monument itself is 14.18 meters tall, and on each side of the pedestal's dire are inscriptions carved on panels of dark ebony. On the eastern side, facing the mass graves and the Saint-Laurent gulf beyond, an inscription in Irish reads:

Children of the Gael died in their thousands on this island having fled from the laws of the foreign tyrants and an artificial famine in the years 1847-48. God's loyal blessing upon them. Let this monument be a token to their name and honour from the Gaels of America. God save Ireland".

Equally moving are the French and English inscriptions, though they fail to assign blame. Books devoted to official versions of the history of Canada, especially those prepared for school use, pay scant regard to the profound events commemorated by this monument, either ignoring the issue entirely, or as Careless does, dsimissing the whole matter in two or three lines with vague references to "hundreds" of Irish dying in "emigrant sheds" upon arrival in Canada; perhaps to those historians the events appear as phantatasmagoric as no doubt they did to observers at the time, but to tens of thousands of women, men and children, newly arrived in this land, they were very real indeed.

According to official statistics, 32,753 immigrants, the great majority of whom were Irish, had arrived at the port of Quebec during the course of the year 1846. Noting the extent of illness among those immigrants, and recalling the heavy immigration and accompanying high mortality which followed the failure of crops in Ireland in 1831, Dr. George M. Douglas, Medical Superintendent of the quarantine station at Grosse Isle, informed the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada- in a letter dated 19 February 1847-of his fear that the approaching season would be "characterized also by a greater amoun of sickness and mortality"; he was aware of efforts being made by the Atlantic ports in the United States to curtail Irish emigration, a move which would "further tend to augment the number of poor and destitute who will flock to our shores." He asked for an appropriation of three thousand pounds to cover exigencies and for permission to hire a hospital stweard and to advertise for tenders for the service of a steamer. Never in his worst nightmares could have he foreseen the paroxysm of death which would soon transform Grosse Isle into "a vast charnel-house of victimized humanity" Far across the Atlantic, a quarter of a million people were preparing to transverse the oceans, refugees from a green and fertile island where hunger and death reigned; one hundred thousand Irish emigrants would soon set sail in "coffin" ships, hoping to knock on British North America's door.

Douglas's requests were aceded to expeditiously, with the proviso that the hospital steward be employed only in the event of "absolute necessity". By 17 May 1847, the terrible drama had begun. On that date, Douglas wrote to inform the Governor General (The Earl of Elgin and Kincardine) that:

all the sick now in hospital are from one vessel, the "Syria", being the first and only Emigrant vessel that has yet arrived. The vessel left Liverpool on the 24th March, having on board two hundred and forty-one passengers recently arrived from Ireland; many were in a weak state when they emrarked, and all were wretched and poor-disease-fever and dysentery-broke out a few days after leaving port, and has gone on increasing until now-nine died on the passage, and one on landing here, and eighty-four are now inmates at the hospital-and I fully expect that from twenty to twenty-four more will have to be admitted.

Douglas continued that he had information of 10,600 immigrants having embarked since April 19, the far greater proportion of whom were from Ireland or Irish leaving via Liverpool, and that he had "every reason to believe that numbers of them "will have to be admitted to hospital"; stating that present accomodation was barely sufficient for 200 sick to contain 60 beds, and he sought sanction for the erection of an additional hospital "shed" to contain 60 beds, and an additional "shed" for the reception of passengers. Within a few days, the requests were sanctioned on paper, but soon events overtook plans. By 1847, 202 passengers from the Syria were now reported as ill; in addition seven emmigrant vessels had arrived during the week, all carrying passengers "in the most wretched state of disease"; 2,778 people had arived on these ships; 175 bodies had been consigned to the deep during the voyage; 341 were sick, most of whom were still on board. The medical superintendent, saying he had "never contemplated the possibility of every vessel arriving with fever, as they now do, goes on to request permission to appoint assistants to help with the "present emergency", and indicates that he will be forced to keep healthy passengers on board ship in contravention of quarantine law.

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The first name on Grosse Isle's 1847 litany of death is that of Ellen Keane, aged four years and three months; she had arrived on board the bark Syria, was admitted to the quarantine hospital on 15 May, and died of fever the same day. Before long, as hundreds of corpses mounted up for burial in mass graves, even the names of the dead would cease to be recorded.

Writing on 24 May, 1847, George Douglas expresses 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 prevalance of cholera in 1932 and 1834. Every vessel bringing Irish passengers, but especially those from Liverpool and Cork, had lost many by fever and dysntery on the voyage, and has arrived here with numbers of sick.

Seventeen more vessels had arrived. They had left port with 5607 passengers, had lost 260 during the voyage and more than 700 of the remainder were ill. Two days later, there were upwards of thirty vessels at anchor at Grosse Isle, having nearly 10,000 passengers on board. On 28 May there were36 vessels there, the 12,450 passengers being detained mostly on board; these vessels were said to have lost 662 passengers on the voyage. On 29 May the Chief Emigration Agent, Alexander Buchannan, raised the issue as to how the ever increasing multitude in quarantine were to be fed, and at whose expense, pointing out that "the allowance of a pound of biscuit or oatmeal, which the law obliges the Master to issue, is not sufficient for their support. He continued, "Much of the present disease and sickness is, I fear, attributed to the want of sufficient nourishing food. He urges the appointment of a Commission of three medical persons with extraordinary powers to oversee the emergency, suggesting that Dr. Douglas be one of those selected. Buchannan adds that the Marine and Emigrant Hospital in Quebec, which had already admitted fifty cases, was also in a state of unpreparedness.

The Governor General immediately appointed a Commission of three medical persons in compliance with Buchannan's recommendation but did not include Dr. Douglas as a member. A few days beforehand, on 31 May, a member of the Legislative Assembly, Robert Christie, had written to the Provincial Secretary, stating that he was:

prepared to prove by an enquiry in Parliament, if necessary, that the proper and seasonable precautions which are required, and which, consistently with our preknowledge of the unusual Emigration that would undoubtedly take place have been inexcusably neglected, as well as much discomfort and suffering occasioned of the sick and immigrants generally, besides the danger to which Quebec, Montreal and other places are expose.

He went on to argue that the duties of the Medical Superintendent and Medical Boarding Officer ought to be again divided and not left in the hands of a single person (Douglas). "As it is", he said,"the Superintendent has a monopoly of powers on the island, besides other bodies, without any sufficient check." The terms of reference of the Commission included these and other areas of concern raised by Christie. Meanwhile, George Douglas, having established that Cliff Island nearby could not be used because tents could not be pitched there, had again appealed to the Governor General to waive the order he had received to land healthy passsengers, maintaining that there was simply no place on Grosse Isle for them. It transpired later, during the hearings close to the end of July, that by far the greater part of the level portion of the island was being "occupied by Dr. Douglas for agricultural purposes". Douglas also offered as a kind of "trade off" that the sending of a detachment of troops which he and the Chief Emigration Agent, Buchannan, had been requesting to pitch tents and maintain order might not be necessary if passengers could be kept on board: one way or another, Dr. Douglas had daunting problems. Dr. Benson, a physician with experience in Irish fever hospitals who had arrived from Dublin in one of the earliest ships, the Wandsworth and who had been providing needed medical assistance, had now died "of Typhus", and Douglas was expecting, before the week expired, to "have in quarintine 20,000 people, the population, in fact, of a large city" Two days later, he would write exasperatly of the "continued arrival of sickly emigrants in overwhelming numbers", of his five assistants objecting to continue their services- "disgusted with the fatigue and the disagreeable nature of their duties"-unless they received better renumeration, and of forty vessels now in quarintine, extending over a space of nearly two miles; it is impossible for one person to do this duty"; now he complained that his own health was affected.

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Ineluctably matters went from bad to horrific during the month of June 1847. Newspapers began to give more space to the terrible arithmetic of death. The Morning Chronicle reported that on 5 June there were 21,000 passengers at Grosse Isle, and that 150 internments took place on that day. The number of deaths on the voyage was stated at 960; 700 were said to have died at the station; 1,500 people were sick on board the vessels and there were 1,100 sick "in the different receptacles on the island". Soon many passengers who had been released from quarantine were dying upon arrival in Quebec and Montreal; an in the case of the later city, emergency hospital and passenger "sheds" were soon erected. There was great fear of an epidemic spreading to the urban residents as had occured during the cholera plagues of the 1830s; an eventuality which did not, by and large, materialize. Some citizens and local indigenous natives collected money for relief in Ireland. Others mobilized to keep treatment centres out of their neighbourhoods. Four hundred and ninety inhabitants of Pointe Levi, in "great alarm and terror", petitioned the Governor General to prevent the erection of hospitals and other buidlings in their district. Politicians were soon moved to act collectively in the Legislative Assembly. On June 25 they voted an Address to Queen Victoria, beseeching her intervention under the infliction which this land has been visited, and is still further threatened, not to permit the helpless, the starving, the sick and the diseased, unequal and unfit as they are to face the hardships of a settler's life, to embark for these shores, which, if they reach, they reach in too many instances only to find a grave". They urged the adoption of legislation which would require the provision on emigrant ships of more ample space for each passenger, a larger allowance of better food than was furnished, and sufficient medical attendance.

The Medical Commissioners set out for Grosse Isle on 4 June 1847, in possession of information that upwards of 45,000 people ad set sail for Quebec by 19 May. They estimated that 25,398 passengers had arrived at quarantine up to the 5th of June, 1,097 had died at sea; 900 had died at Grosse Isle (including 200 from June 4 to June 6); 1,150 were sick in hospital, and an estimated 1,550 were sick on board ships. In the view of the Commissioners, the island could afford ample room for a hundred thousand emigrants, if necessary. They found the sick on the island "in the most deplorable condition, for want of the necessary nurses and hospital attendants", and on inspecting the vessels, they witnessed instances of "corpses lying in the bed with the sick and the dying". Regarding the high mortality rate, the Commissioners reported two important findings: firstly, that "the mortality amongst the sick, treated on board the ships, was infinitely greater than amongst those that were landed and treated in Hospital" and secondly, that keeping the sick and the healthy together on board ship had fatal consequences for many of the healthy. The latter finidng is expounded as follows:

We entirely disapprove of the plan of keeping a vessel in quarantine for any period, however prolonged, whilst the sick and healthy are congregated together, breathing the same atmosphere, sleeping in the same berths, and exposed to the same exciting causes of cantagion. This year's melancholy experience has, in many instances, proved that the number attacked and the mortality of the disease increased in direct ratio with the length of time the ship was detained under such circumstancrs. As an evidence of the truth of the above statement, we may be permitted to instance the case of the ship Agnes which arrived about sixteen days ago, with 427 passengers, out of which number not more than 150 are now in a healthy condition, the remainder being dead, or sick on board or in hospital.

The Commissioners enjoined compliance with their instrctions to Dr. Douglas,and set about implementing procedures which seemed reasonable to them, even if some of the procedures-such as how expeditiously healthy passengers could be allowed to leave quarantine-were at variance with written regulations: in doing so they were acting within their powers. They pointed out that the number of patients entrusted to each physician "was infintely greater than he could with effeciency attend to", and they concluded their report by drawing the attention of the government "to the crowded manner in which vessels were allowed to leave the British ports."

Excepts from The Witnesses' Evidence A Special Committee appointed by the Legislative Assembly to inquire into the management of the Quarantine Station at Grosse Isle submitted its report on 28 July 1847. The report consisted mainly of minutes of evidence of witnesses who were personally invloved in the events. Fr. Moylan, a Catholic Priest, said that the sick on the island were sadly neglected, that in one instance he "supplied water to the sick in a tent, who had been there for the space of eighteen hours without any assistance"

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In his own defense, Dr. Douglas argues that while mortality on board vessels was large, this might be accounted for by the pracrice of retaining the bodies of those who had died during the two or three days before arrival for burial on shore; two ships the Rose and Erin's Queen, had brought thirteen and nine bodies, respectively, ashore on the day of arrival. With reference to his adequacy in fulfilling the duties of two roles (Medical Superintendent and Medical Boarding Officer) simultaneously, he commented as follows:

I do not think that a division of the duties of Medical Superintendent would have remedied the abuses this year. They arose from the impossibility of obtaining medical men and attendants for the sick; both fall ill from two to three weeks after their arrival, and just as they begin to understand the routine of duty.

Dr. Douglas concurs with Fr. Moylan that the dead and the dying were sometimes robbed by the nurses and attendants but he says that "the only persons who can be induced totake charge of the sick in times of pestilence are often the most abandoned of both sexes." His observation goes on to state that "six men are constantly employed digging large trenches from five to six feet deep, in which the dead are buried", and he speaks of the dead being "dragged" out of the hold of ships with boat hooks. This is reminiscent of other descriptions of corpses taken from the ships being corded like fire wood on the shores of the beach to await burial.

Excepts from The Witnesses' Evidence Other witnesses before the Special Committee recounted in turn the gruesome scenes they witnesses on Grosse Isle. The Anglican Bishop of Montreal, George Mountain, spoke of "scenes of loathsomeness, suffering and horror, in the holds of the ships and in the receptacles for the patients"; his visit on the island left him in no doubt that an immense sacrifice of human life had been caused by the wrtechedness of the accomodation and defeciencies of attendence. Fr. O'Reilly, while expressing grief, held the British government responsible for the conditions on board ships which consigned thousands to their deaths. The Irish Priest called on the authorities to immediately adopt measures in the face of the continuing crisis, or to "choose to consent to the wholesome murder of thousands who are just now on the ocean, or preparing to leave home for Canada"(23 July 1847):

...the fever tainted remnant, on landing at Grosse Isle, will find a very slight change for the better in their condition. The greater number must sink under the united influence of fever and dysentery; those who are healthy, if sent up as hitherto to Montreal, must bring with them the seeds of sickness, and become inmates in the sheds in that city, while out of the numbers who leave for Montreal for a further destination, the large majority are doomed to expire on the wharves of Kingston or Toronto, and to carry with them whithersever they direct their steps, the doubtful malady that now hangs over the country like a funeral pall.
The murder continued.

Read Part Two


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