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Grosse Isle:Part One

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Enumerating the Multitudes

On 9 March 1848, evidence was presented to the House of Lords in London that about 258,000 emigrants had left British and Irish ports during the year 1847. For 143,000 passengers, ports in the United States were their destination and 105,000 set out for British North America. Nearly all of these emigrants were Irish, There is considerable evidence that the 134,524 people who embarked at Liverpool during that fatal year were almost exclusively Irish. As matters unfolded, it was in the interests of every concerned official and government-Douglas', Buchanan's, the Canadian and British Governments'- that the enormity of the tragedy be concealed and underestimated; in the interests of almost everyone involved, that is, except the interests of the bereaved. Alexander Buchanan reported the arrival of 97,002 steerage passengers and infants from Ireland, Britain and the Lower Ports for the 1847 season up to October 31. This number was scaled downwards and by December 1847 the equivalent statistic being given was 89,738, of whom 5,293 were said to have died before their arrival, leaving 84,445 reaching the colony. By December 1848 Buchanan had wittled down of emigrants who arrived at the port of Quebec from Ireland and Britain to 82,713. In the main body of his annual report on emigration during 1848 he gives 82,694 as the pertinent number for 1847. Besides, this form of tailoring of numbers to suit political tastes, there was frequently another systematic curtailment of the reality in operation when apparently obvious words such as "passenger" were used. The terms "passenger" and "statute adult" were sometimes used interchangably. Limits were placed on the number of "statute adults" on a particular ship could legally carry. A "statute adult" was defined by the Passengers Act as a person over 14 years old, or a mother with a dependent child under one year old, or two children aged between one and fourteen years old. So when Adam Ferrie, a member of the Legislative Council of the province of Canada,stated with reference to particular ships that "in many instances from 600 to 800 were huddled together in one indiscriminate mass, being double the number which vessels were capable of accomodating with any degree ofcomfort or safety," the owner of one of these vessels, the Greenock, was able to carry 634 statute adults, it had only 633 statute adults on board: the reality beyond the truth was that there were actually 816 people on board, comprising 528 adults, 210 children between the ages of one and fourteen, and 78 children under one year old.

Twenty thousand, thirty thousand, or more Irish victims of the sorrowful 1847 season of death are buried on Grosse Isle. A report approved by the Governor General in council on 8 December 1847, based on "statements received from authentic sources", purported to establish the true character of the year's emigration." At quarantine, a total of 3,452 persons were said to have died. The statistic supplied by Dr. Douglas is a curious one: he himself later erected a monument at the mass grave cemetary on the island, dedicated to the four doctors who died there in 1847 and two doctors whohad died there during earlier epidemics, and mentioning, serenely, on its eastern face, the mortal remains of 5,424 from Ireland interred there in the year 1847. Besides the mass burial area on the penninsula, the graves of many of the Irish of that terrible year are scattered in various places around the island. The approved report went on to say that 1,041 emigrants had died at the Quebec Emigrant Hospital, 3,579 at the Memorial Emigrant Hospital, and 1,965 at other places in the two Canadas- atotal of 10,037 in all dying after arrival in the Province of Canada, 5,293 (as stated already)having died on the passage. Of the 74,408 persons remaining, 30,265 had been admitted to hospital. Returns had not been received from 24 health boards.

Montreal had its own story for 1847, and a large black roll on a traffic island at the entrance to the Victoria Bridge in Pointe Sainte Charles tells a part of it. The rock bears the following inscription:

To preserve from description the remains of 6,000 immigrants who died of ship fever A.D. 1847-1848. This stone is erected by the workmen of Messrs. Peto, Brassey & Betts. Employed in the construction of the Victoria Bridge A.D. 1859.
Hospital "sheds", seven rows of three, twenty one long narrow buildings in all, had hastily constructed at this location on land owned by the Soeurs Grises de Montreal, and a clearly-delimited cemetery consecrated. This area was "cleared" to make way for a temporary stadium designed for use during the 1967 exposition; the stadium has since been removed without leaving a trace, and no trace remains either of the "sheds" or the cemetery. The place is described as an "industrial zone" on current maps, and the city has designated the site of the cemetery as a location suitable for light indusry. In an earlier attempt to profane the site, Grand Trunk Railways removed the stone by stealth at night to another location in the year 1898; only after 13 years of protest and litigation did not agree to return the stone to its original and current location where by folkloric tradition on the remains of as many as 12,000 Irish immigrants lie. If buildings and fences can be obliterated, not so with memories; they abound with tales of horror and heroism; of the Soeurs Grises and the Soeurs de Charit้ who with a spirit of unbounded love devoted themselves to the foresaken, caring for them, and dying with them; of John Mills who, as, mayor of Montreal and Chairman of the Emigrant Commission" acted effectively to protect the interests of citizens and sick alike, and who, as an ordinary person with a mission, ministered to the needs of the sick in the "sheds" and died, as they did, of typhus.

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Proximate Causes of the Horror

Why did so many Irish people die? The proximate cause of death for most of them at Grosse Isle was probably typhus, frequently accompanied by relapsing them at Grosse Isle. Typhus is a Rickettsial disease, transmitted by lice and fleas. It can be passed on to humans through lice infestation, but can also be acquired in another manner on to humans through lice infestation but it can also be acquired in another manner even by people who are not lousy.The cause of the disease was unknown by Dr. Douglas and the other medical people of the time, nor were they aware of any effective cure. The cause of the disease was unknown to Dr. Douglas and the other medical people of the time, nor were they aware of any effective cure. Many clearly died by being kept in contact with other bearers, and as a result of being detained on board ship at quarantine in the midst of lice and human excrement.

Beyond Grosse Isle they were killed by exploitive shipowners-greedy to fill their lumber ships with the human ballast on the way over to Quebec, rady to break the letter and spirit of laws requiring them to carry adequate provisions of food and water-people whose meanness unfolded in a thousand vignettes as graphic as this one was to the eyes of Dr. Douglas.

The "Virginius" sailed from Liverpool May 28 with 476 passengers. Fever and dysentery cases came on board this vessel in Liverpool and deaths occured before leaving the Mersey. On mustering the passengers for inspection yesterday, it was found that 106 of them were ill of fever, including nine of the crew, and the large number of 158 had died on the passage, including the first and second officers and seven of the crew, and the master and the steward dying, the few that were able to come on deck were ghastly yellow looking spectres, unshaven and hollow cheeked, and , without exception, the worst looking passengers I have ever seen; not more than six or eight were really healthy and able to exert themselves.

It was not travelling by ship or quarantining per se which killed these emigrants. Germans were the only national group besides the Irish who arrived at the port of Quebec in large numbers during 1847, but, unlike the Irish, they arrived safely, 7,437 in all, and were expedited through quarantine without any serious outbreak of disease. While 143,400 passengers had set out for United States ports in 1847- more, in fact,than had departed for British North America-and while many deaths occured among them en route, there were very few deaths during quarantine, nothing to match in any way the horrors of Grosse Isle: this outcome, however, was not all fortuitous. The United States Congress enacted strict legislation governing passenger ships in February and in early March 1847, stipuating better conditions on board for passengers and higher taxes upon arrival than were in effect on ships plying between the Celto-Saxon islands and British North America; additonally, pors in the US were allowed to adopt regulations to suit local conditions, a move which allowed authorities in Boston, spurred on by the nascent "Know-Nothing" movement, to impose conditions selectively- including the requirement on captains to post a bond of one thousand dollars for each passenger-which placed a virtual ban on disembakation from ships carrying Irish passengers; some ships, replete with anguish and sorrow and the throes of death, were forced away from the wharves of Boston during the height of the summer's misery, and could only opt to face the seas again and the lonely fate that awaited them in the gulf of the Saint-Laurent river.

The Irish, then, were killed by typhus; they were killed by conditions in quarantine; they were killed by callous shipowners: beyond all that they were killed with two million others by genocidal famine, and the British landlords in Ireland, including members of the British government and Parliament, were the captains of the politics of death. In a way, the whole story is encapsulated in the Irish inscription at the base of the Celtic cross on Grosse Isle, or in the following excerpt from speech in Irish-the mother tongue of the majority of those whose remains rest below - made by E.T. McCrystal on the day of the unveiling in 1909.

They were our forebears. They were born on the same island where seven generations of our ancestors were born. They were feeling from the laws of the tyrants, from famine and its plague. They contracted fever and died in the boats in which they were gathered, and some of them are under the grass here.

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The Politics of Death

Engels, in his draft plan for a "History of Ireland", calls the years 1846 to 1870 the "period of extermination"; while so doing he was aware of an earlier era when Irish people were transported as slaves to the west Indies, especially Barbadoes. In dealing with the sundry atrocities of the earlier period, British historian William Lecky calls attention to a fate more compelling than raw slaughter.

Canadian historians sterotypically refer to the famine of 1846-48 in Ireland as "the potato famine". This is clearly a misnomer. The potato crop failed in countries all across northern Europe during these same years, and they did not have "potato famine". The pottao crop in England failed and England did not have a "potato famine". The failure of the crop in Ireland coincided with a famine the magnitude of which that land had never before experienced, but it was famine in the midst of plenty.

In Ireland this episode is called, calmly, an gorta mor, "the great famine". It was horrific beyond imagining. In a small town in the west of Ireland, Caislean Bharraigh (Castlebar), "people lay in the streets with green froth at their mouths from eating soft grass." To shorten a long story, the population of the country was reduced by three million people between 1841 and 1851. One million people had left the country, some to find a watery grave or a mass grave in Grosse Isle. Two million people died of starvation and disease at hoome. The threat which Ireland's growing population had posed to England had been scotched, and in the process a whole nation brought to their knees.

More food of excellent quality was being exported from Ireland to England during the famine for the enrichment of British landlords than could have fed the entire population. During hearings of a select committee of the House of Lords in 1847-before the issue became a suitable subject for revisionism-several of the members spoke of the export of large quantities of food from Ireland as a simple given. They ought to have known: many of them were non-resident landlords of vast areas in Ireland. Lord Monteagle of Brandon, then himself a landlord in Ireland, could state, as part of a question: "We know that there are large Exportations of Produce from Ireland..." Francis Spaight, a British magistrate, landlord, and shipping merchant in Ireland, was able to give a detailed breakdown of imports and exports of food through the port of Luinneach (Limerick), one of the largest ports in the country, for the year 1 June 1846 to 31 May 1847. Exports far exceeded imports: 386,909 barrels of oats and 46,288 barrels of wheat were exported: frm a countryside rife with starvation and death.

Spaight was one of many landlords who consigned his tenants - whose only other choice was death from starvation in Ireland - to their deaths on the high seas and in Grosse Isle during 1847. Spaight, on 2 July 1847,has the audacity to state: "I consider the Failure of the Potato crop to be of the greatest possible value in one respect - in enabling us to carry out the Emigration System". Lord Palmerston, member of the British Government at the time as Foreign Secretary, was one of the worst offenders against the common human decency in these matters; he drove more than 2,000 people from his "estates" in Ireland to their ignormonimous doom in 1847. Perhaps his crime against his tenants is best expressed by these words from The Summer of Sorroe>/I>.

Their poverty was extreme. They had no luggage and many had not rags enough to cover their nakedness. So haggard and white were they, so vacant their expression, that they looked more like an array of spectres, than of human beings.
A short time later, on 21 March 1848, Lord Palmerston was extolling the virtues of the British ships which were used for the slave trade prior to the abolition of that trade by the British parliament in 1807; the conditions for transporting slaves, as he described them, were definitely better than those experienced by the tenants transported by him from his estates in Ireland: according to him, William Dolben's Act established a particularly favourable proportion between the number of slaves and tonnage, and required "that there should be medical assistance on board the ship, and a certain quantity of water to every slave embarked. Some of the ships used on Lord Palmerston's behalf in 1847 and 1848 had formerly been used for slaving. Lord Palmerston was later to become Prime Minister of England.

As if to add contumely to extermination policies,the Irish who survived were used, in accordance with explicit colonization policies, to play a part in a political and ideological game not of their making. According to the census of 1848, Upper Canada had 57,604 persons of Irish birth, and by the census of 1851-52 the equivilent statisic reported was 175,963. This increase of 118,358 people among those born in Ireland was the critical factor in shifting the population balance, and consequently the balance of political power, between Lower Canada and Upper Canada: in 1851-52, for the first time since the earliest colonists arrived, Upper Canada reported a higher population than Lower Canada.

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The Prsesnt og a PLace Apart

While Grosse Isle was no longer used to quarantine people after 1916, the station continued a surveillence role in relation to infectious diseases until it was finally closed in 1937. In 1843, the island was transferred to the Department of National Defence, and for the following 14 years they had a major research centre there which specialized in biological warfare, with particular emphasis on disease agents which affect food-producing animals (notably rinderpest and anthrax). The island was transferred to the Department of Agriculture in 1957, and since then has been used to study exotic animal diseases,and from 1965 onwards, also as a quarantine station for animals.

Whatever the future of Grosse Isle, its past will be hard to erase. It will always stand as a monument to forbearance, as a sactuary to its spectres, as a place for kindred spirits to go and walk and feel the sun which will still set and rise. Always etched on the hearts of Irish people, and those of Irish descent around the world, will be Dr. Douglas' gentle tribute to the dead on the monument he raised at the scene of their immolulation: "In this secluded spot lie the mortal remains of 5424 persons who were fleeing from Pestilance and Famine in Ireland in the year 1847 found in America but a grave."

An old Irish proverb, Bionn le muir, ach ni bbionn, takes on a fresh meaning: "One looks forward to the sea, but does not expect to find a grave."


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