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During the first half of the 19th century, many immigrants who ventured across the ocean by sailing ship never made it to America, falling victim to the terrible conditions of the voyage. At the time, transportation by sea was not regulated, and the steerage areas of the ship were designed to carry goods, not passengers.
There was a constant lack of space, ventilation, food and water aboard most sailing vessels. Some 200 to 400 passengers were crowded in steerage. Without enough bunks for everyone, they often had to take turns sleeping. When the weather was fair, the passengers could stretch out on the lower part of the deck, but the frequent storms confined them for days in a dirty, airless compartment, stuffed with baggage and all manner of garbage. Drinking water and food went bad rapidly. Provisions quickly ran short if the ship's arrival at Québec was delayed by a dead calm, contrary winds or ice. All of these factors, plus seasickness, contributed to the outbreak and transmission of diseases that were too often fatal.
Great Britain's Passenger Legislation
The Passenger Acts were passed between 1803 and 1855 to improve sea travel. The first, enacted in 1803, stipulated that a ship had to carry enough food and water for a minimum of 12 weeks, a doctor had to be on board, and the number of passengers could not exceed the ship's capacity. But ship captains could easily get around these provisions. Immigrants were sneaked on board along the way, from secluded areas of the loading ports. As a result, the amount of food and space allotted per person no longer met the prescribed standards. The captains sold the food at outrageous prices beyond the means of the poorest passengers.
Cleanliness on board ship, while addressed in the regulations, was often neglected until the day before the ship reached Grosse Île. The quarantine station's inspector regularly noted the filthy conditions.
The enactment of the last major Passengers Act in 1855 marked a genuine improvement in the quality of sea travel. The number of passengers allowed was reduced by 25%; a hospital was set up on the upper deck to isolate the sick; a sufficient quantity and variety of supplies were loaded; and hot meals were even served. These new measures coincided with the arrival of an improved form of transportation: the steamship.
The advent of steam navigation in the mid-1800s revolutionized the transportation of immigrants to North America. In 1867, 92% of travellers were transported by steamship. Circa 1900, the huge ships belonging to Dominion Line, Beaver Line and Canadian Pacific that crossed the Atlantic in the early 20th century could hold up to 2,000 people. They offered comfort, speed and safety. Crossings that once took eight to 12 weeks could be accomplished in about 12 days. Conditions on board improved greatly. These measures reduced illness and alleviated the delays caused by winds. Sufficient water and food were loaded for the passengers, and dining rooms were even available. The menu included soup, beef, vegetables, bread, fruit, marmalade, cheese, biscuits and tea. The development of new steerage led to separate compartments for single women and men as well as reading rooms. Furthermore, improved ventilation, and the installation of hot water and electricity increased passenger comfort.
Recreation On Board
In good weather, passengers could take a walk on deck as a brief escape from the foul conditions below. In stormy weather, frightened passengers sought hope and comfort by reading psalms and prayers together, and holding religious services. Those not suffering from seasickness amused themselves by dancing, enjoying music, playing cards or chess, tossing bottles overboard, preparing meals, knitting and even doing laundry.
Passengers were astonished by the sharks, walruses, whales, seals and storm-driven birds that they saw during the crossing. They fished for cod to supplement their meals. The massive icebergs near Newfoundland inspired both fear and awe. Passengers were also asked to assist in an emergency. For example, in 1842, the Lord Canterbury from Bristol struck an iceberg three weeks before it was to arrive in Grosse Île. Passengers had to work the pumps and bail water day and night to prevent the ship from sinking.
The immigrants often had sad moments as they thought about their homelands and the friends and family left behind, both living and dead. But the hope of a better life renewed their courage and determination. The white houses, glittering church roofs and lush vegetation along the banks of the St. Lawrence River enchanted them and made them curious about their newly adopted country.
Death at Sea
Death was a sad reality for passengers. A voyage could end abruptly for a variety of reasons. Young children died of malnutrition, and infants born at sea did not always survive. Passengers died of contagious and fatal diseases, or less serious illnesses that worsened. Others were claimed by injury, suicide, drowning, shipwreck and heart problems. In 1847, close to 5,000 people, most of them Irish, died on ships bound for America, the main causes of death being typhus and dysentery.
A Final Resting Place
The bodies of the dead were placed in canvas sacks that were then sewn closed and thrown overboard. The captain led a short ceremony on the upper deck, weather permitting. Those who died of cholera had their belongings burned. If a person died when the ship was less than 30 km from a quarantine station or port city, the body was kept on board so that it could be buried on land.
Visit the Gallery -- Life and Death at Sea to see more from the Library and Archives Canada collection.