HC Deb 21 February 1848 vol 96 cc1024-35

moved the Second Reading of the Passengers' Bill.


considered it absolutely imperative on the House to adopt some such measure as this for the prevention, in future, of the sufferings to which emigrants to Canada and other countries had hitherto been exposed in the crowded and badly-arranged emigrant ships. He found that during the last emigration season to the Canadas, the mortality on the whole number of emigrants had amounted to between 17 and 18 per cent—death in most cases being attributable to fever brought on while on board ship; and it was a well- known fact that the mass of those who were landed were left in a state of utter destitution, and that through them the seeds of disease were spread through the whole colony. The evils which were thus occasioned arose entirely from the want of proper regulation in the emigrant ships, and he was glad that means were now proposed to be taken to remedy such a state of things henceforward. He hoped that his right hon. Friend would endeavour to simplify legislation on this matter; and if he repealed the two Acts which now existed, and consolidated their provisions into one measure, the public would be better satisfied, and the law would be much more intelligible. An improved mode of ventilation in the emigrant vessels was the first requisite, and it was recommended by those best acquainted with the subject that the cook-room should be always fixed on the second deck, in order that the passengers might have, as they now had not, ready access to the hot water, &c. Every precaution ought to be taken to secure the necessary comforts and conveniences to the unfortunate people who were driven by poverty from our own shores, and compelled to seek a livelihood in other countries; and no vessel ought to be allowed to clear from harbour here until it was proved on inspection that she was safe, properly fitted up, and in her cabin accommodation well ventilated. The hon. Member referred to letters from the Members of Council at Canada, describing the condition of the emigrants on arrival out from Ireland last year. It was disgraceful to this country that she had ever permitted such evils to continue unnoticed. We had by our neglect inflicted serious injury on the inhabitants of our own colonies in introducing annually among them fever and disease; and if the House had any regard to humanity or to the sufferings entailed in this way on helpless fellow-creatures, it would at once take the matter into consideration.


said, he had listened with great satisfaction to his hon. Friend, and he entirely agreed with him that it was the bounden duty of that House and of the Government to apply themselves most earnestly to prevent if possible a recurrence of the dreadful calamities which the system of emigration to North America, especially from Ireland, was accompanied by during the last year, both to the emigrants themselves and the colonists. He thought the colonists would have every reason to complain if this country did not take care to prevent a recurrence of the scenes of last year, and which had the effect of depriving them of some of the most valuable lives in the community. Lord Elgin, writing on this subject, after describing the general prosperity which he (Mr. Labouchere) was happy to say prevailed in Canada, proceeded to remark, that he was compelled to make a considerable deduction from the favourable character of the report on account of the distress and suffering occasioned in the province by the emigration of the present year; that its disastrous consequences were felt not only in the large towns but even in remote hamlets; that the subject had been forced on his attention in every part he came to through the province; and that he regretted to say he found a disposition prevailing, to contrast the sufferings experienced by Canada, as a province, compared with the immunity enjoyed by the States, who were able to take care of themselves. He would beg leave to remind the shipowners that it was impossible for this country to prevent the North American Colonies to take what steps they might find necessary to protect themselves, if Parliament here neglected to adopt measures for saving the colonists from a recurrence of such dangers. In order to show the necessity of legislating on the matter, he need only state the one fact, that in former years the average mortality among emigrants to Canada was not more than a half per cent, whereas last year it amounted to the frightful rate of 17 per cent. It was true that that proportion did not perish in the vessels, but they died either on the voyage or in quarantine, or in the hospitals immediately after arriving. Such a state of things deserved the most serious consideration of Parliament; and he should deeply regret if the emigration of the coming season—which, he might remark, promised to be quite as large from Ireland as it was last year—was allowed to go on without the House doing what it could to prevent a recurrence of evils so shocking to humanity, and so destructive to all sound policy in matters of the kind. He was aware that a great cause—perhaps the principal cause—of the sufferings of last year, was one against which it was impossible for them to guard by legislation, namely, the prevalence of fever in Ireland during the last season. The emigrants brought the seeds of fever out with them, which it was impossible to discover until after the ship had put to sea; but if any hon. Gentleman would look to the evidence that had been laid on the table of the House, he would see that that cause had been infinitely aggravated by the course of mismanagement which had been pursued, and by the want of any proper regulations or control in the vessels into which these unfortunate creatures entered. In this state of things the Colonial Office, and more especially the Commissioners of Emigration, had applied themselves seriously to consider what alterations in the law had been best to recommend for the adoption of the House. The result was the Bill which he had the honour to submit to the House. The main alterations which it proposed in the existing law were—In the first place it proposed to increase the space allotted to the emigrants on board from ten feet for each person to twelve feet; but even then the British law would be less restrictive than the American law, which provided that a -vessel could carry only one for every fourteen feet. Another point on which he thought it right to introduce an alteration in the law was that which provided that a certain quantity of food should be carried for each emigrant. The quantity was by no means sufficient for the support of an emigrant during the voyage, as it was expected that the emigrants would always bring some food for themselves. During last year, however, it was found that in the unfortunate position of Ireland whole crowds threw themselves almost without any food into the vessels, relying entirely upon what they might get on board. This alone was sufficient to account for the dreadful state of things that had been reported to the House in the papers lately presented. One very important alteration was proposed to be made in this respect: it was that emigrant ships to America, like those to Australia, should be provided with a sufficient quantity of food to sustain the lives of the passengers. He came now to the provision which had excited the greatest alarm among the parties interested in emigrant vessels, namely, that each ship should carry a respectable Government officer to protect the emigrants by seeing that the regulations for the voyage were properly enforced, and if necessary to complain of the conduct of those who had violated them upon the arrival of the vessel at its destination. Many of the emigrants who had arrived bore most abundant proof that no care was taken on board to observe the law; they were afraid to make complaints, and he feared that whatever laws might be made, the emigrants had no redress. The Government officer and superintendent, however, would attend to these complaints—he would attend to the proper ventilation of the ship, and provide for decent habits of cleanliness and some moral restraint among the emigrants—both of which had been sadly wanting in some instances that had come under his notice. A proposal had been strongly urged upon the attention of the Government, which was most deserving of consideration. It was that every emigrant ship should be obliged to take out a surgeon. He wished he was in a condition to recommend with confidence the House to pass an enactment of this kind, for he admitted that not even the respectable persons to be appointed superintendents, who would be taken generally from the warrant officers in the Navy, would be sufficient. His noble Friend the Secretary for the Colonies had been most anxious to make such a proposal; but, after the fullest inquiry, his noble Friend and the Emigration Commissioners had come to the conclusion that it would not be possible to find surgeons for so great a number of emigrant ships as were expected to sail this year. With these opinions, expressed by competent medical authority, the Government had reluctantly abstained from proposing that every emigrant ship should be obliged to carry a surgeon; but he was not without the hope, if the House sanctioned the regulation for taking out Government superintendents, that that would be the means of inducing captains to carry surgeons in their vessels in far more instances than they did at present. It was the intention of the Emigration Commissioners and of the Colonial Office, in cases where the vessel carried a surgeon, to appoint the surgeon to be the superintendent, by which the expense would be a very slight addition to that borne by the captain. The cost of the superintendents would be made as light as possible consistent with the objects of the Bill. It would be, as at present proposed, 20l. and 1s. per head, on taking out the emigrants, which would have to be defrayed by the owners of the vessels; but the Government would undertake the charge of bringing back the superintendents, which he estimated at not more than 10l. It was of importance that this measure should come into operation before the emigration season commenced; and having that object in view as well as the efficiency of its provisions, he should propose that the Bill be referred to a Select Committee, from which he hoped it would be presented to the House in a shape which would prevent any lengthened discussion on its future stages. Before he sat down he would read an account of what had actually taken place last year on board one of the emigrant ships for America—an account contained in a private letter, but which the Colonial Office thought of so much importance that it would be made a public document, and presented to the House. The letter was written by an Irish gentleman of station and family, Mr. Stephen De Vere, brother of Sir Aubrey De Vere, who, having occasion to go to British North America, and knowing that some emigrants from his own part of Ireland were going out, actuated by the most honourable and humane motives, determined to go himself in the condition of a steerage passenger, that he might make himself personally acquainted with the condition of the steerage passengers when crossing the Atlantic. The picture drawn by this gentleman of what had actually taken place, afforded the strongest evidence of the absolute necessity of some more stringent regulations than those which now existed:— No moral restraint is attempted; the voice of prayer is never heard; drunkenness, with its consequent train of ruffianly debasement, is not discouraged, because it is profitable to the captain, who traffics in grog. In the ship which brought me out from London last April, the passengers were found in provisions by the owners, according to a contract, and a furnished scale of dietary. The meat was of the worst quality. The supply of water shipped on board was abundant; but the quantity served out to the passengers was so scanty that they were frequently obliged to throw overboard their salt provisions, and rice (a most important article of their food), because they had not water enough both for the necessary cooking and the satisfying of their raging thirst afterwards. They could only afford water for washing by withdrawing it from all the cooking of their food. I have known persons to remain for four days together in their dark close berths because they suffered less from hunger, though compelled at the same time by want of water to heave overboard their salt provisions and rice. No cleanliness was enforced, the beds never aired, the master during the whole voyage never entered the steerage, and would listen to no complaints; the dietary contracted for was, with some exceptions, nominally supplied, though at irregular periods, but false measures were used (in which the water and several articles of dry food were served), the gallon measure containing but three quarts, which fact I proved in Quebec, and had the captain fined for. Once or twice a week ardent spirits were sold indiscriminately to the passengers, producing scenes of unchecked blackguardism beyond description; and lights were prohibited, because the ship, with her open firegrates upon deck, with lucifer matches and lighted pipes used secretly in the sleeping berths, was freighted with Government powder for the garrison of Quebec. The case of this ship was not one of peculiar misconduct; on the contrary, I have the strongest reason to know, from information which I have received from very many emigrants, well known to me, who came over this year in different vessels, that this ship was better regulated and more comfortable than many. It was fortunate that the House was able to have the testimony of so competent a witness as this gentleman. He (Mr. Labouchere) believed what was here said was true, and by no means a single instance. It showed that any legal provisions, without a Government officer to see them carried into effect, would be nugatory and ineffective. With regard to the question of his hon. Friend the Member for Montrose, whether he would take this opportunity to consolidate all the Passenger Acts into one, he agreed that as a general proposition it was desirable that Bills of this kind should be compressed into a single statute, rather than scattered over three or four. On the other hand, as the subject was very pressing, and it was expedient that the law should be settled soon, he considered he was acting prudently in not undertaking to consolidate all the existing Acts.


was unable to understand why this Bill should be hung up in Committee, except Select Committees were so much in fashion that Her Majesty's Ministers could do nothing without them. The value of the measure consisted in its being carried rapidly, because the season for emigration had already begun. Indeed there had been a winter emigration, for since November last 4,000 persons had emigrated to Canada. He was glad the Emigration Commissioners and the Board of Trade were attending to this matter; but unless the owners of emigrant ships could be bound not to oppose it, as he believed they would, the Bill would have to be discussed in the House, as well as in Committee. Indeed, unless Her Majesty's Ministers were not satisfied with their own measure, he could not understand what object would be gained by sending it to a Select Committee upstairs. The cases quoted by the right hon. Gentleman proved the necessity of strong regulations; and he hoped that no mongrel notions of free trade would stop the progress of the Bill. He hoped there would be no free trade in pestilence, for many emigrant vessels, underlet as they had been, conveyed double destruction—destruction to those on board, and in many instances to those on whose shores they landed, some of which were not under the sway of the British Crown. The ordinary number of deaths was stated to be 17 per cent; but he believed it would be four or five per cent more if the mortality was taken into consideration that occurred in the colonies themselves. He was glad to see the right hon. Gentleman direct his attention to the quantity of room to be afforded to each emigrant, to the food, and to the superintendence. With regard to the food there was generally a want of variety, which was the cause of many diseases on board. He approved of the inspection; but unless it was strictly enforced, owners and masters would set it at nought; and he thought the Bill would be improved if it provided for a better inspection of the seaworthiness of vessels. As to consolidation, he hoped the right hon. Gentleman would not try it yet; let him secure this Bill, and try to consolidate about the end of the Session.


admitted the importance of the Bill passing as rapidly as possible; but its consideration by a Select Committee would involve no delay. The object of the Select Committee would not be to take evidence, and two days would be sufficient time for them to consider the measure. It was undesirable, however, to pledge the Government to meet the views of the hon. Member for Montrose, as to the consolidation of the several Bills on this subject. It would be wiser first to pass this measure, and then direct attention to consolidation. Any other course would create delay, and cause matters to remain as they were.


was in favour of consolidating the different Acts, but believed a measure of that nature would not pass if it were delayed till the end of the Session. Neither did he think this Bill calculated to check or stint the emigration now going on from Ireland; and he hoped that shipowners, however stringent the regulations might be, would consider that the loss of one ship was much more calculated to deter emigration than those regulations. With regard to the superintendence, if the superintendent was not a surgeon he could not see how he would be available. How could the superintendent be invested with power, if he were not a surgeon? Unless he were a man with authority his office would have no value, and the captain would have him under his control the whole voyage. If his right hon. Friend looked at some of the cases which had occurred, he would find there had been a great deficiency in the number of emigration agents at the different ports. He hoped, therefore, that the Emigration Commissioners would appoint more emigration agents at the outports, to inspect the ships before they started, and to look after and provide for the emigrants on their arrival.


thought the provisions of the Bill were as perfect as they could be under the circumstances of the case; and on the part of his constituents he felt bound to thank the right hon. Gentleman for the enactments of the Bill, and for the pains which he had taken to see those enactments carried out. He also begged to thank the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Northampton (Mr. V. Smith) for his suggestion relative to the independence of the superintendent, which he thought well worthy the consideration of the Government. He trusted the Bill would be cordially received by the poor of the country, for whose benefit he was sure it was intended.


thought the present system of emigration was highly discreditable to the Government and to the Legislature. It had been officially stated by the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Labouchere) that deaths had occurred in emigrant ships to the extent of seventeen per cent. The Emigration Commissioners might be justified, by the evidence they had received, in making the report they had made to the House with regard to the difficulty of providing surgeons for emigrant ships; but this subject had been under the consideration of the House last year; and he then said, that if surgeons were adequately paid, there would be no difficulty in obtaining their services. The Emigration Commissioners, however, had derived their information from some of the most eminent men in the profession, who unfortunately knew nothing of the subject. He believed that no persons could be more efficient as superintendents of emigrant ships than medical practitioners, who were men of good education, who were fully aware of the necessity of preserving discipline, and who were well acquainted with the requisites for ensuring the comfort and health of the passengers. But was it likely that legally qualified members of the medical profession could be obtained as surgeons to emigrant ships for 20l. a voyage, with the prospect of some 10l., 15l., or 20l., which might be given them by the owners in addition to that miserable stipend? The average duration of the voyage was six or seven weeks; and for a voyage outwards of seven weeks, and homewards of seven weeks, the surgeon was to receive 20l.! Why, it was preposterous to suppose that competent medical men could be obtained for so paltry a pittance. The right hon. Gentleman must be aware that as the persons who chartered emigrant ships did so as a pecuniary speculation, their object was to get everything done at the lowest possible cost; and he considered that the Government ought to step in and to insist that proper measures should be taken to insure the comfort of the miserable beings who were compelled to leave this country to seek a subsistence in a foreign land. The Government, however, had not struck at the root of the evil; and he was satisfied that without placing in every emigrant ship a competent medical practitioner, it was impossible to remedy many of those evils which had been deplored by the right hon. Gentleman who introduced the Bill. He regretted to express his conviction that this measure fell far short of what the unfortunate people of Ireland and the public had a right to expect; and he hoped the right hon. Gentleman would reconsider the subject with a view of ascertaining whether, by adopting proper measures, it was not possible to obtain a sufficient number of competent medical practitioners. In connexion with the three medical colleges in England, Ireland, and Scotland, there were not less than 17,000 surgeons, besides licentiates of the various colleges of physicians of other societies; and he was satisfied that if a proper remuneration was offered no difficulty would be experienced in obtaining the services of duly qualified medical men. He wished to state, however, that these services were not likely to be obtained for such a reward as was offered by the Government last year to the medical officers of fever hospitals in Ireland. Would the House believe that the pay of physicians and surgeons, whose duty it was to attend persons suffering from typhus fever in the fever hospitals of Ireland, had been 5s. a day? And what had been the mortality among those men? One in fifteen had fallen victims to the discharge of their perilous duties; and he hoped if an appeal were made to that House by their widows and orphans, it would not be made in vain. He was convinced that if a proper inducement was held out, there would be no diffi- culty in obtaining a sufficient number of medical men as surgeons of emigrant ships.


observed, that the hon. Member for Kerry had stated that the only objection he anticipated to this Bill was from the shipowners. Now, he must plead guilty to being a shipowner; but no one could hail with more satisfaction than himself the introduction of this Bill, for no one could more strongly reprobate the practice which was generally adopted with regard to emigrant ships. He was only afraid that the clauses of the Bill would not be sufficiently stringent to prevent the awful sacrifice of human life which took place for want of arrangements which might easily be carried out in emigrant ships. He considered, however, that other matters connected with this subject deserved attention; for it was well known to every shipowner that the greater part of the ships employed in the Quebec trade in carrying out emigrants would never return with the weight of cargo they brought from Quebec, if it were not that the cargo carried the ship instead of the ship carrying the cargo. He thought, therefore, it was most advisable that emigrant ships should be subjected to proper inspection before they sailed.


considered that all that could be done ought to be done to promote the comfort of emigrants; but there was one simple remedy for many of the evils that had been alluded to, which did not seem to have occurred to any hon. Member. He saw no great hardship in prohibiting all spirituous liquors from being taken on board emigrant ships. If the passengers were kept sober he would answer for it their health would be improved. The hon. Member for Finsbury (Mr. Wakley) was always recommending the employment of medical men of great talent; but his (Mr. Brotherton's) opinion was, that the best physicians they could employ were Doctor Diet, Doctor Quiet, and Doctor Merriment.


begged to express his thanks to the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Labouchere) for the pains he had taken in the preparation of this Bill; but he certainly considered that the measure would not be altogether effectual in promoting the objects the right hon. Gentleman had in view; and he thought, therefore, it was most advisable that its provisions should be discussed in a Committee upstairs. There were one or two respects in which he considered that the Bill was susceptible of improvement; and he might refer particularly to one of the last clauses, which provided that the measure should not apply to the description of passengers generally known as cabin passengers. He had had the misfortune to be a cabin passenger on board a vessel the greater part of which was appropriated to emigrants; and he might mention the plan which was adopted by the owners to evade the provisions of the Acts then in force to regulate the conveyance of emigrants. The part of the vessel appropriated to emigrants was under the main deck; and the after part of the ship was separated from the fore part by bulkheads of sufficient thickness to prevent the passage of bad air fore and aft. To make room for a greater number of passengers the whole of these bulkheads were removed, an entire communication was established throughout the vessel, and as many as eight men were introduced into one cabin as intermediate passengers. He considered, then, that unless very stringent provisions were adopted, interested parties would contrive to evade the provisions of the Bill; and he begged to suggest the propriety of altogether omitting the clause relating to cabin passengers.

Bill read a second time, and ordered to be referred to a Committee upstairs.