HC Deb 27 July 1866 vol 184 cc1618-25

said, he rose to call attention to the treatment of emigrants on board the steamers plying between Liverpool and New York, and to the great prevalence of cholera during the last three months, on board many of those vessels. The large number of over 300,000 emigrants which had left Ireland within the last year for the United States was his excuse for calling the attention of the House to this subject, the importance of which could not be overestimated. Several Acts had been passed with regard to the accommodation to be provided on board emigrant ships; but from circumstances which had come to his knowledge it was evident that they were inefficient for the purpose for which they were passed, and that either for that reason or from other causes they had not been put in force. During the months of May, June, and July hundreds of persons had left this country for the United States, who had never reached the American soil alive. Until within the last few weeks there had been no cholera in England and there had been none in America, yet English ships leaving healthy ports here and going to healthy ports on the other side of the Atlantic had been ravaged by cholera, and hundreds of the emigrants had in consequence perished. Of the emigrants who left Liverpool last May in the steamship Union thirty-five died of cholera on the voyage, fifty-eight had to be transferred to hospitals in New York, and of these twenty-eight had died. Of those on board the steamship Peruvian thirty-five died on the voyage, 147 were transferred to hospitals in New York, and of these sixty-five had died. Of those on board the Virginia, belonging to the National Steam Navigation Company, thirty-two died on the voyage, 171 were transferred to hospitals in New York, and of these fifty-seven died. Of those on board the England, belonging to the same Company, fifty died on the voyage. She had to put into Halifax, and, as he was informed, 150 died whilst she was there. It might be said that the cause of the cholera breaking out in these ships was that the German emigrants on board of them were infected with the disease before they embarked; but he thought that could hardly be, as they had a long way to travel before they arrived in Liverpool, and if they were infected before they left their own country the disease would naturally have made its appearance before they set out on their voyage from Liverpool. Another remarkable feature was that in many of the cases the disease did not break out until they had got a considerable distance on the voyage. In the case of the Virginia it did not break out until the eighth day after she had left Liverpool. It was, therefore, going a little too far to suppose that the German emigrants were infected before they left their own country. Another fact was that German ships with German emigrants and German cargoes had no disease in them, and that it occurred exclusively in ships leaving England. He believed that the cause of the disease breaking out was owing, to a certain extent, to the overcrowding of passengers on board these steamers, and the want of proper food. He was aware that the saloon passengers on board the England, which had to put into Halifax, presented the commander with an address expressing their satisfaction with the accommodation afforded to them; but he would remark that the excellence of the saloon accommodation given to the saloon passengers did not prove that the steerage passengers had received proper treatment or accommodation. With respect to the treatment of the other passengers up to that time he was wholly unacquainted; but their treatment after they arrived at Halifax, and on the voyage from that port to New York, was very bad. In consequence of the appearance of cholera on board, all the bedding was burnt in Halifax, and the personal effects of most of the passengers were destroyed, and in consequence they were exposed on the deck and subjected to great privations the remainder of the voyage. In the bay of New York a child died, and the official report was that it died from exposure. An address was signed by eight out of the fourteen saloon passengers on board the Virginia, and presented to the commander, but they knew as little of what was going on in the steerage as the inhabitants of the West End did about what was going on in the slums of the metropolis. Practically there was no intercourse between them on board these large ships, and when a report was current that disease was rife in the steerage it was not likely that they would go to that part of the vessel. One of the steerage passengers on board this ship, a young man, the son of an Irish tenant, who had been subjected to every description of hardship and privation from his childhood, in writing home to his father, stated that he never before underwent such hardships, and could not have believed them possible if he had not experienced them. They were all crowded together, and for several days they were kept in a state of almost starvation, and he stated that he never heard hounds after a fox cry louder than the passengers did for food. There were also letters published in the New York papers with reference to the state and condition of another vessel, and the treatment the passengers received. This ship belonged to the same company. She had not the cholera on board, but it appeared that she was so much overcrowded that there was not sitting accommodation, and many of the passengers had no berths. Many women were exposed to the inclemency of the weather. The vessel was so crowded that the passengers could scarcely get on deck without being in the way of the sailors, and when they got there they were treated badly by the crew. The scene on board the vessel was a disgrace to civilization, as described by the passengers. The married and unmarried men and women had to dress and undress in presence of each other, and sleep as best they could in the same compartment. Such a state of things would easily account for the outbreak of cholera, without resorting to the idea that it arose from communication with German emigrants—it was due to the overcrowding and want of cleanliness on board these vessels. The medical reports in New York described the state of these ships in similar terms. The only object he had in bringing the subject before the House was to bring public opinion to bear on the different steam-ship companies, and that the Secretary of State for the Colonies might make inquiry, if he had not already done so, into the probable cause of the outbreak of cholera on board these vessels. It was necessary that great care should be taken before emigrants were allowed to sail in these large vessels, to secure them ample food during the voyage, and that the ships were in a healthy and clean condition.


said, that no blame attached to the emigration agents in this matter. The line of ships to which the hon. Gentleman referred, and which were all steamers, sailed between Liverpool and New York. The names of those vessels were given. In five of them cholera broke out; in four, within five days after the ships left Liverpool; in one, the Helvetia, cholera broke out the first day, and the vessel put back. The other four ships arrived at Halifax, when information was sent to the Government that cholera had raged on board, and that the mortality had been very great. The information was that cholera had broken out among the Dutch emigrants on board these ships, who had come from Rotterdam, where the cholera was raging at the time. The Emigration Commissioners sent to the agents at Rotterdam, saying, if any more emigrants were sent by this line of ships from Rotterdam they would be obliged to put in force the power under the Passenger Act, by Order in Council, and to make totally different arrangements for the present, for that line of emigrant ships. The consequence was that the Dutch emigration was stopped altogether, and no more emigrants came from Rotterdam. The mortality was very great on board these ships, and afterwards in quarantine at New York; but, as he had already stated, he could not discover that any blame attached to the emigration agents. The provisions of the Passenger Act had been strictly carried out in every instance. He did not gather from the hon. Gentleman whether he proposed that any alteration should be made in the Passenger Acts; if so, he must say he did not think he would find it easy to show how their provisions could be wisely altered. They were very much the same as were observed by other nations, and the result had generally been a remarkably small mortality in the emigrant ships of this country both to America and Australia. In the longest voyage to Australia, averaging 90 days, the average mortality, even including young children, did not amount to 1.3 per cent. The Liverpool emigration agency was remarkably good. The senior officer had been thirty years in the office without any complaint having been made of him; his second in command had been sixteen years in the office, and was also considered a very good officer, of whom no complaint had ever been made. The hon. Gentleman himself said that votes of thanks were given to the captains of these ships upon their arrival for having made the best arrangements they could; but when cholera broke out on board an emigrant ship at sea, it was not possible for a captain to make very complete arrangements in an emergency of that kind. He did not know that the hon. Gentleman, holding the statement he had made to be perfectly correct, supposed any case had been made out of misconduct even against the captains of those ships. It was no doubt useful to call the attention of the House to such a subject; great regret must be felt at such a mortality having happened, and, if possible, steps should be taken to guard against such calamities in future, either on the part of the emigration agency or of captains commanding ships. He would request the Emigration Commissioners to put themselves in further communication with the ship agents, and see if anything could be done.


said, that having had considerable experience in this matter, he could bear testimony to the excellent management of the Emigration Commissioners, and the admirable manner in which they had carried out the emigrants from this country during the last twenty years. No doubt, as the hon. Gentleman had said, cholera had broken out on board some of these vessels, but cholera broke out at home—at Stepney, at Mile End, and other places—and it was very difficult to say what the cause was. The hon. Gentleman said it was owing to overcrowding, but in every one of these ships a certain number of feet were allowed to every passenger, and that space was regulated by Act of Parliament, and that it was sufficient for the purpose was manifest from the fact that the emigrants to Australia, New Zealand, and New York were, as a rule, landed in good condition. More room might undoubtedly be given, but then the emigrants must pay a much higher price for the accommodation. Medical men of the highest eminence considered that the space allotted was quite sufficient, and shipowners were not to be blamed without cause. It was quite a mistake to suppose that men, women, and children were huddled together. Separate accommodation was made for the single men and single women, and there was also arrangements made for men and their wives. There could be no shortness of food. Each passenger received what the best judges considered ample to sustain life and keep men in good health during the voyage. Shipowners were obliged to keep their contract, and if a vessel did not put on board the proper estimated amount of necessaries it would not be allowed to put to sea—quality and quantity were examined. He thought his hon. Friend had not made out any case, and he believed the more this matter was inquired into the more the Emigration Commissioners would appear to deserve their commendation.


said, it should be remembered that these vessels did not carry emigrants sent out by the Emigration Commissioners, and that their duty was confined to seeing that the regulations of the Passenger Act were complied with. The regulations were, he believed, duly complied with. The emigrants came from Rotterdam by way of Hull to Liverpool; and the cholera having broken out on board, the emigration agents bestowed their utmost attention on the case. Immediately they communicated with the agent at Rotterdam, and a stop was put to the emigrants coming from an infected quarter. They did everything they could to meet the emergency, even placing at the disposal of these emigrants the premises at Birkenhead which they had prepared for their own emigrants. He did not understand his hon. Friend to cast any blame on the emigration agents or Commissioners; but he ventured to say if any hon. Gentleman was aware of any circumstances that called for inquiry, by communicating with those Commissioners he would insure the fullest and most effective investigation. The provisions of the Passenger Act had been frequently and carefully considered; and it should be remembered that while, on the one hand, they were careful to give sufficient space for the emigrants, if they gave space beyond what was necessary for health and reasonable comfort they must materially add to the expenses of the poor emigrants, and impose a prohibition on that emigration from which they expected to derive so much benefit.


said, he did not think his hon. Friend (The O'Conor Don) would derive much encouragement from the manner in which his inquiries had been met on this occasion. Here was the statement of thirty-three persons who had suffered the greatest hardship, and was there to be no investigation into their case? It was a case of great and gross injustice. Sufficient food had not been given to them, and they had been huddled together in a manner which outraged all decency and all civilization. He said nothing against the Emigration Commissioners. He thought sufficient ground for an investigation had been shown, and that his hon. Friend the Member for Roscommon was entitled to the thanks of the House for having brought the matter under their notice. In his opinion they were too much in the habit of praising public officers and giving them credit for efficiency, for, without reflecting on any individual, he knew cases where inspection had been quite a sham; and, indeed, the disaster to the London was mainly owing to a weak reliance by the inspectors on the statement of the owners. He hoped that when such cases were again brought forward more attention would be paid to them.


wished to know whether the corporation of Liverpool exercised any vigilance in this direction.


said, he did not deny that some discomforts might attend the passage across the Atlantic of ten or eleven days, but he thought the present system contrasted most favourably with the hardships experienced before the introduction of steam, when the voyage occupied from forty to sixty days, and when provisions had to be taken for seventy days. He believed the regulations were strictly carried out at Liverpool, and that the officers were, if anything, rather over-zealous. As to the company against which the present complaint had been preferred, he thought charges ought not to be brought against parties who had no opportunity of replying unless on the strongest grounds; and, although not personally acquainted with the circumstances, he had no doubt that the company would court the most searching inquiry by the Emigration Commissioners. The steamers belonging to the company were of great size and capacity, fitted with special care for the promotion of comfort. The cholera was a visitation of Providence which was not confined to a marine or sea-going life, for it had unhappily appeared in the metropolis and elsewhere, and the fact that the English passengers were not attacked, while the German emigrants fell victims to the disease, seemed to show that predisposing causes rendered the foreign emigrants liable to it, and that they brought the seeds of it on board with them. The Under Secretary for the Colonies had already pointed out that the mortality at sea was infinitely less than that on shore, it only being 1 per cent. This was a strong testimony to the efficiency of the regulations under which emigration was conducted, and be believed that the mortality on board these ships was attributable to other causes than neglect on the part of the agents or inspectors. In one of the cases named it would appear that out of 1,000 passengers only thirty-three complained, while in this very ship some twenty of the cabin passengers actually presented the master with an address, and complimented him on his care and attention. He thought the 900 who were silent might fairly be taken as evidence that there was no real ground of complaint.


contended that the outbreak of the disease was caused by overcrowding. He considered that the discussion had opened up a most important subject, and he trusted it would receive immediate attention.

Motion agreed to.

House at rising to adjourn till Monday next.