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100 Years Ago

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The Journey Was Difficult
Many Did Not Survive the Trip Across the Ocean

During the 18th and into the 19th century, immigrants who finally planted their feet on American soil were lucky to have survived the perils of the voyage. Anxious to encourage settlement of the West, agents promoted immigration to greedy ship lines who then packed as many travelers as they could on each boat.

Prior to 1848, not only would immigrants have to load their own belongings, but families would be required to bring along food for the voyage. There was no one to advise the immigrants as to whether or not these rations would be adequate for the trip.

In the days of sailing ships, crossing the Atlantic Ocean was a slow and frequently dangerous experience. The overcrowded boats were at tship.gif (97905 bytes)he mercy of the ocean and the weather, dependent upon the wind belts for propulsion. On a calm sea with little wind, the sails would hang useless and a trip across the ocean could take on average from one to three months.

Even wealthier passengers suffered when the sea conditions were rough, and generally traveled in overcrowded conditions. The ‘first class’ cabins were small, cramped, narrow and dark but were elegant compared to where the poorer emigrants stayed. They were literally packed together in a dark part of the vessel, with meager food rations and little room to move.

The transportation of African-Americans hit a ‘boom’ period after 1660 when the plantation system in South Carolina, Virginia and Maryland created a demand for service labor. By 1740, the slavery system in colonial America was fully developed. Considered to be " the hands of their owners and possessors..." blacks suffered greatly on the journey, coming over on vessels of one to two hundred tons that carried 400 to 500 people, as well as the crew and the provisions. Men, women and children of all ages were transported, enduring very harsh traveling conditions, starvation rations and captivity.

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Disease was rampant in these crowded circumstances, with the ill and the healthy immigrant packed tightly together. Fatalities from disease and ships lost at sea frequently ranged from 10% to 15%. Early 18th century horror stories place deaths as high as 50% of a ship’s passengers. A 1750 voyager described his six-month sea journey as "...stench, fumes, horror, vomiting, many kinds of seasickness, fever, dysentery, headache, heat, constipation, boils, scurvy, cancer, mouth-rot, and the like, all of which came from old and sharply salted food and meat, also from very bad and foul water, so that many die miserably."

In 1842, Charles Dickens, a famous English writer who wrote extensively about the plight of the poor in England, visited America. He experienced first-hand the terrible conditions that prevailed for immigrants aboard passenger ships headed for the new world. In his "American Notes" he records the conditions immigrants suffered, dressed in rags and destitute after selling their belongings to pay for their passage. Depending on others for food, lacking medical treatment they lived in packed, unsanitary conditions for the duration of the voyage.

He states, that, "Above all, it is the duty of any government, be it monarchy or republic to interpose and put an end to the system by which a firm of traders in emigrants purchase of the owners the whole ‘tween-decks’ of a ship and send on board as many wretched people as they can lay hold of, on any terms they can get, without any reference to the convenience of the steerage, the number of berths, the slightest separation of the sexes, or anything but their own profit. Nor is this the worst of this vicious system; for certain crimping agents of these houses, who have a percentage on all the passengers they inveigle are constantly traveling about those districts where poverty and discontent are rife and tempting the credulous into more misery, by holding monstrous inducements to emigrate which can never be realized."

Desperate immigrants created many opportunities for abuse by the ‘less than ethical’ ship owners. The Scotch-Irish, who were facing the prospect of starvation in their home country, would often sell themselves to the ship’s captain for the cost of their passage. Once they reached the ‘New World’, the captain would auction off their services, with the immigrant working a term of years in ‘slave-like’ environments such in sweatshops, etc.

It took a long time for these conditions to change, in spite of the federal government enacting legislative limits on the number of passengers per ship, etc. The boat owners got around these restrictions by growing the unregulated travel in ‘steerage’. "On the boat we came in steerage. Third class was plain steerage...they piled us up eight or ten people in one cabin, and the food was the worst that it could be."...Emigrant from Czechoslovakia in 1920.

With the use of the steamship in the early part of the 19th century, the ocean voyage time was cut to less than two weeks, contributing to the successful arrival of more immigrants. Now a quicker and safer voyage, most of the immigrants were able to survive even very unpleasant conditions to complete the journey.

'Immigration' segment written in November, 1997 by David Lodge


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