The Irish Road to South America

Nineteenth-Century Travel Patterns from Ireland to the River Plate

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The two biggest ones were ran by Frederick Sabel (Union Hotel) and Frederick Marshall, at 28 Moorfield and at Clarence Dock, respectively. In the 1850s, Sabel’s charged one shilling a day for bed and three meals. Marshall’s charged four pence a night. Most emigrant boarding houses were of the filthiest kind. Emigrants sometimes even had to bed down in cellars that were as destitute of comfort and convenience as they were overcrowded, with the landlord making a profit on each warm body.

Carts like this one were used by emigrants to transport their baggage on short distances.

From 1851 onwards, before the day of departure, emigrants had to go through a medical inspection by government doctors. The examination was undertaken by government decree to prevent any outbreak of contagious disease on board. However, doctors worked at factory speeds, going automatically through the ritual of examining as many tongues and feeling as many pulses as it was possible to do and still keep within the letter of the law. On Monday, which was the busiest day, sometimes more than 1,000 emigrants were waiting outside the office (known as the Doctor’s Shop), in which there were two inspectors. Lodging-house keeper Sabel called this inspection a farce: doctors ‘start behind a little window, and when the people come before them they say: “Are you quite well? Show your tongue,” and in the mean time their ticket is stamped’ [Préteseille 1999]. The stamp proved that the emigrant had been inspected and sometimes as many as 2,000 or 3,000 people were inspected in a day.

Most emigration vessels departed from the Waterloo dock, and ‘passengers where entitled to board the ship twenty-four hours before departure’ [Préteseille 1999]. However, since most of the emigrants bound to South America boarded cargo ships, their captains often did not allow the passengers to board until the last minute, when the cargo had finally been stowed in the hold. In fact, the captain often started to move his vessel before emigrants had time to get on board. When the captain was doing so or when the passengers arrived too late (which was quite common), that is to say after the gangplank was raised, then they went to the dock-gate.

The Royal Canal: store-house in Ballybranningan Harbor, Ballymahon, Co. Longford (2002)

The entrance of the dock was narrow and ships were detained there for a short time while other vessels were going out. During that time,

Men, women and children were scrambling up the sides of the ship. One could see hundreds of people confused, screaming. Luggage and boxes were flung aboard, followed by the passengers. When they or their luggage missed the ship and fell into the water there was usually a man in a rowing boat ready to rescue and get his reward. But sadly there was not always someone there to rescue and consequently a few people drowned. Those who did not manage to get onboard at the dock-gate had no choice but to hire a rowing boat to catch up the ship down the river Mersey. The boatmen would not do it for less than half a sovereign (10 shillings). Getting on board a ship was really rough, even for the cabin passengers [Préteseille 1999].

There were usually a large number of spectators at the dock-gates to witness the final departure of the ship. The sad scene of the departure was described in the Illustrated London News in 1850: ‘The most callous and indifferent can scarcely fail, at such a moment, to form cordial wishes for the pleasant voyage and safe arrival of the emigrants, and for their future prosperity in their new home. As the ship is towed out, hats are raised, handkerchiefs are waved, and a loud and long-continued shout of farewell is raised from the shore, and cordially responded to from the ship. It is then, if at any time, that the eyes of the emigrants begin to moisten’ [in: Préteseille 1999].

Trans-Atlantic Crossing

Once the emigrants managed to get on board the ships, the following stage in the emigration process was to cross the Atlantic ocean. The Irish emigrants who departed from Liverpool, sailed back the way they had come, towards Ireland, with the winds dictating their routes: north around Mallin Head, or south by the Waterfront Estuary, Cove and Cape Clear. The sea crossing was not an easy voyage. It was long, taking between one and three months, and the sea was a strange environment to most emigrants, especially for those from rural areas in Longford and Westmeath. [7]

Aboard many ships bound to North America the risks were so great that there were numerous deaths, and these ships became known as ‘coffin ships’. There is no evidence that the journey to South American ports like Rio de Janeiro, Montevideo, or Buenos Aires, was as dangerous as that of the emigrant ships bound to North America. In fact, due to insurance requirements, the ships sailing from Liverpool to the River Plate were mostly first and second-class, i.e., surveyed and judged as best or good quality in terms of age, condition and seaworthiness, whilst many of the coffin ships were third-class vessels, a status which prohibited any but short voyages. In addition to this, most of the vessels in the North American seaway were built in Canada or the US, while those destined for the South American trade were built in England by more experienced dockyard workers. Ships sailing the South Atlantic routes often had purposes other than the transport of emigrants, such as: mail, cargo, and cabin passengers. Emigrants were often piled into steerage. It wasn’t until the late 1880s that the emigrant trade proper emerged in the South Atlantic, when crowds of emigrants – especially from the Mediterranean countries – began to escape from the poor conditions in their home countries in order to find a new life in Buenos Aires and other South American regions.

Facsimile of a trans-Atlantic ticket of the Dunbrody, (Newross, Co. Wexford)

We can divide the nineteenth-century transatlantic transport between the British Isles and this region into two periods that correspond to advances in navigational technology: sail (1824-1850) and steam (1851-1889).

The sail period begins with the opening of the British mail packet route to Buenos Aires, and the arrival at this port of the first packet, Countess of Chichester. The majority of ships were wooden sailing vessels. The Countess of Chichester sailed from Falmouth, England, and ‘reached Buenos Aires on 16th April [1824], having called at Montevideo one or two days previously’ [Howat 1984: 42]. This was the result of the negotiations between Woodbine Parish (1796-1882), the first appointed British Consul-General to Buenos Aires, and Bernardino Rivadavia, then Minister of State of the Argentine Provinces and two years later President of the Republic for 18 months. The agreement, a good example of British-Argentine diplomacy, ‘worked up into a set of regulations, [and] proved to be so advantageous to Britain, that the English packets had an effective monopoly for at least 25 years to carry all overseas mails to Europe, apart from those taken by trading ships’ [Howat 1984: 42].

[7] One of the extreme cases mentioned by Eduardo Coghlan was ‘Luke Doyle, from Mullingar […], who arrived in Buenos Aires after a five and a half month journey’ [Coghlan 1987: 279]. Even longer was the journey of Sarah Elliff (née Flynn). She arrived in Buenos Aires on December 1848, after a six-months journey. Her ship weighed anchor at Liverpool on 20 June 1848, with 600 passengers on board. Thirty died during the journey, and many others stayed in Rio de Janeiro (Coghlan 1987: 306). 






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