The Irish Road to South America

Nineteenth-Century Travel Patterns from Ireland to the River Plate
Page 5

In spite of an incident which nearly marred the auspicious occasion of the Countess of Chichester, [8] the Buenos Aires route was successfully opened in 1824 and ships arrived from Falmouth approximately every month during eight years. The packet’s stay in Buenos Aires was from 10 to 14 days to allow reply mail. The hazards of navigating the River Plate between Montevideo and Buenos Aires were described by Richard Poussett, one of the British vice-consuls in Buenos Aires:

We had a good proof of the dangerous navigation a day or two afterwards when the Cossack of Liverpool, Alexander Keir master, who had been up and down the River twice or thrice, was totally lost on the 19th and now lay sunk in five fathoms water on the southern extremity of the Ortiz Bank’ [Howat 1984: 48].

The direct route from England to Montevideo and Buenos Aires was ‘discontinued as one of the consequences of the Report on the Packet Service at Falmouth by Vice-Admiral Sir Pulteney Malcolm, published in January 1832 […]. By placing two branch sailing packets on permanent station at Rio de Janeiro to take onwards the River Plate mails, it was possible to reduce the total number of packets needed for the South American service from twelve to eight’ [Howat 1984: 87]. However, a mandatory stay at Rio de Janeiro was introduced and the time taken to reach Buenos Aires slowed down from an average of 62.5 days in 1826 to 77 days for the first combined Brazil and River Plate mail (dep. Falmouth 7 September 1832 in the Lady Mary Pelham, arrived Buenos Aires 24 November 1832 in the Cockatrice).  
  During the sail period, the numbers of Irish people emigrating to Argentina were still small. According to Eduardo Coghlan, between 1822 and 1850, only 1,659 Irish immigrants were registered at the Buenos Aires port, with an exceptional peak in 1849 (708 immigrants) [Coghlan 1982: 16]. From 1851 to 1889, this number increased to at least 5,419. [9] Some of the ships used by the emigrants in the first period were Cockatrice (1832-1844), Spider (1832-1850), and Griffon (1846-1848).

Other ships, owned by private cargo companies, were important at this early stage of the Irish emigration to Argentina. For instance, the William Peile (or Peele) sailed at least twice to the River Plate. The first voyage was in the Spring of 1844, with 114 Irish passengers on board. Seven years later, she sailed again through the South Atlantic seaway and arrived at Buenos Aires with 48 Irish emigrants. The William Peile was, according to the Whitehaven Herald of 20 May 1843, 'a handsome new barqued called William Peile in honour of the senior partner of that firm' [Peile, Scott & Co.]. She was a small three masted-barque of 279 tons burthen, square-rigged on the fore and main masts, and fore-and-aft rigged on the mizzen mast. The ship was built in Workington, Northeast England, and launched on 13 May 1843. Her maiden voyage was from Workington departing 27 June 1843 for Cádiz and Montevideo, and then returning to England, with Liverpool as her first port of arrival, which she reached on 26 February 1844.
On 21 April 1844, the William Peile weighed anchor again at Liverpool under Captain Joseph Sprott’s command. He was a veteran of the North Atlantic and Pacific seaways. The ship called on 13 May 1844 at Saint Jago (Cape Vert islands, about 620 km off the west coast of Senegal). After crossing the South Atlantic Sea, she probably called on Bahia, and Rio de Janeiro, and finally arrived in the River Plate on 25 June 1844 [Lloyd’s List & Index 1844]. Other journeys were longer. John Brabazon emigrated in 1845, and observed that the ship in which he travelled, Filomena, 300 tons registered and commanded by Captain Robert Bell ‘arrived here after three months voyage from Kingston [today’s Dún Laoghaire], Ireland, to Buenos Aires’ [McKenna 1994: 145].

Conditions on board for the sail period can be reduced to three features: bad food and water, lack of space and hygiene, and poor medical care. On most journeys, the staple diet was ‘a concoction of water, barley, rye, and peas, which became saturated with moisture on board ship’ [Préteseille 1999]. Passengers had to do their own cooking on deck. Food was often either half-cooked or not cooked at all, since when the weather was bad they were not allowed on deck. In some ships, every crew member:

Between decks in the Dunbrody.
  got a pound of biscuits big coarse items called Water Biscuits, a day. These were known as blahs in Wexford but aboard the old sailing ships were called pantiles […]. These biscuits were as hard as rocks and full of maggots and weevils and every kind of insect. In order to eat the biscuits, they put them into a canvas bag and pounded them with an iron pin. Then they mixed the crumbs with whatever water could be spared from the daily ration and ate them that way. On the odd days that marmalade or jam was given out, it was mixed in. That was the sailors’ breakfast at about 7.30 A.M. along with a mug of coffee. Sometimes they baked the mashed biscuit and water; this was known as "dandyfunk". Each Friday a sailor was given either a pound of butter or a pound of marmalade but not both. For dinner at 12.30 each man got half a pound of boiled corned beef or corned pork. This menu alternated and on pork days pea soup was added. In the early days of a voyage potatoes would be served at dinner but when they ran out, which was quite rapidly, only the remains from the pound of blahs was eaten with the meat’ [Rossiter 1989: 17].

Routinely, steerage passengers had the same or worse food than crew members.

Berths were simple spaces consisting of wooden bunks, usually six foot square and built into the ship’s timbers on either side of the hold, with a gangway down the middle. Each adult was usually allotted one quarter of a bunk, or 18 inches or bed space. There was no bedding, which is why passengers were often advised to get a mattress before going on board. Decency and comfort were almost impossible.

[8] According to Woodbine Parish’s letter of protest to Bernardino Rivadavia, dated the same day, the captain and the Vice-Consul ‘embarked in their boat to proceed ashore with the bags of the Despatches and Letters. They hardly left the Packet when a shot was fired at them by the [Buenos Ayrean] Brig of War, and this was repeated a few minutes afterwards with Ball which struck the sea at a very short distance from the boat’ [in Howat 1984: 74].

[9] Including the 1,772 immigrants of the City of Dresden in February, 1889.



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