The Irish Road to South America

Nineteenth-Century Travel Patterns from Ireland to the River Plate
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The living quarters were dark, cramped and dirty. They were never or very rarely cleaned. The fact that passengers had no means of changing their clothes or bedding, provided ideal condition for the spread of body lice and the typhus fever they carried. Typhus was the most deadly disease, and it was called ship fever. Most passengers tried to remain on the deck as much as possible to escape the lice and odours below but when there was a storm, they were forced back in steerage without fresh air as there was no ventilation. As doctors were seldom present on board, emigrants often had to doctor themselves and took their medicines, such as Holloway’s pills – which were widely advertised at the ports.

  Some of the Irish emigrants to Argentina experienced fatal consequences from these conditions. In 1849, Edward Robbins (1802-1866) from Clara, Co. Offaly, and his family emigrated to Argentina via Liverpool:

Early in the month of March, I left for Liverpool and I arranged for a passage to Buenos Aires for myself and family with Michael McDonnald. On the 4th of April, all my family arrived at Liverpool and were kept there until the 8th of May, on which they sailed. There was much sickness on board from the neglect of the Government Inspectors at Liverpool: one man and a child died at sea. My family and myself suffered very much, [but] had a good passage and arrived at Buenos Aires on the 13th of July. [We were] in quarantine until the 22nd on which day we landed. It was a Sunday. My family and myself counted 13, of which 10 had to go to the Irish Hospital [Robbins 1860: 11]. [10]

On 10 August 1849 the Robbins left the Buenos Aires Irish Hospital, but the outcome of the trip was appalling for the family: Edward's wife Ann Ryan died on 21 August, their son Bernard died on 29 August, and Ann Ryan's daughter Mary Ann Coffy died on 4 September.

The effects of the voyage in the passengers' health were still alarming by the end of the century. Thomas Murray, who emigrated in 1892, complained 'of the dreadful conditions experienced in the quarantine station. "The treatment given to people is an outrage to humanity". The third class passengers in particular appear to have been deplorably treated. The food was "the dirtiest slop ever offered to a human being"' [McKenna 1994: 150].

Every sailing vessel ‘was compelled to carry livestock. Cows and calves, sheep, goats, pigs and hens were carried in the larger vessels and the noises they made and the smells from their quarter did nothing to improve the conditions [Greenhill & Giffard 1974: 14]. Even the smallest vessels carried a few animals on voyages likely to be of any duration. In the tropics, ‘this heat, added to the closeness, made our cabins very oppressive; the foul air came up the hatchway in the form of smoke, and the captain even sent some one down to see whether the ship was not on fire’ [Greenhill & Giffard 1974: 14].

On these long voyages to South America, averaging from four to six weeks, the modern passenger would be faced with interminable tedium. For most of the travellers, boredom and monotony were annoying aspects of the journey. The first Sisters of Mercy in Argentina (who afterwards would be in charge of the Irish Hospital) had a typical journey in one of the British Packet (Lamport & Holt) vessels:

Cheerfully did they bear the heat of the torrid zone, the monotonous days, the trying tediousness of that lengthy voyage. While most of the passengers, enervated by the fierce tropical sun, lay stretched out as if dead, they [the Sisters] were up and doing. The cooler waters of the South Temperate Zone and its beautiful, starry skies were a relief and a joy to them. After a prosperous but uneventful voyage, their vessel cast anchor in Rio, where they were detained a fortnight for the repair of the coasting steamer in which they were to continue their voyage to La Plata [Murray 1919: 172].

In You'll Never Go Back, Kate remembers that in Liverpool they boarded a steamer. At first she and the other girls 'were very, very sick [...]. It was a long voyage, and after a fortnight the weather became very warm. One day was so like another that I began to wonder whether we were ever to see anything again but green water swinging up and down, and the sky above, so still.' Promiscuity on board presented moral dangers to young women. Kate and her friends sailed 'under the Captain's protection, at least he told us so [...]. He protected Nancy the whole way out, telling her not to trust the officers, and putting her on her guard against some of the gentlemen who were married and who wanted to have a bit of fun because their wives were not on board' [Nevin 1946: 12-13].

A sailing vessel, especially a square-rigged sailing vessel, ‘of course took the routes where the winds were most favourable because to do so was to save time and trouble in the end, even if it mean going thousands of miles out of the way’ [Greenhill & Giffard 1974: 20]. In 1834, a vessel of 420 tons, flush-decked and with three masts would have been mastered by a crew of about twenty persons: ‘the master, two mates and the steward […], the carpenter cooper and one apprentice […], the cook, ten seamen and three apprentices’ [Greenhill & Giffard 1974: 24].

Fares to the River Plate varied with shipping company and accommodation, and they ‘ranged from £10 to £35’ [Illingworth 2002]. An average price paid by the emigrants can be established in £16 [McKenna 1992: 71]. Later in the 1880s, an advertisement placed by The Pacific Steam Navigation Co. (Lamport & Holt), announced fares of £25 to $30 in first class, and £10 to £15 in third class [Bassett 1885: 104]. On an announcement in The Standard newspaper of Buenos Aires, 29 June 1873, we read that the fares from Buenos Aires to Southampton were £35 (first class), £20 (second), and £15 (third) [Howat 1984: 120].

If a regular wage for an Irish rural labourer at that time was 7½ shillings a week,he should have been forced to save during about an year to pay for the passage ticket. This is the reason why McKenna and other authors argue that emigrants from the Irish Midlands and Wexford were tenants and farmers with relatively higher income than the emigrants to North America and other parts of the world, who were primarily labourers. However, labourers without the funds to purchase their tickets to South America were financially assisted from sheep-farmers in Argentina who were looking for skilled shepherds in Ireland. John James Murphy from Salto, Buenos Aires, addressed ship captains in 1864: ‘If you choose to bring out to this country any passengers that my brother (Martin Murphy of Haysland) arrange for, I shall hold myself accountable for the payment of same on their arrival out here.’ In an enclosed separate communication to his brother, Murphy suggested to avoid ‘letting others to see it [the note]. But this I consider only fit for the ears of my own friends in Haysland or at least the greater part of it.’ In this way, he did not risk the expensive cost of tickets on unskilled or unreliable workers [Murphy to Murphy, 25 March 1864].

The Steam Period

The second period, 1851-1889, is marked by iron and steel sailing ships and, in particular, by steam. 'The major effect that steam power appears to have had was that it reduced the length of the journey from around three months to about thirty days' (McKenna 1994: 147). The shorter journey was used in private letters as an argument to convince others to visit Argentina. On 28 August 1863, Fr. Anthony Fahy, the Chaplain of the Irish in Argentina, wrote to his superior Fr. Goodman: 'I wish you would think of taking a trip out here when you are relieved from the cares of office - the steamers from Liverpool arrive here in twenty six days now! - Seven thousand miles is great travelling!' [Ussher 1951: 103].

Steamships were far superior vessels, to such a degree that the last sailing ships were built by 1855. Sailing packets carried emigrants to South America for another twenty years but they steadily lost ground to steamers. The transition from sail to steam was radical. The introduction of steam packets ‘on the Brazil and River Plate trade route in 1851 brought an immediate speeding up of the pace of communications’ [Howat 1984: 147]. For instance, the Royal Mail Steam Packet Co.’s Teviot left Southampton on 1 January 1851 and arrived at Buenos Aires on 18 February of the same year (49 days). Thirteen years later, a letter from John Murphy was stamped on 27 May 1864 in Buenos Aires, 4 July in London, and 5 July in Wexford (39 days).

A Typical 1870s Lamport & Holt screw steamer to the River Plate. In 1876, there were departures from Liverpool for Buenos Ayres on the 3rd, 10th, and 18th day of every month, calling at Lisbon, Rio de Janeiro, and Montevideo. In Liverpool, passengers boarded at the North side of the Bramley-Moore dock. Some of the dispatched vessels were Biela, Copernicus, Galileo (Capt. Eills), Halley, Hevelius, Hipparcus, Humboldt (Capt. Mitchell), Kepler, Laplace, Leibnitz, Maskelyne (Capt. Hairby), and Tycho Brahe (Lamport & Holt brochure, 17 June 1876 - Mary Anglim Collection 2003).

In spite of the better speed and efficiency of the steamers, even in the late 1880s conditions on board for poor emigrants did not improve. 'Many of the emigrant ships had, [Fr. van Tricht, a priest defending the rights of emigrants] asserted excellent first and second class accommodation, but no cabins or partitions of any kind for the emigrants. Between decks a forest of iron poles, on which the hammocks, sometimes 1,000 in number, are slung in three layers, for men, women, and children together, with no possible privacy of decency, spreading a moral contagion to which he could only allude before his present audience, and inducing an atmosphere which baffles description. Such was often the emigrants' accommodation, in spite of Government Regulations ordering the separation of the sexes and families. He attributed the deaths which invariably occur during the passage out to the over-crowding and utter disregard of all sanitary and hygienic rules which prevail on board many of the emigrants ships. [Fr. van Tricht] had been assured by many of his correspondents that the food, though sufficient in quantity, was execrable in quality, and often quite uneatable' [Vivian to Salisbury, 20 April 1889].

From 1851 onward, the Royal Mail Steam Packet Co. was the major carrier of cargo and passengers from the British Isles to the River Plate. The service was inaugurated with the above-mentioned ship Teviot. ‘The gently shelving estuarine shores of the River Plate presented difficulties in the landing of passengers and goods at Buenos Aires. Bushell […] reports how the Esk anchored about 12 kilometres off the city, with the passengers and mails being transferred to a tiny steamer to steam to within 3 kilometres of the shore. The next transfer was to an open whaler, which was sailed or rowed to about 200 yards off the shore. The long-suffering passengers were then taken by a horse-drawn, large-wheeled cart to a wooden jetty and, at last, reached terra firma’ [Howat 1984: 111]. Murphy adds that ‘in those days [1844], sailing vessels anchored far out in the river; from there they came as far as possible in rowing boats and then on in carts. When the tide was high, the boats came in as far as the Merced Church, and were tied up to iron rings in the wall of the church. For many years after, those rings were still there’ [Emily Murphy 1909: 1].

[10] On 23 July 1849, the Buenos Aires port authorities registered twelve members of the Robbins family, who arrived in the Vanguard (Coghlan 1982: 96).






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