Summer of Sorrow: Grosse-Île, 1847: Part 1

Grosse-Île is a lovely island in the St. Lawrence River, east of the city of Quebec, a jewel against a background of majestic mountains. L’Isle de Grâce, “The Isle of Grace”, is what the French first called it. By the middle of 1847 it was being called “The Island of Death”.
A little more than sixty years later, on the Feast of the Assumption, 15 August, 1909, a large crowd gathered on Grosse-Île where, on the highest hill and on the edge of a cliff, a Celtic high cross was unveiled. On the eastern face of the plinth, facing towards the great sea and distant Ireland, there is an inscription in Irish as follows:

Cailleadh Clann na nGaedhael ina míltibh ar an Oileán so ar dteicheadh dhóibh ó dlíghthibh na dtíoránach ngallda agus ó ghorta tréarach isna bliadhantaibh 1847-48. Beannacht dílis Dé orra. Bíodh an leacht so i gcomhartha garma agus onóra dhóibh ó Ghaedhealaibh Ameriocá. Go saoraigh Dia Éire.
(Thousands of Irish people died on this island after they had fled from the laws of foreign tyrants and from treasonous famine in the years 1847-48. May God’s own blessing be on them. May this memorial be a sign of respect and of honour to them from the Irish of America. May God free Ireland.)

Beginnings of Quarantine, 1832

The story of Grosse-Île as a quarantine station begins in early 1832. It was heard that cholera morbus, cholera, was wreaking havoc in an Ireland afflicted by famine. The Legislature in Lower Canada – as Quebec was then called – decided to keep that cholera out, or, if that proved impossible, to keep it in quarantine. That’s not how it turned out, however. Forty two died on board the Carricks as it sailed from Dublin and soon cholera had spread among the people of Quebec City itself, and among those Irish thought to be healthy as they made their way to Montreal and the cities of Upper Canada (now Ontario). Between the second and the twenty third of July, 1832, 30,000 people, most of them Irish, reached Grosse-Île, and during the entire season more than 50,000 arrived. It is believed that more than 2,000 of them died on the island that summer. Some of them, who had been left to make their own way ashore at low tide (there being no jetty at the time) drowned and the sand became their grave. Since then the place where they died has been called “Cholera Bay”. The others were buried together in a grave near the sea. But if what happened in 1832, and what was repeated in 1834 when more than 250 Irish died on the island of cholera, was a disaster, it was no more than an unpleasant breeze in advance of the heartbreaking hurricane of the Great Famine.

Preparations for the Summer of 1847 in Britain, Ireland and Canada

A report from the authorities in Canada was laid before the Parliament in London at the beginning of 1847. In it was a description of inward migration the previous year. Over 30,000 people had arrived in Quebec in 1846, most of them Irish. Although the season had begun without difficulties, apart from the Sarah Milledge, out of Galway, having more than its legal number of passengers, by the middle of the summer some of the migrants had fever. Most of those on the Minna, out of Sligo, were ill; and the captain was fined fifty pounds and costs for failing to ensure an adequate supply of water for the passengers during the voyage. The Elizabeth and Sarah, out of Killala, was the worst ship to arrive, as the report says:

“with 259 passengers, in a most wretched state of filth and misery, brought on by the crowded state of the vessel, want of cleanliness, bad water, and starvation. The master and 17 of the passengers died during the voyage, and were 76 were admitted to hospital at quarantine, 7 of whom have since died.”

The report included correspondence from Dr. George M. Douglas, the Medical Superintendent of the quarantine station on Grosse-Île. He wrote as follows:

“The causes which have conspired to produce disease and death among these passengers are those so often stated by me in my Annual Reports, and they may be here enumerated in the order of their importance:-
1st. Want of cleanliness and inattention to ventilation.
2nd. Insufficiency of food and water, and that of an unwholesome quality.
3rd. Overcrowding.

Dr. Douglas let it be known that he was expecting that more migrants than ever would be ill the following year, 1847, because of the failure of the potatoes. In Quebec itself, while the report was being presented in London in February 1847, Dr. Douglas was telling the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada of his anxiety that additional deaths and sickness would characterise the approaching season. He believed that the efforts of the Atlantic ports of the U.S.A. to restrict immigration would add to the number of the poor heading for Quebec. He requested that three thousand pounds be set aside for the quarantine, and he asked permission to arrange the services of a steamboat and to appoint a hospital steward. Dr. Douglas got immediate permission to implement his plan for a steamboat but he could appoint a hospital steward only when it became obvious that there was a pressing need. In his worst nightmares Dr. Douglas could not have imagined the frenzy of death that would transform Grosse-Île into a “vast charnel-house of victimised humanity”. Across the Atlantic Ocean a quarter of a million people were preparing to leave, fleeing from a green and fertile island where famine and fever reigned. Over 100,000 people would set out for British North America, hoping to knock on its door. But for many of them their ship would become a coffin and a premature knocking at the gates of Paradise would be their fate.
In the spring of that same year, 1847, in Strokestown in County Roscommon, John Ross Mahon, the agent of the landlord Major Denis Mahon, was also making plans for the season. In his opinion the tenants were an “immense population”, who would have to have their numbers reduced if the affairs of the estate were to be placed on a sound footing. “Emigration on an extensive scale,” he stated, “was the principal Feature of my Plan; as while the large and completely pauperised Population which was on the estate remained, Rent could not be collected, nor could any System for the Amelioration of the Condition of the People be introduced.” He had made his calculations:

“The Cost of keeping a Pauper in the Roscommon Poorhouse averages about 2s.9d. per Week, equal to 7l. 3s. a Year. The Cost of Emigration averages 3l. 10s. to Quebec; being a Difference of 3l. 11s. in favour of Emigration in the first Year, and all after Cost of Support saved. The Cost of thus removing the Pauper Population of these Townlands named by Emigration would be £5,865 12s.; the Cost of Support in the Poorhouse £11,634 10s.; being a difference on the Entire in favour of Emigration of £5,768 18s.”

Those tenants were to be sent to America. That’ s how it was in Roscommon, and it would be just the same for the poor in other districts. The portents of Dr. Douglas’s prediction were being prepared.

May 1847

By 17 May the curtain had risen for the drama of death on Grosse-Île, the quarantine island. The Medical Superintendent, Dr. George Douglas, wrote to the authorities in Montreal that the first migrant ship of the season, the Syria, had arrived and that the sick in the hospital had come from it.

“This vessel left Liverpool on the 24th March, having on board two hundred and forty-one passengers recently arrived from Ireland; many were in a weak state when they embarked, and all were wretched and poor – disease – Fever and Dysentery – broke out a few days after leaving port, and has gone on increasing until now – nine died on the passage, and one on landing here, and eighty-four are now inmates of the Hospital – and I fully expect that from twenty to twenty-four more will have to be admitted.”

Dr. Douglas had heard that thousands of Irish were already on the way, straight from Ireland and via Liverpool, and he asked for permission to erect an additional hospital shed for sixty people as well as an accommodation shed.
Four days later, on 21 May 1847, Dr. Douglas was informing the Governor General that every single ship that had arrived up to that point had been in a bad state of sickness and misery. He mentioned the seven boats that had followed the Syria, from Limerick, Dublin, Cork and Liverpool, with 2,778 passengers, of whom 175 had died on route. He said that the hospital sheds were full, and that over two hundred patients had been left on the last ships to arrive, because he had neither beds nor space for them. “Though prepared for a considerable increase over last season, I never contemplated the possibility of every vessel arriving with fever, as they now do.” He said that it would be necessary to use the passenger terminals as temporary hospitals, and he asked for permission to employ additional assistants. He claimed that under the new conditions it would not be possible to permit anyone other than those actually ill to disembark at Grosse-Île; that the others would have to remain in quarantine on the ships, where he would visit them daily. He acknowledged that this would contravene the Quarantine Law which required that every passenger who arrived on a ship on which there was fever should be brought ashore; that it would not be possible to follow the letter of the law in this case, as there was fever on every ship, and that provision would have to made for fifteen or twenty thousand people if it was necessary to allow them all to come ashore.
It was known at that time that it was dangerous to keep passengers on a crowded ship at anchor for a prolonged period.
Ellen Keane was the first person to die in quarantine on Grosse-Île in the summer of sorrow, 1847. She was brought ashore from the Syria on 15 May and she died of fever the very same day. She was four years and three months old. Within the week sixteen further names were added to the litany of death, as follows: Nancy Riley, 24; Thomas Coner, 40; Edward Ryley, 30; Ellen Murtilly, 50; Ellen Murtilly, 46; John Colville, 84; James Managin, 55; Patrick Fagan, 13; Patrick Jordan, 8; Mary Mark, 2; Eliza Whalen, 3: Ann Hooper, 10; Thers. Hooper, 5; Thomas Bennet, 4; John Whalen, 4; And Brid. Monaghan, 3. Another list would come from Dr. Douglas before the end of May with the names of 70 more Irish people who had died, together with details of age, sickness – fever in every case – and travel. After that the reporting system broke down.
On 24 May Dr. Douglas referred to disease and distress among the immigrants on a scale never before seen in the country, even during the cholera emergencies of 1832 and 1834; all of the ships, especially those from Cork and from Liverpool, were arriving having lost large numbers of passengers from fever and dysentery on the voyage, and when they reached Grosse-Île many were sick. A further 17 ships had arrived, full of Irish people. A total of 5,607 had embarked, 260 had died on route, and more than seven hundred were in the hospital, or being kept on the ships for lack of space on land. Now even the sick were being kept on board by Dr. Douglas. The following morning he received an order from the Governor General, on the advice of A.C.Buchanan, the Chief Emigration Agent, and of Dr. G.W.Campbell, to bring everyone ashore to Grosse-Île. Douglas responded that he could not, under those conditions, keep the sick and the well apart on the island, as was necessary, because all of the available space was needed for the sick. He suggested that he be permitted to bring the healthy ashore on Cliff Island, which was near at hand, in compliance with the order and he requested that a detachment of troops be sent to the quarantine, for which there was a precedent. His recommendations were accepted without delay and orders were given that an officer and 50 soldiers be despatched to Grosse-Île; and 270 tents were sent to the island at once.
On 26 May, 1847, more than 30 ships were anchored at Grosse-Île with almost 10,000 people on board. Three days later there were 36 vessels with more than 13,000 passengers at the quarantine, most of them still on board ship. Those ships had lost 662 people during the crossing. Buchanan, the Chief Emigration Agent, asked how could food be supplied to a multitude that was growing daily and whether the daily allowance of a pound of biscuit or oatmeal the captain was legally bound to provide was sufficient for their sustenance. “Much of the present disease and sickness is, I fear, attributed to the want of sufficient nourishing food.” There were also alarming reports that between 40 and 50 people were dying every day. He recommended the setting up of a commission, consisting of three physicians, including Dr. Douglas, to make a detailed examination of the crisis at Grosse-Île, so that effective measures could be put into effect immediately.
The day Buchanan was proposing a commission, 29 May, Dr. Douglas visited Cliff Island and found out that the tents could not be erected because the place was too rocky. He again informed the authorities that there would not be adequate space on Grosse-Île for the healthy passengers, and that few tents would be left for them after providing for the sick. It would be a choice between two evils, he said, keeping the healthy on board ship instead of bringing them to Cliff Island, “poor emaciated wretches (as the majority of the are), weakened by long fasting and privation, on the rocks, without covering, and destitute as many are of everything but the rags that cover them…” He again asked that the order be reviewed as he expected to have 20,000 people in quarantine by the end of the week, the population of a city. If he were allowed to bend the law he was of the opinion that there would be no need for the detachment of troops.
The choice was not as simple as Dr. Douglas was trying to make out, however. As it happened, there was a farm on the eastern end of the island, with room for a large number of people, but crops were growing on it. A medical inspector, Dr. Parant, wrote to the Governor General recommending that the farm be brought into use as the ground there would be very suitable for putting up the tents, that destroying the crops was of no consequence in the present emergency and that it was likely that the government would compensate the farmer in due course. It would come out later in the summer that Dr. Douglas himself was the farmer in question.
On the day that Parant was writing, 31 May 1847, a member of the Legislative Assembly in Montreal, Robert Christie, was also writing to the Governor General. He said that he intended to prove, by means of a parliamentary inquiry if necessary, that there had been negligence in the initial preparations for the quarantine and that costs had been greatly increased as a result. He asked that the two responsibilities, those of Medical Superintendent and Medical Boarding Officer, now exercised by one individual, should be separated. He was referring to Dr. Douglas:

“However zealous, able and indefatigable the Superintendent may be, (and I willingly concede him all these qualities,) he should not, I submit, be allowed to exercise the two functions, nor to have any other interest or concern in the Island beyond his office, for which he ought to be liberally paid, and to attend to it only.”

Christie stated that the Superintendent had a monopoly of powers on the island, paid small regard to other organisations, and was under no effective control.
From this it can be understood why Dr. Douglas was not one of the members when a Medical Commission was set up on 2 June, 1847. And on the same day Dr. Douglas was instructed to make use of the eastern part of the island. He was also told, however, that he could release healthy passengers from quarantine after 15 days on board ship or after ten days on land as the law required.
It was clear that Dr. Douglas was in difficulties for whatever reason. On the same day that Dr. Parant and Robert Christie were making their recommendations known, 31 May, 1847, Dr. Douglas himself was reporting the uninterrupted arrival of sick immigrants in overwhelming numbers. There were 1,050 persons in the hospital, laid out in the tents, in the sheds, in the two chapels:

“The number of vessels now in quarantine are forty, and they extend over a space of nearly two miles; they should be visited every day, once if not twice; it is impossible for one person to do this duty. My health is already affected by my constant exertion, and I fear that I shall be unable much longer to continue that supervision of the Establishment which is absolutely necessary without further aid.”

Another misfortune had occurred by this time. There was a doctor among the passengers on the Wandsworth, a ship that had arrived from Dublin. His name was Benson and when he saw the state of the patients in the quarantine, he volunteered to stay and help. He had spent a number of years in a fever hospital in Ireland and Dr. Douglas had hoped that he would prove an able assistant. Within a week, however, Dr. Benson was himself a patient and two days later he was dead. Dr. Douglas attributed his death to typhus, the ‘black fever’.

The Medical Commissioners

The Medical Commissioners arrived on Grosse-Île on 4 June, 1847, knowing that more than 45,000 people had been at sea heading for Quebec by the 19th of May. According to their calculations, which they considered reasonably accurate, 25,398 people had reached Grosse-Île up to and including the 5th of June. On that day alone they estimated that 3,500 had arrived. There had been 1,097 deaths at sea and 900 on Grosse-Île. Between the 4th an00d the 6th June alone 200 people had died. There were 1,150 patients in the hospital as well as 1,550 sick persons on board ship. The Commissioners said that 100,000 people could be brought ashore without difficulty and be effectively isolated as well if there were enough buildings available.
Those who were sick on the island were found to be in a state of utter wretchedness from want of nurses and attendants and because of mental and physical dejection caused by famine and sickness. On the ships they saw corpses sharing the beds of the sick and the dying. The Commissioners asserted that the death rate was much higher among the sick being cared for on board ship than among those who had been brought ashore and treated in the hospital. Not only that but death warrants were in effect being signed for healthy people by keeping them penned on the same ships as the sick. This is how they described it:

“We entirely disapprove of the plan of keeping a vessel in quarantine for any period, however prolonged, whilst the sick and healthy are congregated together, breathing the same atmosphere, sleeping in the same berths, and exposed to the same exciting causes of contagion. This year’s melancholy experience has in many instances proved, that the number attacked and the mortality of the disease increased in direct ratio with the length of time the ship was detained under such circumstances. As an evidence of the truth of the above statement, we may be permitted to instance the case of the ship Agnes, which arrived about sixteen days ago, with 427 passengers, out of which number not more than 150 are now in a healthy condition, the remainder being dead, or sick on board, or in Hospital.”

The Commissioners had been given wide powers and they immediately set about putting new arrangements in place. They ordered Dr. Douglas to quickly take all necessary steps to bring all of the sick ashore and advised him to hire people without delay to erect tents. They decided that those healthy passengers who had been waiting the longest should be sent on to Montreal on two steamboats they had arranged for the purpose, the Queen and the Quebec, each of which could take 1,200 passengers, without it being necessary for them to spend the full statutory period in quarantine. They ordered that the healthy people on every ship on which there was fever should be brought ashore as soon as temporary shelter was available for them and that they should be sent on their way after being cleaned and after being kept under observation for a few days. The length of their stay was to be left to Dr. Douglas to decide. The Commissioners arranged to recruit nurses and six additional doctors, having mentioned one case in which they had seen 450 people in the care of one doctor and without any attendants worthy of the name. They also arranged that food should be provided for the needy. And as a conclusion to their report the Medical Commissioners drew the government’s attention to the overcrowded state in which ships were allowed to set sail from British ports, and they demanded that a limit should be set on the number of passengers permitted to embark under the Passenger Act as long as fever remained widespread in Ireland in view of the certainty that it would be brought ashore in Canada.

Summer of Sorrow – Part 2

Summer of Sorrow – Part 3

Summer of Sorrow – Part 4

Published in The Green Dragon No 6, Spring 1998

President Mary Robinson at Grosse Île, August, 1994.

The dead Irish of the Rideau Canal, Canada.

Émile Nelligan (1879 – 1941).
The father of this famous French-Canadian writer from Montreal was born in Dublin.

President Mary MacAleese in New York