The Ships, “Blanche” and Otilla,” Part 3

By June 13, 1851, the captains and owners of the Blanche and Otilla had faced American justice.  Federal authorities in New Orleans had prosecuted the captains of the two ships for exceeding the passenger limits.  Together, the two owners of the ships had been fined $9,000, which would amount to about $300,000 today.  The Daily Crescent, a Second Municipality newspaper, approved of this result.  The Second Municipality was largely Anglo-American.  It was the more prosperous area of New Orleans. Both ships were British registered. [1]

Seizure

J.H. Maddox, the editor of the Daily Crescent, argued that seizure of the two ships was not necessary.  Because the passengers on board both ships exceeded the maximum allowed by a very large number, the federal government could have seized both ships.  The Blanche under U.S. law exceeded its maximum capacity by 120 passengers.  The Otilla exceeded its capacity by 70 passengers.  Seizure was allowed if the number of passengers exceeded the limit by 20 passengers.  Maddox claimed the owner of the Otilla was owned by a ship captain who had invested his life savings in the ship.  The owner of the Blanche was a ship carpenter in New Brunswick.  Seizure would ruin the two men, claimed Maddox.  Mr. Maddox does not explain how he would know the financial circumstances of the two owners.  In any event, Maddox claimed the owners knew nothing of the over-capacity.  Maddox claims the Otilla exceeded British law regarding maximum numbers of passengers only becaue4 there were twelve stowaways. [2]

But, the two owners were responsible for hiring two captains who were willing to violate U.S. law and risk the lives of helpless passengers.  Someone helped the Blanche with a perjured certificate regarding its actual measurements.  But, Maddox reveals his bias.  He insists the Irish passengers on the Blanche caused themselves to sicken and die.  He says they “refused” to obey the captain’s orders to not lie in “their filth.”  He apparently meant the passengers did not keep clean their “tween decks” berth.  Human waste would indeed accumulate if the passengers did not use the few available privies or if they did not clean their mess. [3]

Cleanliness

But, this was 1851, the sixth year of the worst famine in centuries.  Hundreds of thousands of Irish had already emigrated.  Even uneducated Irish laborers knew to clean their waste.  They certainly appreciated the need to maintain a clean environment on long voyages. Illness on those trans-Atlantic voyages was a known risk.  The mortality rate for the Blanche was over 10 percent.  This occurred at a time when most voyages for both European travelers and Irish famine refugees saw mortality rates of about 1.5 percent. [4]

John Maginnis was still very angry about the Otilla.  Writing in the Daily True Delta, he complained that the incarceration of the Otilla captain, James Irwin, and the seizure of the ship had been remitted by Pres. Millard Fillmore.  In the case of the captain, his imprisonment had been remitted even before his conviction.  Maginnis reminded his readers that when the Otilla passengers emerged from the ship, the men “glided along ghastly, wild and idiotic.”  The women, married and unmarried girls, “reeled like drunken creatures, half naked, filthy, gaunt, spectral looking, . . .  with eyes sunk deep in their bloodless sockets, expression disordered, language strange and incoherent.”  Maginnis considered it to be an “outrage” that the captain avoided jail time and that the ship was not seized. [5]

It was reported many times by various visitors to Ireland during the Great Famine that many persons were half-naked.  That some of the worst emigrant arrived in America with little or ragged clothing speaks to the condition they escaped.

Feculent Matter

Perhaps the more immediate cause for the Blanche horror was the fact that the captain and most of the crew also contracted “ship fever.”  Ship fever could be many ailments, typhus, cholera were most common.  The port health officer for New Orleans, Dr. Frederick Hart, reported that there was no leadership on the vessel, because so much of the crew was ill.  He said the main deck was completely strewn with filth and “feculent matter.”  The ‘tween deck, where the steerage passengers resided, was the same.  Dr. Hart said two passengers committed suicide during the trip.  There was at last one corpse on the vessel when it arrived.  Dr. Hart’s letter was and still is part of the national archives for the Colonial Office.  So, we can presume the appropriate British authorities saw his report. [6]

Later in 1851, Lt.-Gov. Edmund Head of the colony at New Brunswick complained about the Blanche and another ship, the Virginia.  The British Colonial Land and Emigration Office replied to the Lt.-Governor that the size of the Blanche satisfied British law.  She could not, therefore, be legally rejected by the emigration officer in New Brunswick. [7]

The term “coffin ship” emerged in the 1880’s.  Maginnis and Prendergast described the Blanche and Otilla as plague ships or as pestilence ships.  Whichever term was used, they were dangerous ships for a population long weakened by the Great Irish Famine.  As Dr. McMahon explains, the ships were not inherently dangerous, with some major exceptions.  Generally, the mortality rate for the Irish famine boats was no different than other ships of the time period.  But, if illness broke out, the Irish famine refugees were exceedingly vulnerable to disease. [8]

Notes:

[1] New Orleans Daily Crescent, June 13, 1851, p. 2, col. 2

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Cian T. McMahon, The Coffin Ship (New York: NYU Press 2021), p. 151-152.

[5] New Orleans Daily True Delta, June 13, 1851, p. 2, col. 2

[6] The Coffin Ship, p. 167

[7] Accounts and Papers, House of Lords, vol. 14, 1852, p. 58 (Responding to Lt.-Gov. Head’s Aug. 25, 1851 dispatch).

[8] The Coffin Ship, pp. 146-152.

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