Grosse Ile Part II


  • The Quarantine Station at Grosse Ile, a small island thirty miles downriver from the port of Quebec, had been established by the Imperial Government in 1832 as a measure of defence against the epidemic of cholera that swept Europe in the 1830s.  Shipping consisted of manufactured goods from England entering the port, and tons of timber from Canada’s forests, going out to Great Britain. A dribble of passengers, or settlers arrived on the ships.  The impetus to the huge Canadian timber trade occurred when the Baltic was blockaded by the French during the Napoleonic Wars.  Britain lost her source of timber for the constant rebuilding of the navy and turned to Canada.  After the wars, the eastward trade in timber continued, for the domestic market, and the westward trade in manufactured goods went on in limited fashion. The ‘immigrant trade’ increased. Empty ships make no money, but a potential field for paying passengers, walk-on ballast, if you will, came at the end of the war in Europe: unemployment due to the closing of war factories, demobilization of the army;  the Highland clearances (such a cold term), meant the displacement of hundreds of people.  In Ireland strict laws limited the freedom of Catholics not only to practise their religion, but even to rise on the economic and social  ladder.   There were schemes of settlement advertised in Irish and Scottish papers – Lord Selkirk for example. People knew about the new world. The empty ships stood in the harbours; land was available; there were no barriers to immigrants from Great Britain and Ireland in Canada, as was the case with the United States.  What was there to lose?  By 1830 the throngs of immigrants threading their way through Quebec City had reached as many as 60 000 in a season – all of these from Great Britain and Ireland: until the advent of Free Trade in the mid 1840s, only ships of British registry were permitted to enter the Saint Lawrence. Grosse Ile, in the long run was a successful quarantine station, but its two years of failure were monumental: 1832 and 1847.  When a greater than usual famine struck Ireland in mid-century and immigration seemed salvation for the Irish, Grosse Ile was not able to cope with the massive arrival.


  • The introduction of the potato into Europe changed life for many people, but probably nowhere more than in Ireland.  The simple tuber made it possible for people dwelling on small holdings to nourish themselves very well.   While the potato nourished the millions in Ireland, those same millions worked like serfs for a foreign landholder.  The presence of the English landlord, or any local landlord, required the payment of rent: rent drawn from the sale of all other produce: the oats, wheat, barley, and rye, from the rich fertile land, and the butter and cream and milk and cheese from the luxuriant rain-washed meadows.  The grain was for export to the mill towns and factories of England.


  • This rich country had been struck by famine several times, unbelievably. Ironically, the very potato whose cultivation flourished in the damp climate of Ireland and which could feed a family on a small plot of land, good or bad, allowed young people to plan on early marriage. The potato was good food: more nourishment in an acre of potatoes than in an acre of wheat; vegetable protein, vitamin C in the potato skin, potassium.  Eaten with buttermilk and salt and the occasional bit of lamb or mutton, or by chance a salmon poached from the landlord’s stream – it was good food. Families were able to support themselves on a small farm, and work for the rent in the grain fields. There was an unprecedented growth in population in the Ireland. 


  • Just as a one-industry town lives on the brink of economic disaster, so a people who depend on a single crop live on the brink of famine.  This proved all too true in 1847.  The first signs of the Fourth Horseman appeared in September of 1845 when both farmers and scientists discovered a blight on the potato plants.  It proved to be phytophthera infestans, a fungus that spread over the farmlands with the speed of the wind and the penetration of fog.  People managed over the winter, planted again in the spring.  1846 was a bad year – death and starvation everywhere. Immigration was heavier than usual. It was the lack of seed potatoes in the fall of ’46 that cast gloom into all hearts – what of next year! Next year…. Famine relief programs were mounted, but the one that brought Canada and Grosse Ile into the picture was emigration.  Some landlords like Major Mahon of Strokestown in County Roscommon rented ships and urged their people to take advantage of the possible flight from famine, and of free land in Canada.  A more widely held idea was simply: “Let them go.”  The British Government even used the term ‘surplus population.’  That surplus population worked their way to the ports and took passage where they could find it, sometimes on very old ships that had been called into service by shipowners who looked for the dollar and had no care for the welfare of poor souls going on board.  These ships were the despised   ‘coffin ships’ of the Black ’47.


  • On Grosse Ile, in May of 1847 Dr. George Mellis Douglas, the medical superintendent, had been notified by the chief Emigration Agent at Montreal, Alexander Carlisle Buchanan, about the unusually large number of ships coming in.   By May 11, Buchanan knew that 34 vessels carrying 10 636 passengers were en route to Canada. All this bore out what Douglas had warned at the end of the navigation season in 1846, writing to the Governor General that a greater number of emigrants, and very likely sick emigrants, would arrive in Canada the next summer because of the failure of the potato harvests of the previous two years.


  • Little was known in those days about communicable diseases, or of the incubation periods of disease.   Many unfortunate people went aboard ship already bearers of disease.  Cleanliness was impossible in the primitive conditions on board. Lice that carried typhus transferred easily from person to person in the crowded steerage, and spread the death-dealing sickness, already familiar to emigrants, alas, as road fever, or ship fever. There were many deaths at sea.


  • The flurry of letters out of Grosse Ile in the month of May confirmed all this, as well as the constant rate of burials on Grosse Ile itself.  Father Bernard McGauran, head of the chaplains, asked the Bishop for another priest to assist him and Father Taschereau.  Dr. Douglas hired more doctors. Bishop Mountain, the Anglican Bishop of Quebec sent his priests to the island also.


  • In Montreal, Buchanan, the Emigration agent was so struck by the fury in Douglas’ correspondence that he sent a copy to Major Campbell, the civil secretary to the Governor General. (fn: BPP, Canada, Vol 17, Sessions 1847-1848, p 201)  Parts of Douglas’ letter were published in the Quebec Mercury on June 9.

  • Of the 4 000 or 5 000 emigrants who left here since Sunday at least 2 000 will fall sick in the next three weeks.  Since most of the passengers from Cork and Liverpool are half dead because of hunger and the lack of care they had to submit to before landing, the least intestinal trouble which will surely come, from a change in diet, will finish them off without a fight. I never saw people so indifferent to life; in their bunks on the ships, they continued to stay with a dead person right beside them, until the sailors or the captain took the corpses out with grappling hooks.  Good God, what evil will befall the city wherever they alight.  Hot weather will increase the evil…Now give the authorities of Quebec fair warning from me, I have not time to write or I should feel it my duty to do so. Public safety demands it.