Famine Ship Jeanie Johnston Sailed Through Grim Odds

Mar 17, 2013
Originally published on March 17, 2013 5:48 pm

Many of the 35 million Americans of Irish descent are here due to the worst famine to hit Europe in the 19th century, the Irish potato famine.

It drove more than a million people to flee mass starvation, many climbing aboard ships they hoped would ferry them to a better life in the New World. But the fate they would meet on what came to be known as "coffin ships" was often as grim or worse than the fate they were leaving behind; 100,000 passengers didn't survive the journey.

The deadly combination of starvation and diseases such as typhus and cholera led to death rates even higher than those in slave ships. And yet, not a single passenger died aboard the Jeanie Johnston. Between 1848 and 1858, the "Luckiest Ship in the World" ferried 2,000 immigrants safely to the New World in a dozen voyages across the Atlantic.

Kathryn Miles tells the tale in her new book, All Standing: The Remarkable Story of the Jeanie Johnston, The Legendary Irish Famine Ship.

She tells Jacki Lyden, host of weekends on All Things Considered, the blight that caused the famine was wide-reaching, hitting Europe and North America, too. But while other countries had social systems in place to handle the crisis, Ireland was left devastated.

"Ireland was by far and away the least favorite of Britain's colonies," Miles says. "And the British people were very emphatic that they were not interested in having any governmental interaction."


Interview Highlights

On the providentialism of the ruling British

"This was part of what, really, I think we can call a kind of significant racism of the 19th century. And that was the idea that if the Irish people, in this case, were meant to survive, they would find the means to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, as it were. And if they didn't, then that was quite possibly sort of a divine intervention."

On why death rates were so high aboard 'coffin ships'

"These ships were packed with people. Most families of four would be given a platform that was about 6 feet square. So they were sleeping head-to-toe and there was no sense of quarantine or hygiene. ... So if someone stepped aboard and was sick, and there were no facilities on board — most ships had maybe two buckets and so there was, of course, a tremendous amount of human waste — that, of course, is a great way to spread disease."

On the Jeanie Johnston's stellar record

"The Jeanie Johnston was built by a really remarkable man named John Munn. And when the Irish famine hit and he started to see these waves of immigration coming into North America, he looked for ways he could help. ... And so out of his own pocket, he built this ship ... he made little alterations to these otherwise very standard, square-rigged ships. He made the hold particularly solid. He made the decks high enough that a grown man could walk about. And so these little things made it a very safe, very secure ship."

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Transcript

JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

Americans are celebrating their Irish heritage on this St, Patrick's Day, and small wonder: some 35 million can claim Irish ancestry, about nine times Ireland's population. More than a million Irish fled their homes in the mid-19th century when the island was in the grip of a devastating potato famine.

Those who could afford passage climbed aboard tall ships, hoping for a better life, but the fate they'd meet on board was often as grim or even worse than the fate they were leaving behind. Conditions were so dire, 100,000 passengers never survived the journey, and the vessels came to be called the coffin ships. Yet, not a single passenger died aboard the Jeanie Johnston.

Between 1848 and 1858, the luckiest ship in the world, as she was called, ferried 2,000 immigrants safely to the New World in a dozen voyages across the Atlantic. Kathryn Miles tells the tale in her new book, "All Standing: The Remarkable Story of the Jeanie Johnston, The Legendary Irish Famine Ship." When I talked to her, she began by explaining why the ruling British were systemically refusing to help the starving Irish people.

KATHRYN MILES: This was part of what, really, I think we can call a kind of significant racism of the 19th century. And that was the idea that if the Irish people, in this case, were meant to survive, they would find the means to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, as it were, and if they didn't, then that was quite possibly sort of a divine intervention.

We see this just incredible racist, derogatory depiction of the Irish not just in Britain but also in America at the time. They were depicted as sort of ape-like creatures. There were these cartoons featuring this very racist depiction of Paddy, who was sort of the stereotypical drunk Irishman.

LYDEN: The other thing to remember, as Ireland empties out, is that although farmers did grow grain and beef and that those things were exported to places like England, the population, much higher than it is today, really depended excessively on the potato. And when these crop failures go on year after year, one of the biggest exports in Ireland becomes its people.

MILES: Exactly. These are people who have endured incredible hardship already. You mentioned the potato. This was a unique potato, very different than the kind that we might find in the supermarket today. It had, other than a lack of protein and a little bit of vitamin D that it was missing, it was a very complete food.

And so the Irish people, at the time, were, in fact, taller. They were longer lived, they had less mortality and infant mortality rates than the British people. But when the famine hits, we see not just starvation, but we also see blindness, madness, birth defects being caused by the vitamin deficiency, as well as these huge epidemics and pandemics that sweep through.

LYDEN: Why are the English and various Anglo-Irish landowners so interested in getting people off the land and into these ships bound for North America?

MILES: It's really the start of the Industrial Revolution proper. And so for the first time, we have people in large numbers leaving their farms and coming to cities where they're working in factories, and they're working 10, 12, 14 hours a day. So they're not able, for the first time in British history, to produce their own food. And that means that England needs to look elsewhere.

And initially, the place where they did look was Ireland, and they saw in Ireland the prospect of serving as the breadbasket. But as the empire continued to grow, they needed to look elsewhere. And so the British government thought: If we can get rid of these subsistence farmers, clear the land, we can create what will be the world's first experiment in industrial agriculture.

The other idea was: If we can get the Irish people out of Ireland, and we can get them over to what is then called British North America - what we know as Canada - England thought that they could make Canada the new breadbasket.

LYDEN: So these coffin ships, one of the things that you trace in this book is a history of epidemics coming to America. Tell me what conditions were like in a typical coffin ship and why they were so disease-ridden.

MILES: These ships were packed with people. Most families of four would be given a platform that was about six feet square. So they were sleeping head to toe, and there was no sense of quarantine or hygiene on most of the ships. So if someone stepped aboard and was sick - and there were no facilities on board. Most ships had maybe two buckets. And so there was a tremendous amount of human waste that, of course, is a great way to spread disease.

Some other complicating factors were the fact that typhus, which was one of the major epidemics, doesn't show any signs or symptoms for 14 days. So people could arrive at the dock seeming perfectly healthy, only to come down with this incredibly deadly disease while they were on board.

LYDEN: And then comes this sort of miracle ship, the Jeanie Johnston. Tell us about the Jeanie Johnston.

MILES: The Jeanie Johnston was built by a really remarkable man named John Munn. And when the Irish famine hit, and he started to see these waves of immigration coming into North America, he looked for ways he could help. He became Canada's leading contributor to Irish relief funds. He began employing Irish immigrants.

He suffered a colossal fire that decimated his shipyard, and everyone was quite confident it would undo him, and he saw in that an opportunity to give back to his employees. And so out of his own pocket, he built this ship, the Jeanie Johnston. He didn't know what she would be used for. He suspected, quite rightly, that it would be a coffin ship, and so he made little alterations to these otherwise very standard square-rigged ships.

He made the hold particularly solid. He made the decks high enough that a grown man could walk about. And so these little things made it a very safe, very secure ship. And happily, it was purchased by a man who was very interested in maintaining a record that he thought would improve his own standing, Nicholas Donovan.

LYDEN: On the Jeanie Johnston, there's a doctor, which is, in itself, rare, right?

MILES: That's right. The British policy at the time mandated that on convict ships, they were required to carry one doctor for every 200 passengers. And the Irish people said, can't we be as good as murderers? And the answer was no. But Nicholas Donovan did hire a doctor, a really fascinating young man by the name of Richard Blennerhasset. And he had seen firsthand what a cholera outbreak can do on a ship, and he dedicated the rest of his life to ensuring that that wouldn't happen.

LYDEN: You follow one family here through the book, the Rileys, the farmers who come from County Kerry to immigrate eventually to Minnesota. Just tell us a little about what happens to them.

MILES: This is a truly remarkable family. The Rileys were of a higher class than a lot of your initial immigrants, which is not to say that they were, by any means, well-off. The difference was they were not subsisting entirely on the potato. They could pay the fee to step aboard the ship. Margaret Riley was nine months pregnant when she stepped aboard the Jeanie Johnston.

This was the first trip of the Jeanie Johnston in April 1848. And as they prepared to set sail, she went into labor. She delivered a healthy baby boy. And she was so taken by the care and consideration that she received from the crew that she gave this baby 18 middle names, one for each crew member on board.

LYDEN: What happens to the Jeanie Johnson itself?

MILES: The Jeanie Johnston goes on to carry a series of immigrants. And eventually, as the famine subsides, she's retired as an immigrant ship and goes back to one of her original functions which was cargo holding. And on a very stormy trip, the ship encountered a hurricane. The Jeanie took on a great deal of water, hit a rogue wave and looked very much like it would sink.

The captain at the time, in addition to his crew, also had his wife and a 2-year-old son on board, and as the ship was going down, all of them climbed 100 feet up into the rigging. They subsisted for 11 days sucking on the sails to stay hydrated and eating just a little bit of hard tack and bacon. And just as the ship looked like it was going to go down, a passing ship saw them, came over. Here, they found these 14 people dangling 100 feet up in the shrouds. Just as the last person stepped aboard this rescue ship, the Jeanie Johnston sank to the bottom of the Atlantic.

LYDEN: That's Kathryn Miles. She's the author of the new book, "All Standing: The Remarkable Story of the Jeanie Johnston, The Legendary Irish Famine Ship." Kathryn is also professor at Unity College in Unity, Maine. Kathryn Miles, thank you very much for joining us today.

MILES: My pleasure. Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.