Merciless Palmerston

Browsing through a library book on Grosse Isle recently, I unearthed a number of disturbing facts. The reader will by now know that this was the port of entry for immigrants from Ireland to Quebec, Canada in the nineteenth century. And that the British encouraged migration there to build up a work force, as well as to ‘clear’ congested districts in Ireland.

Lord Palmerston served in that century under five Prime Ministers as Foreign Secretary (Secretary at War, mainly!) and later as Prime Minister himself. Like most of the English Lords, he ‘owned’ large estates in Ireland. He ruthlessly used the Great Hunger of the mid-century to clear his estates of unwanted tenants. Indeed the Montreal Gazette anticipated the coming disaster, writing,

‘we are going to be inundated with an enormous crowd of poor and destitute emigrants’.

The medical superintendent at Gross Isle, Dr Douglas, requested great and immediate funds to build a new hospital there but what he received was inadequate to the task. 

The first ship of the ’47 season, the Syria, brought almost a hundred passengers sick with fever. It also carried the news that thousands more were on their way. Nine vessels carried Palmerston’s evicted tenants. They were in such desperate condition that he was forced to make a statement to Parliament: unsurprisingly, he blamed his land agent! 

Soon there were 40 ships at anchor, awaiting processing at the quarantine station. Even the well aboard soon succumbed to disease. Those who landed healthy often contracted disease on land. 

Those who could walk and were allowed to leave were ferried to Quebec and Montreal to make way for another wave. They carried disease with them as they made their way southwards through the towns of British North America and even into the United States.  

Dr Douglas reported that at the beginning of the season there was room on the island for two hundred persons. By early November when the station closed for winter he was receiving over two thousand. He had inspected 442 vessels and taken 8,691 emigrants into the hospital alone, or sheds or tents. He reported a total of deaths there for that season of 3,238. 

Partridge Rock, St John, New Brunswick was the other main point of entry to Canada. Moses Perley, the Chief Immigration Officer reported for the ’47 season. 106 vessels had been processed; seven were out of Liverpool; all the others were from Irish ports. A total of 17,074 passengers arrived of whom 2,400 died. 

The majority of survivors headed for America. The Colonial Commissioners in 1850 reported that of 253,224 emigrants to Canada and New Brunswick, more than 73,000 went at once to the United States and an overwhelming number eventually found their way there. 

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