In the early nineteenth century sailing ships took from six to fourteen weeks to cross the Atlantic Ocean. Provisions (supplies) on these ships often ran short. Some captains made extra money by charging the immigrants high prices for food.
In 1842, the British government attempted to end the exploitation (taking advantage) of passengers by passing legislation that made it the responsibility of the shipping company to provide adequate food and water for the crossing. An amount of seven pounds of food a week per person was required. However, this was not very much, considering the provisions consisted of bread, biscuits and potatoes. The edibility of the food left something to be desired; bread had often been made by adding old bread which had been ground up with a little fresh flour and sugar and then being rebaked.
Water was another ration on the ship that was not very good. Often water was put into barrels that had once transported oil, vinegar, wine, or turpentine.
To increase profits, shipowners would load as many people as possible on board their ship. Although ships designed for emigrant traffic appeared before the middle of the century, the majority of the emigrant ships were freighters rarely over three or four hundred tons in size. For the privilege of herding emigrants into the steerage, agents paid a fixed rate to shipowners, and neither owners or agents showed much concern about overloading a ship with human cargo.
The steerage deck was usually four to six feet high and contained hard wooden berths arranged in two layers and filling most of the floor space, while the lower part of the hold contained heavy baggage and chests, water, and cordwood. Since the only entrance to the steerage was by ladder from a hole in the deck of the hatchway, there was almost no ventilation. Fresh air was admitted only through the hatches, which were shut in rough weather when air was most needed. Travelers had no room to move around.
As a result of this, the US Congress passed a law entitled the American Passenger Act. This act set a legal minimum of space for each passenger. Consequently, shipowners had to have new ships built. These new ships had three decks, and the immigrants were transported only on the top two decks. Even though there was more space, the trip was still unpleasant. The lower deck was very dark and lacking fresh air. Those in the lower deck suffered, and those on the top two decks suffered as well; having to smell the stench from the deck below.
There were many dangers for passengers crossing the Atlantic Ocean. These included fires, ship wrecks, and disease. In 1848 a ship called the Ocean Monarch caught fire and 176 lives were lost. As ships were being built bigger more casualties would result. In a five year period forty-three emigrant ships out of 6,877 failed to reach their destination. This resulted in an estimated 1,043 passenger deaths. One ship left the city of Glasgow carrying 480 passengers and was never heard from again. Serious outbreaks of cholera were abundant. In a one month time period, out of 77 ships headed for America, many passengers died of cholera. In the end, an estimated 1,328 emigrants lost their life on the way to the U.S. because of this disease. The most common killer though was typhus. This did not help the passengers who had already been weakened by poor diets. In 1847 alone, an approximate 7,000 people from Ireland died of typhus while on their way to America. Another 10,000 died soon after arriving in quarantine areas in the harbors.
The combined forces of famine, disease, and emigration depopulated Ireland. The famine convinced the Irish citizens of the urgent need for political change. It also led to changes in the century-old agricultural practices, bringing to an end the division of family plots and making them into tiny lots capable of sustaining life only with a potato crop. The United States was truly the land of opportunity during the mid-1800s. The economy was booming, and opportunities on farms and in the workplace were available for anyone willing to work. The influx of immigrants served to improve traveling conditions. Steamships were now able to reach the United States in ten to twelve days instead of ten to twelve weeks.
(Excerpts from an essay Jackie Lingner)