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Chapter 6:

Sanitary conditions on board - health and sickness on emigrant ships

"Our Captain was a hard and impulsive man, but even so I believe he had the welfare of the passengers at heart, especially their health, since he was strict about cleanliness"
(By BÝrge Solem)

Ventilation could be a problem on board, especially during bad weather. Only very few ships had their own ventilation devices. The Bolivar had special ventilation pipes, but on most sailing ships were only ventilated through vents. During bad weather these vents had to be closed to prevent the ship from taking on water. If the bad weather lasted a while, the air could get very bad. On many ships, these vents were also the only source of light, so it got pitch black when they were closed. Because of the fire hazard, oil lamps could not be used during bad weather. And it did not help that most got seasick in bad weather. Vomit, and what was worse, could soil the entire between-deck. Those who were not seasick were made sick from the stench. Toilet facilities were often quite poor, if not non-existent. On board the Norden, which sailed from Bergen in 1866, there were two primitive toilets, one on each side of the ship. Only the toilet on the leeward side could be used. The ship had nearly 400 passengers, and there was always a line waiting to use the toilet. The stench in the between-deck was so bad that the crew-members did not want to go there. The first mate purified the air in the between-deck with a red-hot iron that he dipped into a pail of tar. The smoke and steam from the bubbling tar helped to deaden the worst stench. On other ships we learn that the air was cleansed with the steam from chlorine and vinegar.

Attempts were made on many of the ships to maintain fairly good hygiene. It was common that passengers had to assist with daily cleaning on the ships. Many passengers told about strict captains who rigidly enforced cleanliness. On the Drafna under the command of Captain Eckersberg, the between-deck was scraped twice a week. On the Laurvig in 1854, two passengers were assigned responsibility for cleaning each day. But even though the decks were washed, not all the passengers were just as careful about washing themselves. The lack of water may be partly to blame for this, but many were not accustomed to this from home. Rainwater was collected for all types of washing.

Most travel accounts from the days of the sail ships tell about seasickness. There was no medicine for this, but there were a number of home remedies. On the bark Ægir in 1837, the passengers were treated with gruel. Captain Eckersberg on the Drafna in 1852 attempted to keep the passengers above deck as much as possible, especially those who were seasick. There are similar accounts from other ships. But there were other illnesses that were far worse, and most sailing ships did not have a physician on board. The most common illnesses were cholera, typhoid fever, measles, chicken pox and dysentery. Typhoid fever broke out on the Amelia in 1862, and 49 of the 280 passengers died during the crossing. 170 passengers were placed in quarantine at a hospital at the quarantine station on Grosse Île. This was an island outside of Quebec, where all the ships were inspected before given permission to proceed to port. Yet another 31 passengers died at the hospital. On the Laurvig in 1853, the hatches were closed for several weeks due to bad weather. Dysentery spread from bunk to bunk and 19 passengers perished. On the Maple Leaf in 1861, a fever broke out that resulted in the death of 21 passengers, 19 of them were children.

During the entire period of the sail ships between 1825 and 1875, no Norwegian emigrant vessel sank resulting in the loss of life. However, a few were very close, like the brig Frihandel in 1854, she was wrecked and sank, but the 17 passengers where rescued by the American ship "St. George" and arrived to New York on December 10th. In 1864 the Marie of Bergen, was hit by a hurricane, and lost its rig. They managed to reach Shields in England for repairs, but had a dreadful voyage across the Atlantic. In 1868 the Hannah Parr came close to disaster after departing from Christiania. She had to go to Limerick, Ireland for repairs after serious damage from a fierce storm. Due to all the problems it was to be 107 days before her passengers disembarked in America. In 1873 the Valkyrien collided with a brigantine off Goodwin Sands, just about as she was entering the Channel. She just about managed to go to Dover for repairs. Even though, non of the Norwegian emigrant ships were subject to disaster, many ships from other countries were, and some of them may have had Norwegian emigrants as passengers.

However, the voyage was continued inland after the passengers disembarked from the ship, and great many dangers waited on the rest of the journey. In 1852 a group of Norwegian emigrants made it across the Atlantic on the bark Argo. On the inland voyage 67 of them perished in the disaster on Lake Erie, when the steamboat Atlantic collided with the Ogdensburg and sank.

The great mortality among the emigrants certain years was the result of illnesses on board. Illness could most often be attributed to poor hygiene. The majority of those who succumbed were small children and elderly persons who had little resistance. On the bark Nordlyset, which was under the command of Captain Hansen from Christiania, 29 of the passengers perished in 1861, most of them children. The Nordlyset had a tonnage of 330 register tons, and was carrying 303 passengers. When they got into bad weather the hatches had to be closed much of the time. Conditions for the passengers were reported to be very bad in the sealed off, dark compartment. In the year 1862 many Norwegian ships encountered problems due to bad weather. In addition to carrying too many passengers, the crossing took longer time. The average crossing time this year was 63 days, ten days longer than the all over average between 1840 and 1874. This resulted in a great deal of sickness on board. A total of 184 Norwegian emigrants died on the way to Quebec and 42 died in quarantine following their arrival. These 226 deaths represent about four percent of all the Norwegian emigrants who traveled via Quebec that year. Those who died at sea were buried at sea, either wrapped in canvas or placed in coffins constructed by the ship's carpenter. There was often a shortage of lumber for coffins on board ships where there were many deaths, and there were times when two persons were placed in the same coffin with feet in opposite directions. If there were no minister on board, the captain would read a funeral service before the bodies were sunk into the ocean. On the brig Incognito sailing in 1852, the story says that there were a lot of deaths, and sharks were following the ship. Grieving parents had to watch the sharks attack the body of their deceased child as it entered the water.


The Transatlantic Crossing -

 -  Chapter 1:   Early Norwegian Emigrants
 -  Chapter 2:   Steerage Passengers - Emigrants Between Decks
 -  Chapter 3:   By sail across the ocean - daily life aboard
 -  Chapter 4:   Children of the ocean - life and death on the Atlantic
 -  Chapter 5:   Sailing ship provisions - Food and drink
 -  Chapter 6:   Sanitary conditions on board - health and sickness on emigrant ships
 -  Chapter 7:   From sail to steam
 -  Chapter 8:   The largest, the fastest and most comfortable ships - by steamship across the ocean
 -  Chapter 9:   The giant express steamers - The transatlantic crossing following 1900

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