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Stephen De Vere letter to T.F. Elliot
















(46. –I.)




















(46. –I.)


461. Can you lay a Copy of that Letter before the Committee?

I will do so.

The same is delivered in, and read as follows:

My dear sir,  London, Canada, West. November 30, 1847.

I HAVE to thank you for sending me the Report of the Colonisation Committee of last

year, the evidence contained in which (though I have not yet had time fully to go through it)

proves to one the value of emigration at home, and confirms the opinions I had already formed of the benefit likely to result to the colonies from it.

The emigration of the past year was enormous, though deriving no assistance from Government until its arrival here. The mortality also was very great. During the next year, the

number of emigrants will probably be still larger; and I fear we shall have a repetition of the

mortality if the errors which experience has detected be not promptly and liberally corrected.

I shall not regret the disasters of the last two years if their warning voice shall have stimulated and enabled us to effect a system of emigration leading to future colonisation, which shall gradually heal the diseased and otherwise incurable state of society at home, and, at the same time, infuse a spirit into the colonies, which shall render them the ornament, the wealth, and the bulwark of the parent country.

We have no right to cure the evil of over-population by a process of decimation, nor can emigration be serviceable in Canada unless the emigrants arrive in a sound state, both of body and mind. I say ‘both of body and mind,’ because clamour in Canada has been equally directed against the diseased condition and the listless indolence of this year’s emigrants; but, while I admit the Justice of that clamour to a certain extent, I must protest against the injustice of those here who complain that the young and vigorous should be accompanied by the more helpless members of their families whom they are bound to protect; and I cannot but remember that famine and fever were a divine dispensation inflicted last year upon nearly the whole world, and that the colony could not reasonably expect to be wholly exempt from the

misfortunes of the parent state.

The fearful state of disease and debility in which the Irish emigrants have reached Canada must undoubtedly be attributed in a great degree to the destitution and consequent sickness prevailing in Ireland; but has been much aggravated by the neglect of cleanliness, ventilation and a generally good state of social economy during the passage, and has been afterwards increased, and disseminated throughout the whole country by the mal-arrangements of the Government system of emigrant relief. Having myself submitted to the privations of a steerage passage in an emigrant ship for nearly two months, in order to make myself acquainted with the condition of the emigrant from the beginning, I can state from experience that the present regulations for ensuring health and comparative comfort to passengers are wholly insufficient, and that they are not, and cannot be enforced, notwithstanding the great zeal and high abilities of the Government agents.

Before the emigrant has been a week at sea he is an altered man. How can it be otherwise? Hundreds of poor people, men, women, and children of all ages, from the drivelling idiot of ninety to the babe just born, huddled together without light, without air, wallowing in filth, and breathing a fetid atmosphere, sick in body and despair at heart, the fevered patients lying between the sound in sleeping places so narrow as almost to deny them the power of indulging, by a change of position, the natural restlessness of the disease, by their agonized ravings disturbing those around them and predisposing them, through the effects of the imagination, to imbibe the contagion; living without food or medicine except as administered by the hand of casual charity, dying without the voice of spiritual consolation and buried in the deep without the rites of the Church.

The food is generally unselected and seldom sufficiently cooked. The supply of water, hardly enough for cooking and drinking, does not allow washing. In many ships the filthy beds, teeming with all abominations, are never required to be brought on deck and aired. The narrow space between the sleeping berths and the piles of boxes is never washed or scraped, but breathes up a damp fetid stench, until the day before arrival at quarantine, when all hands are required to ‘scrub up’ and put on a fair face for the doctor and government inspector. No moral restraint is attempted. The voice of prayer is never heard. Drunkenness, with its consequent train of ruffianly debasement, is not discouraged, because it is profitable to the captain who traffics in the grog.

In the ship which brought me out from London last April, the passengers were found in provisions by the owners, according to a contract, and furnished scale of dietary. The meat was of the worst quality. The supply of water shipped on board was abundant, but the quantity served out to the passengers was so scanty that they were frequently obliged to throw overboard their salt provisions and rice (a most important article of their food), because they had not water enough both for the necessary cooking, and the satisfying of their raging thirst afterwards.

They could only afford water for washing by withdrawing it from the cooking of their food. I have known persons to remain for days together in their dark close berths, because they thus suffered less from hunger, though compelled, at the same time, by want of water to heave overboard their salt provisions and rice. No cleanliness was enforced;



the beds never aired; the master during the whole voyage never entered the steerage, and would listen to no complaints; the dietary contracted for was, with some exceptions, nominally supplied, though at irregular periods; but false measures were used (in which the water and several articles of dry food were served), the gallon measure containing but three quarts, which fact I proved in Quebec, and had the captain fined for; once or twice a week ardent spirits were sold indiscriminately to the passengers, producing scenes of unchecked blackguardism beyond description; and lights were prohibited, because the ship, with her open fire-grates upon deck, with lucifer matches and lighted pipes used secretly in the sleeping berths, was freighted with Government powder for the garrison of Quebec.

The case of this ship was not one of peculiar misconduct, on the contrary, I have the strongest reason to know from information which I have received from very many emigrants well-known to me who came over this year in different vessels, that this ship was better regulated and more comfortable than many that reached Canada.

Some of these evils might be prevented by a more careful inspection of the ship and her stores, before leaving port; but the provisions of the Passenger Act are insufficient to procure cleanliness and ventilation, and the machinery of the emigration agencies at the landing ports is insufficient to enforce those provisions, and to detect frauds. It is true that a clerk sometimes comes on board at the ship’s arrival in port; questions the captain or mate, and ends by asking whether any passenger means to make a complaint; but this is a mere farce, for the captain takes care to ‘keep away the crowd from the gentleman.’ Even were all to hear the question, few would venture to commence a prosecution; ignorant, friendless, penny less, disheartened, and anxious to proceed to the place of their ultimate destination.

Disease and death among the emigrants; nay, the propagation of infection throughout Canada, are not the worst consequences of this atrocious system of neglect and ill-usage. A result far worse is to be found in the utter demoralization of the passengers, both male and female, by the filth, debasement, and disease of two or three months so passed. The emigrant, enfeebled in body, and degraded in mind, even though he should have the physical power, has not the heart, has not the will to exert himself. He has lost his self-respect, his elasticity of spirit – he no longer stands erect – he throws himself listlessly upon the daily dole of Government, and, in order to earn it, carelessly lies for weeks upon the contaminated straw of a fever lazaretto.

I am aware that the Passengers’ Act has been amended during the last Session, but I have not been yet able to see the amendments. They are probably of a nature calculated to meet the cases I have detailed; but I would earnestly suggest the arrangement of every passenger ship into separate dimensions for the married, for single men, and for single women; and the appointment, from amongst themselves, of ‘monitors’ for each ward; the appropriation of an hospital ward for the sick; the providing of commodious cooking stoves and utensils, and the erection of decent privies; and the appointment, to each ship carrying more than 50 passengers, of a surgeon paid by the Government, who should be invested during the voyage with the authority of a Government emigration agent, with power to investigate all complaints at sea on the spot, and at the time of their occurrence to direct and enforce temporary redress, and to institute proceedings on arrival in port in concert with the resident emigration agent. He ought, for this purpose, to have authority to detain witnesses, and to support them during the prosecution at Government expense. I would also suggest the payment of a chaplain of the religion professed by the majority of the passengers. The sale of spirituous liquors should be prohibited except for medicinal purposes, &c., the minimum supply of water enlarged from three to four quarts.

I believe that if these precautions were adopted, the human cargoes would be landed in a moral and physical condition far superior to what they now exhibit, and that the additional expense incurred would be more than compensated by the saving effected in hospital expenses and emigrant relief.

The arrangements adopted by the Government during the past season, for the assistance of pauper emigrants after their arrival in Canada, were of three sorts, hospitals, temporary sheds, and transmission. These measures were undertaken in a spirit of liberality deserving our best gratitude; and much allowance ought to be made for imperfections of detail, which it was not easy to avoid under the peculiar and unexpected exigencies of the case; but I think I can demonstrate that much of the mortality which has desolated as well the old residents as the emigrants, may be attributed to the errors of those arrangements.

In the quarantine establishment at Grosse Isle, when I was there in June, the medical attendance and hospital accommodations were quite inadequate. The medical inspections on board were slight and hasty – hardly any questions were asked – but as the doctor walked down the file on deck, he selected those for hospital who did not look well, and, after a very slight examination, ordered them ashore. The ill-effect of this haste was two-fold: some were detained in danger who were not ill, and many were allowed to proceed who were actually in fever. Of the management of the hospitals in general I do not feel myself qualified to speak, and I have no doubt that you are in possession of reports which will enable you to draw your own conclusions.



The sheds were very miserable, so slightly built as to exclude neither the heat nor the cold.No sufficient care was taken to remove the sick from the sound, or to disinfect and clean the bedding after the removal of the sick to hospitals. The very straw upon which they had lain was often allowed to become a bed for their successor; and I have known many poor families prefer to burrow under heaps of loose stones which happened to pile up near the shore rather than accept the shelter of the infected sheds.

It would, I am aware, have been difficult to have provided a more substantial shelter for the amount of destitution produced by the peculiar circumstances of the past year; but I hope that, in future, even though the number of emigrants should greatly exceed that of last year, so large an extent of pauper temporary accommodation may not be necessary, and that a better built, and better regulated house of refuge, may be provided.

Of the administration of temporary relief by food to the inmates of the sheds, I must speak in terms of the highest praise. It was a harassing and dangerous duty, and one requiring much judgment on the part of the agent, and it was performed with zeal, humanity, and good sense.

I must now advert to what has been the great blot upon the Government arrangements – the steam transmission up the country.

The great principle, that the due regulation of passenger ships is a duly of the State, is admitted by the Passengers’ Act. The Government itself enforces the heaviest penalties for the infringement of its provisions; but yet, when the Government itself undertakes to transmit emigrants from Quebec to Montreal, Kingston, and Toronto, how has it acted? I state, upon the authority of Mr. McElderry, the able and indefatigable emigrant agent at Toronto, who has fallen a victim to his zeal and humanity, that the Government made an exclusive contract with one individual for the steam transmission of all emigrants forwarded by the State, at a certain price per head, without any restrictive regulations. The consequences were frightful. I have seen small, incommodious, and ill-ventilated steamers arriving at the quay in Toronto, after a forty-eight hours passage from Montreal, freighted with fetid cargoes of 1,100 and 1,200 Government emigrants of all ages and sexes. The healthy who had just arrived from Europe, mixed with the half-recovered convalescents of the hospitals, unable, during that time, to lie down, almost to sit. In almost every boat were clearly marked cases of actual fever – in some were deaths – the dead and the living huddled together.Sometimes the crowds were stowed in open barges, and towed after the steamer, standing like pigs upon the deck of a Cork and Bristol packet. A poor woman died in the hospital here, in consequence of having been trodden down when weak and fainting in one of those barges. I have, myself, when accompanying the emigrant agent on his visit to inspect the steamer on her arrival, seen him stagger back like one struck, when first meeting the current of fetid infection, exhaled from between her decks. It is the unhesitating opinion of every man I have spoken to, including Government officers and medical men, that a large proportion of the fever throughout the country has been actually generated in the river steamers. Surely – surely this may be avoided for the future. If the entire steam navigation should be, as I am informed it was this year, in the hands of one unopposed individual, and that he should refuse to accept a contract upon reasonable terms, and with the conditions necessary for securing ventilation, comfort, and health, the Government might easily take the transmission into their own hands, put on steamers, and forward the emigrants at half of this year’s charges, not to mention the saving which would certainly be effected in hospital expenses.

The causes which produced the immense emigration of the past year still exist, and the numbers next year will probably be still larger, and we shall have a repetition of the same scenes of misery, if prompt measures be not taken for their prevention. But Government must not stop there; something must be done for the profitable employment of the emigrants. To support them is but a temporary shift; they must be enabled to become valuable Citizens to the colony.

The progress of Canadian improvement is slow as compared with the natural capabilities of the Province; this I attribute, in the first instance, to the miserably defective state of internal communications. The best and largest portion of the land lies idly unprofitable, contributing nothing to commerce, the spread of civilization, or the support of Man.



Having become settlers, they will soon become capitalists by the increased facilities of transit and the enhanced value of produce which will result from the great works at which they have themselves assisted. Having become capitalists, they will soon become employers of other men’s labour, because they will find that that labour can be profitably employed. Their produce having found its way to the ports will stimulate commerce, and generate that commercial capital which will again by its reaction become the mainspring of social improvement and extended civilization, and Canada will open her eager arms to embrace thousands whom she would now reject, who from being locusts of the Old World will become the honey bees of the New.

If prompt and sufficient measures be adopted for the regulation of passage economy, if the arrangements for emigrant relief be liberally improved, and if an impetus be given to extensive and valuable works in Canada, I have no doubt that the government may safely give direct assistance to emigration, and that the consequences will be a present and growing relief to the distresses of the parent state, the foundation in Canada of an extensive social reform, and the rapid increase of her commercial wealth and agricultural activity, ensuring to England large importations of provisions at a period of the year when they would be most valuable.

I do not make any apologies for troubling you at such length, because you requested me to write to you upon the subject, and because I am conscious that my observations here have at least been patiently made, without prejudice or motives of self-interest, and under circumstances which have enabled me to see with my own eyes facts which have probably never been detailed to you by a wholly disinterested witness.

Believe me, my dear Sir,

Faithfully yours,

Stephen E. De Vere