Pests, smells, damp and dirt
Vermin infested the immigrant ships. The Charlotte Jane’s shipboard newspaper was called the Cockroach in honour of those troublesome pests. Smells emanated from the latrines and from animals on board. The steerage compartments were subject to flooding when waves broke over the ship. On one vessel, some emigrants were half-drowned in their beds during a storm, and on another, the beds in steerage were almost constantly wet.
Food and diet
Live sheep, pigs and poultry were carried and killed periodically to provide fresh meat for the cabin passengers’ table, where fresh milk was also served.
Those in steerage survived on salted and preserved meat, ship’s biscuit, flour, oatmeal and dried potatoes. The diet was coarse, monotonous, and offered poor nutrition, but it rarely ran short.
Food on the fly
Some men passed the time trying to catch fish or seabirds. They snared albatrosses by baiting hooks on long lines that trailed behind the ships. They shot or harpooned porpoises and sharks, and caught smaller fish on lines. The catches helped vary the dreary shipboard fare. Barracouta were thought to taste like mackerel.
On early voyages, shipping companies decided what to feed their passengers. From the later 1840s, the companies were required to follow ‘dietary scales’. These gave steerage passengers less flour, raisins, sugar, tea and coffee, but more salted meat, biscuit and oatmeal than those in the cabins.
Spoilage or skimping by unscrupulous ship owners could reduce the amount of food passengers actually received. Passengers on the Halcione (1872) claimed that some of the meat was ‘putrid and unfit to eat’ and that it had been thrown overboard. The surgeon conceded that one piece had been ‘slightly tainted’ but was still ‘perfectly wholesome’. 1
There were different arrangements in cabin and steerage for cooking and serving food. The crew cooked and served food for cabin passengers. The emigrants in steerage were divided into messes of about six people, and stores were handed out to each mess. On earlier voyages the emigrants cooked their own food. After 1855 food was cooked for passengers in a central galley in common pots, with the food of each mess kept separate.
Steerage passengers were each allowed 3.4 litres of fresh water a day. But water stored in barrels often deteriorated and became undrinkable in a couple of months. Both cabin and steerage passengers attempted to catch rainwater to drink or for washing.
By the 1870s most ships had condensers. Fuelled by coal, these devices distilled sea water, ensuring a liberal supply of pure drinking water. However, even ships with condensers sometimes faced problems if the machine was faulty or the captain skimped on coal.
Lack of fresh water made keeping clean difficult. Salt water was not pleasant for washing, even with special soap. In the tropics men could swim or were hosed down on deck by sailors. Women, to preserve propriety, were usually denied these opportunities to keep cool and clean.
Despite the long passage, overcrowding, and poor food and hygiene, some ships arrived without losing any passengers.