Famine Ship Jeanie Johnston Sailed Through Grim Odds

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Many of the 35 million Americans of Irish descent are here due to the worst famine to hit Europe in the 19th century, the Irish potato famine.

It drove more than a million people to flee mass starvation, many climbing aboard ships they hoped would ferry them to a better life in the New World. But the fate they would meet on what came to be known as "coffin ships" was often as grim or worse than the fate they were leaving behind; 100,000 passengers didn't survive the journey.

The deadly combination of starvation and diseases such as typhus and cholera led to death rates even higher than those in slave ships. And yet, not a single passenger died aboard the Jeanie Johnston. Between 1848 and 1858, the "Luckiest Ship in the World" ferried 2,000 immigrants safely to the New World in a dozen voyages across the Atlantic.

Kathryn Miles tells the tale in her new book, All Standing: The Remarkable Story of the Jeanie Johnston, The Legendary Irish Famine Ship.

She tells Jacki Lyden, host of weekends on All Things Considered, the blight that caused the famine was wide-reaching, hitting Europe and North America, too. But while other countries had social systems in place to handle the crisis, Ireland was left devastated.

"Ireland was by far and away the least favorite of Britain's colonies," Miles says. "And the British people were very emphatic that they were not interested in having any governmental interaction."


Interview Highlights

On the providentialism of the ruling British

"This was part of what, really, I think we can call a kind of significant racism of the 19th century. And that was the idea that if the Irish people, in this case, were meant to survive, they would find the means to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, as it were. And if they didn't, then that was quite possibly sort of a divine intervention."

On why death rates were so high aboard 'coffin ships'

"These ships were packed with people. Most families of four would be given a platform that was about 6 feet square. So they were sleeping head-to-toe and there was no sense of quarantine or hygiene. ... So if someone stepped aboard and was sick, and there were no facilities on board — most ships had maybe two buckets and so there was, of course, a tremendous amount of human waste — that, of course, is a great way to spread disease."

On the Jeanie Johnston's stellar record

"The Jeanie Johnston was built by a really remarkable man named John Munn. And when the Irish famine hit and he started to see these waves of immigration coming into North America, he looked for ways he could help. ... And so out of his own pocket, he built this ship ... he made little alterations to these otherwise very standard, square-rigged ships. He made the hold particularly solid. He made the decks high enough that a grown man could walk about. And so these little things made it a very safe, very secure ship."

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