Worst Case of Abuse of Steerage Passengers - 1912

British steamer Orteric

Worst Case on Record

CHARGED with the worst case of neglect of steerage passengers on record under the Passenger Act of 1882, the owners of the British steamer Orteric have been fined $7,960 by Acting Secretary Cable of the Department of Commerce and Labor.

Among her 1,242 passengers there were in the eight weeks of her voyage 58 deaths, 57 being children; the births numbered 14; the sexes were not properly segregated during the larger part of the time, the ventilation of the ship was inadequate and greatly increased the mortality rate; the hospital facilities were ill-ventilated and without proper equipment; while the sanitary conditions of the vessel were almost beyond belief.

Acting Secretary Cable, after giving ample opportunity for the ship's agents to make a defense, directed today that the full penalties be imposed.

The case has been pending before the Department since the arrival of the Orteric at Honolulu. April 13th last, where the Collector of Customs, who acts in behalf of the Bureau of Navigation, immediately discovered the unlawful conditions.

The vessel is not regularly engaged in the steerage business, but was specially employed to carry Portuguese and Spanish immigrants through Magellan Straits to Honolulu. The ship was allowed to clear upon depositing a bond for $15,000.

Owing to the great number of deaths, the grand jury, which was in session at the time, went on board and made an exhaustive examination of the vessel.

They found the system of ventilation insufficient; the port holes did not admit sufficient air, and notwithstanding that there was an electric light plant on board no electric fans were provided.

They reported that this lack of ventilation contributed to the large mortality during the voyage; when severe weather necessitated closing the port holes and hatches the rate of mortality increased.

The hospitals were found wholly unfit for the purpose for which they were provided; the ventilation was poor and the space allotted to them was too small.

There were 14 births on the voyage, but the compartments used as lying-in hospitals were wholly inadequate in every respect and in some instances it was found that even ordinary conveniences were not provided for the inmates.

The laws relative to cleanliness were violated in a manner which could not be too strongly condemned.

On the lower deck on which passengers were berthed neither latrines nor conveniences were provided for the passengers, in many instances empty meat cans being used; all of the latrines were on the upper deck and could be used only by passengers able or willing to climb there, and they were flushed but twice a day.

No proper method was adopted to protect the vessel against the filthy conditions which were thus necessarily created; the decks were not washed and the filth apparently was permitted to remain, in alternate layers of filth, sawdust and disinfectants; the result was an almost intolerable stench which filled the dark and poorly ventilated compartments and existed even up to the day when the vessel was examined by the grand jury.

No conveniences were originally provided for the use of children and such as were provided were improvised after the vessel commenced her voyage, and were wholly unfit from all standpoints.

Although the vessel crossed the equator twice on the voyage, no bathrooms were provided, and up to within a few weeks of the completion of the voyage the only way in which a bath of any kind could be taken was in the public washroom.

A short time before the vessel arrived at Honolulu a water pipe was fixed up in such a way that something resembling a shower bath could be taken, but there was little privacy even as to this.

No attempt appears to have been made to muster the passengers on deck when weather permitted as required by law; or to air or clean the bedding during the entire voyage, and when the vessel arrived at Honolulu it became necessary to burn all the mattresses.

The grand jury stated that no opportunities were afforded the passengers for keeping clean and that it is to be wondered no more deaths occurred than actually took place.

The master of the vessel, James Findlay, attempted to explain the existing conditions by stating that about 10 days after leaving Gibraltar there was a riot between the Portuguese and Spanish male passengers, resulting in a pitched battle with knives, clubs, cleavers, and pistols.

To prevent further trouble the Portuguese passengers were placed aft, while the Spanish passengers were put in the forward part of the vessel. This resulted in the commingling of the sexes.

He mentions the refusal of the passengers to assist in keeping the vessel clean and states that the lack of cleanliness on their part had much to do with the conditions.

The ship's doctor stated that he would not permit the compartments to be washed as this would have resulted in unavoidable dampness which would be detrimental; that all accumulations were "rendered harmless by disinfectants; that the sleeping compartments were scraped with shovels every day and swept, and that the parents concealed the illness of their children and refused medical attention.

Commissioner of Navigation Chamberlain described this case as the worst which had come to his attention and expressed his concurrence in the following paragraph of a scathing arraignment by the grand jury: -

"We cannot emphasize too strongly the necessity for the observance of regulations requiring vessels to be kept in a clean and sanitary condition. When poor immigrants, perhaps unaccustomed to modern methods of sanitation, are brought into a tropical climate such as Hawaii, not only their own good, but the good of the community in general is sub-served by a rigid insistence on compliance with the law."

The Passenger Act of 1882 aims to safeguard on steerage ships the comfort and health, both moral and physical, of future American citizens and to prevent their being landed in a weakened and perhaps disease-infected condition because of improper ventilation or sanitation on the voyage.

When a vessel enters a port of the United States with steerage passengers she is boarded by customs officers, under the direction of the Bureau of Navigation, Department of Commerce and Labor.

Before the passengers are landed every portion of the steerage is examined; the space allotted each person is noted; the number and size of the berths; the manner and extent of ventilation, lighting and the amount and quality of food furnished; the size and equipment of hospital spaces and that a doctor is on board; that reasonable privacy and the separation of the sexes both from each other, and also from the officers and crew, has been secured; and that the officers have maintained discipline and cleanliness of the vessel throughout the voyage.

These examinations have brought about great improvements in steerage conditions, and on transatlantic liners, violations are rare.

"Worst Case on Record," The American Marine Engineer, New York, Volume VII, No. 1, January 1912, Page 20.

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