Immigration: Oceanic Passage

Figure 1.--The great bulk of the European emigrants traveling to America crossed the Atlantic in steerage. The emigrants who flocked to Ameica in the late-19th and early-20th centuruy crossed on 8-20 day voyages, depending on the route and ship. The cost was $25-35. This was a vast improvement upon what earlier generations faced, but it was still an unpleant experience for most.

Crossing the Atlantic Oceam in the days of sail was both involved and expensive. As a result, those without means endentured themselves to pay for the passage. Of course the most harrowing passages were those experienced by Africans brught to the Americas as slaves. Technological advances in the 19th century made the pasage safer, quicker, and less expensive. As the number of emigrants rose, steam ship companies began to find carryng emigrants a lucrative trade. The emigrants who flocked to Ameica in thelate 19th and early 20th centuruy ctossed on 8-20 day voyages, depending on the route and ship. The cot was $25-35. Initially there was no real American comtrol on emigration As the U.S. Hovernment began to regulate immigration, the steamship companies began to restrict who they carried. The U.S. Government began fining the steanship lines $100 per individual denied entrance. Here the comncern was steerage passangers. Steamship lines began insisting steerage passangrs take a disenfecting bath, have their belongings fumigated, and submit to a medical examination.

Naval History

Man's first vessels were rafts or dug-out canoes. These craft were useful in inland waters, but were not useful for oceanic transport. The Greeks and Phoenicians built wooden ships, propelled by oar or sail. Often both were used depending on the circumstances. The Carthaginians dominated the Mediterranean woth war galleys propelled by tiers of rowers, usually slaves and convicted criminals. They were built with rams. The Romans copied the Carthaginian design to fight the Punic Wars (264-146 BC). The sleek double-ended oak ships of the Vikings were built for ocean travel, but adapted for rivers as well and allowed them to sail west and terrorize Western Europe as well as move east move east into Russia as well (9th century). Europeans acquired the stern rudder (12th century). The compass reached Europe at about the same time. The Compass, like many other technologies, was discovered by the Chinese, probably during the Qin dynasty (221-206 BC), but it was not put to any practical use until much later. The Chinese were using magnetized needles (8th century AD) and were soon using them for naval navigation. The great Chinese eunech admiral Zheng He (1371-1435) used such compasses on his epic voyagesn (1405-33). Just how Europeans acquited the compass is unknown. Some believe that it was over the Silk Road. It is possible that it was independently developed in Europe. The earliest known European mention of the directional compass was by Alexander Neckam's De naturis rerum (On the Natures of Things) appearing in Paris (about 1190). Galileo played a role in perfecting the compass for use by European mariners. He instructed several European sovereigns on how to use his compass, including Prince John Frederick of Alsace, Archduke Ferdinand of Austria, the Landgrave Philippe of Hesse and the Duke of Mantua (1598-1604). The Europeans improved sailing techniques during the Crusades allowing them to gradually replaces oarsmen with sails. The development of sailing ships advanced quickly during the (14th and 15th centuries). Henry VIII dedicated the Great Harry, the first double-decked English warship (1514). Even so oared vessels were still used in warfare because of the vgeries of wind and still basic sail technology. The last great battle fought with oared vessels was Lepanto (1571). Europeans by the 16th century had the navigational skills and the naval enginnering skills to launch upon the voyages of discovery.

Crossing the Atlantic by Sail

Crossing the Atlantic Oceam in the days of sail was both involved and expensive. The first crossings took weeks and there was always the danger of exhausting supplies. The Pilgrims landed at Plymouth because supplies were running low and the Myflower had to begin the return votage. The plan had been to settle further south.

Indentured Servitude

The cost of a trans-oceanic voyage during the colonial era meant that common working people could not afford to reach American by their own resources. As a result, those without means indentured themselves to pay for the passage. The extent of indentured servitude in colonial America was much more extensive than most Americans realize. It has been estimated that one half to two thirds of all immigrants arrived in Colonial America arrived as indentured servants. The relative importance of indentured servitude varied from state to state and over time, but a times the indentured population of some colonies made have been as much as 75 percent of the total population. This declined the further west one went. But even after the Revolution, the first U.S, Census reports that 6 percent of the Kentucky population was indentured. [1790 Census] The system in the colonies was an outgrowth of the English rural labor system. As crops changed and agricultural methods improved, many farm workers were being turned of the land. In America the labor shortage was from the beginning the most difficult problem faced by the colonies. The system of enslaving the indegenous population has persued by the Spanish did not work in North America. Colonial landowners before beginning to import African slaves began importing white indentured workers, in many cases English and Scottish rural laborors that had been turned off the land. The term indentures comes from the labor contracts signed. The indetured sustem was the first step toward full slavery that gradually develooed in America. The first indentured workers appeared in Virginia where the main cash-crop was labor-intensive tobacco. The Virgininia colonial government very early in the colony's history offered land--a headright, of 50 acres per servant (1618). [Galenson, p. 12.] The normal practice was for a laboror desiring to start a new life in America to sell himself for a given term, mormially 7 years to an agent or ship captain in Britain. Upon reaching America, the captain would sell the contract for a profit. The passage for indentured workers while not like the African middle passage, was still a harrowing experience. They were normally given only the bare minimal to eat and drink. Pasages normallu took more than a month. Many indentured workers did not volunteer. Criminals which could mean petty thieves were transported. convicted of a capital crime in England could be transported in lieu of a death sentance. Debtors were also transported. Some parishes rather than caring for orohans, sold them for trasport at a profit. I do not know if data exists as the relative importants of these differet sources. The terms of the contract were affected by ones skills. Household servants and farm laborors without skills hd the longest terms. Individuals such as carpenters, craftsmen, weavers, ect could often negotiate better terms. Colonial laws varied, but were basically vert strict. The individuals involved became slaves in all but name for the terms of their indenture. Colonial laws aithorized corporal punishment. [Ballagh, p. 45.] Much depended on the character of the master. Indentured workers who fulfilled their contracts received "freedom dues" based interestingly on Hebrew law. [Deut. 15:12-15.] In addition, many colonies granted land to the freed indentured servant. The difficulty with the indentured system was the frontier. Many ran away from their masters well before the indenture contract was fulfilled.

Middle Passage

Of course the most harrowing passages were those experienced by Africans brought to the Americas as slaves. The middle passage was an horendous aspect of the African slave trade and many did not survive the ordeal.

Technological Advances

Technological advances in the 19th century made the Atlantic pasage safer, quicker, and less expensive. Atlantic passages at the beginning of the 19th century still took about 1 month. The British Parliament passed the Navigation Acts requiring that all British trade be carried in British-built ships. This greatly stimulated the British shipping industry which eventually was to become the greatest merchant marine in the world. The Royal Navy became the dominant naval force (18th century), but the Dutch, French, Portuguese, and Spanish had important merchant marines. The Royal Naavy's victory at Trafalgur (1805) had been the high point of sail warfare. After the Napoleonic wars, naval architects began experimenting with using first iron and then steel. Here the British led the way. English engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel's ship Great Britain was a break through (1843). The Irish in the 1840s arrived mostly by sail, but they would be the last important immigrant group to do so, A series of improvenents in naval archetecture followed in the 19th century, incliding the elliptical stern. Many of these advancements were first introduced in warships. An intense rivalry between American and British traders to dominate the the China trade led to the rapid introduction of improvements in naval architecture. This competition expressed itself in the classic clipper ships. Americans built the first clippership in Baltimore, Maryland--the Ann McKim (1833). British naval architects quickly adopted the design features. The clippers cut Atlantic crossungs in half to about 2 1/2 weeks. Some of the fastest clippers were the British Sir Launcelot (1865) and the American Champion of the Seas. These maginficen, graceful vessels could achieve 20 knots, but were as far as sail technology could be taken. With the clipperships, Briitain was disadvantaged over America. Building the Royal Navy during the 18th and early 19th century had resulted in the deforestation of large areas of Britain. The country was running out if oaks, a factor which compeled the country to shift to iron bottoms. Already more reliable steam power was replacing sails. The first steamers were built with sails in case the steam engines failed. Here the British also led the way. The first stean-powered ship was the paddle-wheel Charlotte Dundas, constructed by William Symington (1802). It was launched on the Forth and Clyde Canal, near Glasgow which became an important naval construction center. The first commercial success was the Comet, also built in Scotland by Bell, Napier, and Robertson (1804). It was a double paddle wheel. Americans achieved the first steam crossing of the Atlantic. The US Savannahao was actually a sailing ship with auxilery paddlewheels. The crossing from Savannah to Liverpool took 29 days (1819). The captain only ran the still unreliable engines for 85 hours. It took overa decade for Britain to begin transatlantic stean crossing. Brunel's Great Western paddle-steamer made the crossing from Bristol to New York in 15 days, 3 days faster than the clippers and half the time taken by an ordinary sailing ship (1838). Steam was joined with iron at the same time. The British Rainbow was the first iron steamship (1838). English engineer Francis Pettit Smith took the next step with Archimedes which as the name suggests was the first steamer to use a screw propeller (1839). Brunel answered with the Great Britain which crossed from Liverpool to New York in 14 and a half days (1845). While America and Britain competed with the clipper ships, Britain's greater industrial capacity gave it the advantage with iron steamships. The Bessemer converter provided an inexpendive method for producing steel (1856). This made for improved naval construction materials. the Cunard Company began replacing mail steamers with screw propellers (1862). The propeller operated much better in rough seas and quickly replace paddel wheels on ocean-going vessels. The final major improvement was the compound engine. This meant that after the Civil War (1861-65) in America, fast, safe ocean going vessels existed to carry European emigrants to America. The turbine engine appeared later while the European emogration was at its peak (1902-05).

Steamer Lines

Major developments after the American Civil War (1861-65) gave rise to a significant expansion of world trade and ocean commerce. First was the expolsive growth of the United states which rapidly increased both its agricultural and industrial production. Second was the European economies on the otherside of the Atlantic also grew rapidly, especially as Germany and France following Britain also industrrialized. Three, just as production in several countries began rapidly increasing, technical advances in naval engineering and propulsion made rapid, low cost naval transport available. Four, the opening of the Suez Canal (1859) reduced the cost of moving goods to India and the Far East. Five, political and economic conditions in Europe drove millions of people to emigrate. As the number of emigrants rose, steam ship companies began to find carryng emigrants a lucrative trade. These developments gave rise to the great steamship lines of the 19th and 20th century. The major steamer lines were American, British, Dutch, and German, but many countries had smaller lines. Some of these lines are quite famous. One of the most noted steamer lines was Cunard which came to dominate the Atlantic passanger trade. Great profits were made and the lines played an important role in internationl commerce and the developing world economy. Lines competed in the all inportant North Atlantic trade for spped, luxury, and reliability. Many of the lines were badly affected by Wotld War I. Changes in America's immigration policy ended the large-scal transport of emogrants. Further damage to the lines occurred as a result of the Great Depression and World War II. the two world wars. Steamship lines involved in passanger service were adersely affected by the development of fast, low-cost air travel after World War II. Even Cunard eventually was ansorbed by the cruise company Carnival.

Atlantic Passangers

The emigrants who flocked to Ameica in the late-19th and early-20th centuruy crossed on 8-20 day voyages, depending on the route and ship. The cost was $25-35. Initially there was no real American control on emigration As the U.S. Government began to regulate immigration, the steamship companies began to restrict who they carried. The U.S. Government began fining the steanship lines $100 per individual denied entrance. Here the comncern was steerage passangers.

Steerage Passangers

Steerage was the lowest class of ocean travel. While the steerage passages were modestly priced, the low costs made carryong steerage passangers very profitable. As a result, the steamship lines began promoting emigration, along with large American corporations who wanted more low-wage workers. The expensive staterooms for the wealthy, while prestigious, did not bring in the profits earned from the steerage passengers. Conditions in steerage were terrible, especially in the early years. Steerage pasangers did not have private cabins. Steerage was located in the lower decks of the ship. Lighting and ventilation varied. Conditions did improve over time. The accomodations on the Titanic, for example, provided luxurious or at least comfort to every class. Steerage on the Titanic was reprtedly up to the standard of second class sailing on other ships. The actual accomodations varied, but by the turn of the 20th century there were often separate compartments for single men, women and families. The larger liners had physicians and medical attendance and medicines might be despenced without charge. As the United States began health examinations of immigrants traveling in steerage and fining the steamship lines for allowing sick passangers to travel, the steamer lines began insisting steerage passangrs take a disenfecting bath, have their belongings fumigated, and submit to a medical examination.


We do not yet have detiled information about the ports involved. We think the principal ports of debarkation were Liverpool, Hamburg, Bremen, and Naples, but this is just our preliminary assessment. Most of the British emigrants left from Liverpool. The German ports were important both for Germans and we believe large numbers of Russian (including Poles and Jews) and Austria-Hungary (various national groups). These emigrants would travel by train to the German ports. Naples was the principal Italian port. In America there were several important ports during the early 19th century, including New York, Baltimore, and New Orleans. After the Civil War (1861-65), New York became the pribcipal port of entry.


Ballagh,James Curtis. White Servitude in the Colony of Virginia (Baltimore, Maryland: John Hopkins University Press, 1895).

Galson, David W. White Servatude in Colonial America: An Economic Analysis (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1981).


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Created: 2:38 AM 10/5/2006
Last updated: 2:44 PM 10/6/2006