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Day of Embarkation - Steerage Accommodations

The day of embarkation finds an excited crowd with heavy packs and heavier hearts, climbing the gangplank. An uncivil crew directs the bewildered travellers to their quarters, which in the older ships are far too inadequate, and in the newer ships are, if anything, worse.

Clean they are; but there is neither breathing space below nor deck room above, and the 900 steerage passengers crowded into the hold of so elegant and roomy a steamer as the Kaiser Wilhelm II, of the North German Lloyd line, are positively packed like cattle, making a walk on deck when the weather is good, absolutely impossible, while to breathe clean air below in rough weather, when the hatches are down is an equal impossibility.

The stenches become unbearable, and many of the emigrants have to be driven down; for they prefer the bitterness and danger of the storm to the pestilential air below.

The division between the sexes is not carefully looked after, and the young women who are quartered among the married passengers have neither the privacy to which they are entitled nor are they much more protected than if they were living promiscuously.

The food, which is miserable, is dealt out of huge kettles into the dinner pails provided by the steamship company. When it is distributed, the stronger push and crowd, so that meals are anything but orderly procedures.

On the whole, the steerage of the modern ship ought to be condemned as unfit for the transportation of human beings; and I do not hesitate to say that the German companies, and they provide best for their cabin passengers, are unjust if not dishonest towards the steerage .

Take for example, the second cabin which costs about twice as much as the steerage and sometimes not twice so much; yet the second cabin passenger on the Kaiser Wilhelm II has six times as much deck room, much better located and well protected against inclement weather.

Two to four sleep in one cabin, which is well and comfortably furnished; while in the steerage from 200 to 400 sleep in one compartment on bunks, one above the other, with little light and no comforts.

In the second cabin the food is excellent, is partaken of in a luxuriantly appointed dining-room, is well cooked and well served; while in the steerage, the unsavoury rations are not served, but doled out, with less courtesy than one would find in a charity soup kitchen.

The steerage ought to be and could be abolished by law. It is true that the Italian and Polish peasant may not be accustomed to better things at home and might not be happier in better surroundings nor know how to use them; but it is a bad introduction to our life to treat him like an animal when he is coming to us.

He ought to be made to feel immediately, that the standard of living in America is higher than it is abroad, and that life on the higher plane begins on board of ship.

Every cabin passenger who has seen and smelt the steerage from afar, knows that it is often indecent and inhuman; and I, who have lived in it, know that it is both of these and cruel besides.

On the steamer Noordam, sailing from Rotterdam three years ago, a Russian boy in the last stages of consumption was brought upon the sunny deck out of the pestilential air of the steerage.

I admit that to the first cabin passengers it must have been a repulsive sight -- this emaciated, dirty, dying child; but to order a sailor to drive him down-stairs, was a cruel act, which I resented.

Not until after repeated complaints was the child taken to the hospital and properly nursed, On many ships, even drinking water is grudgingly given, and on the steamer Staatendam, four years ago, we had literally to steal water for the from the second cabin, and that of course at night.

On many journeys, particularly on the Fürst Bismark, of the Hamburg American line, five years ago, the bread was absolutely uneatable, and was thrown into the water by the irate emigrants.

In providing better accommodations, the English steamship companies have always led; and while the discipline on board of ship is always stricter than on other lines, the care bestowed upon the emigrants is correspondingly greater.

At last the passengers are stowed away, and into the excitement of the hour of departure there comes a silent heaviness, as if the surgeon's knife were about to cut the arteries of some vital organ.

Homesickness, a disease scarcely known among the mobile Anglo-Saxons, is a real presence in the steerage; for there are the men and women who have been torn from the soil in which through many generations their lives were rooted.

Source: Steiner, Edward Alfred, On the Trail of the Immigrant, Fleming H. Revell Company, New York, 1906

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