21st-century coffin ships

As we consider the plight of today’s asylum-seekers, the fate of Irish refugees two centuries ago is instructive, writes Jeremy Seabrook.

Coffin ship detail

Detail from The Irish National Famine Monument showing a Coffin Ship. Sculpture by John Behan. Tanya Hart under a Creative Commons Licence

The Mediterranean has become one of the most poignant sites on earth. There, protagonists in the drama of global inequality play out their allotted parts; fugitives from the chill and clouded north of Europe seeking sun, sand and vitamin D, share the waters with the corpses of those fleeing war, poverty and persecution in their homeland, and for whom the Mediterranean is not playground but graveyard.

If this stirs echoes in the torpid public memory of Britain, this is because we have been here before; to be precise, during the potato famine in Ireland in the 1840s. In 1846 and 1847, as famine devastated Ireland, tens of thousands of refugees from hunger embarked – sometimes at the expense of landlords who had evicted them from their small patch of earth – in unseaworthy boats to Quebec. Because of the fatalities during the voyage, these earned the name of ‘coffin ships’. In some of these vessels, a third of the ‘passengers’, weakened by malnutrition and disease – especially the ‘bloody flux’, or dysentery – died. Even some of the three quarters of a million who undertook the more modest crossing of the Irish Sea were dead on arrival in Liverpool. In spite of this, in 1846, 300,000 starvelings reached Liverpool, while an equal number arrived in the first half of 1847.

The Poor Law Removal Act was the response of the Whig government to the calamity, not so much of the famine, as of the spectral presence of so many emaciated and desperate refugees on the ‘mainland’, since all were, of course, then, nominally British subjects.

Masquerade of concern

Some dark sub-conscious memory perhaps prompts contemporary responses. British Prime Minister David Cameron’s eagerness to dispatch Royal Navy flagship, HMS Bulwark, to deter and possibly destroy the vessels of ‘people-traffickers’ and to help rescue migrants to Europe, was not matched by a readiness to entitle those rescued to claim asylum in Britain. A skin-deep ‘humanitarianism’ is adopted by official Europe, a pose for the cameras of posterity after centuries of racism, imperialism and suppression of peoples all over the world.

A skin-deep ‘humanitarianism’ is adopted by official Europe, a pose for the cameras of posterity after centuries of racism, imperialism and suppression of peoples all over the world

The masquerade of concern is not to be repeated by action; and it is left to the free press of Britain, notably to a columnist in Murdoch’s Sun, to express indifference to the fate of migrants, whom she likened – in an echo which Europe might have preferred to forget – to ‘cockroaches’, a term directly borrowed from the rhetoric of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. The question inevitably arises: which of these views represents the ‘real’ Europe? Is it the circumscribed benevolence of its leaders, or the words of its far-right politicians, egged on by a virulent xenophobic press?

Europe has become accustomed to the loss of life of migrants (unhappy phrase, for the euphemism suggests the carelessness of those who squandered it), that the capsizing of yet another vessel sailing from Libya on 19 April, 96 kilometres from the Libyan coast, with the death of another 700 people, reminds the continent that it had scaled down its sea-rescue operations last year, in order to ‘deter’ migrants, for whom, it was claimed by Cameron and others, the knowledge they would be rescued served as a ‘pull’ factor towards Europe. The horror stories pile themselves one upon another like the body-bags in Lampedusa, Malta, Catania. Over the past 20 years at least 25,000 people have perished on the borders of the European Union. The spectacle in Brussels of the leaders of Europe standing in reverent silence for one minute, commemorating the dead (and celebrating the 28 survivors), was yet another tableau of hypocrisy over lives which they have never ceased to value (or price) at a lower rate than those of ‘their own’ people.

European governments – which had all agreed on the replacement of the more comprehensive Mare Nostrum programme by the cheaper Triton coastal patrols, were quick to whip themselves into a state of moral outrage, not against their own inhumanity, but against ‘traffickers’, ‘people smugglers’, dealers in human flesh on unfit vessels, for which many will have paid $2,000-$3,000 for a risky passage into the lands of plenty. Yet another ‘war’ was declared (after that on terror, poverty, drugs and other impalpable enemies) on ‘unscrupulous people traders’. This is disingenuous: not only has human trafficking, in one form or another, been at the heart of capitalist enterprise ever since the slave trade – indentured labour, the transportation of felons, the commerce in servants, the opportunistic use of migrant labour, have all been part and parcel of the rise of that prosperity, towards which today’s victims of war, poverty, misery, dictatorship, yearn.

Global exchange of peoples

The work of the West, whether by an excess of intervention, or hands-off indifference, whether by arms sales or selective support of tyrannical regimes, has been a major source of instability, violence and poverty, which impel flight from ‘countries’ which were made in the image of the destructive nationalisms of Europe. What is more, the latest incarnation of Western imperialism – globalization – is also ‘our’ responsibility: it was not initiated by the small farmers of Africa, the slum-dwellers of Dhaka or Lagos, the petty traders on the streets of Sao Paulo, the indigenous people of Guatemala, the displaced of Senegal or Ivory Coast. A whole world has been disturbed and set in movement, first by mercantilism, missionaries, colonial empires, economic ‘integration’, intensified now by globalism. Great movements of people, the mass transfer of humanity to alien places for purposes they could not foresee or fathom, have turned small-scale population shifts, as a result of natural disasters, drought, crop failure, earthquakes, local wars and the subjugation of one ethnic group by another, into a vast global exchange of peoples. There were, in 2013, 232 million migrants in the world, a process accelerated by new forms of instantaneous communication, which the West has employed to spread the gospel of its own success, its economic miracles and wonders of development. A relentless iconography of consumption now shines into every corner of the world, exhibiting to the dispossessed, the aspiring and the already well-to-do, lives of easeful happiness and unalloyed luxury.

It is easy to disavow our role in these Völkerwanderungen [periods of migration], unchosen upheavals and uprootings of humanity. The leaders of Europe harangue each other on the security of their borders, and assure their restive peoples of the ‘integrity’ of frontiers that will be guarded at all costs to all comers, except, naturally, those who will be of advantage to the economy. No such barriers against the movement of the privileged towards destinations of sea, sex and sun will be erected; unless it be the fear of encounters with the remains of the drowned on the tainted golden beaches of southern Europe.

The latest incarnation of Western imperialism – globalization – is also ‘our’ responsibility: it was not initiated by the small farmers of Africa, the indigenous people of Guatemala or the displaced of Senegal

It was not supposed to be like this: the export of ‘development’ was to have ensured that each country would accommodate its own aspirants to the better life. The turmoil in some countries, civil war, Ebola, religious intolerance, uneven development in others, the violence of breakneck growth, eviction of peoples from settled ways of life, rapid urbanization, have all contributed to the number of people who do not believe the Western model is replicable in their own country, and who therefore make for those places where, apparently, prosperity is everywhere. This is logical: they are only following to its origin the source of their own dispossession; and the physical displacement of people is everywhere accompanied by a vast psychic disturbance.

It is no use talking of fortresses, the integrity of borders, guarding frontiers: these citadels will be stormed somehow by the despairing and the ambitious alike. For as long as the proposition that the world’s poor will become less poor only if the global rich become much richer will have to be modified; so that when social hope, security and certainty of sufficiency for survival are guaranteed in places which people at the moment no longer wish to call home, the resistless tide of humanity towards the sites of good fortune (for who asked to be born in Monrovia or Freetown rather than in Monaco or Switzerland?) will, perhaps abate. Inequality is no longer ‘merely’ a domestic issue. It is indissolubly linked to migrations of hope and despair, to which no government has a half-adequate response.

The widening abyss between rich and poor

The question of ‘who we are’ is at the heart of contemporary European political discussion. In the light of the apparently unstoppable waves of migration, ‘foreign policy’ is no longer separable from its domestic equivalent. The Mediterranean is an emblem of the widening abyss between the rich and poor of the earth; and in its haunted waters, global privilege has a fateful tryst with the victims of the poverty to which it is intimately allied. In 2013, 51 million people were ‘forcibly displaced’. Of these, 16.7 million were refugees, 86 per cent of them housed in developing countries. For the first time, more than half of them were under the age of 18.

Inequality is no longer ‘merely’ a domestic issue. It is indissolubly linked to migrations of hope and despair, to which no government has a half-adequate response

It may be wondered whether the response of Europe to the crisis will exhibit any greater sympathy or humanity than the swift response of the government of Britain in 1847. Under provisions of the Poor Law Removal Act, a relieving officer had only to prove that an individual had been in receipt of relief and could then take him or her before two magistrates. If the pauper had indeed been born in Ireland, and did not have the right of settlement, that person could be taken direct to the Irish steamer and placed on board. This plan would enable the Liverpool authorities to clear the notorious cellar-dwellings of the city, in which cholera, typhoid and dysentery were widespread. It was estimated that 40,000 people were liable to removal. In the event only about 15,000 were ‘returned’ to Ireland. One consequence of the law was that many poor Irish people ceased claiming relief: in the week of the 16 July 1847, 3,411 claimed relief; the following week, when the Act came into operation, there were only 1,658 claimants.

Sir Charles Trevelyan, the civil servant appointed to oversee the British response to the famine (he visited Ireland once during the crisis), later wrote that the calamity was an answer to ‘over-population’, was ‘a direct stroke of an all-wise and all-merciful Providence’. Many today seek in the same alibi a justification for an insentience and inhumanity the West is supposed to have forsworn.

In a world where economic borders demand free passage of the rich to any part of the world they choose to visit, it is not possible to incarcerate the rest in entities they are expected to call their own ‘country’; and if there has, until now, been no persuasive argument to reverse the flow of wealth from poor to rich, it is time to acknowledge global redistributive justice, which alone will make people content to remain in places where chance, or fate, or even God, may have placed them.