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Animals On Board Immigrant Sailing Ships in 1882

Updated: Aug 5, 2020

Prior to reading the doctor’s diary, I never thought about animals suffering the journey on board immigrant ships.  I’m such a softy when it comes to animals. If I was a farmer’s wife, I’d be out in the dark putting all the babies back with their mamas and taking all the rings off the lambs tails. So when I think about the dark, confined conditions in the bottom level of the ship, it pulls at my heart strings.

The sad reality was, not many of the animals taken on board the Ashmore survived the long journey. Mainly because they were taken as a supply of fresh meat for the first and second class passengers. Steerage class passengers were less indulged, only given salted meat from barrels, which was mostly pork. You can imagine what that tasted and smelt like after a few weeks at sea without being in a chiller. I think I would have become a vegetarian.

The doctor wrote about the damage inflicted on the animals during one of the storms. To a farm animal, a broken leg had meant a death sentence, which meant fresh meat for the entire ship. I’m not sure how hungry the steerage class passengers had been at the time, considering the smell in the cabin after most had suffered from seasickness throughout the entirety of the storm.

I was reminded of those poor animals trapped on board the Ashmore late Friday night, while I was pulling the tarpaulin over my daughters rabbit hutch. My less-than-dexterous technique during that simple procedure, would have made for great entertainment should someone have been there to record it.

Before I covered them over, I saw the bunny food bowl was empty so I rolled the chicken wire roof back and leaned all the way in to get it. I couldn’t get back up. The roof had come down and I was stuck there inside the small enclosed area at the end of their run. There I was, head down, butt up, with only my legs outside, luckily still planted firmly on the ground. I sighed and took courage. I’d been through worse.

“So, looks like we’re going to have some quality time together,” I said to the rabbits, who didn’t look at all phased that I had moved in.

I glanced towards the house, but knew I wouldn’t get rescued by my daughter. She had just taken a phone call from her boyfriend and we all know how long young love takes to hang up. I realised I had to be my own hero, or be there for the long-haul.

I started laughing, which isn’t easy when you’re hanging upside down. It was funny, until something cold and wet moved on my foot. I looked out through the cage and there was a huge slug taking advantage of my bare skin, swiftly climbing north. Soon I wouldn’t be able to stop it from reaching it’s target, wherever that was. I definitely wasn’t about to let that happen. I squealed and flicked my leg about, trying to dislodge the slimy sucker, until it finally flew through the air and landed with a splat ten feet away.

Now that was accomplished, I was over it. I was getting cold and I was tired of my hair dragging through the round, hard pellets of rabbit poop. Like all intelligent people, I decided the only way to get out of the predicament was to figure out how I got myself into it.  

I guessed my top had caught on the sharp edge of the roof’s wire mesh. But that would have led to a simple solution.

The biggest obstacle to achieving my freedom was the fact that I’ve been waiting eighteen months for surgery on my shoulder. Which means I can’t maneuver my right arm up behind me very far, especially when hanging at that angle. My predicament was more than a little precarious. I lifted my left arm off the ground, which up to this point was all that was holding my crutch up above the side of the cage. Then I tried to pull my t.shirt off the wire quickly so I could return my arm to its bracing position to stop myself from face planting the whoopsies below, or doing damage to my nether regions.

After a few expeditious attempts, I finally ascertained that my bra hook had somehow come undone and hooked itself on the netting. What are the chances of that happening? One in a million?

With no help on the way and the cold, damp, night air drifting down on my back and sides, I resigned myself to the fact that there was only one thing to do. I had to strip. I had to somehow wiggle out of my bra and top so I could get free.

Perhaps the blood that had rushed to my head ten minutes earlier had been there too long. I wasn’t in the ideal state to be making decisions, I knew. But it was all I had.

So I twisted myself around cringing, knowing my favourite top was about to be ruined beyond repair. If I could stand up, I might be able to get my right arm behind me to help undo the freak’n hook. But I hadn’t thought it through. Now I was bent in half, backwards and ready to collapse on the entire cage and rabbits, sharp wires and all. I took the opportunity while in that position, to look up to the sky and say, “I guess you think this is funny?”

Up until that point, I had been wishing the neighbours would come out to investigate and rescue me. Now, I prayed that no one would and that there would be no cars driving past our gate to catch a glimpse of me failing badly to do the West Indian limbo maneuvre.

I twisted back around again and took a deep breath. Stripping down to the waist when it’s cold is never a nice experience for a woman, but having to wiggle out of clothes while standing in a weird position, outside in the dark, carefully inch by inch so you don’t scratch any of your sensitive areas, was an experience I could do without. But I took a deep breath and proceeded.  

As I wriggled and jiggled, I felt grateful again for my ancestors who risked 103 days of torture and embarrassment to get here.  Being locked down in the hull like the animals, living through horrendous situations like having to give birth in a room filled with over 100 men, women and children, suddenly made my predicament seem less embarrassing. Well, at least it wasn't in front of other people. That I knew of. I wasn't in the right position to check all the neighbours fences for night-vision goggles.

Just as I slid out of my clothes, stood up with my lillie-white skin shining in the moonlight in all it’s glory and threw my arms up in the air and whispered “FREEDOM,” a car drove slowly passed my open gate.

I lifted my shoulders and pretended to pay no heed.

It wasn’t exactly the perfect place for, or the perfect way to end an evening of deep historical contemplation. But it did make me grateful for wide open spaces.

Any notes to self?

Yes. Get my daughter to feed her own rabbits, or next time, forgo the clothing before climbing in.

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