Hidden Histories

A 'Cannibal Cruise Liner' of 18th-century Immigration

Tuesday, 4/7/09

Having taught American History for over twenty years on the academic level, it continually surprises me how so many individuals erroneously believe, that European immigration to the New World resembled to a marked degree, tourist-type ocean voyages as enjoyed on such present-day luxury liners as the 'Carnival Cruise Line,' and that only African slaves suffered hardship & deprivation during the 'Middle Passage,' or the voyage across the Atlantic. The opposite was of course the reality of immigration.

Numerous accounts survive of the horrendous conditions immigrants of all nationalities suffered, from Colonial times to the 20th-century. Gottlieb Mittelberger, a German immigrant of the 18th century to Philadelphia, recalled "how children from one to seven years rarely survive the voyage...no less than thirty-two children in our ship, all of whom were thrown into the sea." He further remarks in his narrative of the water given to himself & fellow passengers was "very black, thick and full of worms," while biscuits were filled with "red worms and spiders nests." He also mentions how parents who survived the voyage, were often forced into debt-slavery, because of nefarious ship captains, and thus separated as husband and wife, and made to "sell and trade away their children like so many head of cattle," in order to pay for their voyage to Pennsylvania.

Often times as well, maurading 'Barbary Pirates' from the Muslim states of North Africa, frequently boarded vessels on the Atlantic, taking numerous crews in to slavery, as witnessed by many contemporary accounts, as revealed in such recent publications, as Giles Milton's White Gold, an account of over one million Europeans who suffered for years in bondage, ironically, in Africa.

Quite often as well, ships 'floundered' in the open sea, causing the depletion of provisions and stores to quickly disappear, resulting at times in the disease-ridden deaths of both crew members and passengers, who, in order to survive, resorted to dreaded acts of cannibalism. Many eye-witness descriptions exist of such tragic and horrendous voyages to America, but one in particular is the story of a ship, with the pleasant name of the Seaflower, its passengers hoping to acquire the 'American Dream,' but instead became participants in an 'American Nightmare.'

The Seaflower, bound for Philadelphia, left Belfast, Ireland in July of 1741, with 108 passengers, but death plagued the ship, including the Master of the vessel along with all the crew but one, leaving the passengers in mid-passage without food and provisions, or how to sail the ship to America. Anything edible was eventually consumed, from "Tallow, Candles, etc.," until finally, the survivors "fed upon the bodies of those that died."

According to the Pennsylvania Gazette a vessel, 'his Majesty's Ship Success,' eventually came upon the derelict, and upon boarding the ill-fated ship, "they found the Body of a Man lying upon Deck partly cut up, and his Arm and Shoulder then boiling in a Pot, in Salt Water (which had been their only drink for a long Time), and so eager were the poor famish'd People for the Flesh of their dead Companions, that many of them had conceal'd Pieces of it in their Pockets, to eat as they had Opportunity."

The Pennsylvania Gazette, November 12, 1741

The Seaflower, a Connecticut vessel, would eventually arrive in Boston, rather than Philadelphia, with sixty-five passengers barely alive, after having eaten "six Persons that Died in the Passage that as they were Cutting up the Seventh, they Espied the Success..." The poor passengers had been at sea for over sixteen weeks, until finally saved by the above Colonial vessel.

Such accounts as the above are regrettably, not rare in the annals of maritime history, many of which are found, along with other fascinating narratives, in the collections of The Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

For further reading on the Seaflower, and Mittelberger's narrative, consult the following:

  • The Pennsylvania Gazette, November 12, 1741;

  • The American Weekly Mercury, November 5th to November 12, 1741;

  • A Report of the Record Commissioners of the City of Boston...Records of the Boston Selectmen, 1736 to 1742 (Boston: Rockwell, and Churchill, City Printers, 1886): 317-328;

  • R. J. Dickson, Ulster Emigration to Colonial America: 1718-1775 (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1966): 208-209;

  • Frank Ried Diffenderffer, The German Immigration Into Pennsylvania: Through the Port of Philadelphia from 1700 to 1775 and Redemptioners (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc, 1979): 173-185.