Hamburg as an Emigration Port: Hamburg became a port of emigration because of its competition with Bremen as a seaport for trade. In the early 1830s, Bremen was doing well in its trade with America, while Hamburg trade was mostly with the West Indies and Latin America. When a ship arriving from America was ready for the return trip, Bremen often did not have enough export goods and the ship had to return to America empty. This made the shipping process very expensive. To combat this problem, Bremen began to lure part of the emigration traffic away from other European ports such as Le Havre, Antwerp, and Rotterdam. Its efforts were successful. Hamburg had a decree which forbid group emigration. Only single families or travelers could emigrate from Hamburg.
The collection of emigrants in Bremen caused some problems for the city. Often emigrants were stranded there without food and had to go through the city begging because they did not have enough money for lodging or passage. Unscrupulous ship's agents enticed them to Bremen with a promise to ship them to America and get them a plot of land. Then they took what money the emigrants had. There were many other underhanded deals as well. This left the city of Bremen responsible for providing financial assistance.
In order to safeguard its emigration business, Bremen passed a decree in 1832 which freed the city from giving financial assistance to emigrants, while making it obligatory for shipowners to certify the seaworthiness of their vessels, to keep passenger lists, and to keep provisions for 90 days on board. This meant that ship's agents had to deliver what they promised.
This policy for protection of emigrants not only made Bremen's America trade more profitable, but brought considerable benefit to the Bremen economy. The emigrants, between their arrival and their departure by ship, had to stay in Bremen lodging houses and feed themselves. Also the emigrant ships had to purchase substantial quantities of provisions in Bremen. The increased shipping trade provided business for sailmakers and all the other trades connected with shipping as well.
In order to keep up with Bremen and reap some of the emigration profits as well, Hamburg finally decided to open up group emigration. The City Council published a decree in February of 1837. It laid out the space entitlement of each passenger, the size of the bunks, and the quantity of provisions that were to be taken on the voyage. Hamburg also established its first liner service between Hamburg and New York to handle the emigration.
Hamburg ships began advertising their crossings. Such an advertisement might read, "The passengers from the day of embarkation to the day of disembarkation at the port of destination receive free board on the scale usual on seagoing ships. This consists of sustaining and nutritious food such as salt beef, salt pork, herrings, peas, beans, pearl barley, oats, rice, sauerkraut, butter, plums, pastries, pudding, etc., all in sufficient quantity and of the best quality. Coffee is served in the mornings, and in the evenings tea and ship's bread with butter. In accordance with the decree of the local authority, the ships are provisioned for 90 days so that the passengers will not lack for anything on the longest voyage."
Hamburg was not a good city for emigrants, however, and there were no regulations about their treatment during their stay in Hamburg. Most emigrants arrived in Hamburg by rail. Every landlord tried to entice as many emigrants as he could to his inn or lodging house. Sometimes the landlords hired "litzer" (runners) who handled this. Runners were also hired by the clerks of shipping lines, by moneychangers, by stores selling utensils for the voyage, etc. The runners were paid a commission on each customer they brought. The emigrants, who were naturally not familiar with Hamburg conditions, were frequently the victims of fraud. They were charged very high prices for board and lodging or were sold unneeded utensils for the voyage. Many lost much of their money before they even left Europe.
In order to stop the "runner's racket", a private association, the Association for the Protection of Emigrants, was founded in Hamburg in 1850. From that date forward, on their arrival at the railroad station, most emigrants received information on the average price of board and accommmodation, how to transfer baggage, the necessary utensils for the voyage, the current rates of exchange, and the different types of passage available to America. However, by the year 1854, the emigrants leaving Hamburg rose to nearly 51,000, and the private association could no longer handle the numbers. Finally, in 1855, the City of Hamburg took over the Information Office and its staff. At the same time, the Emigration Office was given the judicial authority to quickly settle disputes between emigrants and landlords or businessmen before the emigrant sailed. This gave another protection to the emigrants that they did not have previously.
The Voyage By Sailing Ship: The hardest and most dangerous part of emigration was the voyage in the sailing ship itself. The approximate size of Hamburg sailing ships in 1850 was 124 x 20 x 15 feet ( length x beam x depth of hold.) Even if individual ships were bigger than this average, emigrant ships of that time were, by modern standards, extremely small. Many emigrants sailed on a "bark", a three-masted vessel with foremast and mainmast square rigged and the third mast fore and aft rigged. Others sailed on a "brig", a vessel of two masts (fore and main), both of which were square-rigged.
The length of the voyage between Hamburg and New York depended on wind conditions and the weather. An emigrant never knew exactly how long the voyage would take. The average crossing took 43 days and the longer crossings often took 63 days. An exceptionally long voyage might take 70 days. If an emigrant had booked passage to California, the voyage would take six months. First and second class cabins were available, but these cost from three to as much as ten times the steerage passage, depending upon the accommodations and the size of the ship.
Most of the emigrants traveled in steerage accommodations which were in the space between the upper deck and the cargo hold. Shipowners had found the emigrants were a new source of profit and had built a flimsy, temporary floor beneath the main deck and on top of the cargo hold. Sometimes this flooring was set so far down in the hold that bilge water would seep up through the planking. Rats scurried about. Ventilation and light came only from the hatches when they were open. The only lights in the compartment were a few hanging lamps along the side which could be lit at night. During a storm, emigrants were denied access to the main deck and the hatches were battened down tightly, leaving no source of ventilation, except for a few pinhole or strainer sized holes which were in the cover. (Usually the hatches were not tightened down before a few waves had poured in and soaked all the bedding and clothing, however.) The storm could last for a few days or up to a week or more and the hatches would stay down. Lights could not be used during the storm because of the danger of fires.
The prescribed minimum height of the steerage deck was 5 1/2 feet or about 1.72 m. Each steerage passenger was entitled to a space of 1.88 x 0.63 m. (about 6 ft. x 2 ft.) The only way to accommodate all the passengers was to keep half the steerage deck free for eating and moving about and to stack the other half with bunks on top of one another in pairs. Along with the crowding came the dirt and the smell. Some of the odors were those of a normal ship--the bilge and the perpetually rotting hulk or the lingering odor of old cargo. Others were those that had settled into the compartment due to lack of ventilation and problems of previous emigrants. These included the smells of urine and vomit, as well as rotting refuse that had gotten down into the cracks. Added to that was the smell of water-soaked bedding or clothing, unwashed passengers, and the current slop buckets in the compartment.
When there were toilets, they were generally up on deck, beyond the reach of the more weakened passengers and, in stormy weather, out of the reach of everyone. The more usual facility in steerage consisted of a few screened-in-buckets which might or might not have seats. When storms struck, these often went flying around the steerage compartment. When seasickness struck, the buckets were often full or out of reach and many passengers vomited on the floors or in their berths.
Provisions were measured and doled out carefully to ensure they would last the required ninety days if necessary. Water was carefully rationed and only a small amount given to each passenger which had to suffice for drinking, cooking, and washing of themselves. The diet given passengers was sufficient to keep off starvation, but not healthy or appetizing. The quality of the provisions taken on board naturally also suffered from the lengthy voyages of the sailing vessels and from inadequate food preservation methods. The bread was moldy by the end of the voyage, the butter and pork fat rancid, the flour full of bugs, and the water almost undrinkable.
Cooking grates were set up on deck for steerage passengers. They had to take turns using them in order to prepare the family meals. There were always lines of people waiting to use the grates. Those cooking had to learn new methods. If the ship lurched, the pot might tip over and the meal would be lost. Boiling liquid could be spilled which would cause severe burns. During bad weather, the cooking grates could not be used at all.
Three diseases in particular were rampant on ships: cholera, typhus, and smallpox. Cholera, an infection of the stomach and intestines, was a particular problem. Once cholera struck a ship's passengers, it spread quickly. Noone knew what to do for the problem. One recommended treatment was to administer a dose of Epsom salts and castor oil in combination, rub the patient's face with vinegar, and then give the patient 35 drops of laudanum, a highly addictive opiate. If there was no ship's doctor, and there usually wasn't, the captain had the medicine chest. The medicine chest often contained remedies such as balsam, drops of various kinds, cream of tartar, peppermint, powdered rhubarb, or pills advertised on the waterfront as useful for curing a number of ailments. Any of those treatments might be tried.
Outbreaks of smallpox were less common but more feared. The disease was often accommpanied by pneumonia, encephalitis, blood poisoning or some other ailment, and the mortality rate was high.
The worst killer of all on sailing ships was typhus, a liceborne disease that afflicts the victim's skin and brain, causing dizziness, headaches, and pain throughout the body, together with bloodshot eyes, a dark red rash and a dull stare. Typhus was common in the crowded conditions and was known by the nickname of "ship fever." It is a wonder that as many passengers survived the voyage as did. Those that did not were buried at sea.
The Steamship Takes Over: In the middle 1800's the steam engine began to take over shipping. On May 29, 1850, the first Hamburg steamship sailed over the Atlantic Ocean to America. In 1856 there were two 2400 ton steamships put into service on the direct route from Hamburg to New York. More steamers followed, but the cost of passage was more than that of the sailing ships. The direct voyage between Hamburg and New York, which had lasted 43 to 63 days, was shortened to a maximum of 12 to 14 days. In 1856 only 5% of the emigrants landing in New York came by steamship, but by 1870 it was 88%. Increased competition pushed fares down so that steamship crossings finally cost less than sailings. In 1879 the last emigrant sailing vessel left Hamburg and the steamship became the sole method of transportation. During the era of the sailing ship (1836 until 1880) Hamburg statistics recorded a total of 1,072,404 emigrants leaving its port. 88% of all of those emigrants chose the United States of America or Canada as their destination, with 5.4% emigrating to Brazil and Argentina, and 4.8% to Australia. The steamship changed the lengthy, tough, unhealthy and dangerous sea voyage of the sailing ship age into a 10 to 14 day episode. The Atlantic Ocean crossing to America changed for the better.
Beginning in the 1870's, German national's emigration to the United States through Hamburg began to decline and the emigration by southern and southeastern Europeans began to increase. In the five years from 1881 to 1885, German emigration through Hamburg was 60.9% By 1890 it had fallen to only 25.1%.