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The truth about coffin ships? (task 4)
Task 1     Task 2     Task 3     Teacher notes
Task 4: How do we make our minds up?

Did task 3 help you develop a clear view on the coffin ships, or did it make things more confused?

You probably found out that not all ships were coffin ships. However, this would depend on which sites you looked at.

Another puzzle is that the diary extract in Task 2 is actually a work of fiction. It was written by a Canadian Catholic priest.

Although he did not hide the fact it was fiction, he argued that it reflected the truth of what happened.

So, how do we make up our minds?

A. Ships arriving in Quebec, 1847

One valuable piece of evidence which has survived is the port record for ships arriving in Quebec (Canada) in 1847 - available as an MS Excel file at:

All ships first called at the small island of Grosse Ile in the St Lawrence River.
Your task is to search through the data on these ships and see what conclusions you draw.

Here are some questions to get you started.

Which were the busiest months at the port? 

How many ships only had steerage passengers? 

What was the average length of a passage?

Did a long spell in quarantine always lead to a large number of deaths?

Were there big variations in the average ength of a passage at different times of year?

Did many ships have no deaths either on the voyage or in quarantine?

Is it possible to say where the ships generally came from?

Which 5 ships had the worst death rates? 

How long did ships have to stay in quarantine? 

How many ships had death rates over 50%? 

How many ships only took cabin passengers?

How many ships had death rates of less than 10%? 

B. Your own searches

After you have tackled these queries, try as many searches and queries as you can think of for yourself.

C. Reliability of popular memory

Finally, decide whether you think the popular memory of the coffin ships reflects the complete story.
To help you decide, study the following statements and see which of them you agree or disagree with.













Coffin ships – this phrase sums up the whole story of injustice and misery very well


The coffin ships should certainly be remembered, but there were an awful lot of ships which were not coffin ships – they have been forgotten


The whole thing happened so long ago there is no point remembering


Some of the web sites gave a misleading impression that all ships were coffin ships     

Gerald Keegan’s Diary might have been fiction but it was basically true



The fictional diary was probably an accurate account of one type of ship