Bones on the Beach

January 7, 2015 6:15 AM

In 2011 on the stony beach of Cap-des-Rosiers within the borders of Forillon National Park on Canada’s Gaspé Peninsula, residents discovered human remains: about a dozen long bones, more than 25 vertebrae, and pieces of a jawbone. After three years of analysis, Canadian anthropologists have concluded that the bones are of several children who in all likelihood perished in the 1847 shipwreck of the Carricks, one of the notorious “coffin ships” carrying desperate escapees from the Irish famine.

The Irish famine was cataclysmic: roughly one-quarter of Ireland’s population died or fled. Some of that exodus was voluntary but some of it was forced as wealthy landlords forced their impoverished tenants off their estates. Conditions on the coffin ships verged on those of the Middle Passage: malnourished, tubercular passengers were crammed into tiny spaces, sleeping head to toe. Death rates were high—roughly one-quarter of the passengers—and children were orphaned in transit. Embryonic social welfare systems were developed in the cities of the Eastern Seaboard to deal with those who survived the passage and arrived in North America penniless and starving, sometimes speaking no English or French. The blow was so great that Ireland never recovered entirely: today the island has fewer people than it did when Texans were defending the Alamo.

When the Carricks went down in Black ’47, one hundred survivors washed ashore. Another 87 were presumed dead. St. Patrick’s Parish in Montreal erected a stone memorial on the beach; the bones were discovered about 40 yards away. Parks Canada sent the bones to the Quebec forensics lab which in turn delivered them to University of Montreal anthropologist Isabelle Ribot and graduate student Rémi Toupin for analysis. They concluded that the bones were likely from three children: two aged 7-9, and the other aged 11-12. The bones showed evidence of rickets, a condition associated with vitamin D deficiency while the teeth revealed reliance on a plant-based diet. A button found at the scene could be traced to 19th century Europe.

Reading the accounts by Ingrid Peritz in the Globe and Mail and Justin Moyer in the Washington Post, I wondered how many bones of the Korean counterparts to those Irish children will one day be discovered in the northern part of the Korean peninsula. As Georges Kavanaugh, a Cap-des-Rosiers resident and descendent of Carricks survivors told Peritz, “Who wouldn’t want their ancestors to get a peaceful rest?” Andrew Natsios has recounted while in the Chinese border region in 1998 observing through binoculars the interring of North Korean famine victims in mass graves. Hopefully their descendants won’t have to wait more than 150 years.

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