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“damned Plague Ships And Swimming Coffins”

July 2024
18min read

On the long voyage from Bremen to America, the promised land, emigrants from eastern Europe endured a cramped, dangerous, and disease-haunted pilgrimage

The grandparents, or the great-grandparents, or the great-great-grandparents of millions of Americans had as their last view of Europe the diked lowlands where the Weser River leaves Bremen, widens, and Hows into the North Sea. This coastal country is austere and lonely, and looks today much as it must have looked for generations, sparsely dotted with thatched farmhouses that have the sturdy but not particularly cordial air of the house that the smart little pig built. When the sun shines, the light has the diffused and tender quality of the light in a Dutch landscape painting. But there are more storms here than sunshine; and the hostile weather may have struck more than one emigrant as symbolic of the ordeals he had to pass through.

Bremen, which until the unification of Germany in 1871 was an independent city-state and member of the Hanseatic League, has a thousand-year history of making a living at sea. Navigare necesse est, vivere non est necesse , a motto inscribed above the doorway of a fifteenth-century Bremen home for sailors, expresses the town’s tough and realistic temper. It took a tough people to stay free and prosperous; Bremen was hemmed in to the south by various small duchies and principalities (Lüneburg, Brunswick, Oldenburg, and others) and to the north by Hanover, which owned part of the Weser River between Bremen and the sea. All these neighbors exacted duties and tolls from ships that came and went from Bremen, and constantly threatened the city-state’s independence. Wy hebben eyne Vrye Stad! (“We have a free city”), a Bremen Bürgermeister wrote a predatory Graf of Oldenburg in 1404; and in spite of harassments from all the other North Sea powers, a free city Bremen remained.

The great flood of German emigration did not be gin until after the American Revolution, but three times before that Bremen had a taste of the profits and advantages of being a port of emigration: in 1757, when several shiploads of German emigrants bound for William Penn’s colony at German town left by way of Bremen; in 1757, when the Seven Years’ War brought about such a mass exodus from Prussia that the Holy Roman Emperor forbade the shipowners of Bremen and the other Hanseatic cities, on pain of death, to carry emigrants; and in 1776, when twelve thousand Hessian troops on their way to America passed through Bremen and were provisioned there.

Bremen had no objection to provisioning the Hessians, but hoped earnestly for their defeat. Under England’s Navigation Act of 1651, no European ships could trade with the English colonies; and Bremen ships bound for or returning from North America had always to call at an English port and pay duty. The end of England’s control of the thirteen colonies would mean a rich business for Bremen in tobacco and cotton. As it turned out, there was an even richer business in store—the wholesale transportation of human cargo—which was to make Bremen the greatest emigrant port in Europe.

In the spring of 1782, just a few months after Cornwallis’ defeat, a Bremen ship, the Fama , sailed for Baltimore, carrying a mixed cargo of freight and emigrants. One of these people was a prosperous Bremen glassmaker who was taking with him sixty glass blowers recruited in Brunswick-Luneburg and Thuringia, and $10,000. “The Bremen shipowners are trading in souls—a most sordid business,” said an official note sent by Brunswick-Luneburg to the Bremen Senate; and other governments protested, too. No one particularly objected to trading in the souls of the poor and the unskilled, but there was alarm everywhere at the departure of good and useful craftsmen like these glass blowers, and of the capital they took with them. Bremen decided to mollify its neighbors and passed a law that its ships could carry only non-German emigrants; Germans would be required to give a guarantee of their intention to return. But as nothing was done to prevent American ships from loading German emigrants, it was soon seen to be absurd to allow the Americans to grow rich on emigrant fares while Bremen ships sailed half empty; and in 1800, the Senate decided to permit local ships to be chartered tor mass expeditions under the Redemption system.

The Redemption system was indeed “a most sordid business.” Emigrants who could not pay for their passage were carried without prepayment, and then, on arrival in an American port, were auctioned off as bond servants. The system was prevalent throughout the eighteenth century, and even governments had been known to indulge in it; in 1709, England brought over several hundred German Redemptioners and gave them land in what is now Ncwburgh. New York, in return for their labor in manufacturing naval stores. Sometimes everything event off well, the Redemptioner being kindly treated by his American master and eventually becoming a prosperous American himself. A German theological student, emigrating as a Redemptioner in 1753, was bought by a Lutheran congregation in Frederick, Maryland, and respectfully installed as their new pastor. Germans, in general, had a reputation for hard work and no back talk. “Robust farmers and sturdy mechanic find a very easy market,” said a German traveler, D. von Bulow, writing from New York in 1791. “At times, however, an unsaleable article creeps in which remains a long time on the shelf. The worst of these articles are military officers and scholars. The captain who imports that kind of goods does not know the market. I have seen a Russian officer for more than a week on board of a vessel, heavy as ballast … He was, in fact, unsaleable.”

Sometimes parents sold their children in order to remain free themselves, and whole families were separated forever. Most people who emigrated as Redemptioners were talked into it by shipping-company agents who carried them off from their native villages in gaily colored wagons drawn by plumed horses, with bugles blowing and a glass of schnapps all around. The gaiety ended there. Just before they boarded the ship, the travelers were given a paper to sign or to mark with “X”: in case of deaths at sea, the surviving Redemptioners were to work out the time of those who had died as well as their own. Many a Redemp tioner reached North America to find that instead of serving three to six years, as he had been led to expect, he was supposed to spend the rest of his life as an indentured servant.

The agents had, of course, failed to mention that it was a fortunate ship indeed that crossed the Atlantic without deaths at sea; on Redemption ships it was far from rare to lose a third of the passengers. One lost 250 out of 312; another, 350 out of 400. Ships were still built along the lines of medieval galleys and were square, top-heavy, and slow. The captain’s aids to navigation were a compass and chronometer, which were usually faulty and caused him to sail too far south, and a thermometer with which to locate the Gulf Stream. The voyage could take anywhere from fourteen to twenty-four weeks.

In 1819, the American Congress passed a law limiting the number of passengers in a ship to two to every five tons of the ship’s weight; the Redemption system had been profitable only when the steerage was packed like a slave ship, and it soon died out.

In the second decade of the nineteenth century, immigration began in real earnest. ‘They [immigrants] were commonly treated with the least possible attention, with the inmost disregard of decency and humanity,” wrote Friedrich Kapp, a New York gentleman who several decades later served on a board set up for the aid and succor of hapless immigrants. With rare exceptions they were robbed and plundered from the day of their departure to the moment of their arrival at their new homes, by almost everyone with whom they came in contact. … There seemed to be a secret league, a tacit conspiracy, on the part of all parties dealing with immigrants to fleece and pluck them without mercy, and hand them from hand to hand as long as anything could be made of them. … If crosses and tombstones could be erected on the water … the routes of the emigrant vessels from Europe to America would long since have assumed the appearance of crowded cemeteries.

Yet still they came; life for most people in Germany under despotic, extravagant, and stupid petty princes was unendurable. The people had no rights and were cruelly taxed so that their rulers could live in an anachronistic world of Versailles-like pleasures; for those below, the future held nothing but overwork or unemployment. Germans left the fatherland in streams, and when their governments intervened to detain them, they resorted (if they could afford it) to illegal agents who smuggled them out.

For most Germans going to America, the ports most easily reached were Le Havre and, by way of the Rhine, Antwerp and Rotterdam. Paris, under the restored Bourbon monarchy, teemed with German emigrants who arrived by wagon, sold their horses at the great Paris horse market, camped out along the Seine and even in the gardens of the Louvre, and made the trip to Le Havre by river boat. But in 1830, revolution in France, plus cholera epidemics in Antwerp and Rotterdam, diverted emigrant traffic northward.

Bremen, meantime, had taken two foresighted measures. First, it had bought a strip of coastal land from Hanover, and was in the process of building a new port, Bremerhaven, on the North Sea, capable of handling more and larger ships than Bremen itself. Second, Bremen had concluded a treaty with the United States permitting citizens of each to do business in the other’s ports without the restrictions placed on other foreigners; Bremen thus was able to operate more cheaply than its competitors and to capture a monopoly of the German and central European tobacco market. The city’s shipyards were now rapidly turning out new ships alter the lighter, faster American design; and by 1833, a Bremen packet ship was putting to sea regularly on the first and fifteenth of each month. Eastbound, the cargo was tobacco; west-bound, temporary flooring and bunks were installed in the between-decks, and human beings stowed in to capacity.

Small dealers in tobacco all over Germany and middle Europe found it profitable to spend their spare time recruiting passengers for Bremen emigrant ships —the more ships that sailed loaded with paying emigrants, the more came back loaded with tobacco, for which there was an ever-ready market. “Germany is caught in a net of Bremen agents,” complained a Baden newspaper. The agents were paid by ship brokers, who in return for guaranteeing the delivery to a ship of a specified number of emigrants received a percentage (sometimes up to 25 per cent) of the fares.

Who emigrated? The steerage passenger list of the Meta , a 349-ton frigate sailing for New York on the seventeenth of April, 1843, gives an idea. Out of ninety-six passengers, all Germans, there were: 27 farmers, 2 salesmen, 4 tailors, 3 shoemakers, 2 smiths, 2 turners, 2 cabinetmakers, 2 carpenters, 1 plasterer, 1 saddler, 1 baker, 1 butcher, 1 musician, 1 basketmaker, 1 clockmaker, 1 soapboiler. The other fortyfour were women, children, and old people. One family had nineteen members. Most emigrants were between twenty and thirty, but this shipload included two old women in their seventies; and it is quite likely that among the lot were several criminals, insane persons, idiots, and persons ill with contagious diseases. Skilled craftsmen who brought tools with them had the best chance of making good; sturdy peasants could find work in factories, on farms, or as laborers building canals or railways, but the language barrier and the risks of being cheated were often too much for them. And of artists, scholars, and students, a great percentage ended tragically in hospitals and almshouses. Not a few German immigrants, of course, were men of some means, who could see no way to use these means to advantage in the old country; and there was alarm in the German states at the steady departure of small capital. A survey in 1856 in New York disclosed that the average immigrant possessed about $70, or more money than the average American. One German farmer admitted to possessing Sar,, but when assured that his money would not be taxed or taken away from him, he produced evidence of a bank account of $2,700. In addition to cash, many Germans took tools, jewelry, and other valuables with them.

For those who could afford to travel first class, however, an emigrant ship was not unpleasant. One firstclass passenger in the 1830’s reported that the day was filled with “the noise of calling the steward and drawing the corks,” and he wondered at the excessive amount of food and liquor which “sonic individuals stoivcd under their belts.” The American ship Victoria , making her maiden voyage in 1813, was described as having her thief cabin lined with satin wood, in panels, handed with rose and zebra woods and American bird’s-eye maple, and the ceiling white and gold. There is a centre table of choice white marble. The apartment is lit through ground glass; and one of the large panes bears a picturesque view of Windsor Castle, and at the opposite end is Buckingham Palace, surrounded by the rose, shamrock, and thistle. The decorator has not, however, lavished all his taste upon this apartment, for the berths are fitted en suite the ceiling is in white and gold and the handles of the doors are of glass. Ships with first-class accommodations carried cows, pigs, and chickens to provide milk, eggs, and fresh meat. The menu aboard the Victoria included: Breakfast—black tea, green tea, coffee, biscuit, bread, hot rolls, cold mutton, ham, eggs, chocolate; Lunch—bread, cheese, cold tongue, port wine, liqueurs; Dinnersoup, fresh milk, beef, pork, veal, fowl, plum pudding, oranges, preserves, raisins, almonds, Spanish nuts, figs, prunes. There were wines and, every other day, champagne. The Victoria also carried a ship’s orchestra for dancing and concerts. Ten or twelve was usually the maximum number of first-class passengers.

American ships, being lighter than most European ships, were at a disadvantage under the old 1819 law that allowed two passengers to every five tons ol a ship’s weight, and in 1817 Congress passed a law stipulating that each immigrant must have loin teen square feet of horizontal space; a law passed the following year decreed that if the ceiling was less than six feet high, then there must be sixteen square feet, and if less than five feet high, twenty-two square feet. Kadi berth had to be six feet long and eighteen inches wide, and lower berths had to be six inches off the door. Families must be separated by latticed partitions that could be opened and closed. Under the passenger-tonnage ratio, passengers had had more space than this; and now shipowners everywhere hastened to downgrade their facilities. The Bremen ship Gallia , for example, which under the passenger-tonnage ratio had carried 476 passengers, was now altered to carry 812: 18 in first class, 44 in second, and 750 in steerage. A child under eight was counted as half an adult (with half-rations), infants were not counted at all. Often the ship would be so crowded that the people, who had to provide their own mattresses and bedding, were obliged to sleep in the gangways. When even this space was filled, wooden shacks were thrown up on the top deck. Here the wind howled through the walls, rain and sea water leaked in, and sometimes the whole flimsy construction was broken to pieces by waves and swept overboard.

“Damned plague ships and swimming coffins,” cried the New York Journal of Commerce in December, 1853, succinctly expressing general opinion. A Bremen sailing ship, the Anna , had just arrived in Baltimore with an epidemic of cholera on board, twelve pas sengers having died at sea. Checked at quarantine, the Anna was lound to be carrying forty passengers tod many. The voyage of another Bremen ship, the Johanna , was described as follows before a New York notary by one of the passengers: “After two weeks, the potatoes gave out; the peas were musty, the meat and butter spoiled and had to be thrown into the sea. The passengers lived on hard branny bread, prunes, and watery barley soup. In New York, the cook jumped ship.” The Howard , out of Hamburg, arrived in New York after a ninety-six day voyage. The passen gers had been without decent drinking water for forty two days, thirty-seven out of two hundred and eightysix had died of cholera, and more than a third of the rest could not move from their beds to disembark when the ship reached port.

Fortunately lor the future reputation of Bremen as a good port from which to emigrate, the ships of France and England were usually much worse. A German clergyman who booked second-class passage on the English ship Indiana found that although he had been told by the agents in his native Baden-Wurtemberg that he would have an iron bed with comfortable bedding, fresh bread and meat daily, and a ration of wine, he found that he and his traveling companion were expected to share a wooden plank, a straw mattress, and one horse blanket. Only on the first day out was there fresh bread and meat; for the rest of the voyage there was herring and potatoes, weak coffee, and brackish water. The stairs were not lit, the sleeping quarters were filthy; there was space enough for only one-fourth of the steerage passengers to eat at table, and the rest had to eat on deck—or, in bad weather, crouched in the gangways. There were sixtyfour Germans aboard, and all agreed that they were treated like second-class citizens and that in case of emergency it would be British first.

The English ships carrying Irish immigrants were probably most consistently horrifying. A Quebec newspaper report of 1847 said: The Larch , reported this morning from Sligo, sailed with 440 passengers, of whom 108 died on the passage and 150 were sick. The Virginius sailed with 496; 158 died on the passage, 187 were sick, and the remainder landed feeble and tottering; the captain, mates and crew were all sick. The Black Hole of Calcutta was a mercy, compared to the holds oi these vessels. Yet simultaneously, as il in reproof of those on whom the blame of all this wretchedness must fall, Germans from Hamburg and Bremen are daily arriving, all healthful, robust, and cheerful.

A New York doctor, inspecting a ship from Liverpool at about the same period, reported: We passed through the steerage, making a more or less minute examination of the place and its inhabitants; but the indescribable filth, the emaciated, half-nude figures, many with the petechial erupture disfiguring their faces, crouching in the bunks or strewed over the decks, and cumbering the gangways; broken utensils and debris of food spread recklessly about, presented a picture of which neither pen nor pencil can convey a full idea. Some were just rising from their berths for the first time since leaving Liverpool, having been suffered to lie there all the voyage, wallowing in their own filth.

It was said in every port that one could always tell an immigrant ship without inquiring what it carried: by its stink. Yet, even though by 1854 one out of every six passengers died or became dangerously ill at sea, there were still those who saw no reason for concern. An attorney general of Nova Scotia, opposing contemplated reforms, wrote: The Irish emigrant, before he comes out, knows not what it is to lie on a bed; he has not been accustomed to a bed; if you put him in a bed and give him pork and flour, you make the man sick; but when a man gets no more than his breadth and length upon the deck of the ship, and he has no provisions but a few herrings, he comes out a hearty man; and he has no doctor.

In 1854, Congress ordered an inquiry into the “Sickness and Mortality on Board Emigrant Ships.” The investigating committee, which was headed by Hamilton Fish, reported that Bremen had the lowest percentage of ships arriving in North America with cases of cholera on board. The figures were: Bremen, 6 per cent; Le Havre, 12 per cent; Liverpool, 21½ per cent; London, 25 per cent. One of the committee’s recommendations was that food should be furnished and cooked by shipowners and not by the passengers, as was the case aboard most English and French ships. So far as cholera was concerned, the committee stated: … experience has shown that nothing will produce it in cases of predisposition that way, sooner than the consumption of meats or vegetables improperly cooked. What chance then, the committee would ask, have these miserable creatures, closely confined and breathing a noisome atmosphere, seasick, and depressed in spirit, and withal required to prepare their own food, from which they are prevented by the selfish and hardhearted. … The Bremen ships, so celebrated for the general good condition of their passengers, adopt this course and find it to work admirably.

The committee also investigated “shocking immoralities said to be practiced on board of passenger ships,” and they recommended that ships in future be built with two hatchways, so that quarters for males and for females could be kept separate and still be properly ventilated. But, what is to be done with the ships now in the passenger trade? To this question the committee can find no satisfactory answer. In coming to this conclusion the committee feel great regret, as they in common with all well-thinking persons, view with a feeling amounting to disgust and horror, the improper intercourse said frequently to exist, not only between passengers of different sexes, but between the crew and female passengers, whose situation renders them accessible to the advances of the dissolute and unprincipled.

The committee recommended that passenger compartments be well ventilated and regularly aired; that there be a law prohibiting the use of the orlop (lowest deck) for sleeping, since it could not be washed for fear of damaging the cargo stowed beneath, and since rats often swarmed up to this deck out of the hold. One privy for every 100 passengers was deemed inadequate; and separate privies for females were prescribed. “Shipowners should be made responsible to the extent of the passage money in the event of death during the passage.”

The arrival of insane, helpless, or criminal immigrants was a great problem in American ports. In 1847, one town in Hessen-Darmstadt had even hit upon the scheme of emptying its prison and almshouse by paying the passage of every occupant to New York. In spite of the help of the New York German Society and other charitable organizations, most of these people spent the rest of their lives in New York workhouses. Finally, in 1854, the Bremen Senate passed a law barring such persons from emigrant ships leaving its shores, and in 1882 the United States Congress passed another prohibiting undesirable immigrants from being received.

By 1855, Bremen, which by now had been nicknamed “Der Vorort New-Yorks” (the suburb of New York), was shipping more immigrants to the New World than any other port in Europe. (It retained the lead for many years.) Every detail of the process of immigration was now organized with the efficiency of a Chicago cattle yard. No longer were would-be emigrants stranded in Bremen and left to the charity of the city because they had been robbed or had missed their ships. Licensed agents saw to it that the emigrant arrived in Bremen with money and belongings intact, and licensed shipbrokers saw to it that local hotels, guides, porters, and shopkeepers did not cheat him.

For ten pfennig, the emigrant could buy the Deutsche Auswanderer Zeitung , published twice a week in Bremen. At the head of each issue, in large type, was a notice adjuring readers to go at once to the Information Bureau on arrival in Bremen, and on arrival in New York “ AT ONCE to the German Society, 85 Greenwich Street. Avoid private agents with the GREATEST POSSIBLE CARE .” Unfortunately, many immigrants could not read; and if an official-looking person with an authoritative manner told them to hand over their luggage or their money, or to buy a bogus railroad ticket to a city that later turned out to be nowhere near a railroad, they were quite apt to do so. The Deutsche Auswanderer Zeitung contained news of arrivals of ships in the United States, of ships sighted at sea, and, occasionally, of tragedy: ”… the Beauty , out of Kingston, Jamaica, passed on 9 November at 40° an overturned lifeboat marked ‘Lyonnais, Havre.’ Inside was a lifepreserver marked ‘Havre,’ a white shirt and a white handkerchief embroidered with the initials ‘F. E.’ ” There was also information about various immigrant colonies in the New World: “Warning Against the Peruvian Immigration Project, by a Man Who Has Been There” “The Terms of the Minnesota Landverein , at New Ulm.” Then there were cautionary tales for immigrants: “A German immigrant in Chicago was first made totally drunk and then robbed of $1,000 by a scoundrel by the name of Dunn Kerch. Kerch stole the German’s money belt”; and bits of practical information: “Chicago in 1823 was a small village of 60 inhabitants. Now it is a mighty city of 100,000.” “The most important nursery and greenhouse business is Ellwanger and Barry, Rochester, New York, who employ 300 men in spring and 60 all summer.” “Providence, Rhode Island, has 56 factories, and employs 1,400 jewelry and gold workers.” Occasionally, a sort of public thank-you note would appear, which one hopes was not contrived by a public-relations man: In our new homeland we the undersigned passengers of the Bremen ship Ohio offer our thanks for a speedy and fortunate journey and for wonderful care. We take this opportunity to recommend to our countrymen this ship and her captain, Herr Hermann Renjes, who ran this ship with good food and drink and good care for the sick; and the ship’s personnel earned our fond remembrances.

Ater the Civil War, the Auswanderer Zeitung began to carry advertisements from various American states and territories: “The agent of the State of Missouri for Germany, Austria, and Switzerland now has offices at 35 Langenstrasse, Bremen. Any information desired by those who wish to immigrate will be gladly and gratuitously answered.” “The Burlington and Missouri River Railroad Company offers for sale millions of acres of the best land in the wonderful farming country of Iowa and Nebraska.”

Fortified by this newly acquired knowledge of the land of his destination, the emigrant in Bremen boarded a Weser ferry for Bremerhaven, a short trip in miles but one that could take two or three days in foggy weather, during which time the passengers sat or stood on deck and were without hot food. At Bremerhaven, there was a state-owned 2,000-bed dormitory, where food and lodging were provided at 66 pfennigless than a quarter—a night. Law required that each emigrant have a medical examination before embarking—though, when one doctor had to inspect five thousand people in a day or two, this was often limited to “Are you in good health? Put out your tongue.”

Bremen officials inspected each ship as it lay in the Weser ready to depart. Did it have provisions to last ninety days? Were the water tanks freshly filled? Were there sufficient lifeboats, life preservers, fuel, and medicine? Were the steerage gangways, privies, and stairs lit by lanterns? And did the passengers understand clearly that there were to be no matches or candles in their quarters?

Even if the ship was well-run, if no epidemics broke out, and if the voyage was not so long as to exhaust the provisions, formidable dangers attended the crossing: dampness, lack of oxygen, seasickness, fever and headache, diarrhea, constipation, swellings, scurvy, ulcers, and trenchmouth. During storms, the packed people screamed and prayed, and in the pitch-dark steerage the sick and the well were tossed about like marbles. “A sudden heave of the ship,” observed the report of Hamilton Fish’s congressional committee in 1854, “often dislodged whole families from their berths and hurled them headlong among their companions who lay on the opposite side.”

The voyage from Bremen to New York in a fast sailing ship of the 1850’s averaged about six weeks. During all this time, the steerage dinner menu was as follows:

Sundays: salt meat, meal pudding, and prunes.

Monday: salt bacon, pea soup, and potatoes.

Tuesday: salt meat, rice, and prunes.

Wednesday: smoked bacon, sauerkraut, potatoes.

Thursday: salt meat, potatoes, and bean soup.

Friday: herring, meal, and prunes.

Saturday: salt bacon, pea soup, and potatoes.

Breakfast was coffee or tea and bread and butter, and supper was the same.

Steerage passengers were regimented like soldiers. Chosen by numbers, which were rotated each day, they helped in the galley, swabbed the gangways, emptied the chamber pots, and washed clothes, all under the direction of the second mate. Passengers were ordered to stay on deck as much as possible, for reasons of health, and only in very cold, sleety, or stormy weather was anyone, no matter how sick, allowed to remain in his bunk.

But already there were steamships carrying immigrants. In 1847, the George Washington , of the Ocean Steam Navy Company, had crossed the Atlantic, reaching New York from Bremen in seventeen days. The fares on steamships were at first too high for immigrants, but by the mid-sixties they had become low enough to ruin the business of the sailing ships, which still took six weeks to make the crossing. The last transatlantic sailing ship to carry passengers out of Bremen was taken off the line in 1875.

From the early 1880’s onward, a common sight in the Bremen railroad station was a Polish or Russian peasant—with his babushka -ed wife and children—who could not speak German or read any language but who had traveled thousands of miles from eastern Europe with the card of a Bremen emigrants’ agent stuck in his hat. This card was all he needed to get himself and his family safely aboard a North German Lloyd steamship, where he would have his own bed and better food than he had ever eaten in his life, and in ten or twelve days would be in New York. On such a voyage, emigrants of the old sailing ships would have thought themselves already in the promised land.


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