before the "hunger years" (1843-1850) the destruction by urban
industrialization of the flax-based cottage industry of rural people
had been rapidly accelerating and encouraged many small farmers to
emigrate overseas. Before leaving they sold or rented out their land
on board ship2
and paid for their trip with their own money or with the help of
their parents, as a loan on their heritage.
However, the failure of the home-based flax industry combined with repeated failure of crops, particularly that of potatoes, the poor man's staple, created large numbers of destitute people who often were reduced to begging and wandering around the countryside and into towns as vagabonds, looking for work. To organize food and lodging support they were collected into "beggar colonies" near the towns and cities in Flanders. Such colonies existed at or near Antwerpen, Bergen, Brugge, Hoogstraaten, Rekkem and Ter Kameren. Destitute people often entered such settlements voluntarily for up to a year but others were committed to them by magistrates. In either case the municipality where they had lived became responsible for the cost of feeding and lodging them in these "colonies". Because the municipalities had lost much of their tax revenue due to the depressed economy they looked for ways to reduce the costs of supporting people in the "colonies", especially for those who stayed for a year.
Some were encouraged to emigrate to Central and South America, but many returned because of the climate and tropical diseases. The welfare office of Gent helped those who wished to move to France by paying their travel and household moving costs and a bit of money to tide them over for the first few days in their new 'home'. Another approach was developed by the Council of the Province of Antwerpen. It encouraged the "socially fallen" in its "beggars colony" to emigrate overseas to places where they would remain, USA and Canada4. The first to take advantage of an extension of that idea was J-F Loos, the Burgomeester of Antwerpen (Antwerp) who "encouraged" the emigration of J.J. Leemans. He was a 35 year-old tailor who had been sentenced to jail for 3 months for embezzling funds in January 1849 and in January 1850 was sentenced again for the same felony. The police commissioner put Leemans in the "beggar colony" at Hoogstraaten so he could consider if he would like to receive help to leave the country. He accepted the offer and on February 27th boarded a ship for New York. The cost of the ticket, was taken for the funds the city had allocated for Leeman's lodging and food in the Hoogstraaten "colony". (Does Leemans have any descendants in the US or Canada?) A group of similar "colonists" departed from Antwerpen on February 17th, 1851.
Other municipalities in Flanders soon followed Antwerpen's example with the support and help of that province's administration to organize the emigration of likely candidates from the "colonies" at Gent, Brugge, Hoogstraaten, Rekkem and Ter Kameren. Preparation became more elaborate and cost 186 Francs per person (mostly men?). This included the ticket for between deck" passage, money for food for 77 days, kitchen utensils for preparing meals, pocket money and each was provided with trousers, a vest, working overalls, 2 shirts, 2 pairs socks, a pair of shoes, a trunk, a towel, a comb and hair brush, white soap, needles and thread, a straw-filled mattress and pillow, a bed cover, a pipe and tobacco. To make sure these emigrants would be acceptable they were to be "mustered" on the ship as sailors! Efforts were also made to hide the fact that most of the emigrants came from beggars colonies and that some were people whose sentence to a colony or jail had been commuted when they agreed to leave Belgium.
Things went smoothly until in April 1854 when the captain of the ship Ann Washburn insisted that each emigrant should have a ticket to show that he would be traveling further into the interior of the US and would not become a burden to the city of New York where they would disembark. But the same year the captain of the ship Rochambeau and the American Consul in Antwerpen became suspicious that many of the travelers were in fact beggars because they brought little baggage. When the ship arrived in New York 12 of the 350 passengers were jailed on the grounds that the entry of foreign ex-criminals was prohibited. However, with the payment of $20 for each of the 12 arrested immigrants they were were allowed to proceed to St. Louis. Following that uproar the Belgian government denied any knowledge of the plan to send beggars out of the country. Next, the governor of the Province of Antwerpen spread the word that there would be no trouble if such emigrants went to Canada. He also implied they could reach the American Midwest by passing through Canada. Later the three Belgian Ministries involved in the matter assured the US authorities that the emigration of beggars, vagabonds and released convicts would halt. This may have been a wise decision since the Belgian Consul in Chicago reported that these immigrants arrived barren of resources. Although they began to earn more money than they had in Belgium they remained poor: they had merely changed their geographic place of misery from Belgium to America.
Between 1850 and 1885 a total of 557 beggars and people released from the beggar colonies of the province of Antwerp were sent off as emigrants, mostly to the US. From the other 4 beggar colonies in Flanders 535 emigrated during the same years. We have no reports from any of these emigrants about their experiences in their new home and none described their former state of social degradation in Belgium.
Knowing the years during which some of their ancestors departed for the America and the names of at least two of the ships (Ann Washburn and Rochambeau ) on which some emigrants traveled to New York might give their descendants in the US and Canada an additional aspect of their Fl
emish ancestry to research.
The Red Star Line after 1872 disinfecting baggage to make sure that the poorer emigrants from Belgium and those from the rest Europe who boarded in Antwerp did not contaminated the ships with vermin.5