On February 5, 1889, the City of Dresden, a hulking old ship, disgorged 2,000 immigrants onto the sweltering docks of Puerto Madero in Buenos Aries. They were all Irish. This was the largest number of immigrants to dock from a single vessel ever in Argentinian history.
They arrived into a city where they couldn’t speak the language, where the summer heat was unbearable and where they were prey to the typical charlatans who feed on vulnerable migrants. They were alone, afraid and penniless.
Writing in the ‘Southern Cross’, the Irish newspaper in Argentina at the time, Father Matthew Gaughran wrote: “Anything more scandalous could not be imagined. Men, women and children whose blanched faces told of sickness, hunger and exhaustion after the fatigues of the journey had to sleep as best they could on the flags (stones) of the courtyard.
“Children ran around naked. To say they were treated like cattle would not be true, for the owner of cattle would at least provide them with food and drink, but these poor people were left to live or die.
“Young girls of prepossessing appearance were inveigled into disreputable houses – (prostitution, in other words) a swell carriage with swell occupants drives up and promises of a splendid situation are made and accepted and away go the unsuspecting Irish girls.”
One hundred years later, the ‘Buenos Aires Herald’, writing about what happened to the Irish of the City of Dresden, reported that the episode “began the long tradition of Irish whores in the squalid red light district of Buenos Aries, where many of the most famous ‘madams’ were Irish”.
This is our history, this is our heritage and this is why any Irish person with a pulse must understand that what we are seeing on the docks in Sicily is a re-run of what happened to our ancestors.
The story of the City of Dresden and the people left on the docks in Buenos Aries is the story of poor people the world over from time immemorial. It is the story of exodus and poverty, but it is also the story of hope, adventure, risk and the aspiration to better yourself and your family. It is the story of humanity and inhumanity at the same time.
All over the Mediterranean, right now, boats are leaving North Africa, and particularly the war-torn and fractured country of Libya, teeming with people trying to get to Europe with exactly the same hopes as the Irish on the City of Dresden.
However, there are two huge differences. The first is that Argentina, in 1889, like North America, wanted immigrants to populate its vast prairies, known as the pampas. The reality of Argentina might have been different from the dream the people in Ireland had – and particularly from the midland counties of Longford and Westmeath where the immigrants originated – they came to a country of wide farms, free land and verdant soil. At least they became citizens of a new country on arrival. They were welcome.
Once the native Indians were cleared off the vast pampas (something conveniently overlooked in discussions on Argentina), there were vast tracks of land available to farmers. The Irish who left the slums of the capital took to ‘gaucho’ lifestyle like ducks to water, so much so that one of the favourite characters of Jorge Luis Borges’ ‘Ficciones’ collection of short stories was an Irish gaucho.
The second huge difference was knowledge. The Irish who arrived in Argentina hoped for a better life. They had a vague idea of what they were getting into, but imagine the potential if they had Google, smart phones and 3G networks?
The massive change that has happened over the past few years is that the world is more connected. This affects our perceptions of reality.
Poor Africans know what is in our kitchens and living rooms, they know what our bars and restaurants look like and they can upload our world into their minds on a minute-by-minute basis.
This, I suggest, is the biggest change in the way in which we see the globe. What was far away and only handed on by word of mouth is no longer a mystery; what was inaccessible is now playing itself out on screens in our hands.
Smartphones make everything immediate, there is no foreign any more. This explains why immigration won’t stop, but will continue to increase at exponential rates.
Humans take their chances. In the great arc of human history, hope always triumphs and if hope is teased, flirted with and inflamed by constant internet messages and imagery from the rich West to the poor South, why wouldn’t people try to come here? Wouldn’t you?
The internet is literally grooming migrants to take their chances and find a brave new world.
Over the past decade, the number of internet users has grown to nearly three billion, which is difficult enough to comprehend. But up to now they were, economically at least, the three billion people from the middle up to the top. But in the next two years, a billion more will come online. The vast majority of the next billion users will be young people, connecting for the first time ever on mobile devices from the world’s poorest countries.
What do you think this will prompt?
Will it create a content, immobile billion souls, who will be happy to just look at our world from Facebook, Instagram and Twitter?
Come off it.
It will be the recruiting agent for the biggest mass movement of people in human history. They will want what we have and they will also know that they could wait two lifetimes for their own country to provide this lifestyle, so they will move. They will move here.
The key difference now is that they know what we have and they see it every second, so their poverty becomes relative to our wealth.
Ultimately, relative poverty, not absolute poverty makes people move. If everyone is poor, then there is an acceptance of the status quo. If only the bigwigs in your local town are rich, then you aspire to be that; but if you are made aware every second by the device in your pocket that there is a paradise just over the sea, you are going to take your chances, aren’t you?
What will this seismic demographic process lead to?
Eventually, the Irish in Argentina settled. Their most famous son, Che Guevara Lynch, exported revolution abroad.
One wonders where the offspring of the grandsons and granddaughters of these new migrants will export their revolution.