Cattle, People, and Cold: The Canadian Transatlantic Shipping of Live Cattle in the Late 19th Century

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This is the fifth post in the Winter in Canada series edited by M. Blake Butler and Ben Bradley.


“In two days the cold is passed. If they suffer at all, it will only be for a short time.” – Captain James Riley, of the City of Montreal, Marine Underwriters’ Insurance Inspector, and Inspector for the Allan and Dominion Lines (1891).[1]

The St. Lawrence River both aided and impeded Canadian business: it provided access to the country’s interior and served as a key route to European markets, but its Lachine Rapids were a natural obstacle to navigation.[2] Trade stopped for several months yearly with the natural freezing of the river. Shipping to and from Montreal in cold weather typically remained possible until sometime in November, when intense ice barriers formed and stopped any navigation from reaching the canal and port; it would not begin again until the ice retreated. Ice shoves visible along Commissioner’s Street famously demonstrated the impressive strength of the St. Lawrence.[3]

Ice shove, Commissioners Street, Montreal, Quebec, about 1884. Photograph by Wm. Notman & Son. McCord Stewart Museum Archives, VIEW-1498.

Shipping commodities on the St. Lawrence as cold weather began setting in was not a concern for most traders. However, the shipment of live animals, especially of bovine cattle, in late fall and early winter conditions, brought up many ethical considerations. Once shipping directly from the St. Lawrence route became impossible, two other Canadian ports were still available for shipping cattle to European markets: Halifax and St. John.[4] Until that critical point was reached, Montreal remained the preferred point of departure, ensuring livestock began the voyage in less troubled waters than when leaving from its oceanic counterparts.[5] As such, Montreal was the city where most of the evidence for a major investigative report, Evidence on the Export Cattle Trade of Canada Taken at Montreal, Quebec, and Three-Rivers, was heard in 1891.[6] Under the instructions of Minister of Marine and Fisheries Charles H. Tupper, Deputy Minister William Smith undertook between January and March an in-depth investigation into the export cattle trade to Britain. The report offers indications of how colder temperatures affected both seafarers and the cattle being shipped from Montreal (and to a lesser extent other North American harbours) towards Britain.

As indicated by Captain Riley’s quote that introduces this essay, the cold endured by cattle in the transatlantic livestock trade from Canada was usually measurable in days, provided they could remain dry. Cattle exporters’ assurances about the “lack of suffering” or “minimal time spent suffering” of shipped animals was a way to maintain their trade and profits, but also demonstrates how apparently well-organized and prepared Canada’s steamship exporters were in the face of Canada’s harsh climate. The use of permanent fittings on upper decks, which kept cattle dry during the fall and winter months, as well as the use of storm oil, or oil spread on the sea to calm waves, were solutions proposed during the investigation by exporters and steamship company representatives to counter the effects of bad weather during transatlantic shipping.[7] The perceived necessity for these ‘solutions’ strongly suggests the hardships endured by those crossing the Atlantic on a ship’s upper decks. Furthermore, Captain Riley stated that the mortality of cattle crossing the Atlantic was higher in the winter than in the summer months.[8] Cattle and cattlemen suffered from cold, winds, and water spray on the St. Lawrence River and Atlantic Ocean. Their discomfort and pain were an ethical price most exporters were ready to pay.

Cattle on Côte-des-Neiges Road, Montreal, Quebec, about 1900. Photograph by Wallis & Shepard. McCord Stewart Museum Archives, MP-0000.27.69.

That sheep, beef cattle, cows, and cattlemen did suffer in certain instances is made clear from the questions asked and statements obtained during the 1891 investigation. Determining the extent of their suffering and the specific conditions that exacerbated it posed more challenging questions during the investigation. In one occurrence, the investigator asked Mr. Reford, a steamship agent for the Donaldson, Thomson, and Ross line of steamers: “I saw it stated that in the case of one vessel, when the cattle landed, the people would not look at them, as they were nearly half dead with the cold, and it was suspected they suffered from pleuro-pneumonia?” The agent answered that those cattle had sickened from “want of fresh air” at the landing in Dundee (Scotland), rather than from cold.[9] Ventilation, in both summer and winter, was deemed to be of the utmost importance, as was ensuring that ships were properly fitted during the winter months to make them watertight.[10] Robert Bickerdike, a cattle exporter from both Canada and the USA, suggested that cattle could safely be shipped until September 15th without cruelty, after which date permanent fittings should be installed to a ship’s upper deck in order to stop the sprays from reaching the animals. This, he contended, would allow shipping to continue on the St. Lawrence route until freeze-up.[11]

Ship in ice, prepared for winter, Quebec (?), 1860-70. Photographer unknown. McCord Stewart Museum Archives, MP-1984.107.24.

A representative of the Dominion Live Stock Association questioned Bickerdike regarding the timing for bringing cattle in from the fields on Canadian farms, to which he replied that cattle in Ontario and on North-West ranches were sometimes never brought in during the winter, while in Quebec they were only brought into the stables by mid-November if necessary. This implied that cold was not the issue in and of itself, so much as the spray which could induce cold.[12] When Edward L. Bond, General Manager for Canada of the British and Foreign Marine and the Reliance Marine Insurance Company, was asked whether “the cattle were very comfortable on the upper deck in the middle of winter?,” he replied: “All I know is that cattle from the St. Lawrence go through the cold in the vicinity of Newfoundland, and if spray goes over them they must suffer. I, therefore, contend that the fittings on the upper deck should be absolutely watertight.”[13] The problems brought about by cooler weather were underlined: the wind factor and water sprays could severely affect cattle and cause suffering from cold if the exporters and ships were not properly prepared for these weather conditions.[14] Almost all the answers to the investigator’s questions about cold challenged the exact language and details surrounding matters of animal suffering. But in the end, they acknowledged that suffering from cold was a common result.

Cattlemen were regarded by certain seamen, ship captains, exporters, and foremen as being of less concern than the livestock they tended to. Some of these workers shed light on the daily challenges they faced. Exporter Garrett F. Frankland, speaking for his hired cattlemen, stated that they sometimes had no beds to sleep on, “[n]ot that a bed of hay is uncomfortable in June, July, or August, but when it comes to the cold weather and when you want blankets, they should have a sleeping place.”[15] Cattlemen were served “scouse” (potatoes, water, and sometimes meat) from a common “kid” (round tin basin with handles) on the hatch but tried to find warmer places (such as the alleyway) to eat during cold weather.[16] Alexander Briens, a Montreal foreman in charge of cattle shipped from Canada to England who had recently returned from a winter voyage, stated that the men onboard had no bedding and “suffered with cold the whole time.” He explained that “[t]he last two days before we got into Halifax they went to the steward in a body and he gave them an extra blanket… the cattle are far better treated… they would be more comfortable if they had stronger fittings on the deck… sometimes a sea will wash on board, and of course the cattle will get wet.” Briens added that he had more sympathy for the men than for the cattle, but that he could not “exercise [his] sympathy on them.”[17] The advantage cattle had versus the cattlemen was the money they brought in as commodified beings, giving them a bit more consideration in the shipping process than the cattlemen. What they had in common was the very similar conditions in which they crossed the Atlantic—they had, quite possibly, the closest physical but most intricate relation onboard of the exporting steamships. Both suffered from unequal power relations.

The transatlantic shipping of live cattle from the St. Lawrence during the late 19th century reveals a complex meshwork of human-animal relations, economic priorities, and environmental challenges. Canadian winters, with their cold, winds, and precipitation, played a key role in exposing vulnerabilities and ethical dilemmas inherent in the trade. The cold and its accompanying risks posed significant threats to animals and their caretakers. The 1891 investigation highlighted some of these unique wintertime challenges and the varying degrees of suffering experienced by the cattle and cattlemen. Certain measures, partially and unequally set into motion by the exporters and steamship companies, such as the installation of permanent fittings on the upper decks and the use of storm oil, attempted to reduce the worst effects of spray, wind, and cold.[18] Ultimately, though, these solutions were more about sustaining the trade rather than addressing the welfare of the beings involved. This period of Canadian industrialization was thus marked by a prioritization of economic gains over the well-being of both cattle and cattlemen, exposing the unethical reality of the commodification of living things and the disparities in human-human as well as human-animal power dynamics.


[1] “Evidence on the Export Cattle Trade of Canada, Taken at Montreal, Quebec, and Three Rivers, before Mr. William Smith,” ed. Department of Marine and Fisheries (Ottawa: Government of Canada, 1891), 52.

[2] Paul-André Linteau, Une Histoire De Montréal: Édition Revue Et Augmentée (Montréal: Boréal, 2022), 12.

[3] Ice shoves are described by the American National Weather Service as “(i)n hydrologic terms, on-shore ice push caused by wind, and currents, changes in temperature, etcetera.” “Ice Shoves,” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration National Weather Service, https://w1.weather.gov/glossary/index.php?letter=i.

[4] “Evidence on the Export Cattle Trade,” 45.

[5] Richard Perren, “The North American Beef and Cattle Trade with Great Britain, 1870–1914,” Economic History Review 24, no. 3 (1971), 751.

[6] “Evidence on the Export Cattle Trade.”

[7] Ibid., 96, 110. Deck fittings are described as covering “a wide range of equipment used to assist the functioning of the vessel such as anchoring, tying up to a quay, cargo handling and launching boats over the side. There are also fixtures such as the apertures that give access to the cargo holds (hatches) and crew or passenger accommodation (companionways). There are also ventilators and skylights that provide air or light to spaces below deck. Deck houses are structures built on deck to house a variety of uses such as the ship’s kitchen (the galley), crew or passenger cabins, workshops and auxiliary engines for cargo and anchor handling.” The ones used in the cattle trade on steamships were meant to offer some safety from the outside elements, especially the permanent ones which were stronger and more waterproof. Mike Stammers. “Deck Fittings and Deck Houses.” Maritime Heritage Network, https://www.ssgreatbritain.org/a-manual-of-maritime-curatorship/.

[8] “Evidence on the Export Cattle Trade,” 52.

[9] Ibid., 23.

[10] Fittings could be made somewhat ‘watertight’ by adding thick planks of 2 inches on top of hatches and using iron-angle frames. This does not make them waterproof, however, and Captain James J. Riley believed that it may not even be as watertight as some would think (there needs to be some space to move cargo). Ibid, 52.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., 49.

[14] Ibid., 183. This point was also emphasized by Michael Green, a cattle exporter from Montreal.

[15] Ibid., 123.

[16] Ibid., 141.

[17] Ibid., 143.

[18] The investigative report was at best too little, too late seeing that less than a year after, the scheduling was confirmed in Great Britain…or at worst a complete waste of time if the mother country’s objective was, as it seems, simply to find ways to revalorize its own native livestock and change the trade. The Montreal Board of Marine Underwriters had, some time before the investigation, made a list of recommendations that they provided to Mr. Smith in Ottawa; these recommendations were once again resubmitted during the early investigation in Montreal. It is unclear to which extent its recommendations were applied, or even had the time to be applied, but they included that vessels should be equipped and built with iron-angle frames, boarded in with 2-inch planks (the infamous ‘watertight’ fittings), and carry at least three barrels of oil (as previously explained, to use in cases of sea storms).

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Catherine Paulin

Catherine is a PhD student at l’Université de Montréal. She studies environmental history and human/animal relations in the 19th-20th centuries in Montreal. Catherine est doctorante à l’Université de Montréal. Elle étudie l’histoire environnementale et les relations humains/animaux aux 19e-20e siècles à Montréal.

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