Here is an excerpt from Out in the Cold, my recent book about travel to Svalbard, The Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland & Atlantic Canada. If you enjoy it, get yourself a copy here.
THE 1914 NEWFOUNDLAND SEALING DISASTER
A century ago St. John’s was a vital, bustling hub of maritime commerce, Water Street its beating heart. As the closest North American landfall to Europe, a concentration of trans-Atlantic communication cables came ashore here. St. John’s anchored the most bountiful cod fishing grounds in the world. But the sea provided bounty far beyond fish.
Clubbing helpless baby seals may not strike you as the most manly activity, but take a look at Newfoundland’s climate, its isolation, and then at the benefits of swiling, as they called seal hunting on the ice:
• Seal meat is nutrient-rich food in a land where coaxing food from the ground presents a perennial challenge.
• Seal hides make fine boots.
• After flensing (separating the fat), seal fat makes soap, margarine and lipstick, and in the old days powered the lamps that drove away the long winter darkness.
The rest of the seal, the dogs would take care of. Like the Inuit, Newfoundlanders knew how to use every bit of nature’s scant provision.
In late summer ice forms between Canada and Greenland in Baffin Bay, far to the north of the sealing grounds. The Labrador current moves the young ice south and with the coming of winter it grows into ten-foot blocks the aquamarine color of sea water, save for edges made white and jagged by constant grinding against other ice.
Off the Labrador coast, most of the way to Newfoundland, the ice freezes into vast, miles-long sheets that jostle, crack and re-form, and arrive off Newfoundland covered with gravel from scrapes against land. The job of the swiler was to walk across this ice field for miles, searching for seals.
Harp seals follow an ancient migratory cycle between the Arctic and the Grand Banks, a shallow part of the continental shelf off Newfoundland. In early March harp seal mothers climb onto the ice pans, give birth to their pups and abandon them, so that each year hundreds of thousands of newborn seals would lay helpless when the swilers approached.
The swiling ships sailed through the Narrows north into the ice field each March. It was St. John’s biggest event of the year. Swiling became a sort of national sport, with statistics compiled like the number of pelts taken in a season and the career lifetime hauls of “jowlers’,” or successful swiling captains.
No other country’s commercial fleets systematically sailed into ice floes. No other country even had a dedicated sealing fleet. Successful St. John’s captains became swashbuckling national heroes, in demand as pilots for polar excursions.
The swiling trade exploded over the course of the 1800s. From 140 vessels in 1804, by the middle of the century 13,000 men collected half a million pelts in a season lasting only weeks.
It was brutal, brutal business, a coming of age, a test of manhood for country boys from all across The Rock. Men and boys converged on St. John’s, the younger ones exaggerating their age. If selected they would be pelted, pounded and battered by snow, hail and ice; every year some would be crushed in the floes.
Jenny Higgins writes in Perished: The 1914 Newfoundland Seal Hunt Disaster, that “A typical pay would have probably been between $30 and $40, that would have been for about six or seven weeks of very hard physical labour, severe deprivation, little food, and basically putting your life at risk.”
It was for their families’ survival. “It really is a story about men who are putting themselves in harm’s way to put food on the table,” says Higgins.
Twenty-nine- year-old Wes Kean sailed as Captain of the SS Newfoundland. The aging, wood-hulled ship, in its 42nd year, was by now one of the smaller swiling ships in the fleet, without a wireless or a steel hull, but Wes, an unfledged, still aspiring captain, had a name to make so he would take what he could get.
Wes’s father, a former cabinet minister and Tory government representative named Abram Kean, sailed in command of the Stephano, the most powerful ship in the swiling fleet. Some called the Stephano the finest ice-breaker in the world.
At 59, Old Man Kean was a sealing legend, prohibition advocate and a strict Methodist. A sailing superstition discouraged launching a mission on a Friday. Abe Kean always launched on Friday. The kind of man he was.
Even while working for rival companies, Wes and Abe Kean had arranged a discreet signal in the event one found seals. In Death on the Ice: The Great Newfoundland Sealing Disaster of 1914, Cassie Brown writes that:
“Wesbury, me b’y,” the Old Man said, “Kape as handy to me as you can, an’ when we reach the swiles I’ll let ye know be raisin’ the after derrick. Now when ye see the after derrick ris, ye’ll know we’re in the fat.”
Even before, there was talk of a disastrous season. The ice was too tight for the ships to work, they said. Wes had no time for such talk, only a reputation to make. To become a big league “jowler,” he had to get out on that ice.
On 30 March, Captain Abram Kean initiated his signal to Wes by raising his ship’s aft derrick (a wooden crane). Wes saw the signal but the Newfoundland was already jammed into ice a half dozen miles away. His ship’s lack of a steel hull prevented him from breaking through in the direction of his father and the seals.
Wes Kean sent his men on foot across the ice toward his father’s ship. He expected his men would spend that night aboard the Stephano after a day of hard swiling. Trouble was, a mighty storm was coming on.
Already at 6 a.m. the sun was veiled and there were “twin reflections of yellowish light, like minor suns, one on either side.” The older sailors knew these as foreboding “sun hounds,” formed from ice crystals flying out ahead of a storm.
All these sailing men were firm believers in superstition, unlike Old Man Kean who was a firm believer in Jesus Christ. Like Faroese and Icelanders, they knew damned well that evil spirits existed. Spirits living along the coast, called Jack-o-lanterns, they said, shined false lights to lure ships to their destruction.
Plus, fate was fate. The sea would claim its due of victims and if a man was marked for death, well, nothing could be done.
A total of 166 men set out that morning from Wes Kean’s ship but sensing the storm, 34 turned back, to catcalls and shouts of “cowards!” A fair number of those who turned back were elders who knew more weather lore than the boys, aphorisms like “If the wind come from the east, ‘tis good for neither man nor beast.”.
The 132 of Wes Kean’s swilers who didn’t turn back spent two nights stranded in a blizzard on the ice. Seventy-seven didn’t come back alive.
After a four-hour hike across tough ice they reached and boarded the Stephano in late morning, weather coming on fast. Captain Abe searched the skies, fortified the Newfoundland’s sailors with hard tack and tea, and turned them back out on the ice in under an hour.
Cooks on all the ships worked only for the officers, who enjoyed, among other delicacies, fresh beef. The rank and file lived on hard tack (as made by the swiling fleet, oval three inch flour cakes) or food they’d brought for the time before the hunt had taken seals. So far that had meant eight days of little to eat besides hard tack, and counting.
Early in any year’s harvest, blood and grease would cover the rough planking laid down on the ships’ decks as protection against the sailors’ hob-nailed boots. Before long even new swilers “learned to eat the warm, fresh hearts cut still beating from seal carcasses.” But so far this year, for more than a week now, it was only hard tack and tea.
Old Man Kean’s orders might as well have been the Firm Law of God, not only on his ship but across the whole fleet. When he turned Wes’s men back onto the ice the Old Man told the sailors to walk back to their own ship, harvesting a field of pelts the Stephano had left earlier. Abram Kean foresaw no problems.
Grumbling broke out, but the Old Man convinced George Tuff, the leader of the men on the ice, that he and his men had an easy walk to back to his son’s ship, considered them safe and put them out of his mind.
“They’ll be ahl rate,” he thought.
Wes grew uneasy with the worsening of the storm, in the absence of his crew.
St. John’s was (still is) compact with most commerce conducted on foot, but early on Monday, 30 March, Water Street emptied out as snow, Cassie Brown writes, “… was beginning to choke the streets … Business came to a halt. Streetcars tried to plow through snowdrifts, bogged down, and could not be moved. People deserted the shops and the streets and let winter have full sway.” Clear across The Rock the fear of wives and mothers curdled into fright and rose with the howl of the wind.
The enduring, infuriating frustration is that Wes Kean and the Old Man each assumed the other had Tuff and his men. Wes was sure his father had kept them aboard the Stephano and Abe assumed they followed his orders to return to Wes and the Newfoundland. Neither sent out a search party.
Sure in their own assumptions, neither Wes nor Abram sounded their whistles so that as the blizzard closed in the men on the ice could hear in what direction to walk. And because Wes Kean had no wireless (the owners had removed it the week before as an unnecessary expense) there was no way for father or son or to be sure.
The sealers were a hundred miles north of St. John’s when the first flakes fell. Wes Kean’s brother (and the Old Man’s eldest son) Joe commanded another swiling vessel, the Florizel. He sounded his ships’s whistle to summon his men back from the ice. Tuff’s men, the Newfoundland’s men, would spend the next two nights on the ice.
Messages to look out for each other’s crew were flashed between Wes’s brother Joe and the Old Man, but Wes had neither wireless nor, in the closing weather, sight of his brother in the Florizel or his father in the Stephano.
Once there were 400 wooden swiling ships. Larger steel-hulled steamers reduced the fleet to only twenty by 1914. As a result the ships were spaced more widely around the ice. It was harder to see from ship to ship.
Captain Abe, his ship with its mighty steel hull, steamed away to the north in search of seals, further confusing the Newfoundland’s ice-bound sailors as to their position relative to their ship.
Finally becoming blinded by blowing snow, the men raced through snowdrifts and over the ice, struggling in ever more desperate search of the Newfoundland. At dark they built what shelter they could from loose ice. They split into three watches and each built windbreaks from the ice, against which they would spend the first night, but the progress of the storm moved winds from the east around to the north, rendering only the best built windbreak effective by morning.
With morning’s light the men who could tried to walk on, hearts pounding just to stay alive. Consumed by violent, shivering convulsions, they searched each others’ eyes and found only stark, open terror. Their predicament, they were sure, meant that they were doomed.
Some died frozen in a posture of prayer. Stephen Donovan died on his feet and froze standing. One father and son were found frozen in an embrace, a pose captured in a memorial statue. Each man died in his own intimate way, stilled by the ice.
Survivors lost arms, legs and feet. Tom Dawson survived with the help of his friend John Howlett. Exhausted, his legs and feet frozen, Dawson lay on the ice to die but Howlett found the strength to collect bodies and stack them around Dawson as a miserable windbreak.
Delirious men walked into the water and drowned. Some were pulled out by their fellows but quickly froze to death. Men were found after the storm so frozen to the ice they had to be chipped free.
In the morning Wes Kean spotted what was left of his men through his spy-glass. He signaled other ships. The SS Bellaventure, his brother’s ship the Florizel and Captain Abe’s Stephano responded as best they could.
Two men helped Cecil Mouland to the Bellaventure, his brother Ralph alongside on a stretcher. Mouland saw a seal. He pleaded, “Turn ‘im over and put yer knife in ‘is heart.” They lowered Cecil to the carcass where he drank the warm blood of the dead seal. Mouland, the last survivor, died in 1978.
Of the 77 who died, 69 bodies were found.
As news of the disaster spread family members besieged the telegraph office, gathering with the dread of knowing there must be few survivors. Crowds grew until Water Street was impassable.
Funeral parlors ran out of caskets. In the basement of the Seamen’s Academy, doctors thawed bodies and pulled those frozen together apart.
All of Newfoundland wept. Some of the men’s bodies rode home in trains they could never afford in life.
At the inquiry neither Kean was found guilty of anything more serious than “errors of judgement.” Ships were henceforth required to carry additional safety equipment and from now on, a wireless. The Newfoundland’s owner’s counsel testified “The safety of the crew was not thought of at all, or it (the wireless) would not have been removed….”
Cassie Brown’s Death on the Ice is among the most read Newfoundland books of all time and has been used in the province’s schools since its publication. At the time the sealing disaster was the worst calamity in the nation’s history, though that would hold only for the next three and a half years, until Halifax.
Abe Kean hunted seals for twenty more years. In 1934 he brought back what they reckoned was his millionth pelt, for which he was awarded the Order of the British Empire for being the most lethal killer of seals in history.