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.