The wake of the great sealers
Every spring, for hundreds of years, the Newfoundland sealers went joyfully to sea in wooden wall ships that were old and leaking, skippered by captains out for profit. They were maimed by frost, lost on the ice and drowned in the cold sea and yet they returned to brave the Atlantic ice and storms year by year, leaving a legacy to their courage and comradeship in the folklore of the province. Out of their fears and collective memory came songs and stories of the great disasters suffered by their brothers and fathers. Disasters such as the loss of 73 men from the Greenland in 1898, the Newfoundland tragedy of 1914 in which 79 men were lost. This article is an excerpt from a book about the sealers with text by Farley Mowat and engravings by David Blackwood, to be published soon by McClelland and Stewart Ltd. It is a social history of the rise and fall of the seal fishery of Newfoundland, told through the stories of the men who lived through it, and seen through the magnificent engravings of David Blackwood, whose ancestors took to the sea in search of “swile. ”
By Monday, March 29, 1914, all the ships, with one exception, had been into the fat for 10 days or more. Only the Newfoundland — the largest and most powerful of the wooden walls — was still out of it, still jammed fast in heavy, raftered ice, about eight miles southeast of the main patch, where in the lighter whelping ice the rest of the ships were free to move about almost at will.
Captain Wes Kean’s frustration and his fury at having put his ship in such a situation had mounted to an explosive pitch by Monday night. At dawn on Tuesday the visibility was exceptional and when he climbed to the barrel he could see several ships on the northern icescape. Although unable to talk to them by wireless, he was sure they must be in the seals. He swung his glasses to the nearest one, the Stephano, commanded by his father, and saw that her after-derrick was hoisted vertically. This was a signal agreed upon between father and sons to show that the Old Man was working a good
patch of seals. The sight was too much for the young skipper. Only 29 years old, he had been made master of the Newfoundland four years earlier, largely because his father had pushed him up with A.J. Harvey and Company, the ship’s owners. In order to refute the charge of favoritism, he had to bring in a good load of fat each spring. Now the way things looked in this most important of all springs, he stood a good chance of coming home almost clean. It was an intolerable prospect. Peering from the barrel into the beckoning northern wastes, he made up his mind. If the Newfoundland could not reach the seals, her men would have to go to the seals on their own feet.
Shortly before 7 a.m. all four watches, totaling 179 men, were ordered over the Newfoundland’s side under the leadership of 33-year-old George Tuff, the vessel’s second hand.
“ Tis a long haul and damned rough ice, Garge,” Wes Kean told Tuff, “but the seals is there in t’ousands, sure. Go straight for the Stephano and report to Father. He’ll put you onto the patches and tell you what to do. Doubtless he’ll keep you aboard his ship tonight, and when the ice slacks off I’ll steam over and pick up the men and the seals you’ve panned.”
If Tuff had doubts about the wisdom of the plan he gave no sign; but doubts he must have had, because at the age of 17 he had been one of the survivors of the great Greenland disaster of 1898. It had taken him months to recover physically from that experience and for years afterwards he had been plagued by frightful nightmares in which dead companions, frozen rigid, implored him to let them into his warm little house at Newtown.
The weather was extraordinarily fine that Tuesday morning — too fine, too warm, too calm by far, thought some of the men who had heard from the bosun that the barometer was falling. “ ’Twas a weather-breeder, certainly!” one of them remembered; and many were aware of a vague sense of unease as the long black column began snaking its way through the chaos of pressure ridges and raftered ice toward the tiny shape of the Stephano, hull-down to the north.
The going was even harder than Wes Kean had predicted. “I never saw worse ice in all my time,” George Tuff remembered. After three hours of exhausting travel the attenuated column had only gone three miles from the Newfoundland. Those in the lead now came upon a scattered handful of whitecoats, and all the men halted gratefully while these were clubbed and sculped. When the long line moved on again it was incomplete. Some 50 men had detached themselves from it and, in startling defiance of the ingrained habits of obedience and amid shouts of “yellowbelly” and “coward” from their companions, had stubbornly turned about and headed back for their own ship.
When they reached the Newfoundland they were met by an infuriated Captain Kean who as good as accused them of mutiny and threatened them with the loss of their shares in the voyage. Subdued, strangely silent, they remained on the ice until his rage had run its course; then, muttering something about “bad weather,” they came quietly aboard and went below. Not one of them cared to tell Wes Kean the true reason for their return.
“ ’Twas a bright, sunny morning when we left the Newfoundland. They was no reason to see nothing as wasn’t there. But some of we saw something as had no right to be on the ice or anywhere at all on God’s mortal earth! We come round a high pinnacle, and there it was ... a giant of a man it looked to be, covered all over, face and all, in a black, hairy coat. It stood there, big as any bear, blocking our way ... Go forward in the face of that? No, me son! Not for all the gold as lies buried in the world!”
It took nearly five hours of exhausting struggle before the remaining 126 men from the Newfoundland reached the high steel sides of the Stephano. They had seen no more seals and a heavy haze had clouded the sky. A few glittering flakes of snow were already beginning to fall.
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The fine day was quickly coming to an
“Before we got to the Stephano ’twas clear enough there was dirty weather on the go and they warn’t a man of we expected to go back on ice that day. We was certain sure the Stephano would be our boardinghouse. While most of the crowd went below for a mug of tea and a bit of hard bread, George Tuff went aft to see Captain Abraham Kean and get his orders.
“The Stephano got under way again, and about 20 minutes later we was called back on deck. The snow was coming thicker, but the Old Man was up on the bridge waving his arms and bawling: ‘Newfoundland men, over the side!’ Oh yiss, I can hear him yet. ‘Hurry up now, byes! Get out and get your seals!’
“We hardly knew what to think about it, but the most of us supposed we was just going for a little rally, handy to the ship, and would be back aboard soon enough. But we was hardly clear of her when the Stephano swung hard around, showed us her stern, and drove off full steam ahead to the nor’ard. Young Jobbie Easton was along of me and there was a quare look on his face.
“ ‘That one’s not coming back for we. She’s gone for good.’ Those as heard him began to crowd around George
Tuff. ‘That’s a lie now, ain’t it, Garge?’ some fellow asked.
“ ‘No, me sons,’ says George very low. ‘Captain Abraham’s orders is for us to go and work a patch of swiles sou’west from here about a mile, pan the pelts, and then strike out for our own ship. He says as he’s got men and seals of his own to look out for.’
“The snow was getting thicker by the minute, and any man who’d ever been on ice before knew what our chances was of finding the Newfoundland that night. Uncle Ezra Melendy pipes up and says: ‘Us’ll never do it, Garge. ’Twill be the Greenland all over again.’ Then there was proper hell to pay. Some was calling on George to lead us back to the Stephano or chase after she. John Howlett stuck his chin out and told Tuff to stop wasting time and to start for the Newfoundland. ‘God damn it, George. This is no weather to be killing swiles!’ Then John turned to us. ‘Byes,’ he says, ‘Tis time for we to give up this and go for our own ship!’
“It come near to blows, but there was no changing George’s mind. He had his orders from the Old Man and bedamned if he’d fly in the face of them. So off we went to find them seals, and afore we knowed it, the starm was on full blast.”
On Tuesday morning, March 31, one of the most terrible storms of the year swept in over the southeastern approaches to Newfoundland and overwhelmed the island. Within a few hours the city of St. John’s lay paralyzed beneath a tremendous snowfall, buffeted by hurricane winds. Offshore, oceangoing freighters labored through towering seas seeking shelter or lay hove-to, head to the gale, trying to ride it out.
During the afternoon the storm swept out over the northern ice and that vast plain became a faceless wilderness given over to whirling snow devils that obliterated everything from view. The storm caught nearly 100 of Captain Abraham Kean’s men far from their ship, for he had refused to believe the evidence of his senses or of the plunging barometer, and had stubbornly continued to pile up seal pelts as if there was nothing else in life of any import. His men were in luck. The Florizel appeared, as if by magic, close to the Stephano’s men, and thankfully they scrambled aboard. But the storm also caught 126 of the Newfoundland’s men on ice . . . and there was no luck left for them.
Adrift in that raging chaos, on ice that began to heave and grind and shatter as the storm swell lifted under it, they were at least seven miles from their own jammed and helpless ship. What was more ominous, nobody knew they were adrift. Aboard the Newfoundland, Captain Wes Kean ate a good hot supper and went to his bunk, content in the belief that his men were safe aboard the Stephano. On the Stephano, the Old Man was preoccupied with getting enough whitecoats to make him highliner once again. If he gave any thought to the Newfoundland’s men, it was to assume they had reached their own ship. After all, that is where he had ordered them to go.
There was no way for anyone to discover the truth. Although all the other ships were fitted with wireless and could communicate with one another, the Newfoundland’s wireless had been removed before she sailed by order of her owners. As one of their directors was to testify later: “It did not pay to keep it aboard.” Harvey’s did not feel that its presence added to the profits from the seal fishery. They were wrong. Its absence this spring was to deprive the company of considerable profit.
“ ’Twas terrible . . . terrible, my son! After the starm came on I never saw a better chance for a disaster . . . We started back for the Newfoundland ’bout one o’clock, in a gale of wind, with the snow so thick and wet it was enough to choke a man. We struck east sou’east looking for our outward track and found it, too, but ’twas too late by then. The ice was wheeling so bad the track was all broke up and there was swatches of
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open water everywhere. The snow was so heavy it lay thick on the water and ’twas a job to tell it from good ice. Before dark six or seven of the men had fell through and was lost . . . ’Twas no use to go on . . . the men gathered round about on two or three of the biggest pans they could find, and they was none too big at that, and built up shelters out of dumpers of ice. Then the snow changed to freezing rain, driving like shot ’til we was all drenched to the skin, but at least it warn’t too frosty. I prayed ’twould keep raining, for if the wind backed to nor’ard and brought the frost, I knowed we’d no chance at all . .
“I never saw a worse night at the front. I dare say there were few enough managed to sleep sound that night. The grinding and the roaring of the ice was enough to put the fear of the Lord into any man. Wild? I went on deck a time or two, and I don’t know the words to tell what it was like. It was all a man could do to keep his feet, and the sleet cut into you like shot.
“In the morning it was still blowing a living starm, and then it come on to snow again and the wind veered to nor’west and brought the white frost with it. That killed them altogether! The
shelters those poor fellows had built was straight — like a wall — and no good at all when the wind come round. There was no seals where they was to, and they had nothing left to burn. Their clothes was pitiful poor, for it was a warm morning when they left their ship, and the most of them left their oilskins behind, counting to be aboard the Stephano for the night. For grub there was nothing but a bit of oatmeal or a pick of hard bread in the bottom of some fellows’ nunny bags. A few had little bottles of Radway’s Ready Relief — supposed to be a pain killer but, if the truth was out, only flavored alcohol — good enough stuff, but there wasn’t more than a glutch for every man.
“Same as a good many sealers, they were mortal feared to lay down and take some rest. Believed they’d never wake again. That was pure foolishness . . . the worst kind! They spent the whole night on their feet, marching about like sojers, running around, pounding each other to keep awake . . . and they beat themselves right out. In the morning, when the frost took them, they were so done in they began to fall dead on their feet. Some froze to death standing up.
“About noon the snow let up and the sky cleared, but the wind was sharper
and frostier than ever and the ground drift was like a cloud. If a man climbed to the top of a pinnacle he would be in clear air, with the sun shining on him, but on the ice he was near blind with the drift. In breaks in the storm, the few fellows as had the strength to climb the pinnacles could see some of the ships . . .the Florizel away to the nor’ard, the Stephano under way, and trying to pick up pans far off to the nor’east. Once the Bell come straight for them, close as three or four miles. Six men set out to walk to her, but they all perished, and the Bell, not seeing them, turned and steamed away. That took the heart out of the men as was left, like it was cut out with a sculping knife.
“The devil of it was that not a one of we on any of the other ships knew they was lost. I tell you, when Harvey’s took that wireless out of the Newfoundland they killed those men better than bullets could have done.
“Before dark things was so desperate that George Tuff, three of the master watches, and a few other fellows undertook somehow to get across that heaving mass of broken ice and reach a ship. George had spied a glimpse of the Newfoundland from a pinnacle. She’d finally got clear of the jam and started steaming toward the Stephano, intending, I suppose, to pick up her men as Wes Kean thought was on his father’s ship. When George saw her, she was jammed again, but a lot closer to the men than before. Those fellows pretty near got to her, though how they stood up to it the Lord knows. They was coming up toward her lee side . . . but all hands aboard her was looking out to windward where the Stephano lay. And then she burst out of the jam and hauled away for the Stephano, and those fellows just had to watch her go. That finished them entirely. They crawled into a hole in a pile of dumpers as night come down, freezing bitter cold and blowing a whole gale again.
“Back on the two floes where the most of the men still was, it was even worse. The stories them poor fellows as lived through it had to tell was enough to freeze your blood.”
“. . . The weather was near zero and the snow blowing like a whirlwind . . . you could look up sometimes through the drift and see the stars up there . . . down on the ice the men was dying . . . my first cousin, and my best chum, he lay down to die but I wouldn’t let him do it. I punched him and hauled him about and jumped on his feet. . . that’s how he lost his feet, I suppose. I got them all broken up, jumping on them. ‘Bye,’ I said to him, ‘don’t you die out here! Don’t you give it to them at home to say you died out here on this ice!’ But I had to go on kicking him ... I nearly killed that poor fellow to make him
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live. . .
.. Some went crazy at the end of it, yelling and squalling and wandering off and never seen again. More died quiet, sitting or lying there, most likely dreaming of being home again . . . They saw strange things. One fellow come over to me and says: ‘Come in to the house now, me son. We’ll have a scoff. The woman’s just cooking up a pot of soup.’ I never saw him after. His eyes was froze shut with the ice caked on his face . . .
.. Uncle Ezra Melendy, as had lived through the Greenland disaster, was an old fellow but he wouldn’t give it up. His legs was froze solid to the hips and he was crawling over the ice trying to keep close to we. He’d lost his mittens and his hands was froze hard like claws. He crawled up to me and says: ‘Me hands is some cold, byes.’ I went along his back trail a bit and found his mitts, but I couldn’t pull them on his hands, all crooked up like they was. So I slit them with me knife and put them on that way. ‘That’s good now,’ he says and crawls off; his body was never found afterward. . .
. . Freddie Hunt never had his cap, and his boots was gone right off his feet. He had only a poor jacket of cotton made from a flour bag, but he was some determined not to die. Wednesday night he started to take the jacket off a dead man, but the corpse rolled over and says: ‘Don’t ye do it, Freddie. I aren’t dead yet!’
.. The worst thing I see was when I tried to get to another pan and I fell over a dumper. Only it warn’t no dumper. ’Twas Reuben Crewe and his son, froze together, and the old fellow’s arms tight around the lad, and the lad’s head buried under his father’s jacket. . . I recall the drift eased off about then and it seemed light as day and I looked around me and ’twas like being in a graveyard full of awful white statues . . . dead men all around . . .”
At the crack of dawn on Thursday morning Captain Wes Kean climbed to the barrel on the Newfoundland’s mainmast. The weather had moderated; the wind had dropped out and visibility was good. For some time he anxiously watched the Stephano, which was also jammed now but less than a mile distant to the east. He was looking for his absent men who should have been leaving the big steel ship to return to their own vessel. As yet there was no sign of life aboard the Stephano so he swung his glasses to the west to see if there were any seals in sight. He was electrified to see in the pale half-light a small group of men staggering across the ice toward him and, with sudden panic, realized what their appearance meant. Kean very nearly fell from the shrouds in his haste to gain the deck, and when he reached it he was close to hysteria.
A half hour later George Tuff and three others were being helped aboard their ship by a rescue party of horrified shipmates. These survivors of the lost party looked more like walking dead than living men. Tuff stood before his captain, weaving from side to side and barely able to mumble coherently through cracked and bleeding lips.
“This is all the men you got left, Cap’n. The rest of them is gone . .
About the same time that Tuff regained his ship, the barrelman of the Bellaventure, which was steaming about looking for lost pans some miles to the northwest, saw what he took to be a small party of sealers belonging to some ship working the ice. As he watched, he realized there was something wrong with them. “They looked right queer . . . like they was drunk, crawling and falling about.” He called his skipper, Captain Robert Randell, and in a few minutes the Bell was crashing through the pack toward them under forced draft. Two of the figures were much closer than the others and at 9 a.m. the wireless began to crackle. “Captain SS Bellaventure to Captain SS Stephano. Two Newfoundland men in pretty bad shape got aboard us this morning. Reported on ice since Tuesday and several men perished.”
This report was picked up by almost every ship in the fleet and all those in the vicinity began to converge on the Bell. Soon hundreds of sealers were scattering across the pack laden with stretchers, food and rum, searching for the lost party. By nightfall the Bell, magnificently handled by Captain Randell, had found and taken aboard 35 survivors, all of them frightfully frostbitten, and several of whom were thought to be beyond saving. The other ships had found nine more . . . and that was all of the lost party ever to be found alive.
At dusk the Stephano, Bellaventure, and Florizel came together alongside the stricken Newfoundland. The death ship’s roll was read and the appalling scope of the disaster was finally revealed. Then the dead, the dying, and those who would survive, although crippled and disfigured for life, were all placed aboard the Bellaventure and she prepared to leave the ice for home. It appeared that she would be the first ship back to St. John’s that year, but for her there would be no cheers from the crowded quay, no bellow of gunfire from Signal Hill. Below decks she carried the sculps of many thousands of prime seals — a fortune for her owners. On deck, twisted and contorted into fearsome postures, she carried the frozen bodies of 70 men who would go to the ice no more. Nine others of the lost party remained behind, buried in the darkness of the icy sea. ■