Sealing is a controversial practice in modern Newfoundland and Labrador. And because of incidents such as the 1898 Greenland disaster (48 men dead) and the 1913 Newfoundland disaster (78 men dead), sealing has also been controversial in the past (1978: 81). Nonetheless, despite the well-known associated risks, Newfoundlanders have participated in the hunt for a variety of reasons:
1) the possibility of earning cash in a basically cashless economy; 2) the chance to enhance one’s reputation as a good worker and as a hardy individual; 3) the opportunity to see old friends from former voyages; and, 4) although not the kind of blood-and-guts thrills which Brian Davies, of the International Fun for Animal Welfare, would have people believe about the hunt, a sense of adventure at the ice. (Scott 1978: 83)
The annual seal hunt was thus something that the entire colony got excited about, the 1898 season being no different. On March 10, 1898, the entire fleet of sealing ships sailed from St. John’s Harbour, Newfoundland, marking the beginning of the sealing season. The event attracted thousands of people, who gathered to bid the ships farewell (The Daily News, March 11, 1898: 4). Sincere wishes were sent that the season was a successful one, and that the ships return early and secure bumper trips (The Evening Herald, March 10, 1898: 4; The Daily News, March 11, 1898: 4).
The S. S. Greenland under Captain George Barbour was one of the ships that sailed, leaving St. John’s with 207 men aboard (The Daily News, March 28, 1898: 4). The Greenland set out for an area that was supposedly rich in seals, about 70 miles northeast of the Funks, which are two small islands northeast of Newfoundland (The Daily News, March 28, 1898: 4). The ship arrived on Saturday, March 12 and commenced panning (panning essentially means to gather seal carcass’s in a central area) early the following morning (The Daily News, March 28, 1898: 4). The crews of the Diana, Aurora, and Iceland were in the same vicinity and also began panning on March 13 (The Daily News, March 28, 1898: 4). The Greenland got 2500 seals the first day and continued to pan until moving westward on March 15, where 8000 seals were panned that day (The Daily News, March 28, 1898: 4). Unfortunately, all 8000 seals were lost when a gale set in (The Daily News, March 28, 1898: 4). The crew was also forced to return to the ship. By March 19th, the Greenland had approximately 30,000 seals on board.
It was on March 21st that calamity struck. At 2 am, the first watch of about 35 men was put on the ice and at daylight three more watches were put on some distance apart, totalling 154 men (The Daily News, March 28, 1898: 4). After the third group went on the ice, it became apparent that a storm was approaching so the Greenland steamed about three miles to pick up the first watch (The Daily News, March 28, 1898: 4). After safely retrieving the first group, she returned to pick up the others. However, the ice had moved since these groups had been dropped off and between the steamer and her men lay a barrier of ice that Greenland could not break through and an open water “lake” approximately three miles wide made it impossible for the men to reach the ship (The Daily News, March 28, 1898: 4). At about 4:30 p.m. the storm reached the Greenland and her men, who were still out on the ice (The Daily News, March 28, 1898: 4).
Stuck on the ice, the men employed various methods to survive. The men waiting to be rescued gathered and discussed how to make the best of their situation. The result was that seven or eight groups formed and headed in different directions, hoping to find a way to the ship and ensure the rescue of others (The Evening Herald, March 28, 1898: 4). Some parties made camps for the night; others made fires out of their ropes and roasted seals (The Evening Herald, March 28, 1898: 4). One man managed to survive for several days on the ice unharmed by killing a seal, cutting it open and sticking his head, hands, and any other exposed areas into the carcass. He repeated this process several times while on the ice and the accumulated seal blood prevented him from getting frostbitten. According to The Daily News, after he was rescued, “he had to scrape from his face an inch of frozen blood” (March 29, 1898: 4).
Several miles away, the Iceland and Diana heard that some of the Greenland’s men had become separated from their ship and began to aid the search (The Daily News, March 28, 1898: 4). The following day, the storm began to clear at about 4 p.m. and the missing men could again be seen from the Greenland (The Daily News, March 28, 1898: 4). By 5 pm, boats had been provisioned and were dragged across the ice and rowed across the open water that separated the men from the ship (The Daily News, March 28, 1898: 4). About 100 men, all badly frostbitten, were rescued in this fashion before conditions worsened again and further rescue could not be undertaken (The Daily News, March 28, 1898: 4). On the 23rd, with the assistance of the Diana and Iceland, six more men who had survived and sixteen dead men were picked up (The Daily News, March 28, 1898: 4). The weather continued to be rough, but men were nonetheless sent in search of the missing. However, only one more body was found (The Daily News, March 28, 1898: 4). By this time there were twenty-three dead men aboard the Greenland (The Daily News, March 28, 1898: 4). According to the leader of a rescue party, Chief Officer Gaulton, several men dropped dead “in the joy of rescue… just as they reached him” (The Evening Herald, March 28, 1898: 4).
On the 26th, the search was abandoned and a course was taken for Baccalieu, but again the weather was very rough so Captain Barbour went in at Bay-de-Verde. Here the ship was threatened once more when the cable attaching the anchor to the ship became detached and the ship was driven on to rocks where she laid for five hours until enough supplies could be removed from the ship to lighten her enough to get her off. She later, in dense fog, nearly ran into the Biscay rocks off Cape St. Francis (The Evening Herald, March 28, 1898: 4). She arrived in St. John’s on March 27th with forty-eight men lost, of which there were only the bodies of twenty-five. A temporary refrigerator had been constructed on the Greenland to transport the frozen bodies.
The main reason for the recovery of so few bodies is that many ended up in the water. According to survivors, after realizing that they were possibly going to die, many men went insane and some, “bereft of their reason… imagined… that the steamer approached them, and that their crazed efforts to board to the supposed ship was how many of the missing twenty-three went down beneath the ice pans” (The Daily News, March 28, 1898: 4).
The officials at St. John’s were telegraphed about the incident on the evening of March 27, and prepared to receive the ship the next day (The Daily News, March 28, 1898: 4). The Colonial Secretary John A. Robinson was in charge of meeting the “needs of the occasion” and, among other provisions, had the Seamen’s Home turned into a temporary hospital with doctors, attendants, and other necessary comforts (The Evening Herald, March 28, 1898: 4).
Thousands of spectators gathered to watch the arrival of the Greenland. Once in St. John’s, undertakers removed the bodies, which were described as “board-like objects” and chipped as much ice off of them as possible to aid with the identification process (The Daily News, March 28, 1898: 4). Funerals were held for the men over the next several days and were well attended. The papers were filled with sympathetic messages for the bereaved families. Queen Victoria even sent a special dispatch to express her sympathy to the wives and families of the sufferers (The Daily News, March 29, 1898: 4). Of the dead, the majority (twenty-nine) came from Bonavista Bay (The Evening Herald, March 28, 1898: 3).
Financial aid was also secured for the families through a relief fund dependant on donations, which raised nearly $12,000 (The Daily News, April 28, 1898: 6) and a government bill, “to authorize the expenditure of $5,400 (five thousand four hundred dollars) for the [benefit of the families and defray the expenses attendant upon the funerals of the deceased and the medical and other aid to the suffering survivors] … be introduced” (The Evening Herald, March 30, 1898: 4).
An enquiry into the cause of the disaster began on the 28th in Chambers, presided over by the honourable Judge James Gervé Conroy (The Evening Herald, March 28, 1898: 3). No charges were made against the conduct of either the captain or officers (The Daily News, April 9, 1898: 1).
The Greenland ‘disaster’ of 1898 became notorious, for as The Evening Herald put it: “Never did the sealfishery open with brighter prospects than did this season’s, never did a ‘first arrival’ bring a more ghastly freight or more thrilling story of heroic endeavor, or of sacrifice and suffering” (March 28, 1898: 4).
Scott, John. 1978. “‘I Don’t Think There’s Anything in the World That the Common Man Will Take a Bigger Chance [For] Than He’ll Take For a Seal.’: Some Contributions of Oral History Toward an Understanding of the Newfoundland Disaster.” In Folklore & Oral History: Papers From the Second Annual Meeting of the Canadian Aural/Oral History Association as St. John’s Newfoundland October 3—5, 1975, edited by Neil V. Rosenberg, 81-90. St. John’s: Memorial University of Newfoundland.
The Daily News (St. John’s). 1898. “Capt. Barbour to Colonial Secretary.” April 9, p. 1.
The Daily News (St. John’s). 1898. “Greenland Disaster Notes.” March 29, p. 4.
The Daily News (St. John’s). 1898. “Horrible Tragedy! Twenty-Five Dead Bodies. And Many More Missing.” March 28, p. 4.
The Daily News (St. John’s). 1898. “The Greenland Relief.” April 28, p. 6.
The Daily News (St. John’s). 1898. “The Steamers Depart.” March 11, p. 4.
The Evening Herald (St. John’s). 1898. “An Ocean Horror. The “Greenland” Disaster Terrible Tale of Suffering and Death, Trial and Affliction.” March 28, p. 4.
The Evening Herald (St. John’s). 1898. “Greenland Notes.” March 28, p. 3.
The Evening Herald (St. John’s). 1898. “Help For The Needy. The Legislature Votes $4,800.” March 30, p. 4.
The Evening Herald (St. John’s). 1898. “The Sealers Off.” March 10, p. 4.