It’s been a hundred years since the Newfoundland and Southern Cross disasters occurred, both of which inspired a significant number of songs. I have found that it is rare to have more than a couple of songs about most disasters, especially those that occurred prior to the 1950s. It’s not clear to me whether there were actually more songs written about earlier disasters that were not collected or documented, or whether writing disaster songs has become a more popular activity of late.
The Newfoundland sealing industry was the only industry in which ships were deliberately sailed into dangerous ice floes. Ship hulls could be crushed between ice pans, and unpredictable storms could isolate sealers on the ice even though they lacked shelter, food, or even appropriate clothing. Although other sealing vessels would usually offer assistance in an emergency, communication between ships wasn’t always possible, and the ice floes and weather could hamper and delay offers of assistance.
In 1914, two simultaneous disasters took the lives of 251 Newfoundland sealers. On March 30, Abram Kean, arguably the most successful sealer of his time, commanded the Stephano, a steel steamer. Abram’s son, Westbury Kean, commanded the Newfoundland, a wooden steamer. The steel steamer’s metal hull was able to plough through more ice floes than the Newfoundland, which got jammed in the ice. Abram Kean signaled that seals had been spotted and Westbury Kean, anxious to catch a share of the seal herd and observing a cloudy but mild day, sent his men to the ice. He ordered them to walk to the Stephano, where he assumed his father would allow them to stay the night. Although 132 men reached the Stephano, Abram Kean, who believed the Newfoundland was closer than it was, ordered the men back to the ice and told them to return to the Newfoundland only once they had killed 1,500 seals. The Stephano set off to retrieve its own sealers in an unanticipated but thickening storm. It did not take long for the sealers to realize that they needed to quit the hunt and head back to the Newfoundland, although they could not see it. It wasn’t until Westbury Kean was surveying the ice floes with binoculars on April 2 that he saw his men staggering on the ice. He had assumed they were safely aboard the Stephano. The men had spent three days and three nights trying to reach the Newfoundland, walking through knee-high snow drifts, buffeted by shifting winds, soaked by ice storms, and numbed by freezing temperatures. 77 men died. Some froze to death. Others hallucinated and jumped into the water; those who were pulled out still died within minutes of hypothermia and exposure.
The Southern Cross also met tragedy in the same storm. All 173 men on board died when the ship sank on its way back to Newfoundland from the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The ship was last seen on March 31 and no one knows exactly when, where, or why it sank afterwards. Some believe that the heavy cargo shifted in the storm, causing the ship to capsize. Others believe that the ship’s captain, George Clark, foolishly pressed on in the storm because he was anxious to get the small prize for being the first ship back from the seal hunt.
I find it intriguing that the Newfoundland tragedy in particular has inspired many songs of relatively recent composition (as opposed to composition in the immediate aftermath of the disaster). Many were directly inspired by the book, Death on the Ice by Cassie Brown, which became mandatory reading for Newfoundland school children after it was published in 1972.
To learn more about these tragedies, you may wish to read, watch, or listen to one of the following:
Cassie Brown’s classic book, Death on the Ice (1972)
Jenny Higgins’ new book, Perished: The 1914 Sealing Disaster (2014)
A new NFB short animated film: 54 Hours (2014)
An earlier NFB documentary about the disaster: I Just Didn’t Want to Die (1991)
CBC’s Land and Sea: “Caught Out in a Storm” (May 10, 2009)
CBC’s The Sunday Edition: Michael Enright interviews Jenny Higgins (author of Perished: The 1914 Sealing Disaster) and novelist Michael Crummey (author of the narration for NFB’s animated film, 54 Hours) (March 30, 2014)