Although this song doesn’t specify a particular disaster, it appears on the 2004 album Death on the Ice, The Ultimate Price by Gary Callahan, and appears with other songs specifically about the Newfoundland sealing disaster in 1914. That disaster involved the death of 251 sealers in two separate but simultaneous events during the same winter storm, involving the crews of the SS Newfoundland and SS Southern Cross. In addition to the deaths, many of the survivors sustained disabling injuries and amputations through frostbite.These tragedies were a result of a lack of communication systems between ships; systems that were available but had been considered unnecessary by ship-owners. The events caused a public outcry and d ultimately prompted government officials to change the way they regulated the seal fishery.
Although often very lucrative for the owners, and a source of much-needed cash income for the sealers, the Newfoundland and Labrador spring sealing industry was also more hazardous than any other fishery. The ships had to steam into the dangerous ice floes off Newfoundland’s north coast, where sudden blizzards made it impossible to navigate, and frozen icepacks could jam ships in the ice and crush their hulls. In the early 1800s the sealing fleet had consisted of over 400 sailing vessels, but by about 1900, the introduction of big steamers with their larger crews meant that there were fewer ships more widely spaced throughout the ice floes. This meant, despite the seagoing code of all ships assisting other ships and crew when needed, that without wireless a ship or crew in trouble had no way of requesting help.
When they went out on the ice, the men faced additional dangers. Carrying only their tools, and dressed in clothing that a modern out-door enthusiast would consider pitifully unsuitable (and which sealers had to provide themselves, thus ensuring that the poorest and most desperate had the least-suitable clothing), the sealers might be on the ice from dawn to dusk, and later. Because of the big ships’ limited maneuverability among the ice fields, the men had to walk, often for miles, to reach the seals. When a storm blew up, they would have to fight their way through blinding snow and fierce winds toward the sound of their ship’s whistle.
Inevitably, the dangers inherent to the Newfoundland and Labrador seal fishery were exacerbated by human error, negligence, and sometimes greed. With no government regulation, a great deal of competition between ships, and a pay system that depended on shares and bonuses, the companies and ship owners had no incentive to care for the lives and comfort of the sealers, and the sealers themselves were in no position to refuse a dangerous instruction from the ship’s captain.
SS Southern Cross
In late March or early April 1914, the SS Southern Cross sank while returning to Newfoundland from the seal hunt on Gulf of St. Lawrence, with a loss of 173 men, more deaths than any other single disaster in Newfoundland and Labrador sealing history.
The exact date of the sinking is not known because the ship was never seen again after the coastal steamer SS Portia passed the Southern Cross on March 31, off the southern Avalon Peninsula near Cape Pine. The Portia was headed for St. Mary’s Bay to wait out a worsening blizzard, and lookouts observed that the Southern Cross, low in the water with its large cargo of seal pelts, seemed headed for Cape Race. But there was no wireless equipment on board, so communication with other vessels was impossible.
It was later assumed that the ship’s heavy cargo may have shifted in the storm and caused the ship to capsize. There was also speculation that the ship’s captain, George Clarke, may have pressed through the storm because of his desire to be first back from the seal hunt and to claim the small prize traditionally awarded.
No bodies were ever identified.
During the same storm that took the Southern Cross, another group of men were enduring their own ordeal. For two days, 132 sealers were stranded on the ice in blizzard conditions with no food and no shelter other than what they devise with the meagre resources they had. More than two-thirds of the men died and many of the survivors lost fingers, toes, and limbs to frostbite.
The SS Newfoundland left St. John’s for the North Atlantic ice fields in March 1914. It was captained by Westbury Kean, and sailing nearby was the SS Stephano, captained by his father Abram Kean, a veteran sealer. Even though the two men worked for competing firms, they had agreed to work coperatively on the seal hunt.
On March 30, the Stephano found a herd of seals and signalled to the Newfoundland, but the Newfoundland was jammed in the ice about six miles away and could not reach them. Anxious to catch some of the seals, Westbury Kean sent the men to walk toward the Stephano, where they would have a day of hunting and then spend the night on board that ship.
Early on the morning of March 31, 166 men headed out for Stephano. As they walked many of the sealers recognized signs of an approaching storm and grew worried. At about 10 o’clock, 34 men turned back to the Newfoundland and the rest, 132 men, reached the Stephano by 11:30. On board they had tea and hard bread. While the men ate, Abram Kean navigated the Stephano towards a group of seals two miles to the south. Although it was snowing quite hard, Kean ordered the men off his ship at 11:50, with instructions to kill 1,500 seals before returning to the Newfoundland, which he thought was only about three miles away. (Unfortunately, the leader of the group, George Tuff, did not object to this order.) Then the Stephano steamed away to pick up its own crew members who were hunting further north.
By 12:45 the blowing snow forced the sealers to stop hunting and head for their own ship. Headway was slow against the wind, through the knee-deep snowdrifts, and across moving ice pans. At dark they stopped and built shelters from chunks of ice, but these were of little use against the harsh weather. Many of the men died during the night, and others woke with their limbs frozen and numb, barely able to walk.
For the next day and night they tried, unsuccessfully, to reach their ship. Any slip or stumble, or mis-calculation of the icefloes by the exhausted and confused sealers resulted in immediate drowning in the freezing waters. Meanwhile, on board the two ships, each captain thought the sealers were safe on board the other ship. Because the Newfoundland had no wireless equipment there was no communication between the two vessels. (The owners, A.J. Harvey and Company, had previously installed wireless with the thought of communicating the position of the seal herds and thus increasing profits. When that didn’t happen, they had removed the ship’s wireless, not seeing its value as a safety device.)
A rescue party bring the sealers off the ice.
Early on April 2, after 53 hours in the blizzard without provisions or equipment, the men were spotted, crawling and staggering across the ice toward the Newfoundland. Unable to move his own ship in the ice, Westbury Kean improvised a distress signal to alert other vessels nearby. Crewmen from the SS Bellaventure went out on the ice with supplies and blankets, while the Stephano and SS Florizel helped in the search for bodies, finding 69 who had died from exposure on the ice. It was assumed that the other eight had fallen into the water, and they were never recovered. The survivors were brought to St. John’s for medical care, where another man died later from the effects of the ordeal, bringing the death toll to 78.
Thomas Dawson, from the Newfoundland, being brought ashore in St. John’s.
The deaths of 251 sealers was too big to ignore.The next year, 1915, the government held an inquiry into the two incidents. It found Abram Kean, Westbury Kean, and George Tuff (the leader of the sealing group) all guilty of errors in judgment. In Tuff’s case, the enquiry felt he should have refused the orders of Abram Kean, one of the most powerful men in the seal hunt, to return with his watch to the Newfoundland (This was an unfair accusation, as it would have been very difficult for a man in his position to refuse to leave the ship, and it was the responsibility of the ships captains to care for the men of their ship.) Among many Newfoundlanders, the consensus was that the largest share of responsibility belonged to Abram Kean, captain of the Stephano, who had sent the men out on the ice in the brewing storm. Unsurprisingly, no charges were laid against the two captains.
Abram Kean, captain of the SS Stephano
But the commission DID make an important also said all sealing vessels must carry wireless sets, barometers, and thermometers. Perhaps most importantly, ship owners would now be held accountable for any injuries or deaths sustained by their crews. Later, legislation was enacted that said sealers could not be on the ice after dark, and that all sealing ships were required to carry wireless equipment and flares. Because of the question raised about the Southern Cross’s overloading, legislation was also passed that prohibited any ship was prohibited from carrying more that 35,000 pelts.
It took the deaths of the many men to bring attention to the risks and dangers, and to make the government compel to owners (who made enormous profits from the venture, to take some responsibility for the safety of the sealers. In the end the deaths of those men did matter, after all.
In 1974, Cassie Brown published her first major work, Death on the Ice. Filled with photos and based on archival records and interviews with survivors, the book got rave reviews in Newfoundland and across Canada, and has been a staple of Newfoundland history classes since. Publishers, however, had been dubious about publishing it, worrying that the wanton disregard for human welfare that was revealed in the book might not be believed by modern audiences.