The Greenland Disaster – by Wornell



We now relate the mournful fate of gallant sealers dead,
Whose frost-burnt hands and faces paid the price of daily bread;
A vanished race of experts on the rafting Arctic floe:
The victims of disaster in a wilderness of snow.

On March the tenth in ninety-eight, their sealing-ship departed
With blaring horns and lusty cheers from sealers eager-hearted;
Then no one knew that such a crew would pay grim sacrifice
To demon spirits ruling o’er the realms of Polar ice.

A dauntless master-mariner from Bonavista Bay,
George Barbour, brought the Greenland where the whining whitecoats lay;
And ninety miles north-east the Funks they struck the young harp patches.
Then cruised about to kill and pan and load her to the hatches.

Upon the fateful twenty-first, the weather-glass was low;
The dawning brought a leaden sky, presaging wind and snow;
But bred to battle wintry storms, these vet’rans of the North,
At duty’s call, took Danger’s risk and bravely ventured forth.

The Polar legions hurled their wrath against the hapless men
Who struggled through the blinding snow to reach their ship again:
But forty hours passed before they knew the tragic score;
That forty-eight had met their fate, to hunt the seals no more!

They’d never seen a wilder storm than that which raged that day;
So fierce and swift the stifling drift, they wandered far astray;
Exposed to piercing icy blasts upon that frozen waste,
The only shelter they could find was in a friend’s embrace.

Aboard the Greenland, frantic mates were also horrified
When pressure of the hurricane careened her on her side;
All night they worked like Trojans, shifting cargo on the deck.
To put her on an even keel, preventing certain wreck.

The foll’wing day, at 4 P.M., improvement in the storm
Permitted rescue-squads to bring them food and clothing warm;
In contemplation, strong men wept, as others would relate
The tragic circumstances of their comrade’s gruesome fate.

A sister-ship, Diana, and the Iceland joined the search
To find the dead and living and retrieve them from their perch
Upon the fatal pans of ice. Then on the twenty-third
All victims and survivors to the Greenland were transferred.

Imagine frozen corpses, packed in ice, upon a ship;
A floating-Horror-chamber was the Greenland on that trip;
For twenty-five stiff carcasses are not a pleasant sight
To muse upon in solitude when storms are at their height.

The fiendish storm-king, unappeased, assaulted, yet once more,
The Greenland ere she reached St. John’s, and drove her on the shore,
Off Bay de Verde, the crew engaged in shifting bunker coal
Till, leaving half her keel behind, she floated off the shoal.

In multitude the city-folk looked on with bated breath
As slowly in the harbour steamed that tragic ship of death.
The Premier and the Governor; the Legislature too
In silence waited on the pier to greet the mournful crew.

The melancholy story of the Greenland’s grim disaster
Was soon officially received in sorrow from her master:
Survivors gave their narratives in detail to the Press,
While tearful eye and broken voice displayed the soul’s distress.

A scene to shock the stoutest heart then met the eyes which gazed
Upon the dead as from the hold the frozen forms were raised;
All warped beyond resemblance to their former nimble frames,
Those twisted shapes were all that then remained of sealers’ names.

But human names are nothing, if with nerve and spirit they
Are not endowed as were these men we celebrate today.
When high adventure challenges, the dauntless heart replies
With noble deeds of daring and, heroic, lives – or dies.

In tribute now, our heads we bow for valiant sealers dead;
Whose frost-burnt hands and faces dearly paid for daily bread;
The forty-eight who met their fate amid the ice and snow
While battling raging blizzards on the rafting Arctic floe.

Source: Ryan & Small, Haulin’ Rope & Gaff: Songs and Poetry in the History of the Newfoundland Seal Fishery (1978)

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