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The Newfoundland Sealing Disasters of 1914

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Harp seals head to the northwest Atlantic in February to find stable ice on which to give birth. That's where they meet people who for centuries have risked their lives in the spring to harvest the seals on ice floes in the Gulf of St. Lawrence off the northern coast of Newfoundland.

Generations of Newfoundlanders have risked their lives during the annual seal hunt, depicted here in 1883.

Generations of Newfoundlanders have risked their lives during the annual seal hunt, depicted here in 1883.

Seal Hunt Basics

Winter in Newfoundland can be a long, drawn-out affair, with snow in June (referred to as Juneuary by some locals) not being unusual. So, when sealers go out on the ice in March it's a little premature to call it early spring. But, March is when the seals gather on the floes so that's when the men go out to catch them.

The standard practice was for ships to nudge up to an ice sheet and the sealers would go over the side to hunt their prey. Heritage Newfoundland and Labrador tells us that “Carrying little food, no shelter, and dressed in clothing ill-suited for sudden squalls, the sealers might spend up to 12 consecutive hours on the ice.”

The weather could turn very nasty, very quickly giving the sealers the ordeal of slogging their way through blinding snow guided only by the sound of their ship's whistle.

And, this is where we meet the hakapik and the controversial aspect of seal hunting. The hakapik is a Norwegian invention. It's a heavy club with a hammer head and a large spike at the business end. Blows from the hammer crush the seal's skull and the spike is plunged into the cadaver so that it can be dragged across the ice to the ship.

The skins are cured and used for clothing. The meat is not particularly popular among Newfoundlanders, although seal flipper pie is a delicacy, and seal oil is rich in Omega-3. Harp seals are not endangered and represent a sustainable resource that can provide income for people who are not hugely affluent.

There's no getting around this being a gruesome process, but sealers will ask would you like to view the activity on the killing floor of a slaughterhouse so you can enjoy your prime rib roast on Sunday?

A Fierce March Storm

Early in the 19th century, there were as many as 400 vessels involved in the seal hunt. These were small sailing ships with crews of only a few men. Later in the century bigger, steam-powered boats with large crews took over the trade. Several of these steamers were out in the ice fields in March 1914—the SS Newfoundland, the SS Southern Cross, and the SS Stephano, among them.

The captain of the Newfoundland was Westbury Kean, while his father, Abram Kean, was the skipper of the Stephano. On March 31, the two ships were about six miles apart with the seal calving grounds in the distance. Westbury Kean, his vessel immobilized by the ice, ordered his men over the side with instructions to head for the Stephano after they had finished hunting.

The sky looked very threatening, so most of the men headed straight for the Stephano while a few others returned to the Newfoundland. By mid-morning, although it was snowing quite hard, Abram Kean ordered the sealers to leave his ship, kill about 1,500 animals, and then return to the Newfoundland.

The SS Newfoundland and her captain, Westbury Kean (inset).

The SS Newfoundland and her captain, Westbury Kean (inset).

Death on the Ice

Under the leadership of George Tuff, second hand of the Newfoundland, 132 men set off to find the seal herd. But, the weather worsened and, by early afternoon, Tuff decided to call off the hunt and head back to the Newfoundland.

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The men were already tired after trekking across the ice for most of the morning and now they had to trudge through knee-deep snowdrifts and across moving ice pans.

By nightfall, the men had not reached their ship, so Tuff organized the building of shelters from chunks of ice. But the crude structures proved ineffectual against the changing wind, plummeting temperatures, and the added misery of freezing rain. During the night, many men perished from the cold.

Meanwhile, Westbury and Abel Kean thought the sealers were safely aboard each other's vessels, so neither captain blew their ship's whistles to guide the men. As well, the owners of the Newfoundland had removed its radio communication equipment and operator as a cost-saving measure, so there was no way of contacting the Stephano.

The survivors set off again in the morning hoping to be rescued, but they had to endure another day and night on the ice. At last, Westbury Kean caught sight of his men through his binoculars and raised the alarm.

Another sealing ship, the SS Bellaventure, was close and a rescue party with blankets, food, and drink reached the stranded sealers. But, it was too late for 78 men who had perished from the cold.

Survivor Thomas Dawson is brought ashore. Both his legs had to be amputated because of frostbite.

Survivor Thomas Dawson is brought ashore. Both his legs had to be amputated because of frostbite.

A Simultaneous Tragedy

While the disaster was playing out for the crew of the Newfoundland on the ice, catastrophe hit another vessel in the sealing fleet. The SS Southern Cross had left St. John's earlier than the Newfoundland and the Stephano and was heading home with a hold full of seal pelts.

The Southern Cross was seen off the coast of southeastern Newfoundland on the late morning of March 31, 1914. She was low in the water because of her heavy, overloaded cargo and was battling the same storm that was causing havoc on the ice floes farther north. She was never seen again. She sank with all hands—all 173 of them.

Other ships in the area had found shelter from the tempest in the bays and coves of the Newfoundland coast. Could it be that the captain of the Southern Cross put his vessel and crew at risk in order to get to St. John's before any other sealing ship to claim the small bonus and accolades of being the first to open the season?

It has never been determined why the Southern Cross sank, but there is speculation her cargo might have shifted in the heavy waves causing her to capsize.

The twin disasters took the lives of 251 Newfoundlanders in the space of a couple of days and led to regulations to improve the safety of the sealers; however, it remains a challenging and hazardous occupation.

Bonus Factoids

  • First Nations people in what was to become Canada began hunting seals at least 4,000 years ago. Seal meat has traditionally been an important part of the Inuit diet, and the skins have been turned into clothing.
  • Jenny Higgins is the author of Perished: The 1914 Newfoundland Seal Hunt Disaster. She says that for sealers, “a typical pay would have probably been between $30 and $40, that would have been for about six or seven weeks of very hard physical labour, severe deprivation, little food, and basically putting your life at risk.”

Sources

  • “The 1914 Sealing Disaster.” Jenny Higgins, Heritage Newfoundland and Labrador, 2007.
  • “Newfoundland's 1914 Sealing Disaster.” Joanna Dawson, canadashistory.com, March 31, 2014.
  • “The 1914 Sealing Disaster: 100 Years Later.” CBC News, March 30, 2014.
  • “Newfoundland Spring Sealing Disasters to 1914.” Shannon Ryan, The Northern Mariner, July 1993.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Rupert Taylor

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