The end of March for Newfoundlanders marks a sad centennial. On march 30, 1914, Captain Westbury Kean sent 166 Newfoundland sealers over the side of his ship the SS Newfoundland to hit the ice floes, hunt seals, and walk the four to seven kilometres to SS Stephano which was captained by his father, legendary sealing captain Abram Kean. The Stephano was further into the ice flow as it was steel, unlike The Newfoundland which was an older wooden ship and was trapped in the ice. Some of the men did not make the trip. Uneasy about the approaching storm 34 turned back, leaving 132 men off to meet Captain Abram Kean’s vessel. The Younger Kean assumed his men would spend the night aboard his father’s ship. Instead they were welcomed aboard for a mug up of tea and hard bread and sent back out to the hunt in a mounting storm. That cruel decision to order these men to secure 1500 pelts before returning to the Newfoundland was one that would have deadly consequences. The storm worsened that the men would not make it back to the Newfoundland. Of the 166 who left, 77 perished. It would be April 2 before Westbury Kean would realize what had happened. The SS Bellaventure dispatched some of its crew to rescue survivors and retrieve bodies. At the same time this disaster was unfolding another sealing vessel the SS Southern Cross was lost at sea in the same storm – 173 men lost at sea!
This chapter in the history of the Dominion of Newfoundland is one that we all learned about in school, in poetry and in song. It is a part of the collective consciousness of Newfoundlanders. As children in school, Cassie Brown’s Book Death On the Ice was required reading. It is a book that I would recommend to you. You can order it here – Death On the Ice
The annual trip to the ice floes was the only hope for money for most of the men who made the journey. They would walk, some of them one hundred miles or more, for the possibility to board one of those vessels. Sure the risk was great but the possibility of earning actual cash was a great motivator to people who had no money and saw no cash; people whose lives were governed by the merchants with whom they had to trade in barter in the inshore fishery. By spring cupboards were often very bare – it was work. The conditions were terrible and safety was not a concern. There was little food, no real bunks, no bathroom facilities, and often no clean drinking water. But a successful hunt would give the sealer $30-40 in 1914 which was the mind of money that could make a difference. Desperate times call for desperate measures – and the merchants and their captains were more than aware of that desperation and were all too happy to take advantage of it. The conditions and terms of employment were not much more than slavery. We can only imagine the magnitude of loss from the Sealing Disaster of 1914 to a colony the size of Newfoundland whose population was just over 200 000.
The National Film Board has produced a very well done video that can be views by visiting this page.
It is a powerful retelling of the story in the words of survivors.
As we remember those lost at sea so long ago we pray for those who work at sea today. While the conditions are no longer as terrible, those who make a living on the water still do so at considerable risk. The sea can be merciless.
Prayer for seafarers
Lord God, Creator of land and sea, bless those who work at sea. Be with them in fair weather and foul, in danger or distress. Strengthen them when weary, lift them up when down and comfort them when far from their loved ones. In this life, bring them safely to shore and, in the life to come, welcome them to your kingdom. For Jesus Christ’s sake. Amen