Greenland Disaster (I), The
DESCRIPTION: A sealing expedition leaves St. John's for the ice fields and all is well. When the men reached the ice, a storm comes up and freezes them. There are 25 dead and 23 missing. The singer concludes by hoping his audience will pray with him.
AUTHOR: Mrs. John Walsh ?
EARLIEST DATE: 1929 (Greenleaf/Mansfield)
KEYWORDS: storm disaster death hunting
Mar 21, 1898 - Greenland disaster
FOUND IN: Canada(Newf)
REFERENCES (4 citations):
Doyle2, pp. 40-41, "The Greenland Disaster" (1 text, 1 tune)
Greenleaf/Mansfield 146, "The Greenland Disaster" (1 text, 1 tune)
Blondahl, p. 79, "The Greenland Disaster" (1 text, 1 tune)
Ryan/Small, pp. 46-51, "The Greenland Disaster (1)," "The Greenland Disaster (2)" (2 texts, 2 tunes)
ST Doy40 (Partial)
cf. "The Greenland Disaster (II -- Sad Comes the News)" (subject)
cf. "The Greenland Disaster (III -- Miscellaneous)" (subject)
NOTES [1335 words]: Horace Beck in his book Folklore and the Sea (Mystic Conn.: Mystic Seaport Museum, 1985), p. 208 gives a brief account of sealing disasters in Newfoundland that he obtained from George A. England, Vikings of the Ice (London, 1924) pp. 54-59. - SH
[England's account really covers only three events, and even those only superficially. All three resulted in pieces cited in the Index: The Greenland Disaster of 1898, discussed here; the Newfoundland Disaster of 1914, for which see "The Newfoundland Disaster (I)," and the disappearance of the Southern Cross, for which see "The Southern Cross (I)." - RBW]
This song is item dD34 in Laws's Appendix II. Laws knew only the version in Greenleaf/Mansfield; obviously it is more popular than he thought.
The versions of this song are very diverse; Blondahl's, e.g., tells the story of the disaster in detail, while Doyle's is a bit briefer on that account but spends many stanzas detailing the names of the dead. Some of this may be caused by the vast numbers of Greenland Disaster poems floating about; Ryan/Small have four probably non-traditional versions in addition to the two traditional forms (this and "The Greenland Disaster (II)").
Of all the tragedies great and small in the history of the Newfoundland sealing industry (and they were many, for sealing was hard and dangerous work), none seems to have embedded itself as deeply into the island's consciousness as this. Even if we ignore all the pieces about the disaster printed in Ryan/Small, the story of the Greenland seems to be the event that most often turns up in ordinary histories. Feltham, p. 58, says, "the Greenland, even in my youth, almost a half-century after the disaster that bears her name, conjured up mental pictures of raging blizzards and dead and dying men."
The Greenland was built in Aberdeen, Scotland in 1871 -- and although she had a steam engine, it had only 75 horsepower (Feltham, p. 59), so her sails still played a vital part in her work; she could not go far or fast on her engines alone, and could do little to batter her way through ice. Nonetheless she went to the ice for the first time in 1872, and returned there every year until 1907, serving three different owners and ten different captains, including members of the famous Kean, Dawe, Barbour, and Winsor families (Feltham, p. 59).
From a very early date, she seems to have been regarded as unlucky -- e.g. in 1884, just two years after she was transferred to Newfoundland, she burned to the waterline and sank at her moorings, but was rebuilt (Galgay/McCarthy, p. 37)
By 1898, seals were getting harder to find than in the early 1800s, and the ships were getting more expensive. Ships couldn't afford to just harvest seals in one spot near the ship. So the habit had evolved of having "watches" of sealers -- usually four watches per ship, which would leave the ship to go hunting. Often the captain would leave one or two watches in one place, then sail off somewhere else and drop another watch, and so on. The watches left behind had to walk back to the ship or hope it can back for them (Cadigan, p. 184).
The Greenland's commander in 1898, the year of the disaster, was George Barbour (1858-1928; one of eight sons of Benjamin Barbour, five of whom -- George, James, Joseph, Thomas, and William -- became sealing captains, although George is the only one of the brothers to get much mention in poetry. He was born at Cobbler's Island near Newtown in Bonavista Bay; Ryan, p. 498). His wife, Lucretia Oakley of Greenspond, was the first teacher at the school in Flowers Island (Kean, p. 23), so the family did much for Newfoundland.
The Greenland left port on March 10 (Feltham, p. 59), with 207 men aboard (Galgay/McCarthy, p. 38). It was a year marked by rotten luck from the beginning; they had harvested a good haul of seals, but before they could load them, the carcasses were supposedly stolen by other crews (Feltham, pp. 59-60). According to Cadigan, p. 185, it may have been the notorious Abram Kean who was responsible. (For Kean, see "Captain Abram Kean.") At least, Kean's Aurora was the only ship in the vicinity when Barbour came back to find his seals missing (Collins, p. 192). Barbour chased the Aurora to try to get his pelts back, and had a screaming brawl with Kean, but Kean (who frankly strikes me as a psychopath) refused to give Barbour any satisfaction (Collins, pp. 192-193). Kean also made a vigorous defense of his conduct in the papers (Ryan, p. 306).
Hoping to make up the loss, four of the Greenland's watches of sealers had been let out at different points when a large storm blew up. Captain Barbour had gone back to where he had left off the first watch, and picked them up -- but then was jammed by the ice and had no way to reach the other three as the storm closed in; all he could do was sound his whistle and hope they could find him (Galgay/McCarthy, p. 40. Unfortunately, this was a lesson not learned; in 1914, the Newfoundland Disaster -- subject of "The Newfoundland Disaster (I)" -- would likely have been prevented if Westbury Kean, the captain of the Newfoundland, had done the same). The whistle was no help; a lake developed on the ice between the ship and the men, giving them no good path to get home even though they knew where to go (Ryan, p. 306).
At daylight the next day, Captain Barbour sent out as many men as he could to find the lost sailors. They found six men "barely alive and 24 frozen corpses." Another body was found the next day, and the Diana and Iceland, which came to help with the rescue, found one more survivor and fourteen more bodies the next day. (Feltham, p. 61; Galgay/McCarthy, p. 41. For the Diana, see "Arrival of 'Aurora,' 'Diana,' 'Virginia Lake,' and 'Vanguard,' Loaded"). In all, 48 men died, and only 25 of their bodies were found (Feltham, p. 62; there is a list of all the victims on p. 63; Ryan, p. 324 n. 153 has another list showing where different accounts gave different names; Galgay/McCarthy, p. 38, has a copy of Barbour's first message to the owners at Baine Johnston and Company summarizing the disaster and asking where to go, and also gives a list of the dead on pp. 69-70). In addition to the dead, several others ended up needing limbs amputated (Ryan, p. 306).
The Greenland's bad luck wasn't over; she grounded on the way home and barely survived (Feltham, p. 61).
Interestingly, George Barbour continued to be given commands (he would command sealers for 25 years, starting in the Walrus in 1893 and ending with the Beothic II in 1928; Ryan, p. 498), and seemingly had little trouble finding sealers; "Captain Barbour was respected by his men because he always tried to consider their wealth and safety, despite the considerable blot on his career.... [I]t was generally felt there was absolutely nothing he could have done to have averted the disaster. The sudden unheralded storm came within an inch of destroying his vessel" (Feltham, p. 86 n. 58). Indeed, his career total of 752,563 seal pelts was second all-time for any captain (Ryan/Drake, p. 75; the all-time record was by Abram Kean, for whom see "Captain Abram Kean"). There is a photo of Barbour on p. 75 of Ryan/Drake.
Cadigan, p. 184, says that some reforms followed the disaster, but not enough to prevent future tragedies such as that described in "The Newfoundland Disaster (I)," which was even more costly than the Greenland story but was similar in many ways.
Despite this horrid history, the Greenland continued to go to the ice until 1907. In late March of that year, while commanded by Captain Dan Bragg (mentioned as captain of the Greenland in "The Sealer's Song (II)"), she broke her main shaft and soon began to go down (Feltham, pp. 65-66), though it took long enough that there was no great loss of life that time time.
The Greenland is also the subject of "The Sealing Trip of the S. S. Greenland 1891." There is a picture of her as she appeared in 1888 on p. 17 of Ryan/Drake. - RBW
Last updated in version 4.3
- Cadigan: Sean T. Cadigan, Newfoundland and Labrador: A History, University of Toronto Press, 2009
- Collins: Gary Collins, Left to Die: The Story of the SS Newfoundland Sealing Disaster, Flanker Press, 2014, 2015
- Feltham: John Feltham, Sealing Steamers, Harry Cuff Publications, 1995
- Galgay/McCarthy: Frank Galgay and Michael McCarthy, Shipwrecks of Newfoundland and Labrador, [Volume I], Harry Cuff Publishing, 1987
- Kean: Abram Kean, with a foreword by Sir Wilfred Grenfell, Old and Young Ahead, 1935; I use the 2000 Flanker Press edition edited and with a new Introduction (and new photographs) by Shannon Ryan
- Ryan: Shannon Ryan, The Ice Hunters: A History of Newfoundland Sealing to 1914, Breakwater Books, 1994
- Ryan/Drake: Shannon Ryan, assisted by Martha Drake, Seals and Sealers: A Pictorial History of the Newfoundland Seal Fishery, Breakwater Books, 1987
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