Southern Cross (I), The
DESCRIPTION: The Southern Cross goes to the Gulf in March to hunt seals. They are successful in the hunt but on their return are lost in a storm. The SS Kyle, sent off to search, could find nothing. The singer concludes by hoping that all are in Heaven if never found.
EARLIEST DATE: 1927 (Greenleaf/Mansfield); "written out by Lizzie C. Rose" (Doyle4)
KEYWORDS: hunting storm ship wreck disaster
Mar 31, 1914 - Last sighting of the Southern Cross
FOUND IN: Canada(Newf)
REFERENCES (9 citations):
Greenleaf/Mansfield 139, "The Southern Cross" (1 text, 1 tune)
Peacock, pp. 973-974, "The Southern Cross" (1 text, 1 tune)
Leach-Labrador 77, "The Southern Cross" (1 text, 1 tune)
Doyle2, p. 57, "The Southern Cross" (1 text, 1 tune)
Doyle3, pp. 54-55, "The Southern Cross" (1 text, 1 tune)
Doyle4, p. 41, "The Southern Cross" (1 text, 1 tune)
Blondahl, p. 80, "The Southern Cross" (1 text, 1 tune)
Ryan/Small, pp. 99-100, "Southern Cross" (1 text, 1 tune)
Mills, pp. 34-35, "Southern Cross" (1 text, 1 tune)
ST Doy57 (Partial)
Jack Dalton, "The Southern Cross" (on PeacockCDROM)
Eddy Primroy, "Wreck of the Southern Cross" (on MUNFLA/Leach)
cf. "The Southern Cross (II)" (subject)
NOTES [1572 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, for which see "The Greenland Disaster (I)"; the Newfoundland Disaster of 1914, for which see "The Newfoundland Disaster (I)," and the disappearance of the Southern Cross, which is of course the subject of this song - RBW]
Greenleaf/Mansfield says that 170 men were lost; "no survivor or wreckage has ever been found."
Southern Cross last sighted by the Portia March 31, 1914 off Cape Race en route from Channel, southwest Newfoundland, to Harbour Grace (on the far side of Conception Bay from St John's); cargo about 20,000 seals; Captain George Clark (Northern Shipwrecks Database).
A must-read article on the ballad and its history, complete with a map, is available online in the archives of the site for the Canadian Journal for Traditional Music. Specifically, Canadian Journal for Traditional Music, vol 10, 1982, "The Southern Cross: A Case Study in the Ballad as History" by T.B. Rogers.
The article is good not only for its exhaustive discussion of this ballad but for the light it sheds on ballad-making in Newfoundland (at least). - BS
The Southern Cross was built in Norway in 1886, initially for use as a whaler, and was originally named the Pollux (Ryan/Drake, p. 33; Galgay/McCarthy, p. 45; Tarver, p. 14; Collins, p. 241); she served in that role for ten years. Only then did she really live up to her new name and go to the Antarctic; in 1896 (so Tarver; Galgay/McCarthy says 1898), she was rebuilt and given a larger engine, as well as renamed the Southern Cross, and went to the Antarctic for five years, setting a new "Farthest South" record for the time. During that expedition, her men had planted the British flag on Antarctica for the first time, although ironically it was a Norwegian who led the expedition and planted the flag (Tarver, p. 42). When she came home in 1901, she was quietly sold for the sealing trade (Feltham, p. 126).
In her first year on the ice, the Southern Cross gathered a full load of seals very quickly and was the first ship to return to St. John's (Galgay/McCarthy, p. 46). She didn't have much success in the dozen years after that -- and I note from the list of her captains on p. 127 of Feltham that she rarely had one of the more famous sealing skippers. Then came 1914.
Her captain that year was George Clarke. It was only his second year as a sealing captain; he had commanded the Bloodhound in 1912, but taken only 809 seals -- a disastrously low total (Chafe, p. 89). He may have known the ship fairly well, though -- his brother (?) John Clarke had commanded the Southern Cross 1910-1913. John Clarke did not command a ship in 1914; perhaps George was intended as a fill-in. He was said to have had a reputation as a good sealer but little as a ship's captain (Galgay/McCarthy, p. 46). He picked a very bad year to try to learn the trade. He is also reported to have had an inexperienced gang of sealers (Collins, p. 242), though this shouldn't have affected how the Southern Cross performed in a storm.
1914 was a bad year for Newfoundland sealers even apart from those on the Southern Cross; it was also the year of the Newfoundland disaster (see the notes to "The Newfoundland Disaster (I)"; the same storm that sank the Southern Cross was the one that doomed the sealers from the Newfoundland). To add to the irony, it had been a bad year for seals, and most of the ships in the seal hunt were struggling.
The Southern Cross was one of the few which had been lucky -- she had gone to the Gulf of St. Lawrence rather than the "Front" northeast of Newfoundland (Galgay/McCarthy, p. 46) -- and so was heading home earlier than the rest (Brown, p. 47). It was expected that she would be the first ship home -- a significant honor and the cause of a certain amount of gambling. It is at least possible that Captain Clarke was so intent on being the first ship back that he ignored the storm that blew up and refused to head for a port (Brown, p. 163; O'Neill, p. 974).
On March 30, she was seen by a wireless operator at St. Pierre; he reported she had all flags flying, indicating a full load (Collins, p. 242). On March 31, the coastal steamer Portia saw her briefly near Cape Pine and on her way around Cape Race (Ryan, p. 310; Galgay/McCarthy, p. 47). There were no sightings after that, and no other word. It appears that she chose to sail home through open water rather than shelter from the storm in a bay (Looker, p. 19; Brown, pp. 162-163), a decision which would have exposed her to greater danger -- especially given George Clarke's inexperience (Feltham, p. 130).
The crew of the Portia later reported that she seemed somewhat out of trim (Feltham, p. 130). And she was perhaps more vulnerable than most to storms; since her engines were retrofits, they were mounted unusually low and were vulnerable to flooding; she also had high bulwarks, making her hard to maneuver (Galgay/McCarthy, p. 48).
People began worrying about her a day after she was supposed to arrive in St. John's, but the wires to Cape Race had gone down; it was not until those were repaired that it was learned she had not been seen passing the Cape as expected (Brown, p. 162). There was no SOS -- there couldn't be, since she had no wireless (Collins, p. 243). She was simply gone.
It took some time before a search was mounted; the SS Kyle and, later, the USS Seneca found no sign of her -- no bodies, no wreckage, nothing. More than 170 sailors and sealers had simply vanished (Brown, p. 163, Collins, p. 242, Feltham, p. 129, Kean, p. 89, and Ryan, p. 311 say 173; Ryan/Drake says 172 sailors and her captain went down; Looker, p. 19, says 174 were lost; Chafe, p. 44, and O'Neill, p. 974 state there were 175 on board; Tarver, p. 14, claims 177 deaths; Galgay/McCarthy say ten crew and 163 sealers, which would be 173 or 174 depending on whether the captain is counted as part of the crew).
To this day, there is no real knowledge of what happened, although eventually a few possible traces washed up on the coast of Ireland (Looker, p. 22; Galgay/McCarthy reports that one board read "THERN C," but that its existence could not be verified). Some think her cargo shifted, perhaps due to rotten boards. It was also suspected that she was overloaded, and in the aftermath, a rule was passed limiting ships to 35,000 seals (Candow, p. 90). Whatever the explanation, it was the worst single disaster in Newfoundland sealing history -- and, when combined with the Newfoundland disaster of the same year, made it an especially sorrowful season for the sealing industry.
The Southern Cross was fairly well-known in Newfoundland sealing poetry; in addition to this song, the ship is mentioned in mentioned in "The Sealer's Song (II)," "Success to the Hardy Sealers," "Success to Every Man," and "The Southern Cross (II)"; the Cross of "Captains and Ships" is perhaps also this ship. She also had a place in folklore; England, p. 218, tells of sealers who claimed to have "seen the wraith of the ill-fated Southern Cross". Funny how they "saw" her but didn't ever learn what sank her.... Similarly, Ryan, p. 316, has tales about the Southern Cross, such as the sealer who, told that he could add one more word to his telegram home at no extra charge, added "goodbye."
There are photos of the Southern Cross on p. 178 of Feltham, on p. 21 of Looker, on pp. 33, 50 of Ryan/Drake, and on p. 49 of Galgay/McCarthy. Galgay/McCarthy, p. 44, has a photo of a model of the ship, which probably shows her design more clearly than any of the others although the paint job makes her look more like a single-decked naval frigate.
Tim B. Rogers wrote a novel about this event, The Mystery of the SS Southern Cross. Even if you like historical fiction, I doubt it is worth the bother; although the Southern Cross vanished without a trace, we know its approximate course because of the sightings as it tried to reach port, and it went down in a big storm; there isn't much mystery about what happened.
This song is item dD36 in Laws's Appendix II.
The song is unusually accurate in its details. It appears to be wrong in saying the Southern Cross sailed on the twelfth of March; the 1914 sailing day for the sealing fleet was March 10 (Chafe, p. 81). But everything else is right: her skipper was Captain Clark(e), and she did carry about 170 men. Feltham, p. 129, gives a list of where the sailors were from, and yes, there were men from St. John's, Brigus, and Harbour Grace, with Harbour Grace having the most (25). Ryan, pp. 325-326 n. 173 also had a list, with a note that some of the names cannot be considered certain. We can't know how many seals she took, but the song's figure of 17,000 was a good enough haul that it might well induce her to go home; only three times had she taken that many or more (Chafe, p. 104). The statement that she was down by the head fits the Portia's report that she was out of trim. The ship that saw her was indeed the Portia. And the Kyle was indeed the first ship to search. - RBW
Last updated in version 4.3
- Brown: Cassie Brown (with Harold Horwood), Death on the Ice: The Great Newfoundland Sealing Disaster of 1914, 1972 (I use the undated Anchor Canada paperback edition)
- Candow: James E. Candow, Of Men and Seals: A History of the Newfoundland Seal Hunt, Canadian Parks Service, Environment Canada, 1989
- Chafe: Levi George Chafe, Chafe's Sealing Book: A History of the Newfoundland Sealfishery from the Earliest Available Records Down To and Including the Voyage of 1923, third edition, Trade Printers and Publishers, Ltd., 1923 (PDF scan available from Memorial University of Newfoundland)
- Collins: Gary Collins, Left to Die: The Story of the SS Newfoundland Sealing Disaster, Flanker Press, 2014, 2015
- England: George Allan England, Vikings of the Ice: Being the Log of a Tenderfoot on the Great Newfoundland Seal Hunt (also published as The Greatest Hunt in the World), Doubleday, 1924
- 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
- Looker: Janet Looker, Disaster Canada, Lynx Images, 2000
- O'Neill: Paul O'Neill, A Seaport Legacy: The Story of St. John's, Newfoundland, Press Procepic, 1976
- 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
- Tarver: Michael C. Tarver, The S. S. Terra Nova (1884-1943), Pendragon Maritime Publications, 2006
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