Old Polina, The
DESCRIPTION: "There's a noble fleet of whalers a-sailing from Dundee... There's not another whaler that sails the Arctic Sea Can beat the old Polina, you need not try, my sons." The singer describes all the various ships which failed to outrace the Polina
EARLIEST DATE: 1955 (Doyle)
KEYWORDS: ship whaler racing bragging
1888-1891 - Catpain William Guy commands the _Polynia_ out of Newfoundland
FOUND IN: Canada(Newf) Britain(Scotland(Aber))
REFERENCES (8 citations):
Fowke/Mills/Blume, pp. 165-166, "The Old 'Polina'" (1 text, tune referenced)
Fowke/MacMillan 15, "The Old 'Polina'" (1 text, 1 tune)
Doyle3, pp. 44-45, "Old Polina" (1 text, 1 tune)
Doyle4, pp. 36-37, "Old Polina" (1 text, 1 tune)
Doyle5, pp. 32-33, "Old Polina" (1 text, 1 tune)
Mills, pp. 22-23, "Old Polina" (1 text, 1 tune)
Blondahl, pp. 22-23, "The Old Polina" (1 text, 1 tune)
Palmer-Sea 134, "The Balena" (1 text, 1 tune)
ST FMB165 (Partial)
A.L. Lloyd, "The Balaena" (on Lloyd9)
cf. "A Noble Fleet of Sealers" (tune)
cf. "Save Our Swilers" (tune)
Save Our Swilers (File: RySm156)
NOTES [3590 words]: GEST Songs of Newfoundland and Labrador site claims the song was written in the 1880s.
The notes to A.L. Lloyd's Leviathan! for "The Balaena" makes this whaler R. Kinnes's Balaena, the "largest and fastest" of the 1873 Dundee whaling fleet. According to the Dundee City Council site, it "sailed its last voyage in 1892 under Captain Alexander Fairweather." That's a different explanation than the sinking of the Polynia proposed by the GEST site. - BS
In fact different versions of the song refer to the Balaena and the Polina as the ship. The best explanation is that they're both right....
At least the reference to Dundee is apt. Dundee was not particularly noteworthy as a whaling port in the early years of the industry. But when whalers converted from sails to steam, things changed. (And note that the Polina has an engine, so she must be a steamer.) Dundee "already had an experienced shipbuilding industry with nearly half a century of experience of steam ships" (Archibald, p. 44), so they happily started using their steam ships for whaling -- and sealing; the fact that the ships used steam meant that they could do both in one year rather than have to choose one industry. And that meant that St. John's became an essential part of the operation: "From 1862 Dundee vessels began top operate regularly from St. John's in Newfoundland, with Polynia the pioneer" (Archibald, p. 45. They still needed Scottish engineers for some years, though, before the Newfoundlanders learned how to maintain the engines; Ryan, p. 230).
If 1862 is our earliest possible year for this song, the last is 1914; the whaling fleet by then had been in decline for decades as the arctic whale population fell, and the First World War killed off the Dundee industry (Archibald, p. 49).
The problem of the ship's name appears to have arisen because there were two whalers with very similar names -- and even some of the same captains! There was a Balaena (or, in some texts, Balena), and she did sail from Dundee, and she was a whaler -- in her first service in the Scottish merchant fleet, she was part of the Dundee Whaling Expedition of 1892-1893 that went to try whaling in the Antarctic (Tarver, p. 23; Archibald, pp. 98-99) before settling down to regular whaling duty. What's more, she was commanded by Alexander Fairweather (1853-1896) on that expedition (Tarver, p. 227; Archibald, p. 217). It is on this basis that the album "Another Time: The Songs of Newfoundland" tries to explain "The Old Polina" by saying that is is a localized version of "The Old Balena," obviously assuming that the "Balena" versions are older. This doesn't really explain the Newfoundland references, though, or the Newfoundland dialect phrase "you need not try, me sons."
Also, the Balaena was not a sealer; she was only a whaler (see the lists of sealing vessels in Chafe). This doesn't preclude her visiting St. John's, but it makes it significantly less likely that she would spent substantial time there. If a whaler did go there, it would simply be to resupply. A sealer would also pick up crew members in Newfoundland. Even though this song is about a whaler, it does not describe whaling; it describes the trip to St. John's. This hints, although it does not require, that the ship involved was a sealer as well as a whaler.
The notes in Fowke/Mills/Blume and in Mills agree with GEST in associating the song with the Newfoundland vessel Polynia, which they state was lost in the Straits of Belle Isle in 1884. But the Polynia was not lost in 1884. The Polynia (like a Balena, a real ship) was noteworthy specifically because she was of one of the very first steam whalers to be a sealer as well. Launched in 1861, the Polynia sailed from Dundee to the Newfoundland sealing grounds in 1862 (Ryan, p. 147). This was the very first year a steamer went to the Newfoundland sealing grounds (Candow, p. 42); the Polynia was one of just two ships to do so. Since she was based in Dundee (as in the song), she was not considered a Newfoundland sealer. She continued to sail from Dundee for more than two decades; for much of this time, her whaling captain was David Kilgour (Archibald, pp. 86-87).
But in 1884, the year (and indeed the month) Mills and co. say Polynia was lost, the Polynia went to the ice as a sealer under the command of J. B. Walker; she sailed from Newfoundland (Chafe, p. 103), not Dundee. She pursued the seal fishery 1884-1891, although with limited success (in her two years under Walker, she took only 1151 seals, so it's no surprise he wasn't back. Later captains did better, but never hit the 20,000 figure that marked a truly successful trip).
So: the Dundee Polynia was not lost in 1884, as claimed, but was transferred to a Newfoundland base. She wasn't lost until 1891, after the end of the sealing season (Chafe, p. 103); she was whaling in Lancaster Sound (Archibald, p. 247). This means that the Balaena was being acquired at just about the time the Polynia was being crushed by ice. An odd coincidence....
Archibald, p. 176, describes Polynia's end as follows: "There was a tragedy in the 1891 season when a huge wave struck to Polynia, killing one man and injuring ten others and on 11 July that year Polynia was crushed by ice in Lancaster Sound. Her crew abandoned and she sank not long afterward. The Dundee ships Maud and Aurora [the latter, obviously, mentioned in the song] rescued her crew, some of whom arrived in Wick on the 3 October [sic]."
The Polynia was built at the Dundee shipyards of Alexander Stephen & Sons in 1861 for Dundee S. & W. Fishing Co. (Archibald, p. 175). She was listed as 146.2' x 29.0' x 18.1', and at 462 gross tons (Tarver, p. 207). Thus she went sealing in the very first season after her completion. Stephen & Sons also built other ships mentioned in the song, the Esquimaux Terra Nova, Aurora, and Arctic (Tarver, pp. 207-209). Polynia's first captain was Captain Penny, who had earlier been involved in the Franklin search; for him, see the notes to "Lady Franklin's Lament (The Sailor's Dream)" [Laws K9]; some versions of that song mention him. Captains Gravill, Nicoll, William Walker, Kilgour, Yule, John B. Walker, and Burnett followed before William Guy took her.
Stephen & Sons did not built the Balaena; she was built in 1872 by Jorgensen & Knudsen of Norway and given the name Mjolne. She didn't join the Dundee fleet, or gain the name Balaena, until 1891. "Captain Guy" commanded her 1903-1908; also, Alexander Fairweather commanded her 1892-1896 (Archibald, p. 128). Her other captains, Thomas Robertson (1897-1901 -- he was fired in that year for hiding tobacco in his cabin, and also perhaps because of fights among his men), James Bannerman (1902), J. Murray (1909-1911), and W. Adams (1917) do not seem to be mentioned in this song. She returned to Norwegian ownership in 1917, and was a hulk by 1929 (Archibald, p. 129).
There is more supporting evidence for the claim that the ship is real, and is the Polynia. One of the officers mentioned in the song is "Fairweather." I would note that there were at least three Captains Fairweather (Ryan/Drake, pp. 24, 27, 29), although almost certainly only two of them concern us: James Fairweather commanded the Aurora 1880-1888, and Alexander Fairweather the Thetis in 1883 and the Terra Nova 1885-1888 (Chafe, p. 90). Alexander Fairweather had an active life, dying at sea in 1896 (Archibald, p. 80).
However, it appears that the captain of "Old Polina" was "Captain Guy," who is mentioned twice in most versions. The captain of the (Newfoundland) Polynia in 1888-1891 was William Guy (Chafe, p. 103).
Archibald, p. 218, lists the whalers commanded by William Guy: the Nova Zembla 1878-1882, the Jan Mayen 1883, the Arctic II 1884-1887 (losing her in Foxe Channel in that year; Archibald, p. 125; Greene, p. 273, specified that it was near Harrison Point in Cumberland Gulf), the Polynia in 1888-1891 (losing her in that year), the Eclipse in 1892, the Nova Zembla again 1893-1902 (losing her in that year), and then the Balaena until 1907. Note that, although he commanded the Polynia as both a sealer and a whaler, it wasn't always in the same years!
So which version came first, Polina or Balaena? After all, the same guy (or the same Guy, if you will) commanded both.
As secondary evidence, note that all Newfoundland versions refer to the Polina. The Scottish versions mostly refer to the Balena, but one of Gatherer's texts refers to the Polina. This is evidence that the Polina versions are older; if the Balaena text had been the original, it would have had to go to Newfoundland, be converted to the Polina, after which the Balaena version would be forgotten in Newfoundland and the Polina version carried to Scotland. If the song originated with the Polina, in either Newfoundland or Scotland, then there was only one ocean crossing of the song, and the conversion from Polina to Balaena happened only in Scotland. This, plus the fact that the Polynia was the older ship, and sailed from both Newfoundland and Dundee (which the Balaena did not), are pretty decisive for the claim that the Polina is the original form, the Balena the adaption.
Also interesting: William Guy knew James Fairweather in Newfoundland. James Fairweather got in trouble for using violence against his own crew, and also for beating up the chief engineer of Henry Dawe's ship Esquimaux in 1886 -- and William Guy was there at the time! (Ryan, pp. 263-264). Both in fact faced charges; Fairweather was fined $4, though the case against Guy was dismissed. And the fight was over whether the engineer could get up steam in haste, to allow the men to go on some sort of drunken harbor cruise. Which makes it interesting, at least, that the Doyle version says, "Art Jackson [=Jackman] set his canvas, Fairweather got up steam, And Captain Guy, the daring boy, came plunging through the stream." It seems the two had semi-friendly competitions in many ways.
The Fairweathers certainly seem to have been hard drinkers; Alexander Fairweather died of delirium tremors (Archibald, p. 79). He was also strongly superstitious -- he was afraid of the number 13, wouldn't hire crew on Fridays, and had his cabin decorated with red herring (Archibald, p. 217).
I'm pretty sure that "Art Jackson" mentioned in some versions should be "Art Jackman," since "Art Jackman" is referred to later in the song, and Arthur Jackman (1843-1907) commanded Newfoundland steamers from 1871 to 1906, spending time as captain of the Hawk, Falcon, Narwhal, Resolute, Eagle, Aurora, and Terra Nova (Chafe, p. 92). I can say categorically that no Newfoundland steamer had a "Captain Jackson," and Archibald doesn't list any Dundee whaling captain with that name, although his list is not as comprehensive as Chafe's.
Ryan, pp. 272-273 n. 23, says Jackman was "a legend in his own time. He was big, impressive, given to heavy drinking and violence, but very successful and usually generous and popular." And tough enough that, when he mangled one of his fingers, he took an axe and cut it off when one of his sailors refused to do so! In 1886, he accompanied Robert Peary on the latter's first trip to the Arctic (DictNewfLabr, p. 173) and came to be known as "Viking Arthur" because of his work in northern seas (Droge, p. 47). He spent some time as a whaler, but had an even longer and more famous career as a sealer; his obituary said that he commanded his first sealing ship at age 22 (Ryan, p. 380, who reprints the obituary found in the St. John's Evening Telegram of Jan. 13, 1907). Such was his fame that the Evening Telegram also published three poems or ballads about him in the weeks after his death (Ryan, p. 385). For Jackman, see also "Sealer's Song (I)," "First Arrival -- 'Aurora' and 'Walrus' Full," and "The Spring of '97."
Newfoundlanders continue to tell stories about the Fairweathers and the Jackmans. Young, p. 235, has one about a Fairweather (apparently James) and Art Jackman. Sealing ships had a tendency to follow the lead of the most noteworthy captain, since they were thought likely to find the seals soonest. One year (un-named), Jackman led the sealing fleet out of St. John's, and found the whole fleet following him. He shook off all but Fairweather. When Jackman spotted seals in the distance, he stopped the ship. Fairweather oh so kindly sent a message asking if Jackman needed help. Jackman told Fairweather he was stopped because of the weather; Fairweather said he would do the same, and asked when Jackman would start out in the morning. Jackman said he would hang a red light so Fairweather could see when he moved. In the night, Jackman headed away for the seals, leaving a red light on a pole to fool Fairweather.
No wonder they got into bar fights....
Jackman, in fact, was so notorious an individual that a year in which only one or two sealing steamers found success was known as an "Arthur-Jackman Year" -- a year in which the only captains who found success were those who went against the grain as much as Jackman (Greene, p. 17).
The Doyle text mentions the Terra Nova, Aurora, Arctic, and Husky along with the Polina. All of these except the Husky are real Newfoundland steamers. For the Aurora, see "First Arrival -- 'Aurora' and 'Walrus' Full." The Aurora served as a sealer 1877-1911 (Chafe, p. 98).
The Arctic II was built in 1875, serving under William Adams Sr. 1875-1883 (as a whaler) and from 1877 to 1887 as a sealer -- and served under William Guy 1884-1887 as a whaler (Archibald, p. 124) and 1885-1887 as a sealer (Chafe, p. 98). It's little surprise that she wasn't fast; in 1881, she had been so badly squeezed in the ice that it took a hydraulic jack to straighten her out (Archibald, p. 124), and surely her speed would have been affected by that even after the repairs!
The most famous of these ships was surely the Terra Nova, for which see "The Terra Nova." The Terra Nova was built as a whaler/sealer in 1885, came under Newfoundland ownership in 1898, went to Antarctica in 1903-1905 and in 1910, then again went back to sealing until she was lost in World War II. She was the very last sealer to sail from Dundee, in 1895 (Archibald, p. 49) -- a strong hint that the song is older than that.
This leaves the problem of the Husky. For that, we turn to Bruce Laurenson's Balena version from the Shetlands. This converts Captain Jackman to "Bold Jacklin," but instead of "Mullins in the Husky" it offers "Mallan" of the Eskimaux -- that is, the SS Esquimaux, yet another Newfoundland ship (for her, see "Captain Bill Ryan Left Terry Behind"); one suspects that there might have been an intermediate version which called her the "Huskimaw" or similar, since that is a variant form of "Eskimo" (quite common in the nineteenth century) that could easily give rise to "Husky." The Esquimaux's Newfoundland captain, in 1885 and 1887-1890, was William Milne (Chafe, p. 99; Chafe, p. 94, shows that William Milne (1851-1937) never commanded any other sealer, but Archibald, p. 219, says that he was a whaler for 55 years). His name is obviously the source of both "Mullins" and "Mallan." (Indeed, as Peter Shepheard pointed out to me, the name "Milne" is often pronounced "Mallan" in Scotland.)
Milne (1851-1937) would later become famous for helping Roald Amundsen plan his first great exploit, the sailing of the Northwest Passage, and was knighted by the King of Norway as a result (Archibald, p. 48). He sounds like he was an interesting character, rising to command despite being extremely short and finding time to have ten children despite his time at sea (Archibald, pp. 79-80). He was unusual among Arctic travellers for his knowledge of the Inuit. He reportedly went to the Arctic 42 times in some capacity or other (Archibald, pp. 219-220).
I doubt the Esquimaux was very fast; although built in 1865, and designed to have a screw propellor, it sounds as if it wasn't initially fitted (Archibald, p. 149), and retrofits almost never worked as well as engines which were part of the original design.
Since all the other ships outlasted the Polynia, they don't provide much dating help. But they do prove that the song must be from after 1885.
Captain Guy, after he left the Polynia, took over the Balaena. Apparently he took the song with him! Palmer says that "The Old Polina" version refers to the years 1884-1887; Gatherer counter-proposes that the storm described as damaging the ship took place in 1891. This would, however, be after Polynia was transferred to Newfoundland ownership. In fact, the mention of Milne confines us to 1885 or 1887, probably the former. Further evidence that the year was not 1886 is the fact that the Aurora was very nearly lost in that year (Feltham, pp. 22-23, or see the notes to "First Arrival -- 'Aurora' and 'Walrus' Full"). Given the Aurora's troubles in 1886, and the damage she suffered, 1885 might be the better bet for the year. This would also explain why the Terra Nova was called a "model"; she was brand new -- the latest model. Archibald, p. 197, says, "Known familiarly as 'Novey', Terra Nova was the last Dundee built whaling ship and arguably the best. She was built to replace the successful whaling ship Thetis, which had been sold to the United States Government. All the skill and experience of the previous two decades of whaling ship construction created what was undoubtedly a superb example of an Arctic-worthy hunting vessel.... Terra Nova was a fast ship, with a record passage of 11 days on her maiden voyage from Dundee to St. John's in February 1885."
This leaves one loose end in the Laurenson version, which is the mention of "Captain Burnett" commanding the Balena. She never had such a skipper; her captains, according to Archibald, p. 128, were Fairweather, Thomas Robertson, James Bannerman, Guy, J. Murray, and W. Adams. But Burnett did command the Polynia, if only for a year. So the Laurenson reference to Burnett would seem to be a hangover -- the song was written in 1885 about Captain Guy, then adjusted to Burnett in 1886, then corrected back to Guy in 1887, but someone forgot and left the mention of Burnett in there! Burnett seems to have been a very obscure captain; the pages of Archibald are littered with mentions of the Jackmans and Fairweathers and Milnes and several others, but the only other mention of Burnett (first name apparently unknown) is as captain of the Victor in 1881. The Victor was destroyed in the Davis Strait in that year (Archibald, p. 208). She never served as a Newfoundland sealer, and Burnett never commanded a sealing expedition (Chafe, p. 97), so presumably he wasn't well-known in Newfoundland.
It is interesting to note that one of the ships on the Antarctic Whaling Expedition did suffer damage like that described in the song in 1892 -- but the ship wasn't the Balaena, it was the Active "The rough weather... [cost] Active two boats, some sails and a section of bulwark" (Archibald, p. 100).
One of Art Jackman's ships, the Eagle, also suffered faintly similar damage on one of her voyages. In 1887, the sealing fleet left St. John's, led by Jackman and the Eagle (with James Fairweather in the Aurora right behind). Not long after, several ladders from the Eagle were found on the ice, and there were worries that the Eagle had been destroyed -- but Jackman later arrived with a fine load of seals; the ladders had become caught up in some ropes and were thrown overboard (Power, pp. 63-64).
The spelling Polina for Polynia may have derived from yet another ship. Power, p. 93, mentions a ship Polina being part of a traffic jam in the St. John's narrows in 1896. Since this was after the Polynia was lost, it must be a different ship.
It's hard to know if the song's claim that the Polina was fast fits the Polynia. She was known to be highly maneuverable (Candow, p. 42), which in a steamer is certainly a related ability. But the sources consulted by Archibald (p. 175) say that her engine was only 60 or 70 horsepower. That's not a big engine for a ship of 473 gross tons. If she was fast, it was probably because she was a good sailer, not because of her engine.
By contrast, there is every reason to think the Balaena was slow by the time she came into Dundee service. She was old, and she was so tired that her engine broke down on her very first attempt to leave Dundee (Archibald, p. 99).
Her crew on the Antarctic expedition was "a jolly motley crowd... men and boys... of every sailor type... Arctic whalers, red cheeked and bearded, tanned South Spainers... quiet men and boys from the east coast fishing villages and gentle men from the Shetlands" (Archibald, p. 99). No one from St. John's, though!
Fowke/Mills/Blume list "The Old Polina" as being to the tune of "A Noble Fleet of Sealers." That the tune is the same is true. But an examination of "A Noble Fleet of Sealers" shows that it must date from the 1940s or later (see the notes to that song). So "The Old Polina" is the original, predating "A Noble Fleet" as well as "The Old Balena" versions.
Doyle's version is said to be from Captain Peter Carter of Greenspond. A Peter Carter (1869-1959) was a famous sealing captain who set the record for most seals in a single season in 1933 (Ryan/Drake, p. 80). I don't know if it's the same Peter Carter, but it seems likely. - RBW
Last updated in version 4.4
- Archibald: Malcolm Archibald, The Dundee Whaling Fleet: Ships, Masters and Men, DUndee University Press, 2013
- 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)
- DictNewfLabrador: (Robert H. Cuff, managing editor), Dictionary of Newfoundland and Labrador Biography, Harry Cuff Publications, 1990
- Droge: Eldon Droge, Jackman: The Courage of William Jackman, One of Newfoundland's Greatest Heroes, Jesperson Press, 2000
- Feltham: John Feltham, Sealing Steamers, Harry Cuff Publications, 1995
- Greene: William Howe Greene, The Wooden Walls among the Ice Flows: Telling the Romance of the Newfoundland Seal Fishery, Hutchinson & Co, London (PDF available on the Memorial University of Newfoundland web site)
- Power: Rosalind Power, A Narrow Passage: Shipwrecks and Tragedies in the St. John's Narrows, Jeff Blackwood & Associates, 2000
- 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
- Young: Ron Young, Dictionary of Newfoundland and Labrador, Downhome Publishing Inc., 2006
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