Captain William Jackman, A Newfoundland Hero
DESCRIPTION: "The fierce winds blow among the cliffs Of rugged Labrador." Jackman is on the beach in a snowstorm and hears cries from a wreck on a reef "some hundred fathoms from shore." He swims to the wreck 27 times and rescues all on board.
EARLIEST DATE: 1904 (Murphy, Songs of Our Land, Old Home Week Souvenir); supposedly published 1889
KEYWORDS: rescue storm wreck recitation
1837-1877 - Life of William Jackman
Oct 9, 1867 - The Loon/Sea Clipper wreck
FOUND IN: Canada(Newf)
REFERENCES (6 citations):
Greenleaf/Mansfield 145, "Captain William Jackman, A Newfoundland Hero" (1 text)
Ryan/Small, pp. 29-31, "A Newfoundland Hero" (1 text)
Doyle4, pp. 85-86, "Captain William Jackman -- A Newfoundland Hero" (1 text)
ADDITIONAL: James Murphy, compiler/publisher, "(Old Colony Song Book: Newfoundland)," James Murphy, 1904 (available from the Memorial University of Newfoundland web site; the cover is missing, but I suspect it is a copy of "Songs of Our Land"), p. 44, "A Newfoundland Hero" (1 text)
James Murphy, compiler, _Songs & Ballads of Terra Nova_, Evening Telegram publishing, 1903 (available from the Memorial University of Newfoundland web site), p. 76, "A Newfoundland Hero" (1 text)
Captain Joseph Prim and Mike McCarthy, _The Angry Seas: Shipwrecks on the Coast of Labrador_, Jesperson Publishing, 1999, pp. 30-32, "A Newfoundland Hero" (1 text)
ST GrMa145 (Partial)
NOTES [1973 words]: The site for the Captain William Jackman Memorial Hospital in Labrador City states "On October 9, 1867, during the worst storm of the decade, two ships collided. The Loon quickly sank and The Sea Clipper was able to save the passengers and crew of the smaller ship. Soon the strong gales drove the injured ship into a reef near Spotted Island, Labrador. Twenty-seven people on-board were in peril of their lives.
Captain Jackman was visiting the island and as [he] and his host went for an evening walk, they noticed the troubled ship. Few people knew how to swim in that day; however, Jackman was an avid swimmer. He made 27 trips through the cold October waters and each time brought a survivor to shore. The storm had claimed 42 ships and 40 lives; however, all were saved from The Sea Clipper because of the exploits of Captain Jackman."
Greenleaf/Mansfield has the date as October 29, 1866 and notes that Jackman's "health was broken. Queen Victoria sent him a medal." [The Dictionary of Canadian Biography notes that Jackman, born in 1837, died at the age of 39. - RBW]
The October 9, 1867 date is confirmed by Northern Shipwrecks Database 2002. - BS
Chafe, p. 32, says, "He was one of the famous seal killers of his day, and a brother of Captain Arthur Jackman. He will always be remembered for his great exploit at Labrador in the terrific gale of October 9, 1867, when so many vessels were lost. He rescued 27 men, women and children by his own exertions swimming ashore with him through the surf." Ryan, p. 495, adds that he was the brother of the famous sealing captain Arthur Jackman (for whom see "The Old Polina" and "Sealer's Song (I)"); that he was born in Renews, and that he first commanded the sealing steamer Hawk in 1867 and held his last command in the Eagle in 1876 (for the Eagle, see "The Ice-Floes").
Apparently it was common to refer to him as "Jackman the Hero" (DictNewfLabrador, p. 174).
Although Jackman made a dozen sealing voyages in his life, he apparently thought of himself primarily as a cod fisherman (Droge, p. 111).
Droge's book Jackman: The courage of Captain William Jackman, one of Newfoundland's greatest heroes is officially listed as fiction. Droge says that he did real research but then filled in some gaps with his own imagination (Droge, p. 12). It is certainly not entirely accurate, e.g. on p. 119 it says that the first sealing steamer Jackman commanded was the Hawke in 1862. But Chafe, p. 92, says that his first steamer was the Hawk (no "e") in 1867. Nonetheless Droge was the basis of the entry on pp. 76-81 of ButlerHanrahan. So it would seem that there is no reliable source for Jackman's exploits. I've quoted Droge only when he seems to be in non-fiction mode.
Jackman was said to have sprung from an old Newfoundland family that first came to the island in 1637. A William Jackman and his wife had been shipwrecked near Renews in 1637; William the Hero was said to be their sixth generation descendant (Droge, p. 39). Johanna Jackman, the wife of the first William, was supposed to have been the first schoolteacher in all of Newfoundland; she and her husband made an addition to their house where she would teach any children who would come (Droge, p. 41).
This sounds awfully folkloric, but supposedly Thomas Jackman, the father of William and Arthur, personally built his first vessel, a small schooner (Droge, p. 41), and did well enough that he was able to buy a much bigger ship, which he renamed Fanny Bloomer; she became famous under that name (Droge, p. 44).
There are other elements in this story which make Jackman seem more like a romance hero than a real human being. For instance, Droge, p. 116ff., has his sealing party involved in a disaster that resembled a small-scale version of the future Greenland and Newfoundland Disasters. Droge, p. 102, claims Jackman obtained his Master's certificate before he turned nineteen, making him one of the youngest men to attain that honor. Yet the photo on the same page shows a certificate dated August 1868, when Jackman was 31. And Jackman was said to be a friend of the Innu of Labrador (Droge, p. 106) at a time when few were. He frankly sounds too good to be true.
There is some dispute about the name of the ship that sank after the wreck described in this song; the modern sources I have read call her the Sea Clipper, but early sources sometimes called her theSea Slipper. (On p. 137, Droge prints a newspaper account that, in the space of one paragraph, calls her the Sea Slipper and the Sea Skipper! Greene, p. 291, quotes a letter to a newspaper: "A vessel called the Sea Slipper had struck on a reef near the Spotted Islands, Labrador. She had been in collision with another schooner, and sank near Indian Tickle, taking on board her crew and passengers. It was between noon and one o'clock when the Sea Slipper struck the fatal reef, the hurricane blowing at its full from the north-west....")
On the same page, Droge says that the name of the ship that hit the Sea Clipper is not known; he apparently made up the name Loon, and everyone else adopted his name without reading his footnote. Prim/McCarthy, p. 26, give a different story -- that the Sea Clipper hadn't suffered a collision; rather, she had rescued the crew of another vessel, but even though Captain Rideout had ordered the Sea Clipper's spars cut, her anchor chain had parted and she went aground herself; the damage to the ship came from being pounded on the rocks. In either case, she was doomed. Hardly surprising; Prim/McCarthy, p. 33, declares, "The great Labrador gale of October 9, 1867, was perhaps the worst storm ever experienced on the coast of Labrador in terms of wrecked ships, death[,] and destruction of coastal property, which left over two thousand persons destitute."
The local population of Spotted Island was small -- just a few dozen. But more showed up regularly in summer because the fishing was so good (Droge, p. 122). Jackman was one of those who was visiting for that reason -- but he had thought a storm was coming and had put in to land. The crew of the Sea Clipper had not been so foresighted (Droge, p. 123). Jackman quite coincidentally decided to take a walk near the shore, despite the bad weather; he later claimed that he felt compelled to stay near the shore (Droge, p. 125). And it was well that he did, because he saw the wreck while on that walk.
Apparently Jackman wasn't the only one involved in the rescue of those stuck on the Sea Clipper -- but he was the only one who could swim, so he had to do most of the work. Three others, John and Samuel Howell and Robert Mesher eventually rigged ropes so that, after Jackman had saved some of the survivors, he didn't have to swim quite as far; he would bring a survivor part way in and then the others would take them the rest of the way (ButlerHanrahan, pp. 78-79, say this happened after he had rescued about six; Droge, p. 131, and Galgay/McCarthy, p. 24 say it was after he had rescued eleven; the newspaper cited by Greene, p. 291 -- the one that has the ship's name wrong -- also says eleven). Jackman still deserved credit for all the swimming, but if it hadn't been for the others, he surely would not have had the strength to rescue as many.
The people from the ship often weren't much help; one gripped Jackman's neck so tightly that Jackman couldn't breathe, and Jackman had to break his nose to get the guy to ease off (Droge, p. 130). The last one he carried had been knocked unconscious by the collision (Jackman didn't even know she was still on the ship; the people he had already rescued had to tell him there was one more woman aboard). A weary Jackman actually had to tie her to him to carry her ashore (Droge, p. 134; sadly, she died of her injuries two days later; Droge, p. 135. Note that this contradicts the claim in Greenleaf/Mansfield's notes that "the woman recovered").
It was an amazing physical feat. He had to swim more than five miles, half of it while carrying someone -- and in water near the freezing point, and with the water so rough that it was easier for him to swim mostly underwater (Droge, p. 127). I suspect that a modern professional swimmer would have had difficulty with the task.
Jackman was in bed for two days before he could return to his ship (Droge, p. 135). He'd earned the rest!
ButlerHanrahan claim that William Jackman was genuinely humble (compare Galgay.McCarthy, p. 26); Droge, p. 145, claims that he asked his brother Arthur to accept an honor for heroism in his place (and Art Jackman laughed it off). I must admit to finding it hard to believe that the brother of Arthur Jackman could be self-effacing. But perhaps he had been more battered by fate than the rest of his family; when still quite young, he had gone on a berrying expedition with some friends, and had seen a girl in the group die of exposure when a sudden blizzard overtook the party (Droge, pp. 73-79).
The people on the Sea Clipper were extremely lucky; the 1867 storm is reported to have destroyed 42 ships and cost 40 lives (Droge, p. 136; I rather suspect the latter figure is low; Prim/McCarthy, p. 26, say it came to be known as the "Great Labrador Gale").
Folklore said that the rescue shortened Jackman's life (according to Galgay/McCarthy, p. 26, this was apparently based on a newspaper account at the time of his death). Greene, pp. 124-125, for instance, says that "He swam 27 times through the bitter cold of icy waters out to, and back from, a hopeless wreck had run ashore in a blizzard at Spotted Islands, Labrador -- in October 1 1867 -- saving 27 lives but sacrificing his own brave self in the doing of it, the exposure causing the disease which led to his untimely death." Observe, however, that he lived another ten years. According to Droge, p. 151, in the early 1870s, he started to feel more tired and to want more sleep. At age 38, he started losing weight. He grew weaker. Doctors could not tell what the problem was (Droge, p. 152). We still don't know; Droge, p. 153, and ButlerHanrahan, p. 81, mention the possibility of cancer.
In any case, he had a history of getting in trouble, including a near-drowning and a fall from a cliff that resulted in massive infection (Droge, pp. 83-85 and elsewhere). If he did die of the effects of excessive exertion, one of those earlier experiences could also have resulted in severe physical strains -- although the latter also caused him to become a fitness freak and practice swimming a lot (Droge, p. 92), which obviously served him in good stead at the time of the wreck!
Spotted Island is no longer inhabited; it was one of the towns that was resettled by Joey Smallwood's Newfoundland government after confederation with Canada (Droge, p. 161).
Droge, p. 141, claims that Jackman was almost forgotten until 1965, when the decision was made to name the hospital in Labrador after him. But note that the Kelland poem mentioned below had to have been written at least five years before that.
Droge has various photos relevant to the story. P. 22 shows Spotted Island, Labrador, where the wreck took place. Jackman himself is pictured on p. 120 (along with brother Arthur), and again on p. 154; there are family photos starting on p. 156. Page 134 shows a stamp of Jackman that Canada issued in 1992; it looks nothing like Jackman's photo.
This poem "became a very popular recitation at school concerts after it was published in one of the Christmas editions of 1889" (Prim/McCarthy, p. 30). It is not the only poem about Jackman. Otto P. Kelland wrote one called "Brave Captain William Jackman"; it can be found in Otto P. Kelland, Anchor Watch: Newfoundland Stories in Verse (privately printed, 1960), p. 45. And Droge, pp. 145-147, has one written by Marcus Hopkins for a celebration of Jackman's deed. - RBW
Last updated in version 4.4
- ButlerHanrahan: Paul Butler and Maura Hanrahan, Rogues and Heroes, Flanker Pres, 2005
- 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
- Galgay/McCarthy: Frank Galgay and Michael McCarthy, Shipwrecks of Newfoundland and Labrador, [Volume I], Harry Cuff Publishing, 1987
- 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)
- Prim/McCarthy: Captain Joseph Prim and Mike McCarthy, THe Angry Seas: Shipwrecks on the Coast of Labrador, Jesperson Publishing, 1999
- Ryan: Shannon Ryan, The Ice Hunters: A History of Newfoundland Sealing to 1914, Breakwater Books, 1994
Go to the Ballad Search form
Go to the Ballad Index Song List
Go to the Ballad Index Instructions
Go to the Ballad Index Bibliography or Discography
The Ballad Index Copyright 2018 by Robert B. Waltz and David G. Engle.