Sealers' Ball, The
DESCRIPTION: The sealers get their money at the wharf, more at the store, and "a couple of gallons" on Saturday evening. After the dance Jack Burke's girl was with Jim McGee. When their fight was over "they found the lady she'd a-gone."
EARLIEST DATE: 1951 (MUNFLA/Leach)
KEYWORDS: courting fight hunting shore dancing drink party humorous
FOUND IN: Canada(Newf)
REFERENCES (3 citations):
Peacock, pp. 94-95, "The Sealers' Ball" (1 text, 1 tune)
Ryan/Small, pp. 123-124, "The Sealer's Ball" (1 text, 1 tune)
Bennett-Downey 8, pp. 86-88, "John Park He Had Nar' One" (1 text)
ST Pea094 (Partial)
Tom Cornelly, "Much of a Hand" (on MUNFLA/Leach)
Jerome Downey, "John Park He Had Nar' One" (on NFJDowney01)
Hector MacIsaac and Jerome Downey, "Not Much of a Hand Aboard a Vessel" (on NFHMacIsaac01)
Tom Morry, "The Sealers' Ball" (on PeacockCDROM)
Be Ye Much of a Hand Aboard a Vessel
NOTES [739 words]: The MUNFLA/Leach text changes the last line of the chorus from "A-pelting the puppy swiles, sir" to "A-catching the codfish wild sir." Hardly worth mentioning except that the brawl is no longer at "The Sealers' Ball." - BS
Both the codfish and the "swiler" versions, however, refer to the main economic activities of Newfoundland: fishing cod and hunting seals.
The first line in Jerome Downey's version is "We got six dollars and a half When we landed at the wharf." This fits in with sealing: Hands were signed on for a share of the total catch. Each sealer got the same share, no matter how effective they were, so every sealer got the same amount. Six and a half dollars was not the total pay; the sealers might have been assessed a "berthing fee" for the right to join the sealing vessel.
Even after the berthing fees were abolished (for this, see the notes to "The Sealer's Strike of 1902 (The Sealers Gained the Strike)") before the voyage started, each man was assessed the "crop" -- an advance on his wages which he was *required* to spend with the St. John's merchants, at artificially inflated prices (he could buy $9 of goods but had $12 deducted from his pay), to buy his equipment for the voyage. (If he didn't spend it, tough luck; he didn't get the money back. For the "crop," see StoryKirwinWiddowson, pp. 122-123).
Taking into account all the deductions, if a sealer was actually given $6.50, his nominal pay would have been a minimum of about $19.50 and a maximum of about $31.50. That's nowhere near a record -- in one extraordinary season in 1866, the men of the Retriever each earned $303 (Chafe, p. 36). But that truly was an extraordinary total; by the twentieth century, as ships got bigger and the seal herds declined due to over-harvesting, the figures fell dramatically. Chafe does not always have shares for every ship, but here are some samples of the average for particular years:
1892 (p. 60): average of $51.52, best ship $96.30.
1898 (p. 65): average of $27.97, best ship $47.74
1904 (p. 71): average of $38.77, best ship $81.22
1910 (p. 77): average of $59.24, best ship $148.36
1916 (p. 82): average of $107.24, best ship 233.78 (because of World War I, the sealing fleet in 1916 was only half the size of the previous average. Although the ships that sailed did very well, relatively few men shared the bounty, and much of the increase was due to a 30% increase in the price of seals)
1922 (p. 85): average of $42.40, best ship $74.90.
(Eventually things got better; Wright, p. 85, describes one of the last major sealing years, in which the sealers' share of pelts, plus odds and ends such as flippers and seal penises -- wanted by some superstitious Japanese or Chinese -- came to nearly $3000 even though it wasn't considered a great year. Of course, there had been a lot of inflation in that half a century.)
Thus the men in this song earned below the average over these years -- but not far below the average; they were at the low end of typical.
Downey's version also refers to paying the money to "Jamie Baird." Bennett/Downey has notes on James Baird (1828-1915); DictNewfLabrador has more on p. 10. Born in Saltcoats, Scotland, his family came to Newfoundland some time in the 1840s, and he served as a draper's apprentice. Started in 1853, he and his brother David worked as drapers and importers. In 1872, James founded his own business, as an importer and fishery supplier. He would later invest in Newfoundland businesses and utilities. He became a hero to Newfoundlanders for a legal case he brought against a British officer over fishing rights. In 1898, he became a member of the Legislative Council, staying there until he died in 1915. He eventually owned at least one sealing steamer, the Labrador, which he bought in 1909 (Ryan, p. 193).
It's interesting to see sealers frequenting his business; at the time of the 1902 sealer's strike, he argued that there was no way that sealers could be paid more, because profits in the industry were too low (Ryan, p. 183). This would certainly be true a few decades later, but in 1902, the sealing fleet was expanding, and Ryan, p. 184, says that the market for seal oil was expanding rapidly.
Given the names mentioned in the song, I suspect this is based on an actual incident, but the Downey and Peacock versions are similar enough, and non-detailed enough, that (without access to lists of ships' companies) I can't say more. - RBW
Last updated in version 5.0
- 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
- Ryan: Shannon Ryan, The Ice Hunters: A History of Newfoundland Sealing to 1914, Breakwater Books, 1994
- StoryKirwinWiddowson: G. M. Story, W. J. Kirwin, and J. D. A. Widdowson, editors, Dictionary of Newfoundland English, second edition with supplement, Breakwater Pres, 1990
- Wright: Guy Wright, Sons & Seals: A Voyage to the Ice, ISER (Institute of Social and Economic Research, Memorial University of Newfoundland), 1984
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