Newfoundland Disaster (I), The
DESCRIPTION: Captain Randall, commander of the Bill, abandons his voyage and rescues twenty-five survivors of the Newfoundland from the ice. Seventy-seven are lost.
EARLIEST DATE: 1960 (Peacock)
KEYWORDS: rescue drowning sea ship wreck
March/April 1914 - the Newfoundland Disaster
FOUND IN: Canada(Newf)
REFERENCES (2 citations):
Peacock, pp. 967-968, "The Newfoundland Disaster" (1 text, 1 tune)
Ryan/Small, pp. 94-95, "The Newfoundland Disaster (I)" (1 text, 1 tune)
ST Pea967 (Partial)
Joshua Osborne, "The Newfoundland Disaster" (on PeacockCDROM) [one verse only]
cf. Pat Maher, "The Story of the Sealing Vessel, The Newfoundland" (on NFMLeach)
cf. "The Newfoundland Disaster (II)" (subject)
cf. "In Memorial of 77 Brave Newfoundland Sealers" (subject)
NOTES [8236 words]: Maher, on NFMLeach, does not sing the ballad but tells the story and tells a ghost story relating to that wreck. - BS
Other than the Greenland Disaster (for which see "The Greenland Disaster (I)"), no other event in sealing history seems to have inspired such an outpouring of poetry. The 1914 tragedy is the subject of three pieces in Ryan/Small: this, "The Newfoundland Disaster (II)," and "In Memorial of 77 Brave Newfoundland Sealers" (a fourth item, "The Sinking of the Newfoundland," is about a different ship). The latter two of these are too non-specific to really need checking for either truth or error (although eventually 78 sealers died of exposure). This one, which refers primarily to the rescue rather than the disaster, is also basically factually correct except for what I suspect are transcriber's errors; the ship he called the Bill was actually the Belle, i.e. Bellaventure, and her commander was Robert Randell, not "Randall."
There are many articles and at least two books about this tragedy, Cassie Brown's Death on the Ice and Gary Collins's Left to Die: The Story of the SS Newfoundland Sealing Disaster. The latter is much newer (and written by a member of the family of Jesse Collins, of whom more below), but Brown's is acknowledged as a Newfoundland classic (Collins, pp. 18-19) and is much easier to find. Brown's other book, cited here as BrownWriting, contains several newspaper articles about the Newfoundland Disaster, including stories about two men who were involved, but has no real information not found in her main book; I found nothing useful in it at all except photos of Abram Kean and George Tuff (two of the men implicated in the tragedy) on p. 52, and various other photos related to the disaster on the following pages.
It should be noted that Brown's works are not always entirely fair; she refuses to accept that Newfoundland operated under severe economic constraints. The island was poor -- very poor. It had a bad climate, bad soil, and few accessible natural resources except the cod on the Grand Banks and the seals. It had no capital, either. Little wonder, then, that it had an almost medieval political system -- it had a medieval economy, and no way to get out. This meant that the island was reliant on the seal hunt (the islanders ate seals and sold the fat and the hides), and that little coud be done to make this unsafe occupation safe.
There were two species of seals found around Newfoundland, hooded and harp seals (Ryan, pp. 47-49). It was the "harps" that most sealers were after -- the cute, utterly helpless little pups, known as "whitecoats" that have, in recent decades, caused the backlash against sealing. And rightly, since -- even in 1914 -- the population of "harps" was very much in decline.
Sealing was so vital to Newfoundland that, during the sealing season, they even pulled ships off other duties to do it -- e.g. the Florizel and Stephano, which came about as close to being luxury liners as anything Newfoundland had, were used as sealers during the season, then went back to ferrying passengers (see the notes to "The Wreck of the Steamship Florizel"). So there were a lot of crummy old ships that went sealing. The Newfoundland was one such. She had been built as a yacht, and then converted to a mail steamer -- but that was all the way back in 1872; she was already fairly old when she became a sealer in 1893 (Feltham, p. 99). She was said to be the largest of the wooden sealers (Ryan/Drake, p. 31), but that doesn't mean the owners gave her the attention she deserved; on her very first sealing cruise in 1893, she reportedly had had several breakdowns (Ryan, pp. 176-177, although he adds that this may have been exaggerated by the Newfoundland media, which was upset because she was based in Nova Scotia).
The ship had an interesting history; during the Spanish-American war, the Americans had held her for a time for running the Cuban blockade! (Ryan/Drake, p. 31).
Captain Westbury Kean -- who had commanded her since 1911 (Feltham, p. 99) -- was not impressed with his ship, old, underpowered, and hard to maneuver in ice (Brown, p. 2; Collins, p. 128) -- although that description fit most of the wooden steamers. She didn't even have a thermometer to try to gauge the weather! (Brown, p. 37; Collins, p. 182, says that it was illegal for her to not have a thermometer to gauge temperature).
The Newfoundland also lacked wireless -- the owners had removed the equipment (Brown, pp. 22, 215); Collins, p. 129, says that the expense was not the wireless set but the operator, but without an operator, the set was useless, so they took it out to presumably make more space available for other things. Brown says that the wireless had been removed because it wasn't cost-effective; Looker, p. 18, says the wireless and thermometer were removed to equip one of the newer steel ships. It is ironic that the steel ships were able to bring in larger numbers of seals -- but were also more expensive to run, so that most of them were dropped from the sealing fleet during and after World War I; Chafe, p. 27. Wireless had first been installed in the Florizel in 1909, then in the Eagle, and the ships of Bowring's found it useful -- Florizel and Eagle in 1910 apparently took different tracks around the ice and kept each other informed of where the seals were, and had good years as a result -- Ryan, pp. 192-193. Harvey's which ran the Newfoundland, had a smaller fleet, and so would have been less likely to benefit from this.
But Westbury Kean, who was only 29, didn't have much choice about his ship. He was the son of the unofficial admiral of the sealing fleet, Abram Kean (Brown, p. 1; for Abram Kean, see "Captain Abram Kean"), but people said he wanted to get out from his father's shadow (Collins, p. 37) -- and in any case, even his father's influence counted for only so much; Westbury had to take what he could get.
Including a second captain aboard. Westbury (also known as "Wesley" or "Wes") reportedly had hated school (Collins, p. 92), and didn't have the education to have earned his master's certificate (he finally earned it in 1917; Kean, p. 37), so the owners, to fulfill the law requiring trained officers and navigators, chose Captain Charles Green, who had arctic experience (indeed, it appears he had commanded two sealers, the Kite and the Neptune, on northern voyages; Collins, p. 93. For the Kite, see "The 'Kite' Abandoned in White Bay"; for the Neptune, see "Neptune, Ruler of the Sea"). But Green, although he had commanded ships used in the seal hunt when they were on other duties, wasn't a sealer, and apparently was told to stay out of Kean's way (Brown, p. 18), and Kean seemingly wasn't willing to listen to him anyway (Brown, p. 50).
Wes Kean's second-in-command (known in sealing parlance as a "second hand") wasn't much help; George Tuff was only slightly older, at 32, and although he had been a sealer for 17 years, and a Master Watch (sealing shift chief) for ten, it was the first season as second hand (Brown, p. 17). He had quite a history; he had been part of the Greenland Disaster a decade and a half earlier (see the notes to "The Greenland Disaster (I)" and the songs cited there), and it sounds as if he developed post-traumatic stress disorder as a result (no one calls it that, but see, e.g., Brown, p. 18; Collins, p. 251). But, Newfoundland being Newfoundland, he didn't really have the option to change jobs. (He wasn't the only one; Brown, p. 32 notes that many of the sealers of 1914 had been involved in the Greenland disaster.) He apparently didn't want to be Kean's second hand, but was told he was being given the job, and he didn't have the moral strength to turn it down (Collins, pp. 54-55), even though the event would prove him unfit for the role.
The danger of sealing was the ice: the seals came up on the ice, where the sealers clubbed them and took the carcasses back to their ships. But it was a short season (three weeks at most), at a time when Newfoundland was still in the grip of winter; the ice was not safe and could come in and trap a ship (Brown, p. 10).
At first the sealers were sailing vessels. Many of them were lost, but they were small, so casualties were relatively light. It was in 1863 that steamers joined the hunt (Brown, p. 11), and they soon took over the trade. Around 1900, the wooden walls began to give way (temporarily) to iron and steel. The transition to steam didn't reduce the ship losses; reportedly 41 of the first 50 steam sealers were lost at sea. But each change made the ships more expensive, and required larger crews. The first sealers were less than thirty tonnes, and there were hundreds of them -- supposedly 631 in 1840 (Brown, p. 10). These small vessels had perhaps twenty people aboard.
Not so with the steam sealers; as the songs in Ryan/Small show, the ships were numbered in the dozens (eventually, fewer than that), but had a crew, counting sailors and sealers (in Newfoundland, those were nearly the same thing) in the hundreds.
And there was surely competition between ships; Abram Kean commanded Stephano and his son Joe Kean the Florizel (aboard which he would later die), much bigger, better ships than Westbury had been allotted (Ryan, p. 311).
The whole story of the Newfoundland's voyage sounds like a bad movie: soon after the start of the voyage, having had to retreat from the ice to a more secure anchorage, the crew found two stowaways; they were made to serve as stokers (Brown, p. 19). They would have been put off the ship, but the ice was so bad that Wes Kean skipped a planned stop at Fogo Island, meaning that he had no chance to leave them. He was also supposed to pick up forty sealers at Fogo, so the decision got him to the ice sooner but left him forty men short of his planned complement (Collins, p. 121).
It was a bad year, weather-wise; even the steel ships suffered several collisions and substantial damage (Brown, p. 25). But, by March 20, most of the ships had found seal herds. The Newfoundland was one of the exceptions; although Westbury Kean was trying to trail his father (who had promised to signal him if he found seals, despite the fact that they worked for different sealing companies; Ryan, p. 311), the Newfoundland just couldn't handle the ice (Brown, p. 33). Wes Kean was apparently going nuts trying to get to the seals, always testing the conditions, checking charts, climbing the masts to get a better look. Navigator Green compared him to Captain Ahab in his obsessive hunting (Collins, p. 184).
The hunting wasn't any better than the weather; after a full week, on March 27, the fleet was still trying to find a really good patch of seals (Brown, p. 34), and many ships were far below their usual haul (Brown, p. 38). But it was worse for the Newfoundland; she was stuck in the ice and wasn't even getting to the places the others were exploring (Brown, p. 35), and had only 400 seals (Brown, p. 45).
Westbury eventually managed to catch up with the main fleet, and father Abram Kean sent Wes's older brother Joe and the Florizel to talk with Wes. Wes suggested that the main patch was off to the west (which proved to be true; Brown, p. 48); Joe radioed Abram, and off everybody went (Brown, p. 46). Even the ships not under Kean went where he was going because they believed in his reputation (Brown, p. 47). But the Newfoundland got stuck again (Brown, p. 50); she couldn't reach the patch that the other Keans located.
Wes Kean had a bright idea. He would send out his four shifts of sealers to walk to the seals, with two shifts spending the night on the Florizel and two on the Stephano (Brown, p. 51). After all, his father and brother commanded those two ships -- even though they belonged to a competitor. They would take in his sealers.
Wes Kean apparently worried somewhat about the sealers' ability to navigate, but George Tuff -- who, as second in command, had the right (and arguably the duty) to stay with the ship, volunteered to lead them (Brown, p. 55; Ryan, p. 312, points out that it was unusual for the captain to send out his second hand for such duty, but Kean himself couldn't coordinate their work, so someone had to). It created an interesting conflict -- just who was in charge of the sealers, Tuff or Abram Kean? The men didn't know; although they believed Wes wanted them to stay on the Stephano or Florizel for the night, not even the Master Watches were told so explicitly (Ryan, p. 312).
Wes told Tuff to go to the Stephano and get his instructions from Abram Kean. Tuff perhaps did not hear Wes Kean's instructions to stay on the Stephano if they could not reach the Newfoundland before night.
To make matters worse, Tuff did not take a compas (Brown, p. 56).
Meanwhile, the barometer on the Newfoundland was falling, but it was still high (although the glass had not been checked for years, so its accuracy was uncertain; Brown, p. 59; Collins, p. 182, says that the barometer was an ancient aneroid model that probably was not reliable), and the weather was warm enough that the sealers were discarding their heavy clothing as they went out on the ice (Brown, pp. 56-58), despite hints of storm clouds in the sky (Brown, p. 57).
The ice turned out to be very bad -- George Tuff said it was the worst he had ever experienced (Brown, p. 60). The men set out around 7:00 a.m. It took them more than four hours to reach the Stefano (Ryan, p. 312), so even though the distance was no more than seven miles, and possibly less (no one really knows), it was clearly a difficult trip.
As a result, the men became strung out. As more and more signs of bad weather appeared, men began to turn back to the Newfoundland (Brown, pp. 60-62). Eventually 34 men went back to the ship (Brown, p. 62; Colins, pp. 225-227). But most kept on -- some of them, at least, because they were closer to the Stephanothan the Newfoundland and thought it would be safer to head for the newer ship (Brown, pp. 62-63). Wes Kean was upset to see his men coming back (Brown, pp. 70-71).
Abram Kean did not do as his son expected. He let the men grab some tea and shoved them back out on the ice (Brown, p. 72) -- having meanwhile steamed away from the point where he picked them up (Ryan, p. 312). George Tuff was surprised and worried; he expected to stay on the Stephano for the night (Brown, p. 74). But Abram Kean wanted to follow the Florizel, which was heading away from the Newfoundland -- too far for the Newfoundland's sealers to walk back to their ship. And Tuff regarded himself as being under Abram Kean's orders. He did argue a little -- the weather was looking bad. But Kean claimed that his barometer said otherwise (Brown, pp. 76-77), So off Tuff and the Newfoundland's men went -- even though they could not so much as see their ship any more (Brown, p. 75). They had had only about twenty minutes to rest aboard the Stephano before Abram Kean went on about his own business (Brown, p. 77).
It is surely poetic justice to note that one of the men he shoved out on the ice was one of his own cousins, Eli Kean (Brown, p. 157). Eli would later be found dead by men from Abram Kean's own Stephano (Brown, p. 185).
There were 132 men on the ice, and as the Stephano sped off, they began to suspect she wasn't coming back -- and Tuff (who according to Brown was only starting to realize that he was in charge and had to manage the mess, and was overwhelmed by the responsibility)had to confirm it (Brown, pp. 78-79). To make matters worse, Tuff had been ordered to seek seals to the southwest, and the Newfoundland was to the southeast. Tuff was supposed to both seek seals and take his men home, and there was no path that would allow him to do both (Brown, pp. 79-80).
Master Watch Tom Dawson was already worried, and questioned what Tuff was up to (Collins, p. 235). Tuff fell back on his orders, even though they were Abram Kean's orders, not his own commander's: he took the party to the southwest, away from the Newfoundland. The men, many of them angry and scared, perforce followed (Brown, pp. 80-81). Tuff didn't come around until they had gone about a mile (Brown, pp. 82-83) -- a slow, wearisome task on the ice. By this time, although Tuff didn't admit it, they were probably lost -- in the storm, neither the Newfoundland nor the Stephano was in sight.
After the first batch of men -- the ones who had turned back early -- reached the Newfoundland, Westbury Kean dressed them down and then went off watch (Brown, pp. 85-86). When the last of the returnees came in, the Newfoundland ceased sounding its whistle. The ship's log recorded "At 1:30 p.m., thirty-four men returned on board, remainder of crew having boarded S. S. Stephano" (Brown, p. 86). The silencing of the whistle was vital, because it meant that the only way the other sealers could find the ship was by seeing her -- in a blizzard.
The storm was blowing up from the south. Back in St. John's, it was already so bad that business was ceasing. It continued to head north (Brown, p. 87). And the Newfoundland, with no wireless, had no way of knowing.
Something funny happened at this point, and it's hard to know what. Joe Kean, Abram Kean's oldest son, was in command of the Florizel (after the Stephano, the newest and best of the sealers), and he had been picking up the Stephano's sealers as the weather grew worse (Brown, p. 89). The claim is that Joe Kean wanted to send a message to his father: the Florizel would take care of the Stephano's sailors; the Stephano should take care of a small group from the Florizel plus the many men from the Newfoundland. That a message was sent seems certain -- but no copy was kept at the sending end (not too unusual) and none was kept at the receiving end either (Brown, p. 90) -- which was most unusual indeed. Abram Kean would claim that the message he got simply asked him to care for the Florizel's men and did not mention the Newfoundland's. Abram Kean picked up the watch from the Florizel -- and, being Abram Kean, went back to hunting seals (Brown, p. 91).
The Newfoundland's men were straggling back to their ship, but none really knew where she was, and George Tuff was not taking the lead (Brown, pp. 91-93). Around 2:30, the storm turned into a blizzard (Brown, p. 93) -- meaning that the men could not see for any distance, and that it soon would be impossible to locate the path they had taken from their ship. Their only way of navigating was by compas.
There was an informal (and not always respected) rule among sealers that allowed a ship to leave a patch without taking up the seals as long as a flag was left to claim the carcasses. These flags could also be used as navigation guides by the sealers on the ice. And Abram Kean had left at least one flag on the ice without recalling that it was there (Brown, p. 54). As they trudged home, the Newfoundland's men found it, adding to their confusion about their location (Brown, p. 95). Watch master Thomas Dawson, to whom Tuff had delegated the task of leading the party while Tuff stayed at the back, had the men spread out and zigzag to look for signs of their path (Brown, p. 96). Already he had disobeyed Tuff slightly to take them closer to where he (correctly) thought their outward path lay (Brown, p. 96, etc.). And while Dawson found the path around 2:30 p.m., the shifting ice meant that it was getting somewhat confused and no longer led straight back to the Newfoundland -- and they were farther from the ship than they thought (Ryan, p. 313). As darkness arrived, Tuff decided to send a small party ahead to try to get help (Brown, p. 98).
The barometer had fallen about a third of an inch in this time. The storm was about to get worse. (Brown, pp. 98-99).
Slowly concern grew on the Florizel and the Stephano. Joe Kean perhaps asked his father about the situation again, and was reassured (Brown, p. 101). The men on the Stephano also asked Abram Kean what was happening. But Kean's only action was to order the whistle to be blown regularly, and to slow down and look for men on the ice (Brown, p. 102).
That was more than the Newfoundland was doing. She remained stuck, and Wes Kean was convinced his men were on the Stephano. Or somewhere. He didn't see a need to sound the whistle. A junior officer on watch might have done it -- but most of the officers were out on the ice in the storm. The bosun -- who was not on watch -- asked the captain about it, and as an afterthought Wes Kean gave permission to blow the whistle once or twice. The bosun blew it twice, then stopped, and no one else sounded it (Brown, pp. 104-105). Once he stopped, there was no way for the men on the ice to locate the Newfoundland. A few men had gone into the water by then; probably some of them were already dead. The rest heard the whistle, but still could not see the ship -- and then the whistle stopped sounding. And Master Watch Art Mouland had forgotten his compas, and Tuff didn't have one; they had no way to follow the sound once the whistle was silent (Brown, pp. 106-108). And then, in the snow, the trail vanished (Brown, p. 109; Collins, p. 244).
There was nothing to do but to try to build a snow wall to slow the wind, and huddle together for the night (Brown, pp. 110-111). They couldn't afford to all stay together, though; too many men on one ice pan could cause it to collapse (Collins, p. 246). So they had to separate and then build shelters. The master watches set their men to do so -- but all were tired. One master watch, Art Mouland, got work out of his men, but Thomas Dawson, who had led the return so far, was exhausted himself and couldn't get his men to do what he thought necessary (Brown, pp. 115-118). A third master watch, Sidney Jones, seems to have been completely useless; his men made no preparations at all, and tried to join Dawson's men (Brown, pp. 116-117, 122) -- which meant that the pan was too small for them to exercise enough to keep warm (Ryan, p. 314). (To be fair, in the process of this, Jones watched his best friend die -- Collins, p. 275 -- so perhaps he just wasn't thinking straight.) The fourth master watch, Jacob Bungay, wasn't as parasitic but didn't do much to prepare. Tuff, who was with Bungay, was equally useless; all he could do was say, again and again, that they would be found (Brown, p. 134).
Wes Kean apparently didn't think the snow would be bad. The barometer reading still implied good weather, despite the blizzard. But the barometer had not been checked for years (Brown, p. 113). In any case, he still thought his men were on the Stephano. He made no attempts to do anything, except make arrangements for who would take shifts now that all the officers except the bosun (and Captain Green, whom he ignored) were away from the ship (Brown, p. 112).
The first casualty, a fellow named William Pear who had been sick from the start, was dead by then (Collins, pp. 250-251).
On the Stefano, many of the crew were now worried. But none dared talk to Abram Kean.
At 8:00 a.m. on April 1, the Newfoundland recorded gale force winds from the north (Brown, p. 132). Wes Kean thought he could work the ship loose. He tried it. The steering chain failed; she was still stuck (Brown, p. 133). There was no way she could go to pick up her men.
By this time, men on some of the ships were comparing the situation to the Greenland disaster of sixteen years before (for which see "The Greenland Disaster (I)"). When Joe Kean (the only Kean to come out of the affair with any credit at all) asked one of his master watches about it, the master watch said that at least it was warmer (Brown, p. 121). But that meant that, in time, the snow turned to rain (Brown, p. 123). And that was in some ways worse than snow, because it penetrated clothing and stuck. And, meanwhile, the wind had started to shift at random, so that the snow walls provided shelter only intermittently. And then, very quickly, the temperature dropped from above freezing to about 15 degrees F (Brown, p. 124). The men tried to keep moving to stay warm, and they huddled together (Brown, pp. 125-126). It wasn't much help; some were so badly off that their eyes were freezing shut. A man named Jesse Collins worked tirelessly to lead and keep some of them alive (Brown, pp. 126-128), but there was only so much that could be done. Men began to die that night. Among the most touching: Edward Tippett and his young relatives Norman and Abel died together, with Edward Tippett's arms frozen around the young men (Collins, pp. 294-295, Brown, p. 129, incorrectly implies that Norman and Abel Tippett were both Edward's sons). At least one man went insane before dying (Brown, p. 135). Most of the survivors were with Mouland; Dawson, who had led the return for so many hours, was frostbitten almost to death, and only three others were alive with him in his pan (Brown, p. 137). He only survived the second night because one of his men piled the bodies of dead comrades around him to give him shelter from the wind (Brown, p. 167).
George Tuff -- repeatedly confronted by his men -- apparently finally admitted it was a disaster and blamed it on Abram Kean; he expected everyone to die (Brown, pp. 138, 140). And he still didn't have any useful ideas; what little was being done was done by the master watches, especially Art Mouland. The weather on April 1 was so bad that not even Abram Kean sent his men out hunting, although he continued sailing and occasionally made his crews pick up seals by the ship (Brown, p. 141).
The bosun of the Newfoundland had managed to repair her steering chains; she tried again to move at 2:00 p.m. of the second day (Brown, pp. 141-142).
In the afternoon, Tuff thought he saw the Newfoundland, and he and a few others set out to find her so that they could rescue the others (Brown, p. 143). Tuff was wrong (Brown, p. 144).
Then he spotted another ship -- but not his own. The first ship the sealers saw was not the Newfoundland; it was the Bellaventure. George Tuff and Art Mouland both saw her, and they and others tried to attract her attention (Brown, pp. 145-152) -- but the Bellaventure, which had no reason to be searching for missing sealers, missed the lost men and sailed off (Looker, p. 21; Collins, p. 275). And Tuff and his men were too weak to pursue. They had to go back to their ice pans and shelters as men continued to die (Brown, p. 153). Tuff continued to make false claims of rescue, too (Brown, p. 156); I have to suspect all the false hopes he raised just made things worse.
Eventually the weather cleared, and the men saw the Newfoundland, which they estimated was four miles away (Brown, pp. 156-157; Collins, p. 276, says some thought it was just two miles). A dozen men straggled out to try to reach her, in three separate groups (Brown, p. 158). One of those who set out -- but collapsed along the way -- was Eli Kean (Brown, p. 159).
Right about then the Newfoundland finally broke free of the ice -- and started to sail away. That was enough that even George Tuff lost hope (Brown, p. 160); only Art Mouland was still trying. Then the Bellaventure again showed up -- and again failed to see the men (Brown, pp. 160-161).
By evening, the temperature was down to 9 degrees F, with the wind still high, meaning that it felt dozens of degrees colder (Brown, p. 162). No unprotected man could survive long in that. But, with all the ships too far away to reach, the men would have to spend a second night on the ice. They couldn't even start a fire; although most still had their wooden gaffs, no one had a match -- supposedly the last had been dropped because the men's hands were shaking too much to hold them (Collins, p. 277).
At 4:00 a.m. on April 2 -- almost two full days after dropping off his men -- Wes Kean thought the weather and the ice good enough to travel. The log of the Newfoundland declares his intent to reach the Stephano and pick up his men. It is the first time the log mentioned their absence. But she soon becomes stuck again (Brown, p. 170). Still, Wes Kean stayed in the barrel (the lookout's perch) to try to find his way loose (Brown, p. 172). And saw Art Mouland and some of his men (Brown, p. 173). At last someone on a ship realized the disaster.
Wes's first idea was to fly a distress signal to try to get help from the other ships. He didn't have the right equipment for the signal (another symptom of the cheap way in which the Newfoundland had been equipped.) He improvised, imperfectly. He then stumbled down to tell what he had seen. He seems to have been hysterical (Brown, pp. 173-174). It was bosun Tizzard who sent men out to rescue those who could be found. Wes Kean -- properly, I think -- turned command over to the despised Captain Green; he was too distraught to think (Brown, p. 174). At 6:00 a.m., Green, not Kean, recorded in the log that men had gone out to attempt a rescue of men they saw on the ice (Brown, pp. 174-175).
When Abram Kean saw his son's distress signal, he didn't know what to make of it, because Wes Kean hadn't set it up properly due to the lack of equipment. So he sent two men to the Newfoundland to learn what was going on (Brown, p. 175). They confirmed to Wes Kean that all the Newfoundland's men had been sent (forced, really) onto the ice from the Stefano -- and that none had come back.
Art Mouland, helped by the rescuers Wes Kean had sent, was the first to reach the Newfoundland, under his own power, but only seven men, including Tuff, were close enough to be rescued by Kean's crew (Brown, p. 176). According to the Newfoundland's log, they were taken aboard around at 8:00 a.m. (Brown, p. 178). They slowly told Wes Kean what had happened. And Wes realized that his father had largely been at fault. (One also pointed out to Wes Kean the harm done by his failure to blow the Newfoundland's whistle; Brown, p. 177). Meanwhile, Abram Kean was trying to assemble a rescue, but the ice was still thick. It was not until 8:40 a.m. that the rescuers set out (Brown, pp. 177-178, 181).
Even though the Bellaventure missed the men the first time, it was a big part of the rescue. On April 2, at 6:30 a.m., Captain Robert Randell and his second hand Abram Parsons spotted a few men coming toward them, obviously in very bad shape (Brown, p. 179). The ship moved toward them as best it could in the tight ice. Eventually they picked up two men, Benjamin Piercey and Jesse Collins (who had done so much to keep several men alive); they reported at least fifty men dead. The ship prepared for a rescue; Parsons -- who was a personal friend of Newfoundland's Tom Dawson -- led them (Brown, p. 180). At 9:02 a.m., Randell sent a message to the Stephano suggesting it join the rescue. At 9:06 Abram Kean in the Stephano responded, and then signaled his son Joe in the Florizel about the matter.
The rescuers -- men who casually murdered seal pups without a qualm -- were horrified by what they saw. Some men were dying even as the men of the Bellaventure came to them (Brown, p. 182 -- although the fact that they gave them brandy rather than something warm or nutritious surely didn't help). Some of the dead men had had to be hacked from the ice with axes (O'Neill, p. 975; Brown, p. 183). Even the survivors were often snowblind, mad with cold, or so frostbitten that they would lose limbs (Brown, pp. 183-184).
Joe Kean's Florizel sent a chilling message to Newfoundland: "Fear terrible disaster. Newfoundland's crew caught out in last blizzard... Bellaventure found 50 men dead and dying" (Brown, p. 184; Feltham, p. 104). Joe asked that the local wireless office stay open to relay messages (none of the ships had long-range transmitters, so they needed a relay to get messages to St. John's). He also pointed out that it wouldn't have happened if the Newfoundland had had wireless. He said all three Keans were in a terrible state (Brown, p. 184) -- but, of course, he also started to establish an excuse.
Many ships did not have doctors; many just had a crewman responsible for a supply of bandages. Bellaventure had a druggist named Harold Smith (Brown, p. 187). He had done things we might call surgery before, but nothing had prepared him for this. At 5:44, in response to a message from Abram Kean, Bellaventure told Stephano they had 58 dead, 35 alive, of whom 15 needed a real doctor, and asked if Stephano or Florizel had a physician. It took Kean an hour to answer, but Stephano had a doctor, and after some difficulties (the doctor had never been on the ice, so he needed help moving between the ships), he was able to go to Bellaventure (Brown, pp. 189-191).
The plan was for Florizel, Stephano, and Bellaventure to go to the location of the Newfoundland to try to account for everyone (Brown, p. 191).
When the government heard, it asked Harvey's, the owner of the Bellaventure, to order her home. They also prepared for casualties (Brown, p. 193). The Bellaventure, with as many men and bodies as could be gathered, would take the survivors, and the corpses, home.
When they finally got a clear message to St. John's, it reported 58 dead and 35 alive on Bellaventure, five dead on Florizel, one dead and two alive on Stephano; the survivors on Newfoundland were not counted. So it was already known that there were 64 dead (Brown, p. 194). Abram Kean, having worked to compare rosters, soon after reported 47 alive, about 70 dead (Brown, p. 195. Even two decades later, he would undercount the casualties slightly; Kean, p. 31, claims there were just 73; the correct final tally was 78 men dead -- 77 on the ice and one after being rescued; Ryan, p. 315). Additional information slowly trickled in. All the survivors except Tuff, Art Mouland, and Mouland's brother were moved to the Bellaventure before she headed for St. John's (Brown, p. 196). When everyone came together, in addition to the living and the known dead, there were eight men missing (Brown, p. 197).
It will tell you something about Abram Kean that, as soon as he had finished his reckoning and fixed the steering engine that had been slightly damaged by all the pounding through the ice, he took the Stephano off to look for more seals. Even his own sealers were shocked (Brown, p. 197). But he wasn't the only one to keep on sealing (Brown, p. 200). At least one other captain, William Winsor of the Beothic, more remote from the tragedy, was still looking to earn the honor of being the first man home (Brown, pp. 198-199). Winsor actually raced the Beothic into port ahead of the Bellaventure, which was the ship everyone wanted to see (Brown, p. 201).
The Newfoundland, which arrived later, arrived quietly, almost secretly, at evening; none of the flags that usually flew were raised for her (Collins, p. 308).
To make the community's grief even worse, the Southern Cross was lost with all hands around this time (see "The Southern Cross (I).") When the Bellaventure arrived in St. John's, she was carrying 69 bodies (Feltham, p. 105). Thirty-three of the men who arrived on the Bellaventure had to be taken to hospital by ambulance; the handful who could move under their on power walked to the Seamen's Institute -- although even some of them were leaning on others (Brown, p. 202). Full lists of the dead (which differ slightly) are found in Brown, p. 267f., and Ryan, pp. 326-327 n. 180; Ryan has notes about the discrepancies.
Between the Newfoundland and the Southern Cross, 251 men were lost (give or take one or two, since were don't know exactly who was on the Southern Cross) -- or 0.1% of Newfoundland's entire population of about a quarter million. Ryan, p. 199, says that "confidence in the industry never recovered."
The sealers on other ships were so upset at still being stuck on the ice that some started to rebel. Seven men on the Diana mutinied (Brown, p 206), then thirteen on the Eagle; the latter were put on the Florizel, since she was ready to go home. And, on the Stephano, a sealer named Mark Sheppard defied Abram Kean to his face. Kean ordered him "logged" -- i.e. blacklisted and docked of his pay (Brown, pp. 206-207), but other men aboard were also rebelling, if less openly. And, on the Bloodhound, more than half the sealers went on strike to demand that they go home; Captain Jesse Winsor tried to pick up a few more seals, but eventually gave up and went home (Brown, pp. 207-208).
There was, of course, an inquest, scheduled for April 6, and it was set up so that the survivors could testify (this by interesting contrast to the Greenland Disaster, where they were not called; Brown, p. 201).
Several survivors blamed Abram Kean -- for taking them aboard the Stephano, moving them away from the Newfoundland, shoving them off his ship after just minutes to rest, and giving them orders to head away from both ships -- although they also had harsh words for George Tuff (Brown, p. 208, although Collins, p. 324, says they weren't as hard on Kean as they probably wanted to be -- a man who truly spoke against Kean would surely face repercussions if he ever went sealing again!). Tuff, who was one of the men healthy enough to testify, admitted to mistakes but disagreed with his captain Wes Kean over whether Kean had ordered Tuff to have the men to stay on the Stephano overnight (Wes Kean, although still clearly distraught, insisted he had so ordered; Brown, pp, 208-209).
When Abram Kean finally showed up (reportedly upset at having been second in seals taken, trailing the Beothic; Brown, p. 209), he vigorously denied any fault and gave a detailed rebuttal (for which, however, he could offer no direct evidence; Brown, pp. 209-210, thinks he was wrong or lying -- but she also clearly does not approve of him). Kean contradicted both his sons (Wes and Joe) -- and even insisted that his actions were proper and noble (Brown, p. 211). Looker, p. 25, suggests that "his emphatic, detailed, and self-righteous testimony confused the commissioners, and they laid no official charges."
Kean never did admit fault; in his autobiography, he devotes just two paragraphs to the event -- then spends page upon page attacking Sir William Coaker, the advocate for sealers' rights. The first paragraph proclaims, self-righteously, "That part of my history which took place in 1914 and the succeeding years is one which I would willingly forget, but painful recollection must be sacrificed on the alter of truth. Through no fault of my own I was subjected to the most bitter attack launched on any man in this or any other country" (Kean, p. 31). He then outlines the disaster in a few sentences, claiming that there was no warning of the storm (false), that nothing could have been done (false), and that his first duty was to his own men (true, but by making a deal with Westbury about finding the seals, he had taken on responsibility for his son's men also); he also made several minor mis-statements of facts. I find the self-righteous sanctimoniousness of that page of his biography simply disgusting; a man who had any sense of humility at all would have at least considered the possibility that he could have done better!
"Ridiculously, the commission faulted George Tuff for not doing the unheard-of: refusing to take the old man's orders and keep the Newfoundland crew aboard the Stephano" (Cadigan, p. 186). Ryan, p. 315, reports that several commissioners wanted to blame Kean, but a minority disagreed, and apparently that was enough to scuttle any action.
The only direct result of the commission was a 1916 law requiring all sealing steamers to carry wireless (the Southern Cross, like the Newfoundland, had had no wireless set, according to Collins, p. 243, so the lack was clearly a problem) and mandating a few other protections for sealers (Brown, p. 214; Busch, p. 89).
William Coaker, head of the Fisherman's Protective Union (for Coaker, see "Coaker's Dream"), who had actually gone on the seal hunt in 1914 (he had managed to get some reforms through the legislature early in the year -- Busch, p. 89 -- and wanted to see that they were implemented), was vituperative in his condemnation of Abram Kean (Feltham, pp. 106-107). His complaints were so strong that Kean filed two suits against the Mail, which had published Coaker's letters (Brown, p. 213; Kean, pp. 32fff. gives Kean's side of this story). Prime Minister Morris, his government under threat (Kean was a key supporter), managed to negotiate an out-of-court settlement for the bigger suit (Brown, p. 214), and Kean got a relatively nominal $100 out of the second, which he complained didn't even pay his lawyers (Brown, p. 217). It didn't affect Kean much; there were petitions and parades against him, and some sealers refused to sign up with him, but he still went out on the hunt in the Florizel the next year (the Stephano had been given over to war work; Kean, pp. 32-33, although his explanation is pretty garbled). He of course would continue as a sealing captain so for decades (Feltham, p. 107); he even received the Order of the British Empire in 1934 after taking his millionth seal (Cadigan, p. 186). Cadigan suspects that it was World War I that turned attention from Kean's failures. At minimum, it allowed the company to turn the Stephano to other duties and so "demote" Kean without really demoting him -- he still got the best available ship (Brown, p. 216).
A "Permanent Marine Disaster Fund" was launched at once, but for one reason or another never got much money to the crippled men or the survivors of the dead (Brown, p. 213).
Westbury Kean would have to wait until 1921 to get another sealing command (after he earned a master's certificate, his father bought him a schooner in 1917, which he promptly lost, then his father got him another; Kean, p. 38). It sounds as if Abram Kean used his reputation to get his son other ships after that (Kean, p. 41), but having earned his certificate, he was allowed to sail until 1939 (Feltham, p. 107). He found himself in a different sort of trouble twenty years after the Newfoundland tragedy "In 1934, he was master of the Portia, a government steamer, when he was accused of trying to smuggle beaver skins out of the country. The charges were finally dismissed three years later. Such was the resentment toward the Keans, there were rumours that the skins had been planted in Kean's cabin. A few years later, perhaps with a bad taste in his mouth, Kean moved to New York state, where he died in 1974" (Hanrahan, p. 39 n. 20).
In 1915, the Newfoundland was sold, pronounced unseaworthy, then sold again and repaired. Job Brothers, which bought her, not surprisingly changed her name -- calling her Samuel Blandford after one of their most successful captains (Feltham, p. 107. For Samuel Blandford, she "Sealer's Song (I)").
In 1916, the Samuel Blandford had a good seal hunt under William Winsor (Jr.) (another famous sailing captain, for whom see "First Arrival from the Sea Fishery S. S. Fogota, 1912"). But in August 1916 the Blandford struck a rock and sank (Feltham, pp. 107-108). Just as well, perhaps.
Brown clearly is convinced that the whole thing is Abram Kean's fault. It seems a lot more complicated to me; there were some people whose actions deserved praise, and some who deserved censure. I would say that the following came out looking bad:
- Harvey's, which commissioned the Newfoundland, for not equipping her with a wireless or checking her barometer (I should note that Brown seems convinced that the instrument was bad but offers no evidence that it was tested)
- Abram Kean, because he made arrangements to help his son find seals but felt no responsibility for the sealers, and did not care for them. But let's face it: the job of the sealers was mass slaughter. Sealing captains weren't sissies. Abram Kean was the toughest, nastiest, most inconsiderate of the lot -- and that is why the companies hired him. He was a jerk, but being a jerk was his job. They wanted a psychopath, and they got one. Bought and paid for. Any accusations leveled against Kean should also be leveled against those who hired him, i.e. Bowring's, owner of both the Stephano and the Florizel.
- George Tuff, for exhibiting no independence of judgment when it was vitally needed, and not having the brains to put Art Mouland or Tom Dawson in charge. Nor did he tell Abram Kean what Wes Kean had wanted the Newfoundland's men to do. He doesn't deserve as much blame as the commission assigned him, but he deserves a lot. Dawson, for instance, declared, "In my opinion George Tuff was the responsible man for our crew, to look out for them. He was given charge of them. He should have informed Captain Kean that we had been five hours travelling to his ship..." (Collins, pp. 319-320). Other sealers were also bitter at Tuff for not demanding that Abram Kean give them more time to recover; Tuff admitted that he had not protested to Kean, but he defended himself by saying that none of the Master Watches objected either (Collins, p. 320). As if they even had time to do so! On the other hand, Abram Kean praised Tuff (Collins, p. 319). He would; Tuff never questioned Kean, which of course by Kean's standards made Tuff a great man.
Slightly unfavorable: Westbury Kean. He was not as careful as he should have been. (The whistle is an obvious case. Even if his men weren't on the ice, he should have blown it in case some other men were lost! And when he broke free of the ice, he went sailing off even though he had no clue where his men were. Suppose Abram Kean had taken them in the Stephano, and then sent them back to where the Newfoundland had been. What would have happened to them when the Newfoundland wasn't there? Wes Kean seems to have had no ability to see that things sometimes did not go as he planned for them to go.) But, unlike his father, he had a conscience. The men liked him. One could argue, too, that he got his punishment -- he had the lowest pay ($47.56) of any sealing captain that year.
Slightly favorable: Joe Kean. He was the only captain in the entire fleet who truly tried to accomplish something, although he couldn't override his father. But it seems clear he would have been a better commodore. His father claimed that, after he died in the Florizel wreck, his "funeral was beyond all doubt the largest ever seen in Newfoundland" (Kean, p. 39) -- although even if true (and Abram Kean is a biased witness), that might have been partly a tribute to the Florizel, not to Joe Kean -- plus all the sealers were in town, because it was right before the sealing fleet sailed.
Favorable: Art Mouland, Tom Dawson, Jesse Collins. Mouland kept most of his men alive. Dawson took George Tuff's instructions with a grain of salt; if he had gone exactly where Tuff had ordered, things might have been even worse. Collins spent incredible energy to keep men alive -- even Abram Kean said that "One man in particular, Collins from New Harbour, displayed some considerable courage in trying to preserve the lives of his fellow men.... One man said, 'I am alive, Captain, but I do not thank myself, I should have been dead long ago if it was not for Jesse Collins" (Collins, pp. 318-319). But not even Collins was willing to go back to the ice after that; it was his last trip (Collins, p. 322).
There is a photo of the Newfoundland on p. 176 of Feltham; p. 179 shows some of the bodies after their recovery, and some of the coffins that awaited them. Similar photos are on pp. 214-217, 220-224 of Collins. Brown has two photos of the ship in the photo section following p. 118; this also has two photos of Abram Kean, one of Joseph Kean, and a small one of Westbury Kean, as well as a photo of George Tuff, Robert Randell of the Bellaventure, and of the rescue, plus a photo of Master Watch Thomas Dawson -- who eventually lost both his feet -- being carried to hospital; this is also found on p. 23 of Looker and p. 219 of Collins. Kean, p. 10, has a photo of Newfoundland with an inset photo of a very young-looking Westbury; photos of the Kean family, including Westbury, are on pp. 106 and 116. Collins, p. 156, shows the Newfoundland in the ice; p. 150, has photos of George Tuff and Jesse Collins; p. 151 has a photo of Abram Kean; p. 152 shows the photo of the Newfoundland with the inset of Westbury; p. 155 shows Captain Randall and the Bellaventure; p. 160 shows the sailors of the Bellaventure bringing in sealers. Pp. 209-213 have more of the Bellaventure and her part in the rescue. Ryan/Drake, p. 38, also has a photo of the Bellaventure. She served on the ice 1909-1916, when she, along with her sister Bonaventure and near-sister Adventure were sold to Russia.
In addition to being mentioned in the songs about the Newfoundland disaster, the ship is also referred to in "Captains and Ships"; the sealer in "A Noble Fleet of Sealers" is a different ship.
To repeat what was said at the beginning, the text of this, as given by Ryan/Small, refers to the sealers being rescued by "Captain Randall" of the Bill. This should be the Belle, as the Bellaventure was known (Brown, p. 282), commanded by Robert Randell. - 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)
- BrownWriting: Cassie Brown, Writing the Sea (an expanded edition of the earlier volume The Caribou Disaster and Other Short Stories, with more material about Brown but nothing new about the sea), Flanker Press, 2005
- Busch: Briton Cooper Busch, The War Against the Seals: A History of the North American Seal Fishery, McGill-Queen's University Press, 1985
- Cadigan: Sean T. Cadigan, Newfoundland and Labrador: A History, University of Toronto Press, 2009
- 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
- Feltham: John Feltham, Sealing Steamers, Harry Cuff Publications, 1995
- Hanrahan: Maura Hanrahan, The Alphabet Fleet, Flankers Press Ltd., 2007
- 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
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