DESCRIPTION: The Eagle sails for the ice and sends out sealing parties. The crews find many animals. After several successful expeditions, the singer and colleagues are unable to find the ship. Some eventually find their way back, but 60 die
AUTHOR: E. J. Pratt
EARLIEST DATE: 1962 (Pratt, Here the Tides Flow)
KEYWORDS: storm disaster death hunting
1950 - Scuttling of the SS Eagle, the last of the Newfoundland sealing steamers
REFERENCES (1 citation):
Ryan/Small, pp. 59-62, "The Ice-Floes" (1 text)
NOTES [640 words]: Not traditional, not true, and not a song. As written, the poem cannot be set to music, and the event, while similar to some actual tragedies (see, e.g., the several "Greenland Disaster" songs for a similar tale), was made up by the author. Don't ask me what induced Ryan and Small to include it in their book.
Nonetheless the ship is, in a sense, real. There were two sealers named Eagle. One Eagle or the other is mentioned in "Sealer's Song (I)," "Captains and Ships," and "The Sealer's Song (II)"; also, I suspect, in Johnny Burke's "Trinity Cake (Mrs. Fogarty's Cake)," although the ship in that song is not explicitly described as a sealer. The first Eagle had been owned by the sealing/sailing firm of Bowring's from 1871 to 1893 (she was the first steamer owned by Bowring's, which came late to the steaming trend but eventually became the largest owner of steam sealers; Busch, p. 67), and had been considered successful. Her first commander was the famous William Jackman, for whom see "Captain William Jackman, A Newfoundland Hero." She had been lost while whaling in 1893 (Keir, p. 163). As a result, when Bowring's bought the Norwegian ship Sophia (built 1902) in 1904, they renamed her the Eagle (II) (Feltham, p. 46; Greene, p. 276, says that her original name was Sophia).
Arthur Jackman (for whom see the notes to "First Arrival -- 'Aurora' and 'Walrus' Full") was the second Eagle's commander in 1904-1906 (Chafe, p. 99); her first season, in 1904, was a flop, but she went on to have significant success (Feltham, pp. 46-47), especially after a rebuilding in 1908 lengthened her bow (Ryan/Drake, p. 34); she served until 1949 (with a break in 1943) under eight different captains -- three members of the Kean family (for whom see "Captain Abram Kean," although Abram himself never commanded the Eagle) and five assorted others.
She also made history by being the first sealer to take an airplane to the ice to hunt seals (Ryan/Drake, p. 34), although it took quite a while to make a runway for her on the ice. She was also one of the first sealers to use wireless (Ryan, pp. 192-193).
In 1944-1945, she was part of a secret mission, "Operation Taberin," which apparently was intended to build British bases in the Falklands and the Antarctic; she was damaged on this mission but survived (Tarver, pp. 16, 205; Keir, p. 375).
In 1950, the last survivor of the fleet of sealing steamers, she was scuttled at the end of her long service (O'Neill, p. 967) -- one newspaper account said she was "buried at sea" (Feltham, p. 49). Keir, who wrote the official history of her owner Bowring's, on p. 404 says that "at last she went down with all the dignity of an ancient Viking funeral." Although that song never says so, I'm pretty sure this is the event referred to in "Last of the Wooden Walls."
Ryan/Drake, p. 34, prints a photo of her from 1934. Feltham, p. 173, has a photo of her as she made her final voyage, as does Ryan/Drake, p. 81; O'Neill, p. 946, has a different photo of this voyage, with a comment that a few were enraged by this "wanton destruction" but that most did not care about the loss of the last wooden-walled sealer. On p. 967, O'Neill writes, "When she reached the Deeps a small crew set the Eagle on fire, her seacocks were opened, and the coverings knocked from scuttling holes that had been cut in the hull. The crew were taken off by pilot boat.... Another irreplaceable element in Newfoundland history was irrevocably lost." Important as she doubtless was historically (I certainly wish she had been saved and used as a museum), I doubt she was worth much as a sealer by then.
The fact that she lasted so long might explain this piece, though. E. J. Pratt wrote this after the last wooden sealers were gone; he used the name of the last of them for the subject of his poem. - RBW
Last updated in version 4.5
- Busch: Briton Cooper Busch, The War Against the Seals: A History of the North American Seal Fishery, McGill-Queen's University Press, 1985
- 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)
- 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)
- Keir: David Keir, The Bowring Story, The Bodley Head, 1962
- O'Neill: Paul O'Neill, A Seaport Legacy: The Story of St. John's, Newfoundland, Press Procepic, 1976
- Ryan: Shannon Ryan, The Ice Hunters: A History of Newfoundland Sealing to 1914, Breakwater Books, 1994
- Ryan/Drake: Shannon Ryan, assisted by Martha Drake, Seals and Sealers: A Pictorial History of the Newfoundland Seal Fishery, Breakwater Books, 1987
- Tarver: Michael C. Tarver, The S. S. Terra Nova (1884-1943), Pendragon Maritime Publications, 2006
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