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-HaulinRopeAndGaff, pp. 59-62, "The Ice-Floes" (1 text)
NOTES [1390 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 Sophie (built 1902) in 1904, they renamed her the Eagle (II) (Greene, p. 276; Squires, p. 12; Feltham, p. 46, says her original name was Sophia).
As built, she was 176 feet long, 418 tons (Chafe, p. 47, says 394 tons, but that may refer to her size before a 1908 rebuild), and had an engine generating 82 n.h.p. (Squires, p. 12) -- a relatively weak engine, but because she was also small, she was apparently regarded as good in the ice (Ryan-Last, p. 154). She wasn't nearly as good in the open sea, though, and Squires, p. 14, describes her as a coal hog. And, like most sealing steamers, she had no plumbing worthy of the name (Squires, p. 20), few other amenities, and -- when she went to the ice -- was overcrowded by a factor of eight or so (sealing expeditions usually carried about 200 men, but the Eagle went to the Antarctic with just 28, and that was enough men to make her feel fairly full).
Arthur Jackman (the brother of William Jackman; for Arthur, 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 I've also heard of the Neptune being involved in aviation), 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-Ice, pp. 192-193).
Despite her early failures and her many captains -- and the fact that she went through three bows (needing a rebuild in 1908; Winsor, p. 39, and again after World War II) -- she was widely regarded as lucky by sealers (Ryan-Last, pp. 366-367).
In 1944-1945, she was part of a secret mission, "Operation Taberin," which was intended to build British bases in the Falklands and the Antarctic. According to Squires, p. 1, the British government felt that it needed to have sovereignty over the Antarctic Peninsula, and to maintain that sovereignty, needed an Antarctic colony. (This was mostly to keep pro-German Argentina from getting a foothold, according to Squires, p. 48). A colonizing attempt in 1943 had failed because of ice, so the British government called on the one remaining sealing steamer (Squires, pp. 1-2) -- ships that had been designed for service in the Arctic ice. The Eagle was damaged on this mission; an iceberg took off her bowsprit and part of her bow even as another hit her side; she took so much water that the crew thought her doomed (Squires, pp. 84-86). She managed to survive, though, and was repaired in Port Stanley.
Nonetheless, she was pretty clearly worn out; Squires, p. 36, reports that "in every port we had visited, the ship had to have repairs." And so much seal residue had soaked into her timbers that she stank abominably when she reached warm waters and it started to air out. Even though she had been given her role because she was the last sealing steamer, it is noteworthy that another ship was sent to bring back the expedition (Squires, p. 101). I'm frankly surprised Bowring's took her back when she returned to Newfoundland. But they did. Briefly. She went to the ice in 1946-1949 under Captain Charles Kean -- and was the only sealer to go out in the first and last of those years. Another member of the Kean family had been captain of the first Newfoundland sealing steamer, the Wolf, in 1863, so there was a Kean in charge of a sealer from beginning to end of the tradition! (Winsor, p. 28).
In 1950, the last survivor of the fleet of sealing steamers (at least if one excludes the Bear, which had served as a sealer but then became a sort of arctic patrol vessel and lasted until 1963; Watson, pp. 180-181; Paine, p. 55), 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."
Winsor, p. 40, prints a long excerpt from the newspaper the Daily News, from which I will quote the first few sentences:
"Sealers from Cape St. John to Cape St. Mary's will learn with regret that Bowring Brothers, Ltd., have decided to scrap the S. S. Eagle. No more will the doughty ship 'punch her way' through the ice-floes of our coast in search of seals.
"Hundreds of Newfoundland sealers will think of the time when they got 'duff' from her galley; going down her 'side sticks' to take the young harps from the pans; the joy that was felt when the ship bore up with a bumper load of whitecoats...." If nothing else, all the verbiage shows how strongly Newfoundlanders felt about the seal hunt.
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 -- sealer Stephen Whitten recalled that "It wouldn't be worth the money to do her up to pass Canadian steamship inspection" (Ryan-Last, pp. 244-245; Newfoundland became part of Canada in 1949, so Canadian laws would begin to apply in the year she was scuttled). Winsor, p. 40, also has a photo of her sinking, with a photo of her in service on p. 39.
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. People in Newfoundland remembered her; Squires declared, "Her memory will endure forever" (Squires, p. 104), and I'm sure many Newfoundlanders felt the same way.
There was apparently another song about the Eagle, and captain Sid Hill, preserved in Hill's own family, that has never been printed; two verses are on p. 166 of Ryan-Last, and begin "Come all of you seal hungers and listen unto me, While I'll tell of the spring now in 1933."
Squires has many photos of the Eagle, although only the one on p. 104, which shows her as she is sinking, gives much idea of what she looked like. - RBW
Last updated in version 5.2
- 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 Floes: 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
- Paine: Lincoln P. Paine, Ships of the World: An Historical Encyclopedia, Houghton Mifflin, 1997
- Ryan-Ice: Shannon Ryan, The Ice Hunters: A History of Newfoundland Sealing to 1914, Breakwater Books, 1994
- Ryan-Last: Shannon Ryan, The Last of the Ice Hunters: An Oral History of the Newfoundland Seal Hunt, Flanker Press, 2014
- Ryan/Drake: Shannon Ryan, assisted by Martha Drake, Seals and Sealers: A Pictorial History of the Newfoundland Seal Fishery, Breakwater Books, 1987
- Squires: Harold Squires, S.S. Eagle: The Secret Mission 1944-1945, Jesperson Press, 1992
- Tarver: Michael C. Tarver, The S. S. Terra Nova (1884-1943), Pendragon Maritime Publications, 2006
- Watson: Norman Watson, The Dundee Whalers, Tuckwell Press, 2003
- Winsor: Naboth Winsor, Stalwart Men and Sturdy Ships: A History of the Prosecution of the Seal Fishery by the Sealers of Bonavista Bay North, Newfoundland, Economy Printing Limited, 1985
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