Nimrod's Song, The
DESCRIPTION: "Come all ye friends of Newfoundland Who have a mind to roam O'er the wild and stormy ocean...." The crew sails from Newfoundland to the ice. They have great trouble and sorrow. The crew are listed. The singer hopes Captain Barbour will find a better ship
EARLIEST DATE: 1925 (Murphy, Songs Sung by Old Time Sealers of Many Years Ago, according to Ryan/Small)
KEYWORDS: hunting ship hardtimes moniker
REFERENCES (1 citation):
Ryan/Small, pp. 74-75, "The Nimrod's Song" (1 text)
NOTES [844 words]: Not related to "The Wreck of the Nimrod," which obviously is about a shipwreck; this is a song about a sealer. Nimrod a good name for such a ship; Nimrod was "a mighty hunter before the Lord" (Genesis 10:9).
Despite this song, the Nimrod was by no means a failure as a sealer; Chafe, p. 36, reports that her 1871 trip, bringing in 28,087 seals, resulted in a record payout to the men. (The total seals she brought in were not many more than other ships that year, and her total was eclipsed by 1873 anyway -- Chafe, pp. 49-50, has the statistics -- but because she had a small crew, the payout per man was very high.) The real problem is, what had been a good ship in the 1870s was not necessarily a good ship in the 1900s....
According to Paine, p. 359, the Nimrod was built in Dundee in 1865. She was built under the personal supervision of Captain Edward White (Ryan/Drake, p. 70, which also has a picture of him); he also commanded her until 1870, when he transferred to the Neptune. The Nimrod was purchased by the sealing company Job Brothers -- one of Newfoundland's leading sealing firms -- in 1867 (Busch, p. 66; O'Neill, p. 963), making her one of the first dozen or so steamers to be involved in sealing; the very first time a sealer used steam had been as recently as 1863. After forty years of that, she was old enough that Job Brothers sold her.
The Barbours were something of a dynasty of Newfoundland sealer captains -- George Barbour was the captain mentioned in many "Greenland Disaster" songs, e.g., and Alpheus Barber is mentioned in "The Sealer's Song (II)." Baxter Barbour was not one of the more famous ones, but in "Captains and Ships" he is said to command the Labrador, and earlier to have commanded the Louise -- plus he was captain of the Diana in 1913-1914 (for the Diana see "Arrival of 'Aurora,' 'Diana,' 'Virginia Lake,' and 'Vanguard,' Loaded") and of the Kite in 1908 (Feltham, p. 83; for the Kite, see "The Kite Abandoned in White Bay") -- meaning that the song's wish that he get a better ship came true.
An online reference mentions a merchant Master, Baxter Barbour, who was lost with the vanished S. S. Dunelm (sailing from Sydney, Cape Breton to Manchester, England) on October 17, 1915 at the age of 38. (Feltham, p. 56, agrees that Barbour was lost on the Dunelm but lists her as the ship's captain.) A man who was 38 in late 1915 would have been 29 or 30 at the time of the Nimrod's last sealing trip -- and members of the great sealing families often were given charge of sealers while in their twenties, before they were fully qualified to be captains and navigators (see, for example, the case of Westbury Kean on p. 18 of Brown). Such a "captain," since he could not navigate, would have to serve as a Master on a sea voyage.
Baxter Barbour was also said to have been a scamp (Feltham, p. 56); there was even a rumor that, after his loss at sea on the Dunelm, he turned up on the German submarine that sank the Erik as a translator (Feltham, pp. 56-57).
The Nimrod was Baxter Barbour's first command; he commanded her in 1905-1907. None of those years were particularly good (Barbour, in fact, never took more than 8099 seals in a season, and in 1911, he lost the Harlaw), but 1907 was particularly bad -- just 2508 seals (Chafe, p. 88). It was the Nimrod's worst total since 1885. And she hadn't taken as many as many as ten thousand seals in any year since 1901. Perhaps little wonder that the owners were happy to get rid of her. So I think we can safely date this song to 1907.
What happened to the Nimrod after her 1907 failure made her famous. Ernest Shackleton, who had gotten into a conflict with his ex-superior Robert Scott, wanted to go back to the Antarctic, and he needed a ship FAST. Unable to find an affordable vessel in Europe, he bought the Nimrod sight sight unseen. "We are led to believe that the explorer's heart sank when he first set his eyes on the little sealer in the Thames. Her decks were stinking and still covered with the remains of seal blood and blubber from the recent hunt. Her masts were rotten and her sails were in such poor condition that they were useless" (O'Neill, p. 963).
But Shackleton rebuilt her and took her south. She returned to England in 1909, and Shackleton sold her a year later to finance future expeditions (Paine, p. 359), including the ill-fated Endurance expedition of 1914. In 1911, she went on a Siberia expedition, then served in Britain as a coastal collier in World War I. In 1919, she was wrecked near Caister/Yarmough; there were only two survivors (Tarver, p. 15).
It's perhaps a little ironic that one of the commanders of the Nimrod was Robert A. Bartlett (her skipper in 1903-1904; Chafe, p. 87), memorialized in "Captain Bob Bartlett." Bartlett became famous for his exploits in the arctic, but he was not part of the Nimrod's trips to the southern ice.
There is at least one book about the Nimrod, Beau Riffenburgh, Nimrod. But it appears to be mostly about the Shackleton expedition. - 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)
- 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
- 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 Encylopedia, Houghton Mifflin, 1997
- 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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