To the Memory of the Late Captain Kennedy
DESCRIPTION: "Slowly today we wend our way To a grave in Belvedere Behind the corpse of a hero bold." The singer tells of Kennedy's voyages, and describes his heroism when the Viking caught fire.
EARLIEST DATE: 1936 (King, The Viking's Last Cruise)
KEYWORDS: ship fire rescue
1931 - Explosion destroys the sealer "Viking"
REFERENCES (1 citation):
Ryan/Small, p. 105, "To the Memory of the Late Captain Kennedy" (1 text)
NOTES [1005 words]: The Viking, the ship in this song, is also mentioned in "Captains and Ships," "Success to the Hardy Sealers," "Success to Every Man," and "A Noble Fleet of Sealers." She was built in Norway in 1881 (FelthamSteamers, p. 153; O'Neill, p. 968). Fritjof Nansen used her for an arctic expedition in 1882. She became a sealer in 1904, and served under William Bartlett (related to Robert Bartlett of "Captain Bob Bartlett") for the first 22 of those years (FelthamSteamers, pp. 153-154); her results were steady but unspectacular, averaging barely more than 10,000 seals per year (FelthamNortheast, p. 95). This was somewhat less than half what the best sealers managed; admittedly she was small, and couldn't hold more than about 20,000 seals (FelthamSteamers, p. 156), but it's clear that she was rarely notable for success.
In 1930, a fellow named Varick Frissell decided to make what we would now probably call a sealing docu-drama, originally titled "White Thunder" but eventually released as "The Viking." This followed an earlier (silent) documentary, "The Great Arctic Seal Hunt" (Ryan, p. 320 n. 23). In the initial filming, he worked on the Ungava, with Robert Bartlett (for whom see "Captain Bob Bartlett") playing the Captain (somewhat incompetently, based on the jokes the crew made about his inability to remember his lines). However, after the film crew brought their material home, it was decided that more footage was needed. So they went out again in 1931, this time in the Viking, with Abram Kean Jr., the son of the famous Abram Kean (for whom see "Captain Abram Kean") in charge of the ship and Alfred Kean the first mate (FelthamNortheast, p. 96).(Bartlett, it should be stressed, was an actor, not the man in charge.) They set out on March 9 -- the very last ship of the sealing fleet to leave (FelthamSteamers, p. 157).
It was a tough voyage from the start; the season was stormy, and the ship started to take on water, so they had to make a stop for repairs before they even went to the ice (Keir, pp. 338-339).
Apparently one of the film crew's ideas to improve the drama was to cause an explosion to set icebergs rolling and grinding. Sealers often carried gunpowder, in case they got stuck in the ice, and they were incredibly casual about fire (England, pp. 17-18). But, because the filmmakers wanted their fancy effect, it is said that there was extra powder aboard on this trip (Candow, p. 92). As the Viking was in the vicinity of the Horse Islands off Newfoundland's north coast (FelthamNortheast, in the map on p. x), on March 15, 1931, it blew up. Some reports claim there were two explosions (Keir, p. 339). There is disagreement about the number of men lost. FelthamSteamers, pp. 158-159, and Candow, p. 92, say 28 men; Looker, p. 47, says 58; Ryan/Drake, p. 28, says 24; Keir, p. 341, believes 30 men were lost; Tarver, p. 168, says that 27 were killed.
FelthamNortheast, pp. 102-103, says that 28 men were killed but his list includes only 27 names. (Two of them, both sealers, might have been Bob Bartlett's relatives; both Bartletts were from Conception Bay, and one was actually from Bob Bartlett's home town of Brigus.) It is agreed that the dead including all but one of the film crew, as well as several boys who had stowed away; most of the survivors had to make their way across the ice pans to land (Looker, p. 47). Only one body was ever found (FelthamSteamers, p. 158).
FelthamNortheast, p. 99, says there were 128 survivors, but Candow, p. 92, claims there were 147 on board, which means that he would allow only 119 survivors.
Captain William Kennedy -- the subject of this piece -- was the ship's navigator (O'Neill, p. 968); it was common for sealers to have a sealing captain (in this case, Kean) who knew the ice but was not fully qualified as a captain, and a navigator who was a qualified ship's master but didn't know sealing. Kennedy and one of the film bigwigs, Harry Sargeant, plus Clayton King (also mentioned in the song), were separated from the main party of survivors and spent a day and a half floating before the Sagona found them. Kennedy died of a fractured skull and pneumonia before the rescue (Looker, p. 47); King had a fractured leg and facial burns; Sargent also had facial burns (FelthamNortheast, p. 101). King would later have to have his legs amputated because he had been so badly frozen (FelthamNortheast, p. 105).
Alfred Kean, the first mate of the Viking, had his leg broken in three places in the explosion, recounted, "Jacob Kean in the Sagona left St. John's Sunday night an just before dark, Tuesday evening, picked up Clayton King, Captain Kennedy, and Sargent. They got driven away at a tangent from the disaster area. They must have gotten in the tide and drove out around the cape but we didn't.... Captain Kennedy died off Cape Bonavista and Fred Best [who had been with Kean] died in the summer" (FelthamNortheast, p. 99).
The survivors were mostly rescued by the Sagona and the Beothic II (FelthamNortheast, pp. 100-101, etc.). The cause of the disaster was never really determined; the man who was in charge of the explosives was one of the dead (FelthamNortheast, pp. 104-105).
Note that this text (probably a poem rather than a song) was published by Clayton King in his account of the disaster.
Candow, p. 92, says there was no compensation for the victims, because the law didn't cover this sort of accident.
The footage for the film was thought lost for a time but was eventually discovered in 1950 and the film released in 1971 (Tarver, p. 168).
As was often the case in Newfoundland, tragedy brought forth much folk poetry, and newspapers often printed it. FelthamNortheast, pp. 106-107, has two examples.
There is a photo of the Viking on p. 182 of FelthamSteamers and another on p. 28 of Ryan/Drake. P. 69 of Ryan/Drake (actually a four page spread) has eight photos associated with the film that destroyed the Viking, including movie stills and shots of the production team as well as of the ship itself. - RBW
Last updated in version 4.3
- Candow: James E. Candow, Of Men and Seals: A History of the Newfoundland Seal Hunt, Canadian Parks Service, Environment Canada, 1989
- England: George Allan England, Vikings of the Ice: Being the Log of a Tenderfoot on the Great Newfoundland Seal Hunt (also published as The Greatest Hunt in the World), Doubleday, 1924
- FelthamNortheast: John Feltham, Northeast from Baccalieu, Harry Cuff Publications, 1990
- FelthamSteamers: John Feltham, Sealing Steamers, Harry Cuff Publications, 1995
- Keir: David Keir, The Bowring Story, The Bodley Head, 1962
- 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
- Tarver: Michael C. Tarver, The S. S. Terra Nova (1884-1943), Pendragon Maritime Publications, 2006
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