Cotton's Patch (I)
DESCRIPTION: "Oh, quite early in March, I remember the date, I left for the ice the seals to locate." Finally the pilots find "the main patch" of seals. They return and bargain with Mr. Bowring. At last the merchants strike a deal
AUTHOR: Johnny Burke (1851-1930)
EARLIEST DATE: 1960 (Burke's Ballads)
KEYWORDS: hunting technology commerce pilot
REFERENCES (2 citations):
Ryan/Small, p. 120, "Cotton's Patch (I)" (1 text)
ADDITIONAL: Johnny Burke (William J. Kirwin, editor), _John White's Collection of Johnny Burke Songs_, Harry Cuff Publications, St. John's, 1981, #38, p. 61, "From the show Cotton's Patch: First Song" (1 text)
cf. "Cotton's Patch (II)" (subject)
NOTES [1264 words]: According to Ryan/Small, this is based on an incident of 1922, when Australian Sidney Cotton and Newfoundlander Sydney Bennett made a deal seek the "Main Patch" (main herd) of seals by air.
There is dispute over the spellings of the name; Ryan/Small give Cotton's first name as "Sydney," but I have followed O'Neill and Candow, especially since Candow (p. 216) lists a book, Sidney Cotton, Aviator Extraordinary: The Sidney Cotton Story: As Told to Ralph Barker, Chatto and Windus, 1969.
"In 1920 an Australian airman, Major F. Sidney Cotton, arrived in Newfoundland with Sydney Bennett, a Newfoundlander whom he met when they served together in the Royal Flying Corps.... It was their purpose in life to establish the first air service in Newfoundland" (O'Neill, p. 358). They managed to gain the money they needed from Alan Butler, and their plane arrived in late 1920.
"In 1921 Cotton engaged the interest of the owners of the large sealing vessels in hiring his services as a seal spotter. It was his job to locate the patches. This led to some embarrassment when, on one occasion, he found what he thought to be the main patch. When the ships reached the spot there was not a seal anywhere in sight. Johnny Burke, the great ballad writer, turned the event into a successful stage comedy, 'Cotton's Patch,' in which the patch turned out to be the seat of Cotton's pants" (O'Neill, pp. 358-359).
Part of Cotton's problem was that it was hard to maintain a plane in Newfoundland conditions; eventually he managed to get government support to bring mechanics to Newfoundland. He apparently managed to find the main patch -- but the sealers (presumably leary after 1921, apart from being cheap) refused to pay up (Candow, p. 79). Candow has quite a bit of information about the deal that was eventually made; I will confess that I got lost reading it, but it's clear that the negotiations described in "Cotton's Patch (I)" were inspired by (although perhaps not very similar to) the actual negotiations.
For the ship Neptune, mentioned in "Cotton's Patch (II)," see "Neptune, Ruler of the Sea." Cotton, after his experience in 1922, had suggested that a ship be modified to carry a plane for the 1923 season, and the Neptune was the ship chosen -- but the plane never flew. Sealing rumor had it that the captain George Barbour (for whom see "The Greenland Disaster (I)") refused to have anything to do with the contraption, but Barbour's explanation, which is likely true, is that the weather in 1923 was simply too bad for the aircraft (Candow, p. 79).
The other ship mentioned in "Cotton's Patch (II)," the Thetis, wasn't as famous. Chafe, p. 104, implies that there were two sealers named Thetis, Ryan/Drake, p. 24, says that she was built in 1881. She was said to be the strongest of the whaling/sealing fleet (Guttridge, p. 246), so when the Greely Expedition (for which "Hurrah for Baffin's Bay") needed rescue, she was one of the ships purchased for the purpose (the Bear being the other). Her commander at this time was Winfield Scott Schley, later to be famous as an officer in the Spanish-American War (Guttridge, p. 245). After that, she was used as a patrol boat (Guttridge, p. 320). She finally went back to sealing in 1917, under William Winsor (for whom see "First Arrival from the Sea Fishery S. S. Fogota, 1912"); he was still still in command in 1923 (Chafe, p. 104). She was damaged in the ice in 1936, and was beached and abandoned in that year (Ryan/Drake, p. 24; Guttridge, p. 320, gives the date as 1950, but I suspect he is confusing her with the Eagle, the very last of the sealing steamers, which was sunk in that year). Ryan/Drake have a picture of her as she was in 1920 on p. 24; Guttridge's photo section has several pictures of her as she appeared in 1884.
In "Cotton's Patch (II)," the singer speaks to "Wesley Kean." This is a common error (Chafe, p. 93, makes it also); the captain's name was "Westbury Kean," commonly known as "Wes." He was infamous for his part in the Newfoundland disaster of 1914 (see "The Newfoundland Disaster (I)") -- but after six years without a command, in 1921 he was again allowed to go to the ice, as commander of the Ranger (Chafe, p. 93). I have no idea why the song mentioned him here, although his father Abram Kean is known to have disliked the planes; he even engaged in a bit of mild book-cooking to try to demonstrate his point (see "Captain Abram Kean" for the data).
According to O'Neill, by 1923, Cotton's planes had been ruined and he gave up. Other aviators took up the business after that, however, with some success, although by 1928 they were back to flying from land rather than trying to fly off the ice . The service ended in 1930 when the plane involved crashed (Candow, p. 80). On the whole, Candow concludes, the spotting planes didn't do much good (p. 81); his reasons amount to saying that the technology wasn't quite ready yet. Planes returned to the ice fields in 1947, and continued until 1982, using newer planes and a different payment scheme (Candow, pp. 164-165), but of course that isn't mentioned in the "Cotton's Patch" pieces. In 1962, the first helicopters were used, both for spotting and for carrying pelts (Busch, p. 248), but of course that's not mentioned in the song either -- and was mostly organized by non-Newfoundlanders anyway.
Ryan/Small treat the song about this incident as two pieces, and they do have different forms. For the pilots' own search for the Patch, see "Cotton's Patch (I)." For the actual hunt, see "Cotton's Patch (II)."
England, pp. 168-169, has what seems to be almost the only near-contemporary account of how the sealers felt about the 1922 hunt:
"Though as yet without much practical value, the fact is noteworthy that modern methods have at last definitely invaded the seal hunt.... The enterprise is daring, to say the least.
"The ships carry charts marked off in squares; the 'planes carry similar charts. On spying seals, they note the square, and undertake to notify the ships of the location [apparently by dropping a message cylinder near the ship]. To me it seems almost an impossibility to identify one's position in the ari, over the icefields. It is also hard to 'spot' seals, especially whitecoats, from aloft. Some of the sealing captains have faith in the plan, others scoff at it.
"So far as I could see, we got no good of the service. Major Corron claimed to have reported the 'Main Patch,' Mecca of all the sealers -- the patch that none of the captains in 1922 reached. This came to be known as 'The Cotton Patch,' and caused oceans of talk, considerable jesting, and not a little acrimony. The Cotton Patch may have been where Major Cotton claimed it was, right enough, but it happened to lie where ships could not reach it. Thus the principal herd escaped for at least one year."
A photo of Cotton's plane can be seen facing p. 104 of Chafe; Candow, p. 80, has a photo of Cotton and one of the plane, with later pages showing other sealing aircraft.
Johnny Burke seems to have been hung up on Cotton's aircraft. In addition to the two "Cotton's Patch" songs, he also wrote "A Wink and a Nod from a Yankee Cod," which opens "They struck the West Coast in the month of July, Two bold aviators from Boston did fly; Syd Cotton and Cadwel came down to explore, All over the Island and search Labrador." In the Irwin/White edition of Burke's works cited in the references, this is item #44, pp. 70-71. It also has a picture of an aircraft apparently resting on ice or snow, although it doesn't say that it's Cotton's. - RBW
Last updated in version 4.3
- Busch: Briton Cooper Busch, The War Against the Seals: A History of the North American Seal Fishery, McGill-Queen's University Press, 1985
- Candow: James E. Candow, Of Men and Seals: A History of the Newfoundland Seal Hunt, Canadian Parks Service, Environment Canada, 1989
- 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)
- 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
- Guttridge: Leonard F. Guttridge, Ghosts of Cape Sabine: The Harrowing True Story of the Greely Expedition, Berkley, 2000
- O'Neill: Paul O'Neill, The Oldest City: The Story of St. John's, Newfoundland, Press Procepic, 1975
- 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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