Captain Abram Kean

DESCRIPTION: "We should not forget the Commodore, The old king of the sailing fleet." "With unerring aim and judgment rare He would strike each sealing patch." "For fifty years he butted the ice." "So we should not forget... The late Captain Abram Kean"
AUTHOR: Otto P. Kelland (1904-2004)
EARLIEST DATE: 1960 (Kelland, Anchor Watch)
KEYWORDS: sailor hunting nonballad
REFERENCES (2 citations):
Ryan/Small-HaulinRopeAndGaff, p. 146, "Captain Abram Kean" (1 text)
ADDITIONAL: Otto P. Kelland, _Anchor Watch: Newfoundland Stories in Verse_ (privately printed, 1960), pp. 88-89, "Captain Abram Kean" (1 text)

Roud #V44802
NOTES [4529 words]: There aren't many details in this piece, but what there are are accurate: Abram Kean was known as "the Commodore" (so, e.g., William Joseph Moores on p. 372 of Ryan-Last), and he did take a million seals in his fifty year career that began when sailing ships were still the norm. And that total will surely never be surpassed, because the seal hunt will surely never again be the major industry it was in his prime.
The notes in Ryan/Small-HaulinRopeAndGaff tell us that Abram Kean died in 1945, at the age of 90, and that he captained sealing expeditions for over fifty years (his last year was 1936) bringing in more than a million animals (Kean, pp. 96-97, catalogs exactly how many seals he took year by year, and starting on p. 144 details all the congratulations he received when the millionth seal was taken, such as a letter from the governor). No other sealer even came close to that; the next-highest total, by George Barbour, was just 752,563 (Ryan/Drake, p. 75). Even Chafe, p. 32, which obviously approves of sealing, says, "It is a good thing that there are not many like him or there would be no seals left out there." Chafe also says that "He stands for the greatest number of seals ever brought in by one ship, the greatest weight ever brought in by one ship and the greatest value."
He came to be known as "Admiral of the Fleet" (England, p. 203), although the sealing fleet -- being owned and operated by multiple companies -- didn't have an overall commander. He did hold a Royal Navy reserve commission and a semi-official commodore's title (England, p. 203n.).
"Arrival of 'Aurora,' 'Diana,' 'Virginia Lake,' and 'Vanguard,' Loaded" further declares that Abram Kean "holds the record at the ice, and well deserves the name," but that song, based on the ships mentioned, cannot refer to events later than 1908, and probably refers to 1903 or earlier (Kean commanded the Aurora 1898-1905; Feltham, p. 25), so that that cannot be a reference to his all-time haul; it must refer to what he pulled in on one particular trip.
His fame can be told by the number of Newfoundland tales mentioning him -- among those indexed in this collection, "First Arrival -- 'Aurora' and 'Walrus' Full," "Arrival of 'Aurora,' 'Diana,' 'Virginia Lake,' and 'Vanguard,' Loaded," "The Sealer's Song (II)," "The Terra Nova," "The Swiler's Song," and "Captains and Ships," -- though only the last appears to be traditional, and "Captains and Ships" mentions Kean only briefly. Other songs, such as "A Noble Fleet of Sealers," mention other members of his family.
O'Neill, p. 961, calls him "a fearsome immortal in the story of the [seal] hunt." Looker, p. 17, declares him "a proud man with an iron will and a narrow and suspicious mind" -- which seems an excellent summary to me. Even when he was alive, Maclean's Magazine called him "a combination of Al Capone, Admiral Byrd, and Sir Herbert Holt [a very efficient, even rapacious, businessman]" (ButlerHanrahan, p. 110) -- which, given that Admiral Byrd lied about reaching the pole, seems to sum up most of his traits, although the list omits Kean's ostentatious (and Pharisaical) Christianity.
Abram Kean was born July 8, 1855, at Flowers Island on Bonavista Bay (Tarver, p. 169). Kean, p. 1, says that "Flowers Island" is actually two islands, one of them, Kean's Island, being his family home (Winsor, p. 110, has a photo of the two islands showing just how rough and wind-swept they were and presumably are. Don't bother with Google Maps for this; they don't have the same island names, and the photos are too poor to show anything anyway). Brown, pp. 3-5, says that he was the son of an illiterate fisherman. His parents were Joseph and Jane Kean, and they had five other sons and three daughters (Kean, p. 1). Abram was the only one of his family to go to school, although he quit at age eleven after just three years actual tuition (Kean, p. 3; he didn't like it, and his uneducated family saw no need for it, so they let him quit. Later, when his children went to school, he went with them, studying navigation -- and so, presumably, math -- while they took elementary classes; Kean, pp. 16-17).
He went to sea at 13, serving in his family's collection of four sailing boats (Kean, p. 5), at about the same time his mother died at the age of 54. He first went sealing, with his family, at age 17 (Kean, p. 6). He married at 17 -- to a woman seven years older, Caroline Yetman, who was his father's housekeeper (Kean, p. 7; Tarver, p. 169). She would die in 1920 -- a quarter of a century before her husband -- after seven years of a paralytic illness (Kean, p. 51).
He first joined a seal hunt, under one of his brothers, at that same age (it is noteworthy that his uncle William Kean commanded one of the two very first sealing steamers, the first Wolf, in 1863; Chafe, p. 25, Kean, p. 88). Helped by his connections, Abram rose to command a "watch" of sealers at twenty. In 1882, at age 27, "becoming impatient and not wishing to serve any longer under another man" (Kean, p. 8), he applied for and was given his first sealing ship, the Hannie and Bennie -- and failed to bring anything home. The next year, a storm almost sank the Hannie and Bennie -- and Kean stayed with her even when word came that his father was dying (Kean, p. 9, although apparently he managed to make it home shortly before his father's death). So, in 1883, he was broke, without a ship, and with a large family of his own and his relatives' to raise (Kean, p. 11).
But he was competitive from an early age: "I soon learned that there was rivalry in school, and in a very short time I was doing my best to lead. I succeeded in doing so" (Kean, p. 2. He was probably eight years old at the time). He wouldn't let setbacks stop him. In 1884 applied to be an officer in a steamer. The first captain he talked to turned him down, but Joe Barbour was willing to take him on (Kean, p. 11). Kean does not name the ship, but based on Chafe, p. 98, it must have been the Ranger, for which see "First Arrival from the Sea Fishery S. S. Fogota, 1912."
In 1885, the Tories nominated him for the legislature because they needed a Methodist teetotaler (Brown, p. 5; Kean, p. 13; on p. 59, he declared: "I have always been a great temperance advocate... but I take no credit for being temperate. I could not be otherwise, for I hate drunkenness as I hate poison"). His "campaign" was hardly that -- his explanation isn't very clear, but it sounds as if there was An Arrangement Made (Kean, pp. 13-15). This wasn't atypical; many famous Newfoundland sealers had political careers, including Edward White, Sr. and Samuel Blandford (Ryan-Ice, p. 241; for the latter, see "Sealer's Song (I)"); Captain Charles Dawe not only served in parliament but at the end of his last term found himself the nominal leader of the opposition in the House of Assembly (Noel, p. 53, although his health at the time was so bad that he had to resign his seat without functioning in the role). And Kean had another advantage in that election 1885 was a year when the parties in Newfoundland were re-aligning, with former Premier William Whiteway giving up his post under pressure and everyone trying to figure out what came next (O'Flaherty, pp. 153-156). It was a good time to be a political newcomer -- Kean was just thirty, and there were three Assemblymen who were still in their twenties (O'Flaherty, p. 156): A. B. Morine (for whom see "The Sealer Lad (The Fisherman's Son to the Ice is Gone)") and future premiers Robert Bond and E. P. Morris.
Kean served in Newfoundland's House of Assembly until 1889, decided not to run for re-election because it conflicted with the sealing season (Kean, p. 25), then changed his mind and was elected to a different constituency 1897-1900 (he went back into politics when the session time was moved so that it no longer conflicted with the sealing season; Kean, pp. 25-26). He later served in various government offices, including Minister of Fisheries (Ryan/Drake, p. 76) -- which was reasonable, since he was still commanding sealers. He likely could have held the office longer (he had it only in an acting capacity; Kean, p. 26), but he wanted to go back to sealing. He spent 19 years in charge of either the Newfoundland or Labrador Coastal Service (Kean, p. 58).
On May 22, 1888, having finished his second round of school, he gained his master's certificate, and was given a mail ship, the Curlew, soon after (Kean, p. 17). His political connections gained him command of the steamer Wolf in 1889 (Kean, p. 17). His decision not to run for re-election to parliament left him free to command her (Kean, p. 25, which makes me wonder a little if someone didn't give him a ship in order to get him out of the way) and it proved a smart move; he promptly took an amazing 31,473 seals (Chafe, p. 92). He would command eight other steamers in his 48 year career.
He eventually received the Order of the British Empire (Looker, p. 25; Kean, p. 146, in almost the only moment of humility in his entire book, says that he never dreamed of receiving a royal honour; Kean, p. 147, has a press report of him receiving it). Kean, p. 132, shows an ancient-looking Kean meeting Britain's King George VI in 1939.
Kean commanded a sealing steamer every year from 1889 to 1936 except 1896 (Kean, on the second, unnumbered, page of Ryan's introduction; obviously this is less than the fifty years cited above that he spent commanding a sealer, the difference being that, before he commanded a steamer, he had command of a sailing vessel).
Somehow he found time to father eight children (six sons, two daughters; Tarver, p. 228), the first being born just eleven months after his marriage (Kean, p. 7), so he was just 18 at the time. He raised eleven other children as well, orphaned offspring of relatives (Tarver, pp. 169-170; Kean, p. 7). He also helped establish the (Methodist-affiliated) school at Flowers Island. This even though he does not seem to have been particularly good at managing his own finances, and he left Flowers Island for Norton's Cove (which he renamed Brookfield) in 1879 (Kean, p. 8).
He admitted to a hasty temper but boasted that he had taught himself not to use profanity (Kean, p. 59). Frankly, his personality reminds me of the standard view of an old-time deacon: Sure of himself, completely devoid of flexibility, self-righteous, showing obvious outward piety and eschewing luxury but with an exceptionally high opinion of what was owed to him.
Or perhaps he was more like a prophet, for many of his men treated his ideas almost as the oracle of God (England, p. 62), even though others by then firmly condemned his lack of concern for his men.
In the off season, he had mail and passenger contracts for Labrador (Candow, p. 104).
His autobiography, Old and Young Ahead: A Millionaire in Seals - Being the Life History of Captain Abram Kean, was published in 1935. He retired the next year at age 80 (Ryan/Drake, p. 76). He probably would have liked to continue to command, but apparently Bowring's, the sealing firm, felt that he was too old to continue in the job and quietly put him out to pasture (Ryan-Last, p. 59, from an interview with a member of the Bowring family). He really was getting weak by then; one of the sealers who sailed under him toward the end recalled that he could no longer climb to his lookout station while wearing his heavy winter coat, so he climbed without it and had it hoisted to him! (Ryan-Last, p. 141).
There is a photo of him on p. 20 of Looker and a different one on p. 183 of Feltham; Brown has two in her section of photos following p. 118, and Ryan/Drake has one on p. 76. Chafe has one after p. 92, and Tarver one on p. 169. England, facing p. 181, has two, one on the bridge of the Terra Nova and one out on the ice. Collins, p. 151, has a very different one; I suspect he was much younger then. (Or maybe it was before he got the wig that his granddaughter said he wore; Ryan-Last, p. 300. One sailor said he had several, in multiple colors; Ryan-Last, p. 302). Kean has several photos of the Kean family. There is an 1899 photo of Captain Kean, along with other sealing stalwarts such as Arthur Jackman, on p. 25 of Winsor; WInsor has another photo on p. 73.
He "would not abide softness in his crew, and no efforts by the Fisherman's Protective Union to improve the sailors' lot could withstand Kean's opposition." When legislation was passed to (very slightly) improve sealers' conditions of service, "Kean lamented that the sealers had softened from too much 'luxury,' what with hot food to eat and real bunks to sleep in. He longed for the days when sealers were 'real men'" (Candow, p. 91).
He was apparently physically impressive; George Allan England, watching him come aboard the Terra Nova when in his late sixties, declared him "A fine old sea dog: proud, virile, dominant. One of the real 'fore-now' men, which is to say, the genuine old heart-of-oak breed of mariners, now, alas, dying out" (England, p. 29).
As far as I can tell, the only original thought he ever had was a technique of cutting off seal tail flippers that made it easier to count the hunt (Candow, p. 78). Otherwise, he was old-fashioned -- e.g. he declared using aircraft to seek seals completely useless (Candow, p. 81). Kean, p. 94, cites numbers to demonstrate his claim -- but I would say he fudged the numbers (doing the math, the average "take" for the years when the plane was in action were 156,396 seals, for when it was not, the average was 156,230 -- but to make this work, Kean had to include among the "plane years" the two years before the aircraft was working. Take out 1921-1922 and the "plane years" average 168,852. The plane may not have been cost-effective, but it can't really be said that it didn't help the hunt!).
He had a strange attitude toward the law. In a quote that shows his unique mix of closed-mindedness, stupidity, and pomposity, he declared in his book, "The laws and constitution of the English Government are the best in the world because they approach nearest to the laws God has established in our natures. Those who have attempted this barbarous violation of the most sacred rights of their country deserve the name of rebels and traitors, since they have not only violated the laws of their King and country but the laws of Heaven itself" (Kean, pp. 72-73).
Yet he showed a definite willingness to flout rules and norms, both in word and in deed. Just pages after declaring that British law was heaven's law, he said that he had "glanced" (his word) at the 1933 Newfoundland sealing regulations, and that 100 of the 140 pages could be "dispense[d with]" (Kean, p. 75).
His defiance wasn't restricted to word. All sealing captains tried to get out of port at the earliest moment allowed by law, so that they got first crack at the seals, but Kean on at least one occasion cheated more than the usual, only to be stopped by the ice (Ryan-Ice, p. 180). And when Newfoundland put limits on sealing on Sundays, Kean started keeping track of which sealers insisted on taking Sundays off: "If you were with Abram Kean, and you were a Sunday man, you were finished. Don't come looking for a berth no more" (William Lowe, on p. 394 of Ryan-Last).
He certainly wasn't above trickery; "[o]ne of his favourite gambits was to head off in one particular direction until the other ships were all following him: then, with his stokers tending their furnaces carefully to avoid emitting sparks through the funnel, he would change course abruptly after nightfall for the point where he estimated that his prey would be found. Captain Kean was in some respects as sought after as the seals, but both his pathfinding and the task of keeping up with him could be strenuous work" (Keir, p. 126. To be sure, trickery was almost an accepted part of the sealing game; Rycroft, pp. 87-88, tells of a case where locals, who pretended to be seal-spotters employed by his company, tried to steer Captain James Fairweather away from a patch of seals).
George Allan England described Kean's response to having others follow him: "The Thetis and Diana dogged our every 'jife' and 'cut.' They spied on us. Not if they could help it should Cap'n Kean steal a march on them. He, 'admiral of the fleet,' should not be allowed to strike the fat and leave them out of it.
"'An' if they make a blank, I'll be blamed,' the Old Man complained. 'Whatever happened, I'm blamed. I mind one spring they all tagged me, an' it was an off spring. Nobody got into the main patch at all. An' what d'you think, sir? They blamed me for leadin' 'em 'stray!'" (England, pp. 80-81).
England also says that he didn't always follow the rules in checkers, although England doesn't quite call it cheating, and he says that Kean was good enough that he rarely needed to step around the rules (England, pp. 109-110).
There were reports that his behavior on the ice, including stealing other ships' seals, contributed to the 1898 Greenland disaster (Brown, pp. 31-32; Cadigan, p. 185). Certainly his single-mindedness played a large role in the Newfoundland disaster (see "The Newfoundland Disaster (I)"); he was held "morally responsible" for that disaster, and there was actually a public demonstration against him in St. John's (Looker, p. 25). Indeed, the first time he lost an election was in 1919 (ButlerHanrahan, p. 112), which was the voters' first real shot at him after the Newfoundland Disaster. His autobiography completely brushes off the charges, and declares he couldn't have done anything (Kean, p. 31; his denials are frankly absurd) -- then devotes pages to his legal contest with Sir William Coaker about whether he was at fault (Kean, 31-35 and beyond).
He certainly had no qualms about nepotism, bringing his sons on his trips (e.g. in the year England sailed with him, his son Nathan Kean was Abram's Second Hand and his grandson Cyril was also aboard; England, p. 64) and encouraging his sons to become sealing captains themselves -- his oldest son Joe Kean would be a successful sealer before dying on the Florizel (see "The Wreck of the Steamship Florizel"), and Nathan and Westbury Kean also commanded ships (Kean, p. 29), although Westbury in particular had less success (he shared with his father most of the responsibility for the Newfoundland disaster; again, see "The Newfoundland Disaster (I)." To his credit, Westbury, unlike his father, at least felt bad about it).
Abram Kean's faith in his own abilities was astounding -- which perhaps explains why he didn't believe he was responsible for the deaths on the Newfoundland; he seems to have been unable to admit error or lack of ability. For example, he declared that if he had given his primary attention to politics instead of sealing, he had "no doubt that... I might today find myself in the same position as many another ex-Prime Minister."
His parliamentary career lasted, first to last, for more than a third of a century (although he was only in office for eight years of that span; Kean, p. 58); in 1927, he was promoted to Newfoundland's Legislative Council, the (appointed) upper house of parliament (Kean, p. 55). In that capacity, he voted, against his own desires, for the abolition of Newfoundland's representative government, i.e. for "Commission of Government" (Kean, p. 56); for more on this, see "Anti-Confederation Song (II)." In his typically superior way, he blames the failure of the Newfoundland government on Newfoundlanders' lack of "moral courage" (Kean, p. 56). This of a people whose quite often died of sailing or sealing in conditions that would make any normal person hide in a storm cellar!
"Kean's last involvement in public life came in the 1940s when he wrote a series of letters to the press urging Newfoundlanders to consider confederation," i.e. joining Canada (DictNewfLabr, p. 184). He did not live to see the outcome of that question.
I am genuinely surprised at the reverence in which he was seemingly held. Yes, he was the only captain to take a million seals -- but it took him a long, long time, and people were in awe long before that. The 21,610 seals he averaged per year (Chafe, p. 97) for the years listed in Chafe was indeed the highest career average for any whaler with at least ten years' service (Chafe actually lists Job Knee with a higher average, but this was a computational error), but Sam Blandford's 19,509 and Joe Barbour's 19,057 aren't that far behind. Similarly, if we look at total seals in a ten year period, Kean's 273,571 in the years 1909-1918 was more than anyone else's ten year total ever -- but Kean commanded either the Florizel or the Stephano for eight of those ten years; he had the advantage of the best available ship for almost the entire time. (Even so, he complained later that he would have gotten his millionth seal sooner if he'd had better ships; Kean, p. 57.) And his totals aren't that much greater than Blandford's 244,253 in 1895-1904, working in inferior ships (mostly the Neptune), or Barbour's 239,847 in 1880-1889 (mostly in Ranger, which was a clunker), or Henry Dawe of Bay Roberts's 233,622 in 1900-1909 (in three different ships), or Ed White Sr. and his 231,262 all the way back in 1868-1877 (in three different ships).
The total value of seals taken by Kean is also easily a record -- $1,983,475 for Kean, compared to $1,351,442 for Barbour, $1,284,027 for William C. Winsor and $1,034,057 for Blandford (Winsor, pp. 109-110). But, again, he served for 12 more years than Barbour, 14 more than Winsor, 16 more than Blandford. He had the best per-year rate, but not by an extraordinary amount. Maybe it really was that magisterial attitude of his that caused him to be so respected.
Even the celebration of his great milestone in 1934 was related to the death of seals -- "the world's largest [seal] flipper supper" was staged to celebrate the killing of his millionth seal (ButlerHanrahan, p. 108).
Kean was not always as successful as this piece might imply, though; in 1896, while commanding the Wolf (the second of that name, for which see "Captain Bill Ryan Left Terry Behind"), he allowed his ship to be trapped in the ice off Fogo Island; she was crushed and lost (Feltham, pp. 163-165). "The Terra Nova" is the story of how three men under his command died in 1924. Also, according to Brown, p. 4, while playing with a gun at age ten, he killed his three-year-old nephew and injured his own hand. (This account is mentioned on p. 3 of Kean. He admits that "nemesis" came his way, but mentioned no punishment for it except for his own anguish which interfered with his school career).
He was also a bore. Andy Short talks of his speeches to the men, which they had to listen to, "a speech about this, that, and the other thing... and all this kind of stuff" (Ryan-Last, p. 159). His book is not long (148 pages in the Ryan edition), but it really doesn't offer much detail about his career; half of it is political philosophy that has aged very poorly, and most of the rest is disorganized. (One reason why this account is also disorganized; I didn't have any structured biography to work from.) The only reason anyone would care about him is his sealing career, but apart from the statistics about seals taken, the book never mentions most of his trips to the ice.
He was also sexist (not that that was rare for men of his era). One of his business ventures, organized on behalf of his relatives, was the "Little Stephano Company," named after the ship he had commanded in the 1910s. Several female relatives held shares. When it was proposed that the company acquire another ship, the women voted against it -- so Kean ordered the women out and the men voted to buy the ship. And (Kean is at least honest enough to admit) it was a mistake; the women had been right. But his admission is linked with a slam against ALL women as being too cautious (Kean, pp. 40-41).
George Wilson told a story of when another sealer, the Ranger, was in a patch of seals but briefly trapped, Kean took his ship, the much more powerful Beothic, and used it to smash the ice and scare off the seals, depriving the Ranger of much of her catch (Ryan-Last, p. 231).
There were plenty of sailors who didn't like him. Don Fowler said, "That Abram Kean. He was a bugger.... [He] was a case; no one liked him" (Ryan-Last, p. 299). Jesse Codner declared, "Old Abram Kean was an old bastard, God forgive me. He should have been shot years ago. That old son of a...," after which Codner described how Kean's actions harmed him, plus the disasters Kean had contributed to, concluding "He thought he was God. He'd sooner have the seal than the man. He was after seals. He wasn't bothering about the men's welfare" (Ryan-Last, p. 149) -- a statement I would regard as largely true.
Jack Boone declared, "Kean was a bad man, old Abram Kean. A man was no more than a dog," and describes him running over sailors (Ryan-Last, p. 297), referring presumably to the incident described in "The Terra Nova." Jerry McCann declared, "He should be shot.... He was a dog" (Ryan-Last, p. 303).
Andy Short was more generous but still recalled him as hard; Kean was "a wonderful man. He was a good man... But he wasn't a man to take any mercy on men. He thought that the men were animals. He had no mercy on them whatever. No matter what the weather, you had to go out" (Ryan-Last, p. 159). William Noseworthy also called him a "hard old man" (Ryan-Last, p. 304), Oliver James said he was "a bit wild" (ibid.), and Wilfred Vincent said "He was the devil. He was a hard, hard man" (Ryan-Last, p. 305).
On the other hand, Edgar Kean (presumably a relation, but I don't know of what degree) declared "He was a clean-living man; a perfect gentleman" (Ryan-Last, p. 301), and Hayden Thomas, who called him a "terrible man," admitted "The northern men adored Abram Kean. If he said to them, 'Go jump overboard,' I believe they would" (Ryan-Last, p. 300). Sam Mifflin said, "I liked him. You could speak to him, he was a mannerly man. He was the best" (Ryan-Last, p. 304). Israel Pierce declared, "He was all right. I found the man all right. People give him a bad name, but I found the man all right" (Ryan-Last, p. 305). Stanley Sturge's opinion was that "Some would give their life for old man Kean I didn't find anything wrong with old man Kean. I didn't blame him for the Newfoundland disaster. I blame the master watches. [Which is ridiculous.] He was a good old fellow, really. Never smoked in his life and he never drank in his life" (ibid.)
Despite all his faults, his was an amazing career. But I'm very glad I didn't work with or for, or even around, him. Psychopaths don't appeal to me.
Otto Kelland, who wrote this piece, is best known for "Western Boat (Let Me Fish Off Cape St Mary's)"; see his biography there. He also produced "Captain Bob Bartlett," "The Dying Seal-Hunter," and "We Will Always Have Our Sealers," the latter three, like this piece, being included in the index based on their inclusion in Ryan/Small-HaulinRopeAndGaff; there is no other evidence that they are traditional. - RBW
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