Old Polina, The
DESCRIPTION: "There's a noble fleet of whalers a-sailing from Dundee... There's not another whaler that sails the Arctic Sea Can beat the old Polina, you need not try, my sons." The singer describes all the various ships which failed to outrace the Polina
EARLIEST DATE: 1955 (Doyle-OldTimeSongsAndPoetryOfNewfoundland, 3rd edition); certainly composed 1885-1887, probably in the first of those years
KEYWORDS: ship whaler racing bragging
1888-1891 - Catpain William Guy commands the _Polynia_ out of Newfoundland
FOUND IN: Canada(Newf) Britain(Scotland(Aber))
REFERENCES (10 citations):
Fowke/Mills/Blume-CanadasStoryInSong, pp. 165-166, "The Old 'Polina'" (1 text, tune referenced)
Fowke/MacMillan-PenguinBookOfCanadianFolkSongs 15, "The Old 'Polina'" (1 text, 1 tune)
Doyle-OldTimeSongsAndPoetryOfNewfoundland, "Old Polina" (1 text, 1 tune): pp. 44-45 in the 3rd edition, pp. 36-37 in the 4th; pp. 32-33 in the 5th
Mills-FavoriteSongsOfNewfoundland, pp. 22-23, "Old Polina" (1 text, 1 tune)
Blondahl-NewfoundlandersSing, pp. 22-23, "The Old Polina" (1 text, 1 tune)
Palmer-OxfordBookOfSeaSongs 134, "The Balena" (1 text, 1 tune)
Gatherer-SongsAndBalladsOfDundee 25, "The Balaena" (1 text, 1 tune); 26, "The Old Polina" (1 text, tune referenced)
Hugill-SongsOfTheSea, pp. 124-125, "Dundee Whalers" (1 text, 1 tune)
ADDITIONAL: Norman Watson, _The Dundee Whalers_, Tuckwell Press, 2003, pp. 66-67, "(no title)" (1 text, a "Balaena" version)
Nancy Rycroft (granddaughter of James Fairweather), _Captain James Fairweather: Whaler and Shipmaster: His Life and Carer 1853-1933_, Fairweather Books, 2005, p. 91, "The Old Polina" (1 text, the Gatherer version, repeating Gatherer's error that the tune is "The Balaena" rather than the reverse)
ST FMB165 (Partial)
A.L. Lloyd, "The Balaena" (on Lloyd9)
cf. "A Noble Fleet of Sealers" (tune)
cf. "Save Our Swilers" (tune)
Save Our Swilers (File: RySm156)
NOTES [5849 words]: GEST Songs of Newfoundland and Labrador site claims the song was written in the 1880s.
The notes to A.L. Lloyd's Leviathan! for "The Balaena" makes this whaler R. Kinnes's Balaena, the "largest and fastest" of the 1873 Dundee whaling fleet. According to the Dundee City Council site, it "sailed its last voyage in 1892 under Captain Alexander Fairweather." That's a different explanation than the sinking of the Polynia proposed by the GEST site. - BS
There seem to be a lot of errors in interpreting this song -- for instance, Lloyd's date for the Balaena's role in the Dundee fleet is off by two decades. The notes in Fowke/Mills/Blume-CanadasStoryInSong and in Mills-FavoriteSongsOfNewfoundland agree with GEST in associating the song with the Newfoundland vessel Polynia, but Fowke/Mills/Blume-CanadasStoryInSong offer their own error -- they state the Polynia was lost in the Straits of Belle Isle in 1884. But the Polynia was not lost in 1884.
Curiously, different versions of the song refer to the Balaena and the Polina as the ship -- but, otherwise, have almost the same text. The best explanation is that they're both right.... The problem of whether the ship was the Polina or the Balaena appears to have arisen because there were two real whalers with very similar names -- and even some of the same captains.
Nonetheless, the internal clues in the song give us a information which allow us to date it fairly precisely -- and to conclude that the original ship was the Polynia, making "The Old Polina" the original title.
All versions agree that the vessel was based from Dundee, which is apt. Dundee was not particularly noteworthy as a whaling port in the early years of the industry. But when whalers converted from sails to steam, things changed. (And note that the ship in the song has an engine, so she must be a steamer.) Dundee "already had an experienced shipbuilding industry with nearly half a century of experience of steam ships" (Archibald, p. 44), so they happily started using their steam ships for whaling -- and sealing; the conversion to steam meant that ships could do both in one year rather than have to choose one industry. (Dundee, although regarded as a "whaling" port, actually produced more seal oil than whale oil in its heyday; Watson, p. 53. By the 1870s, most whalers were also sealers -- Lubbock, p. 461, for instance, has a table of whale oil and seal oil taken 1861-1881, and in nine of the 22 years, more seal oil was taken than whale oil. The table on p. 460 shows sealing ships outnumbering whalers in 11 of the 22 years, and no whalers at all going out from Britain in 1877 and 1879-1881. In 1878, Dundee built an oil processing plant specifically for dealing with seal fat; Watson, p. 90. The table on p. 88 shows that, by 1883, it produced two and a half times as much seal oil as whale oil -- and that at a time when almost everyone else was out of the arctic whaling business).
The change in the business model induced by steam meant that St. John's became an essential part of the operation: "From 1862 Dundee vessels began to operate regularly from St. John's in Newfoundland, with Polynia the pioneer" (Archibald, p. 45. They still needed Scottish engineers for some years, though, before the Newfoundlanders learned how to maintain the engines; Ryan-Ice, p. 230. Ironically, the Polynia broke her propeller in that year and had to retreat to St. John's for repairs; Watson, p. 118).
If the ships involved are sealers sailing from Dundee, that strongly implies a date after 1876; although the Polynia had gone sealing in Newfoundland in 1862, Dundee whalers did not become regulars at the sealing until 1877, when the Arctic and Aurora took part in the (by-then-well-established) seal hunt (Watson, p. 56; cf. Chafe, p. 52).
If 1862 is the earliest possible year we need to consider for this song, the last is 1917; the whaling fleet by then had been in decline for decades as the arctic whale population fell, and the First World War killed off the Dundee industry (Archibald, p. 49), with the Balaena being the very last ship of the bunch.
The Balaena (or, in some texts, Balena), like the Polynia, sailed from Dundee, and she too was a whaler -- in her first service in the Scottish merchant fleet, she was part of the Dundee Whaling Expedition of 1892-1893 that went to try whaling in the Antarctic (Tarver, p. 23; Archibald, pp. 98-99). According to Lubbock, p. 426, the other ships on that expedition were the Active, Diana, and the Polar Star, and the voyage was a disaster in terms of results; Watson, p. 141, says they took many seals but no whales at all. Despite vigorous attempts to use the seal hides and such, investors lost almost 43% of their capital (Watson, p. 142). The Balaena was commanded by Alexander Fairweather (1853-1896) on that expedition (Tarver, p. 227; Archibald, p. 217; Watson, p. 139). Only after her return did she settle down to regular whaling duty from Dundee, so if the ship is the Balaena, the date has to be after 1893.
Thus the Polynia=Polina is the older of the two ships named in the song, giving her a sort of prior claim, but obviously it would have been easy to confuse one name with the other. So to determine the history of the song, we need to we need to look for stories of the Balaena or the Polina, plus the other ships in the song, the Terra Nova, the Arctic, the Aurora, and the "Husky," in the years from 1862 to 1917. And, fortunately, except for the last, there is very little mystery about the ships involved.
As we saw, Polynia was noteworthy specifically because she was of one of the very first steam whalers to be a sealer as well. The Polynia was built at the Dundee shipyards of Alexander Stephen & Sons in 1861 for Dundee S. & W. Fishing Co. (Archibald, p. 175). She was listed as 146.2' x 29.0' x 18.1', and at 462 gross tons (Tarver, p. 207). Thus she went sealing in the very first season after her completion. She was only the fourth purpose-built Dundee whaling steamer, following the Narwhal and Dundee of 1859 and the Camperdown of 1860 (Watson, p. 83). She was one of just two ships to go to the Newfoundland sealing grounds in 1862 (sealing was well-established in Newfoundland by then -- see, for instance, "The Ferryland Sealer" -- but it was done locally, with sailing ships). Polynia continued to sail from Dundee for more than two decades; for much of this time, her whaling captain was David Kilgour (Archibald, pp. 86-87), although other officers commanded her while sealing. Polynia's first captain was Captain Penny, the son of the Captain William Penny who had earlier been involved in the Franklin search and is mentioned in many versions of "Lady Franklin's Lament (The Sailor's Dream)" [Laws K9]. The elder Penny had also supervised the Polynia's construction (Lubbock, pp. 51, 53). Captains Gravill, Nicoll, William Walker, Kilgour, Yule, John B. Walker, and Burnett followed in command of the Polynia before William Guy took her; he commanded the Polynia in 1888-1891 (Chafe, p. 103).
But in 1884, the year (and indeed the month) Mills and co. say Polynia was lost, the Polynia went to the ice as a sealer under the command of J. B. Walker, and sailed from Newfoundland (Chafe, p. 103), not Dundee. She pursued the seal fishery 1884-1891, although with limited success (in her two years under Walker, she took only 1151 seals, so it's no surprise he wasn't back. Later captains did better, but never hit the 20,000 figure that marked a truly successful trip).
So: the Dundee Polynia was not lost in 1884, as claimed, but was transferred to a Newfoundland base. She wasn't lost until 1891, after the end of the sealing season (Chafe, p. 103); she was whaling in Lancaster Sound (Archibald, p. 247). This means that the Balaena was being acquired for whaling work at just about the time the Polynia was being crushed by ice. An odd coincidence....
Archibald, p. 176, describes Polynia's end as follows: "There was a tragedy in the 1891 season when a huge wave struck the Polynia, killing one man and injuring ten others and on 11 July that year Polynia was crushed by ice in Lancaster Sound. Her crew abandoned and she sank not long afterward. The Dundee ships Maud and Aurora [the latter, obviously, mentioned in the song] rescued her crew, some of whom arrived in Wick on the 3 October [sic]."
Stephen & Sons, which built the Polynia, also built other ships mentioned in the song, the Esquimaux Terra Nova, Aurora, and Arctic (Tarver, pp. 207-209). They did not built the Balaena; she was built in 1872 by Jorgensen & Knudsen of Norway and given the name Mjolne. She didn't join the Dundee fleet, or gain the name Balaena, until 1891. "Captain Guy" commanded her 1903-1908; also, Alexander Fairweather, who is also mentioned in the song, commanded her 1892-1896 (Archibald, p. 128). Her other captains, Thomas Robertson (1897-1901 -- he was fired in that year for hiding tobacco in his cabin, and also perhaps because of fights among his men), James Bannerman (1902), J. Murray (1909-1911), and W. Adams (1917) do not seem to be mentioned in this song. She returned to Norwegian ownership in 1917, and was a hulk by 1929 (Archibald, p. 129).
Archibald, p. 218, has a full list of whalers commanded by William Guy: the Nova Zembla 1878-1882, the Jan Mayen 1883, the Arctic II 1884-1887 (losing her in Foxe Channel in that year; Archibald, p. 125; Greene, p. 273, specifies that it was near Harrison Point in Cumberland Gulf), the Polynia in 1888-1891 (losing her in that year), the Eclipse in 1892, the Nova Zembla again 1893-1902 (losing her in that year), and then the Balaena until 1907. Note that, although he commanded the Polynia as both a sealer and a whaler, it wasn't always in the same years!
So which version came first, Polina or Balaena? After all, the same guy (or the same Guy, if you will) commanded both.
As secondary evidence, note that all Newfoundland versions refer to the Polina. The Scottish versions mostly refer to the Balaena, but one of Gatherer-SongsAndBalladsOfDundee's texts refers to the Polina. This is evidence that the Polina versions are older; if the Balaena text had been the original, it would have had to go to Newfoundland, be converted to the Polina, after which the Balaena version would be forgotten in Newfoundland and the Polina version carried to Scotland. If the song originated with the Polina, in either Newfoundland or Scotland, then there was only one ocean crossing of the song, and the conversion from Polina to Balaena happened only in Scotland. This, plus the fact that the Polynia was the older ship, and sailed from both Newfoundland and Dundee (which the Balaena did not), are pretty decisive for the claim that the Polina is the original form, the Balaena the adaption. Also, the Polina versions seem to preserve the names (Jackman, Fairweather, etc.) a little better than the Balaena texts. Strong evidence, although it's not quite proof.
Although William Guy was the "hero" of this song, he certainly wasn't the most famous of the captains it mentions. One of the other officers mentioned is "Fairweather." There were at least three Captains Fairweather in this period (Ryan/Drake, pp. 24, 27, 29), although almost certainly only two of them concern us: James Fairweather (1853-1933) commanded the Aurora 1883-1888, and his older brother Alexander Fairweather the Aurora in 1880-1882 (so Rycroft, p. 54; Chafe, p. 90, has James in charge of the Aurora 1880-1888), after which Alexander moved to the Thetis in 1883 and the Terra Nova 1885-1888 (Chafe, p. 90). Rycroft, p. 5, traces the family back to Kirriemuir, Scotland, in the eighteenth century. (Some of this may be by confusion between sealing and whaling trips; according to Rycroft, p. 19, James Fairweather was one of the very few Dundee captains to command both. He would later command the Discovery as she went to hunt Shackleton's Endurance expedition, although he didn't play any role in the rescue; Rycroft, p. 139.)
The family had no history at sea; James Sr., the father of Alexander and James, had been a cabinet-maker until he suddenly went to sea as a carpenter in 1854, dying in Australian in 1857 with his wife and children still in Dundee! (Rycroft, pp. 9-10). Alexander (who was born around 1847) first went to sea at age 10 (Rycroft, pp. 11-12); James was still at home when his mother remarried in 1864.
Alexander Fairweather had an active life; having gone to sea at age ten (Watson, p. 75), he "died aboard his ship Balaena off Spitzbergen on May 31, " (Lubbock, p. 433). Watson has a sketch of him after p. 84, apparently showing him as he looked while commanding the Balaena. He was also arguably guilty of incest -- according to Rycroft, pp. 3, 8, he married the daughter of his mother's twin sister -- so at least his first cousin, and if the two twins were identical, then perhaps (from a genetic standpoint) his niece.
I'm quite certain that the "Art Jackson" mentioned in some versions should be "Art Jackman," since "Art Jackman" is referred to later in the song, and Arthur Jackman (1843-1907) commanded Newfoundland steamers from 1871 to 1906, spending time as captain of the Hawk, Falcon, Narwhal, Resolute, Eagle, Aurora, and Terra Nova (Chafe, p. 92). Based on the lists in Chafe, I can say categorically that no Newfoundland steamer had a "Captain Jackson," and Archibald doesn't list any Dundee whaling captain with that name, although his list is not as comprehensive as Chafe's.
Ryan-Ice, pp. 272-273 n. 23, says Jackman was "a legend in his own time. He was big, impressive, given to heavy drinking and violence, but very successful and usually generous and popular." And tough enough that, when he mangled one of his fingers, he took an axe and cut it off when one of his sailors refused to do so! In 1886, he accompanied Robert Peary on the latter's first trip to the Arctic (DictNewfLabr, p. 173) and came to be known as "Viking Arthur" because of his work in northern seas (Droge, p. 47). He spent some time as a whaler, but had an even longer and more famous career as a sealer; his obituary said that he commanded his first sealing ship at age 22 (Ryan-Ice, p. 380, who reprints the obituary found in the St. John's Evening Telegram of Jan. 13, 1907). Such was his fame that the Evening Telegram also published three poems or ballads about him in the weeks after his death (Ryan-Ice, p. 385). For Jackman, see also "Sealer's Song (I)," "First Arrival -- 'Aurora' and 'Walrus' Full," and "The Spring of '97."
Newfoundlanders continue to tell stories about the Fairweathers and the Jackmans. Young, p. 235, has one about a Fairweather (apparently James) and Art Jackman. Sealing ships had a tendency to follow the lead of the most noteworthy captain, since they were thought likely to find the seals soonest. One year (un-named), Jackman led the sealing fleet out of St. John's, and found the whole fleet following him. He shook off all but Fairweather. When Jackman spotted seals in the distance, he stopped the ship. Fairweather oh so kindly sent a message asking if Jackman needed help. Jackman told Fairweather he was stopped because of the weather; Fairweather said he would do the same, and asked when Jackman would start out in the morning. Jackman said he would hang a red light so Fairweather could see when he moved. In the night, Jackman headed away for the seals, leaving a red light on a pole to fool Fairweather.
No wonder they got into bar fights....
In another year, Jackman went into White Bay -- a dangerous decision, because the bay could be closed by ice if the wind blew in the right direction (for an instance of this, see "We Will Not Go to White Bay with Casey Any More"). But he had found seals, so he went in -- and he didn't want anyone else to follow him, so he had his engineers put up extra smoke. The other sealers thought he was jammed (or maybe on fire), and left him alone in the bay to clean up the patch (Ryan-Last, p. 58).
Jackman, in fact, was so notorious an individual that a year in which only one or two sealing steamers found success was known as an "Arthur-Jackman Year" -- a year in which the only captains who found success were those who went against the grain as much as Jackman (Greene, p. 17).
William Guy knew James Fairweather in Newfoundland. James Fairweather got in trouble for using violence against his own crew, and also for beating up the chief engineer of Henry Dawe's ship Esquimaux in 1886 -- and William Guy was there at the time! (Ryan-Ice, pp. 263-264). Both in fact faced charges; Fairweather was fined $4, though the case against Guy was dismissed. And the fight was over whether the engineer could get up steam in haste, to allow the men to go on some sort of drunken harbor cruise. Which makes it interesting, at least, that the Doyle version says, "Art Jackson [=Jackman] set his canvas, Fairweather got up steam, And Captain Guy, the daring boy, came plunging through the stream." It seems the two had semi-friendly competitions in many ways.
The Fairweathers certainly seem to have been hard drinkers; Alexander Fairweather died of delirium tremens (Archibald, p. 79) aboard the Balaena (Rycroft, p. 101, which carefully omits mention of the cause of death, as does the obituary she reprints on p. 181. An item on p. 185 says he had been ill for six days). He was also strongly superstitious -- he was afraid of the number 13, wouldn't hire crew on Fridays, and had his cabin decorated with red herring (Archibald, p. 217). One man who sailed with him described him as "a real buccaneer, and looked it. He was a quiet man on shore, but at sea something of a desperado" (Rycroft, p. 102).
There is a portrait of Alexander Fairweather on p. 103 of Rycroft.
The fourth captain is typically "Mullin(s)" or perhaps "Mallan," and there was no sealing/whaling captain Mullins, but we'll get to that....
The Doyle text mentions four ships, the Terra Nova, Aurora, Arctic, and Husky, along with the Polina. Several of these were famous sealing steamers. For the Aurora, see "First Arrival -- 'Aurora' and 'Walrus' Full." The Aurora served as a sealer 1877-1911 (Chafe, p. 98), and once made the voyage from St. John's to Dundee (i.e. the reverse of the direction in this song) in nine days, which was considered fast (Watson, p. 178); she eventually sank after a period involved in south polar exploration.
The Arctic II was built in 1875, serving under William Adams Sr. 1875-1883 (as a whaler) and from 1877 to 1887 as a sealer -- and served under William Guy 1884-1887 as a whaler (Archibald, p. 124) and 1885-1887 as a sealer (Chafe, p. 98). It's little surprise that she wasn't fast; in 1881, she had been so badly squeezed in the ice that it took a hydraulic jack to straighten her out (Archibald, p. 124; Lubbock, p. 411 reports that "She was so severely nipped in the ice that her hatches were squeezed into a diamond shape"), and surely her speed would have been affected by that even after the repairs! Nonetheless Watson, p. 133, says that she was "For some the finest of all the Dundee whalers."
The most famous of these ships was surely the Terra Nova, for which see "The Terra Nova." The Terra Nova was built as a whaler/sealer in 1885, came under Newfoundland ownership in 1898, went to Antarctica in 1903-1905 and in 1910, also served in the Arctic, then again went back to sealing until she was lost in World War II. In addition to doing more polar exploration than any other ship (sealer or not), only two ships took more seals in their careers, and those other two both spent many more years as sealers. She was the very last sealer to sail from Dundee, in 1895 (Archibald, p. 49) -- a strong hint that the song predates 1895.
Archibald, p. 197, says, "Known familiarly as 'Novey', Terra Nova was the last Dundee built whaling ship and arguably the best. She was built to replace the successful whaling ship Thetis, which had been sold to the United States Government. All the skill and experience of the previous two decades of whaling ship construction created what was undoubtedly a superb example of an Arctic-worthy hunting vessel.... Terra Nova was a fast ship, with a record passage of 11 days on her maiden voyage from Dundee to St. John's in February 1885." (But there would be no more, because the whale fishery collapsed from 1885; Watson, p. 93.) That's a distance of about 2300 miles (probably), so she averaged a bit less than eight knots. In 1910, she left London for Capetown on June 1 and arrived on August 15 (Fitzsimmons, pp, 212, 224), which works out to a bit less than seven knots with no help from the wind and with her boilers presumably not going full-tilt to save coal. That's not really fast, but whalers tended to be slow because they needed to be strong to withstand ice.
This leaves the problem of the Husky. There was no Dundee whaler or Newfoundland sealer by that name. But the answer comes from Bruce Laurenson's Balena version from the Shetlands. This converts Captain Jackman to "Bold Jacklin," but instead of "Mullins in the Husky" it offers "Mallan" of the Eskimaux -- that is, the SS Esquimaux, yet another Newfoundland ship (for her, see "Captain Bill Ryan Left Terry Behind"); one suspects that there might have been an intermediate version which called her the "Huskimaw" or similar, since that is a variant form of "Eskimo" (quite common in the nineteenth century) that could easily give rise to "Husky." The Esquimaux's Newfoundland captain, in 1885 and 1887-1890, was William Milne (Chafe, p. 99; Chafe, p. 94, shows that William Milne (1851-1937) never commanded any other sealer, but Archibald, p. 219, says that he was a whaler for 55 years; in 1903, as captain of the Eclipse, he was supposed to support Roald Amundsen's first North Pole expedition, although little came of that; Watson, p. 174). His name is obviously the source of both "Mullins" and "Mallan." (Indeed, as Peter Shepheard pointed out to me, the name "Milne" is often pronounced "Mallan" in Scotland.)
Milne (1851-1937) would later become famous for helping Roald Amundsen plan his first great exploit, the sailing of the Northwest Passage, and was knighted by the King of Norway as a result (Archibald, p. 48). He sounds like he was an interesting character, rising to command despite being extremely short and finding time to have ten children despite his time at sea (Archibald, pp. 79-80). He was unusual among Arctic travelers for his knowledge of the Inuit. He reportedly went to the Arctic 42 times in some capacity or other (Archibald, pp. 219-220).
There is a photo of Milne, with a big pipe and a reindeer head trophy, facing p. 448 of Lubbock. Watson, p. 166 says that there is a Cape Milne named for him -- although the only Cape Milne I can find is in New Guinea, which seems unlikely.
I doubt the Esquimaux was very fast; although built in 1865, and designed to have a screw propellor, it sounds as if it wasn't initially fitted (Archibald, p. 149), and retrofits almost never worked as well as engines which were part of the original design. She was the last whaler of the Dundee Seal and Whale Fishing Company to survive her arctic adventures; when the company was liquidated in 1894, with the Esquimaux sold "at a knockdown price" (Watson, p. 136), though she continued to serve as a sealer until 1900 (Chafe, p. 99). She was purchased for the 1901 Baldwin-Ziegler polar expedition, in which she was lost (Watson, p. 146).
Fascinatingly, the song omits a lot of Dundee whalers, but mentions all the Dundee whalers that usually went sealing -- in 1888-1890, for instance, there were just four Dundee whalers that went, the Polynia, the Aurora, the Esquimaux, and the Terra Nova (Lubbock, pp. 420, 422).
All this gives us a lot of detail on which to date the song. Since all the other ships except the Arctic outlasted the Polynia, they don't provide much dating help. But the mention of the Terra Nova proves that the song must be from after 1885. And the Polynia versions must be from 1891 or earlier. The Balaena versions must be after that. Can we say more?
Captain Guy, after he left the Polynia, took over the Balaena. Apparently he took the song with him! Palmer says that "The Old Polina" version refers to the years 1884-1887; Gatherer counter-proposes that the storm described as damaging the ship took place in 1891. This would, however, be after Polynia was transferred to Newfoundland ownership. In fact, the mention of Milne confines us to 1885 or 1887, probably the former. Further evidence that the year was not 1886 is the fact that the Aurora was very nearly lost in that year (Feltham, pp. 22-23, or see the notes to "First Arrival -- 'Aurora' and 'Walrus' Full"). Given the Aurora's troubles in 1886, and the damage she suffered, reducing her abilities in 1887, 1885 might be the best bet for the year. The fact that the Arctic was lost in 1887 also supports the 1885 date; while the Arctic sailed in 1887, her early loss would probably have caused a change in the song.
An 1885 date would also explain why the Terra Nova was called a "model" mail boat; she was brand new -- the latest model. And, of course, it was easy to call the TERRA a "TERROR of the sea"; the two are pronounced effectively identically in some dialects.
Another line in the song hints that the song isn't from much after 1885. That's the mention of the Arctic and Aurora being ships "they talk so much about." In St. John's, maybe... but the outside world was talking about them in the 1880s. Early in that decade, the Greely expedition had been sent to Lady Franklin Bay on Ellesmere Island -- but its supply ship of 1882, the Neptune (another Newfoundland sealer), hadn't made it. So there was a desperate rescue attempt in 1883. The Arctic and Aurora were connected with that expedition indirectly; although not the primary ships, in their service as whalers, they led the way north (Guttridge, p. 270); for background, see the notes to "Hurrah for Baffin's Bay."
This leaves one loose end in the Laurenson version, which is the mention of "Captain Burnett" commanding the Balena. She never had such a skipper; her captains, according to Archibald, p. 128, were Fairweather, Thomas Robertson, James Bannerman, Guy, J. Murray, and W. Adams. But Burnett did command the Polynia, if only for a year. So the Laurenson reference to Burnett would seem to be a hangover -- the song was written in 1885 about Captain Guy, then adjusted to Burnett in 1886, then corrected back to Guy in 1887, but someone forgot and left the mention of Burnett in there! Burnett seems to have been a very obscure captain; the pages of Archibald are littered with mentions of the Jackmans and Fairweathers and Milnes and several others, but the only other mention of Burnett (first name apparently unknown) is as captain of the Victor in 1881, and Watson (who also talks a lot about the Milnes and Jackmans and Robertesons and such) never mentions him. The Victor was destroyed in the Davis Strait in 1881 (Archibald, p. 208). She never served as a Newfoundland sealer, and Burnett never commanded a sealing expedition (Chafe, p. 97), so presumably he wasn't well-known in Newfoundland.
It is interesting to note that one of the ships on the Antarctic Whaling Expedition did suffer damage like that described in the song in 1892 -- but the ship wasn't the Balaena, it was the Active: "The rough weather... [cost] Active two boats, some sails and a section of bulwark" (Archibald, p. 100).
One of Art Jackman's ships, the Eagle, also suffered faintly similar damage on one of her voyages. In 1887, the sealing fleet left St. John's, led by Jackman and the Eagle (with James Fairweather in the Aurora right behind). Not long after, several ladders from the Eagle were found on the ice, and there were worries that the Eagle had been destroyed -- but Jackman later arrived with a fine load of seals; the ladders had become caught up in some ropes and were thrown overboard (Power, pp. 63-64).
But damage to whalers early in a voyage may have been almost routine, simply because of the state of the crews: according to Albert Markham, "The departure of a whaler is marked by a total incapacity of the crew to perform any duties whatsoever connected with the ship, in consequence of the numerous parting glasses of which they have partaken..." (Watson, pp. 59-60); there are several other references in Watson to drunken crews. Indeed, Captain James Fairweather affirmed that Dundee crews often were so drunk upon departure that the ship might have to halt in the Tay for a while so that the crew could sober up (Rycroft, p. 18).
The spelling Polina for Polynia may have derived from yet another ship. Power, p. 93, mentions a ship Polina being part of a traffic jam in the St. John's narrows in 1896. Since this was after the Polynia was lost, the name cannot be an error for the Polynia; it was a different ship.
The album "Another Time: The Songs of Newfoundland" tries to explain "The Old Polina" version by saying that is is a localized text of "The Old Balena," obviously assuming that the "Balena" versions are older. (And, indeed, there had been an earlier whaler Balaena, which was active in 1789 -- Lubbock, p. 131 -- but she obviously wasn't a steamer and didn't sail at the time of the other ships in this song.) But claiming "The Old Polina" as a localized "Balaena" doesn't explain the Newfoundland references, or the Newfoundland dialect phrase "you need not try, me sons." (In Gatherer's "Balaena" version, this becomes "ye needn't try her on," which is clearly an error for the Newfoundland phrase) -- and, to emphasize a key point, the Balaena sailed with the wrong ships!
Also, the Balaena was not a sealer; she was only a whaler (see the lists of sealing vessels in Chafe). This doesn't preclude her visiting St. John's -- whalers went there regularly to coal up -- but it makes it significantly less likely that she would spent substantial time there. If a whaler did go there, it would simply be to resupply. A sealer would also pick up crew members in Newfoundland. Even though this song says it is about a whaler, it does not describe whaling; it describes the trip to St. John's. There is every reason to believe ship involved was a sealer as well as a whaler.
To summarize: This song was written in 1885 about the Polynia's trip to Newfoundland under William Guy. After the Polynia was lost, Guy moved to the Balaena, and the song was adjusted -- but it still contains most of the references to the ships of 1885! So we can confidently claim that "The Old Polina" is the original title and ship.
It's hard to know if the song's claim that the Polina was fast fits the Polynia. She was known to be highly maneuverable (Candow, p. 42), which in a steamer is certainly a related ability. But the sources consulted by Archibald (p. 175) say that her engine was only 60 or 70 horsepower. That's not a big engine for a ship of 473 gross tons. Lubbock, p. 376, calls her "a fine full-rigged ship, capable of steaming 9 knots" -- a decent speed for the 1860s, but not likely to win races in the 1880s. If she was fast, it was probably because she was a good sailer, not because of her engine.
By contrast, there is every reason to think the Balaena was slow by the time she came into Dundee service. She was old, and she was so tired that her engine broke down on her very first attempt to leave Dundee (Archibald, p. 99; Watson, p. 116, dates a similar event to 1902).
The Balaena's crew on the Antarctic expedition was "a jolly motley crowd... men and boys... of every sailor type... Arctic whalers, red cheeked and bearded, tanned South Spainers... quiet men and boys from the east coast fishing villages and gentle men from the Shetlands" (Archibald, p. 99). No one from St. John's, though!
Lubbock, pp. 423-424, has a description of the Polynia's last voyage in the arctic in 1891: "When outward bound to the Newfoundland sealing, Captain Guy was steaming dead slow against a heavy head sea and a W.S.W. gale. At the change of the watch, when all hands were on deck, a huge sea -- which Captain Guy believed to have been a tidal wave -- swept over the ship, killing one man and seriously injuring ten others. The Polynia weathered it out, and at the sealing accounted for 16,535 seals.... [Interesting that that sounds so much like the incident in this song -- except that the Arctic had sunk by then!]
"The Polynia went on to the Davis Straits, and on July 10, during a strong N.E. gal, the ship was caught by the stern between two floes[.] Her crew of 37 men were obliged to leave her, and at six o'clock on the following morning the old ship disappeared beneath the ice, leaving her crew in a desperate situation on broken ice, 12 miles from the shore. In the afternoon the Maud was sighted, but could not force her way through the pack; however, on the morning of the 12th, the Aurora succeeded in getting to them by means of her powerful engines."
One wonders what the author of this song thought about his ship's crew being saved by the enemy in his little race....
One reason the song might have been transferred to the Balaena was the latter's longevity. By the early twentieth century, the Arctic whales were effectively extinct: "The last good catches in the Greenland Sea were made by Captain J. Murray of the Balaena, who in 1909 caught 4 whales and several narwhals... and in the following year also caught 5 whales in the same neighbourhood" (Lubbock, p. 450).
There is a photo of the Balaena facing p. 416 of Lubbock and one facing p. 149 of Watson; the latter shows her at Disco off Greenland, with the caption noting that, in 1918, she was the only surviving Dundee whaling steamer (although Watson, p. 184, says she was sold in 1916). The others were all in Newfoundland or out of the business -- or had been lost during the First World War; attempts to convert them to cargo carriers affected their stability, and several were lost almost without a trace (Watson, p. 150).
Rycroft, p. 17, has a drawing of the Arctic as a whaler.
Fowke/Mills/Blume-CanadasStoryInSong list "The Old Polina" as being to the tune of "A Noble Fleet of Sealers." That the tune is the same is true. But an examination of "A Noble Fleet of Sealers" shows that it must date from the 1940s or later (see the notes to that song). So "The Old Polina" is the original, predating "A Noble Fleet" as well as "The Old Balena" versions.
Doyle's version is said to be from Captain Peter Carter of Greenspond. A Peter Carter (1869-1959) was a famous sealing captain who set the record for most seals in a single season in 1933 (Ryan/Drake, p. 80). I don't know if it's the same Peter Carter, but it seems likely. - RBW
Last updated in version 6.0
- Archibald: Malcolm Archibald, The Dundee Whaling Fleet: Ships, Masters and Men, Dundee University Press, 2013
- 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)
- DictNewfLabrador: (Robert H. Cuff, managing editor), Dictionary of Newfoundland and Labrador Biography, Harry Cuff Publications, 1990
- Droge: Eldon Droge, Jackman: The Courage of William Jackman, One of Newfoundland's Greatest Heroes, Jesperson Press, 2000
- Feltham: John Feltham, Sealing Steamers, Harry Cuff Publications, 1995
- Fitzsimons: Peter Fitzsimons, Mawson and the Ice Men of the Heroic Age: Scott, Shackleton and Amundsen, William Heinemann, 2011
- 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)
- Guttridge: Leonard F. Guttridge, Ghosts of Cape Sabine: The Harrowing True Story of the Greely Expedition, Berkley, 2000.
- Lubbock: Basil Lubbock, The Arctic Whalers, Brown, Son, & Ferguson, 1937 (I use the 1955 reprint)
- Power: Rosalind Power, A Narrow Passage: Shipwrecks and Tragedies in the St. John's Narrows, Jeff Blackwood & Associates, 2000
- 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
- Rycroft: Nancy Rycroft (granddaughter of James Fairweather), Captain James Fairweather: Whaler and Shipmaster: His Life and Carer 1853-1933, Fairweather Books, 2005
- Tarver: Michael C. Tarver, The S. S. Terra Nova (1884-1943), Pendragon Maritime Publications, 2006
- Watson: Norman Watson, The Dundee Whalers, Tuckwell Press, 2003
- Young: Ron Young, Dictionary of Newfoundland and Labrador, Downhome Publishing Inc., 2006
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