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Death on the Ice: The Great Newfoundland Sealing Disaster of 1914 (1972)

af Cassie Brown

Andre forfattere: Harold Horwood

MedlemmerAnmeldelserPopularitetGennemsnitlig vurderingOmtaler
1354204,654 (4.08)18
Each year, for generations, poor, ill-clad Newfoundland fisherman sailed out 'to the ice' to hunt seals in the hope of a few penniew in wages from the prosperous merchants of St. John's.  The year 1914 witnessed the worst in the long line of tragedies that were part of their harsh way of life. For two long, freezing days and nights a party of seal hunters--one hundred thirty-two men--were left stranded on an icefield floating in the North Atlantic in winter.  They were thinly dressed, with almost no food, and with no hope of shelter on the ice against the snow or the constant, bitter winds.  To survive they had to keep moving, always moving.  Those who lay down to rest died. Heroes emerged--one man froze his lips badly, biting off the icicles that were blinding his comrades.  Other men froze in their tracks, or went mad with pain and walked off the edge of the icefield.  All the while, ships steamed about nearby, unnoticing.  And by the time help arrived, two thirds of the men were dead. This is an incredible story of bungling and greed, of suffering and heroism.  The disaster is carefully traced, step by step.  With the aid of compelling, contemporary photographs the book paints an unforgettable portrait of the bloody trade of seal hunting among the icefields when ships--and men--were expendable.… (mere)
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Viser 4 af 4
Cassie Brown's book about the actual events that occurred on the North Atlantic ice of the 1914 Newfoundland sealing disaster is very clear and so well written, that I feel I got to know these sealers. Although it is a true story of what actually happened to the sealers from the ship Newfoundland when they spent two days on the ice in the North Atlantic in a terrible blizzard in 1914, it reads like a novel. Ms. Brown uses the colloquial language of Newfoundland and Labrador and she introduces us to all the unfortunate sealers as she moves through the disaster chronologically. It is a very difficult book to read, but totally enthralling. This book belongs on my most memorable books list for sure. It is an incredible story about the harsh life that these sealers led at the turn of the 20 century. It is also an expose of the greed and lack of empathy for human life that big companies like the sealing companies practised in those days. Times were hard for these hard-working sealers. Their job was to go out on the breaking ice and kill as many baby Harp seals as they could for the entire sealing season. They lived off of hard tack and copious amounts of tea. The conditions were appalling on the sealing vessels. Bungling and mistakes caused this disaster to happen and 85 sealers died on the ice. The 55 or so survivors were horribly maimed and many had lost feet and/or hands to the killing cold. Even in those appalling conditions, we see some real heroes come to the forefront. Without those men, fifty-five sealers would not have made it back. I urge every Canadian to read this book and lift a "mug-up" to these brave, courageous men, forefathers of our wonderful fellow Canadians in Newfoundland and Labrador. ( )
  Romonko | Sep 18, 2019 |
Content warning: hunting of animals

Occupational health and safety was essentially non-existent in 1914, particularly among the crews of sealing vessels working out of Newfoundland (which at that time was still an independent dominion, not part of Canada). Sealers were not given warm clothes or survival equipment, their vessels were not all equipped with wireless, and their low pay compelled them to work longer than they should so that they would gain just a bit more for their families. In Death on the Ice, Cassie Brown tells how these circumstances led to the deaths of 70 men and the brutal injuries to many others when a party of sealers was left stranded on the ice for two days and two nights while a terrible blizzard raged.

This book almost reads like a novel, with vivid details and dialogue that is liberally imbued with the Newfoundland accent. That said, it was a bit hard to get into at the beginning, because as a 21st-century reader I was more than a little appalled by the seal hunt in the first place. This is the seal hunt where the defenceless baby seals are killed for their pelts and not much else, so it is upsetting to read those details and feel bad for the men who are doing this job. It creates some complicated emotions.

The book contains a photo section with black-and-white photos, and some of these are shocking. There are photos from the hunt itself (distressing if you like animals) and of the frozen, dead sealers stacked like cordwood on the decks of their ship once they had been retrieved (distressing if you like humans).

This is one of those non-fiction books that doesn’t have an index, which is annoying, and I don’t think it had a bibliography either. It is more of a popular non-fiction kind of book, read for the story. ( )
  rabbitprincess | Jun 15, 2019 |
If you like disaster stories, this book is for you. If you like to get chills, this book is really for you.

The "Newfoundland Disaster" is one of the great tragic stories of that island's history, and is known in folklore, song, and artwork. In outline, it's a simple tale: Newfoundlanders every year went out onto the Atlantic ice to kill seals (mostly harp seal pups, but sometimes adult harps or hooded seals), turning the fat into oils for lighting and other uses as well as eating some of the meat and selling the skins. By 1914, the ships involved were large steamers which typically took four "watches" of sealers, each watch consisting of several dozen men who would kill the seals and either take them back to the ship or pile them in a "pan" for the ship to pick up. Because the seal pups were on ice floes, and men could go across the ice where ships could not, ships and men sometimes separated. In 1914, the sealers of the steamer Newfoundland, which was stuck ("jammed") in the ice, were ordered by their captain Westbury Kean go to the Stephano, commanded by his father Abram, so that they could get closer to the seals. Abram Kean picked them up, gave them a quick cup of tea -- and shoved them back on the ice and went away, even as a big, cold storm blew up. The men had no choice but to try to make their way home -- and failed; they could not find the Newfoundland because of the storm and because Abram Kean had carried them astray and sent them in the wrong direction. And while the Stephano had wireless, the Newfoundland did not, so the ships could not communicate. Wes Kean and Abram Kean both thought the sealers were safe with the other. Instead, they were dying on the ice. It took two days for anyone to realize that the men were lost; by then, the majority were dead and many of the survivors were permanently maimed.

This book tells the tale with harrowing pathos -- describing, for instance, a father who died with his arms enfolding his sons as they all tried to stay warm. There are tales of the families afraid and desolated, and of the errors of many people involved. Truly, if you want a tale of horrors, it's here.

If you want an accurate account, I'm less confident. Cassie Brown did a lot of research, but she doesn't show it to us -- there are no footnotes, and there is no index. This is a serious lack, because with about two hundred people to keep track of, you'll often find yourself wondering if you should remember anything about this person. For example, Master Watch Sidney Jones at one stage shows up as a parasite trying to take advantage of others' work, and Master Watch Jacob Bungay seems completely mindless. Were they really? Men didn't get to be Master Watch (that is, commander of a watch) for nothing. What had they been like earlier? No way to check without re-reading the book!

And there are loose ends. For instance, Brown implies that the barometer on the Newfoundland was defective, so that Wes Kean could not have known the storm was coming -- and blames him for trusting it. But was it defective? If it was ever tested, she doesn't say so. And it's not Wes Kean's fault if it was -- sealers only worked on their ships a few weeks a year; the rest of the time, the ships were doing other things. So if the Newfoundland had a bad barometer, it was the owners' fault, not Wes's -- and besides, we don't know if it was defective.

And what really did happen to the survivors? What about, for instance, Master Watch Tom Dawson, who had done what he could to go against Abram Kean's orders and tried to save the men? Without him, the disaster might have been worse -- but he had led the return to the ship, breaking trail across the ice, and it exhausted him so much that he barely survived. I know from other sources that he lost both his feet. Yet Brown does not tell us this tale -- or what happened to him afterward. The whole tale ends too soon.

Brown's goal seems to be to pin the whole blame on Abram Kean. There is no question but that his action in shoving the men back on the ice was the immediate cause of the disaster. But does this put Kean at fault? It was the companies who had stripped the wireless from Newfoundland -- and it was the companies who hired Abram Kean, precisely because he was hard-driving, single-minded, and utterly lacking in respects for men other than his family. Wes Kean's men weren't even employees of the same company (Wes Kean, being young, got the dregs of the sealing fleet; Abram Kean got the Stephano, the biggest, newest, fanciest, safest vessel available). It wasn't Abram Kean's job to care. And the "Old Man" of the sealing fleet got to be the "Old Man" because he did his job very well.

There are many other instances in this book where there seems to be some data missing, and unfair assumptions made. Don't get me wrong; it's the best book available on a truly tragic event that deserves to be remembered. But I'm not sure I entirely trust it. ( )
1 stem waltzmn | Feb 18, 2018 |
It is inconceivable that so many men perished in so short a time when expeditions such as that of Captain Frances Hall & Earnest Shackleton were able to survive several months living on the ice floes. Equally inconceivable is what little regard businesses had (& still have) for human life, all for the sake of making a few dollars. And what is even worse is the fact that Captain Abram Kean (the “Old Man”) escaped with his good reputation intact after having caused seventy-eight men to perish, and many more crippled for life!
Men such as Cecil Mouland & John Howlett were far worthier of praise than Kean, yet where were their rewards? Where were their Orders of the British Empire? ( )
1 stem TheCelticSelkie | Jan 31, 2007 |
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Cassie Brownprimær forfatteralle udgaverberegnet
Horwood, Haroldmedforfatteralle udgaverbekræftet
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To the Halifax it was just a routine news item in the issue of May 11, 1914:

CHARLOTTETOWN, May 10 - On Sunday morning a lobster fisherman employed at Bloomington Point on the north side of the island found a body of a man frozen fast in a floating ice cake about half a mile from land. Having nothing in his boat to cut the body loose from the ice, the fisherman had to abandon it; a heavy gale coming up, the boat had to make for land, and could not return to the body, which was carried out to sea. The dead man was evidently a sailor or fisherman judging by his clothing, and it is thought to be one of the Newfoundland sealers...
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To those members of the Newfoundland's crew who showed the human qualities of courage and heroism in the highest degree, and specifically to Jesse Collins, to Master Watch Arthur Mouland, to Cecil Mouland, and to John Howlett, this book is dedicated.
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Author's Note
All the details of this story are true. The evidence given by fifty-two witnesses has been sifted and correlated from court records. We have reproduced as faithfully as possible the dialogue as it was remembered by the men who testified, or who later recorded their recollections of that unforgettable spring. Where testimony conflicts, both sides of the story are given, but we have often had to make a judgement as to what really happened. In a few cases, judgement must still be suspended.
Foreword
Every spring for more than a century Newfoundland men and boys went out in ships to the most dangerous and brutal adventure that has ever been called an industry -- the seal hunt. More than a thousand of them died when their ships sank, crushed like eggshells by colliding with ice-fields, or exploded, or failed to pick them up from drifting floes, when boats were driven away from blizzards, or when those on foot were caught by storms. Survivors often lost fingers or toes, or sometimes feet and legs from freezing or other injuries.
On a black midnight, March 9, 1914, the S.S. Newfoundland ground her way through the loose ice of St. John's harbour heading for The Narrows and the ice-fields beyond. It was the old wooden steamer's forty-second year, the fourth as her captain at the seal hunt for twenty-nine-year-old Westbury Kean, the youngest son of the all-powerful Captain Abram Kean, unchallenged admiral of the sealing fleet. -Chapter One
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Each year, for generations, poor, ill-clad Newfoundland fisherman sailed out 'to the ice' to hunt seals in the hope of a few penniew in wages from the prosperous merchants of St. John's.  The year 1914 witnessed the worst in the long line of tragedies that were part of their harsh way of life. For two long, freezing days and nights a party of seal hunters--one hundred thirty-two men--were left stranded on an icefield floating in the North Atlantic in winter.  They were thinly dressed, with almost no food, and with no hope of shelter on the ice against the snow or the constant, bitter winds.  To survive they had to keep moving, always moving.  Those who lay down to rest died. Heroes emerged--one man froze his lips badly, biting off the icicles that were blinding his comrades.  Other men froze in their tracks, or went mad with pain and walked off the edge of the icefield.  All the while, ships steamed about nearby, unnoticing.  And by the time help arrived, two thirds of the men were dead. This is an incredible story of bungling and greed, of suffering and heroism.  The disaster is carefully traced, step by step.  With the aid of compelling, contemporary photographs the book paints an unforgettable portrait of the bloody trade of seal hunting among the icefields when ships--and men--were expendable.

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