The loss of the Diana — Newfoundland’s hidden mutiny
The Newfoundland seal hunt was unique, with no equal anywhere on earth. A century ago, it was one of the great events each year, as thousands of men flocked to St. John’s and to the sealing ports along the northeast coast to look for a “berth at the ice.”
The ships in which they sailed were known to every school child, and their captains were household names. The work was hard and fraught with danger, as men leaped onto the ice flows to kill seals and drag them back to their vessels. Countless ships were crushed by the ice, and disasters that claimed scores of lives were common.
Every Newfoundlander knew of the loss of the Southern Cross, the Newfoundland, the Greenland and the Viking. But few ever heard about the mutiny that claimed the SS Diana, one of the best-known wooden sealing vessels.
Landed at Old Perlican
The Diana, built in Scotland in 1871, had been bought by Job Brothers in St. John’s in 1892 and rebuilt as a sealing vessel. She was the oldest vessel in the fleet in 1922, when she made her 30th trip to the ice. She never returned to port.
Levi Chafe — the semi-official historian of the seal hunt — recounted her loss in one short paragraph:
“The Diana killed and panned 7,000 [ seals], and on the 16th of March, the ship being jammed all day and while endeavouring to get clear, lost her tail shaft. She was abandoned on March 27th, about 100 miles southeast of Cape Bonavista. The crew of 125 men were taken off her by the SS Sagona, Capt. Job Knee, and landed at Old Perlican.”
Chafe’s account was accurate, as far as it went, but came nowhere close to telling the full story of the vessel’s fate.
The truth was that Diana’s crew had mutinied, and burned their own ship. Rumours of this circulated throughout St. John’s and the island, but it wasn’t until George Allan England, an American journalist, published “Vikings of the Ice” in 1924 that any witness described what happened.
England sailed to the ice on March 8th, 1922 aboard the Terra Nova. On the 16th, “news came by wireless that the Diana was ‘ in an awful fudge,’ jammed and unable to move, with her propeller shaft broken and her bows ‘ bet in.’”
A few days later, he continued, “Mid-morning brought news that the crippled Diana was beginning to have trouble with her crew and that mutiny threatened. A few of her hunters were still ‘working scattered seals on the sheet’ [of ice] in which, with broken tailshaft, she lay imprisoned; but most were beginning to demand relief from other ships.”
And then, on March 24th, “An urgent message from the crippled Diana drove out all of the discussion. The Diana reported dire distress and demanded that some ship stand by and rescue her rebellious crew.”
The end came quickly: “Night brought news of the final scene in the crippled Diana’s career, a message that her crew had ‘manused’ in good earnest, had abandoned her in a sinking condition, and burned her with all her thousands of sculps [seal pelts] still aboard.”
She sank that night.
Captain gave in
England learned the rest of the story a week or so later, when he encountered one of the Diana’s officers back in St. John’s.
The officer told him that, “We broke our shaft in clear water. Then the ice nipped, pretty soon, an’ we laid there about twelve days. We had a bunch of o’ world war veterans aboard as liked a fight … Well a delegation o’ forty men came aft an’ got ugly. Said they’d bust up the Marconi house an’ throw the Cap’n an’ the Marconi operator overboard if they didn’t send an SOS. I rigged a hose to give ‘ em a shot o’ steam. The mutineers was led by a master watch. … But anyhow, after a while the Cap’n give in to ‘em.”
By then, the ship’s crew had left the ship, and were standing on the ice surrounding her. They wanted the seals — their season’s work — unloaded. The ship’s officers refused to do this.
The officer continued: “But when I went on deck, one time, I found she was all afire, forrard. It was a bloody crime, the way she was burned, her an’ all them thousands o’sculps. The last I seen o’ her, as we was going away on the Sagona, she was still burnin’ but not yet sunk. She sunk later, o’ course. Yes, sir, a bloody crime!.”
The seal hunt’s recorded history contains many accounts of manuses, the word coined by Newfoundlanders to describe the refusal by sealers to carry on an apparently fruitless voyage.
Crews sometimes forced their captain to return home, empty-hand- ed. But there is no record of any other crew deliberately destroying their ship, as did those who sailed aboard the Diana. The Daily News published daily reports of the 1922 hunt. Diana’s loss was reported, but without any mention of the mutiny or how she came to be afire.
The story does not end there. David Blackwood, from Wesleyville, one of Canada’s best-known artists, has portrayed life along Newfoundland’s northeast coast in his Lost Party prints. His tripytch, “The Burning of the SS Diana,” is an extraordinarily powerful and compelling image of her crew standing on the ice, watching their vessel burn.
They had fallen to quarrelling among themselves, because after they set her afire they realized that by doing so they had destroyed their year’s voyage, and thus forfeited any earnings. Their income was to come from a share of the sale of the 7,000 seals aboard her.
In destroying their ship, they had thrown away their season’s pay.