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.

Pow­er­ful paint­ing

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.

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