Seal­ing dis­as­ters have taken heavy toll

The Compass - - OPINION -

Seal­ing — call it the seal hunt or the seal fish­ery as you wish — has been part of life on the is­land of New­found­land since Euro­peans first came here to live here year-around.

The is­land’s abo­rig­i­nal in­hab­i­tants, the Beothucks, who lived on the coast dur­ing the sum­mer and re­treated into the in­te­rior dur­ing the colder months, sent hunt­ing par­ties af­ter them in the spring. (Seals were an es­sen­tial par t o f the life of Labrador’s abo­rig­i­nal in­hab­i­tants, the Inuit, who hunted them for food and for their hides, which they made into cloth­ing.)

Shan­non Ryan, a pre­em­i­nent New­found­land his­to­rian whose “The Ice Hunters: The His­tory of New­found­land Seal­ing in 1914” is the de­fin­i­tive study of seal­ing, put the start of the “lo­cal [Euro­pean] com­mer­cial seal fish­ery” at about 1700, a hun­dred years af­ter the first English men and women set­tled here.

By 1719, the first year for which rea­son­ably re­li­able sta­tis­tics are avail­able, 2,329 peo­ple lived on the is­land year-round. But it was not un­til early in the fol­low­ing cen­tury that seal­ing be­came a ma­jor in­dus­try. Be­fore then, seals were killed by men (and per­haps a few women) who lived in the north­ern set­tle­ments, in Trin­ity and Bon­av­ista Bays. The hunt was shore-based, and car­ried out dur­ing the win­ter months.

Har­bour Grace a ‘lead­ing cen­tre’

The early 1800s saw the hunt trans­formed into one car­ried out in the spring, by sail­ing ships from Con­cep­tion Bay — Har­bour Grace, Car­bon­ear, Bri­gus and Bay Roberts — or St. John’s.

“In 1811, St. John’s sent 48 ships to the seal fish­ery, while Con­cep­tion Bay sent 81,” Ryan records. The num­ber of an­i­mals killed in­creased more than three-fold be­tween 1803 and 1818. He con­tin­ued: “By 1820, the Con­cep­tion Bay ports’ share amounted to 81 per­cent of the to­tal spring kill, 75 per­cent of the fleet orig­i­nated from there, and 77 per­cent of all men in­volved were en­gaged by shipown­ers in these ports ...”, with Har­bour Grace be­ing the lead­ing cen­tre.

Seal­ing be­came an im­por­tant part of New­found­land’s year-round eco­nomic cy­cle. The ships that car­ried men to the ice flows in March and April went to the Labrador in the sum­mer and early fall. Taken to­gether, the seal hunt and the cod fish­ery pro­vided work for the greater part of the year. Atop that, a very sub­stan­tial part of the ves­sels used in the hunt were built in New­found­land.

The late 19th cen­tury saw the hunt reach its peak. Sail­ing ships, many of them locally built, were re­placed by steam­ers — the famed wooden walls — and even­tu­ally by iron-hulled steam­ers. De­mand for seal oil and seal hides dwin­dled over the years, and by 1960 the ship- based seal hunt had re­ceded into the mists of his­tory, and an ever smaller num­ber of seals were be­ing taken by land-based crews, most of them fish­ing from long­lin­ers.

The seal hunt’s place in our mythic his­tory grew steadily even as its eco­nomic im­por­tance faded away. The hunt’s story is stud­ded with tragedy. Ryan tells us that no fewer than 11 of the “wooden walls” were lost be­tween 1907 and 1914 alone. Chafe’s Seal­ing Book, the au­thor­i­ta­tive record of the seal hunt, lists count­less other ves­sels lost over the years.

David Black­wood, an artist who grew up in Wes­leyville, one of the cen­tres of the seal fish­ery and home to some of t he best - known seal killers, cre­ated a se­ries of ex­traor­di­nar­ily pow­er­ful, graphic and grip­ping im­ages of the ves­sel-based hunt in his Lost Party se­ries dur­ing the 1960s and 1970s. The vi­sion en­shrined in these com­pelling im­ages por­trays both the glory and the hor­ror of the hunt.

Cassie Brown’s Death On The Ice (1972) is an un­for­get­table ac­count of the best­known of the seal­ing dis­as­ters — the loss of the New­found­land in 1914. Many judge it to be one of the two or three best books ever writ­ten about New­found­land. Any­body who wishes to know who we are and how we be­came what we are must read it. A se­ries of mis­un­der­stand­ings and plain stu­pid­ity by two seal­ing cap­tains left the New­found­land’s crew stranded on the ice dur­ing a ter­ri­ble win­ter storm which raged for two nights at the end of March; 78 of the 132 men died, and the rest were scarred for life by their ex­pe­ri­ence.

Black­wood’s im­ages and Brown’s words to­gether show the price New­found­lan­ders paid as they hunted seals. The unar­guable his­toric truth is that the hunt claimed the lives of thou­sands of New­found­lan­ders over the years,

even as many mil­lions of an­i­mals were killed. As Ki­pling

said, in his “The Song of the Dead,”“if blood be the price of ad­mi­ralty, Lord God, we ha’ paid

in full!”

Ter­ri­ble losses

That same spring, 1914, the South­ern Cross, a heav­ily laden seal­ing ship re­turn­ing from the Gulf, was over­whelmed by a storm. She sank, tak­ing 174 men with her. Many of those men came from Bri­gus and the nearby com­mu­ni­ties be­tween Har­bour Main and Car­bon­ear.

Count­less homes along the North Shore of Con­cep­tion Bay felt the tragedy per­son­ally. New­found­land lost 252 men in those two dis­as­ters, nearly as many of her sons as died in the gal­lant but doomed at­tack by the New­found­land Reg­i­ment at Beaumont Hamel on July 1st, 1916.

Black­wood’s im­ages and Brown’s words to­gether show the price New­found­lan­ders paid as they hunted seals. The unar­guable his­toric truth is that the hunt claimed the lives of thou­sands of New­found­lan­ders over the years, even as many mil­lions of an­i­mals were killed. As Ki­pling said, in his “The Song of the Dead,” “if blood be the price of ad­mi­ralty, Lord God, we ha’ paid in full!”

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