Seal­ing dis­as­ter re­mem­bered in ‘Left to die’

The Compass - - PUZZLERS - Bur­ton K. Janes bur­tonj@nfld.net

The shelves of my per­sonal li­brary hold cer­tain books that I re­gard as clas­sics. I would nei­ther sell nor give them away. Only un­der duress would I con­sider lend­ing them. Such iconic works break fresh ground and open up new vis­tas.

One such clas­sic is “Death on the Ice: The Great ‘New­found­land’ Seal­ing Dis­as­ter of 1914,” writ­ten by Cassie Brown with Harold Hor­wood.

I am not alone in el­e­vat­ing this book to clas­sic-like sta­tus. Gary Collins, the beloved au­thor of such books as “Cabot Is­land,” “Soulis Joe’s Lost Mine” and “The Gale of 1929,” calls Brown’s book the “only real, au­thor­i­ta­tive story of that event.”

When Gary was in­vited by Flanker Press of St. John’s to retell the story of the “New­found­land” seal­ing dis­as­ter of 1914, he was both flat­tered and fright­ened.

“How could I dare dis­turb the unique work of the late Cassie Brown?” Af­ter all, it can “be found in nearly as many homes as the Bi­ble.” He ad­mits in a re­cent email to this colum­nist that writ­ing his most re­cent book “was a chal­lenge, for sure (be­cause) ‘Death on the Ice’ has cast a deep shadow!”

Any writer worth his salt looks for a hook to grab the at­ten­tion of his read­ers. Gary is no ex­cep­tion. He be­gins his tale with the mem­ory of a con­ver­sa­tion he had in the fall of 1971 with a sur­vivor of the “New­found­land” seal­ing dis­as­ter, Ce­cil Mouland, who lived in Collins’ home­town, Hare Bay. Gary and his wife, Rose, picked Ce­cil up and were driv­ing him to a se­niors home in St. John’s.

“They didn’t die like flies, you know, like I’ve heard some re­porters say over the years,” Ce­cil said. “Oh no, wasn’t like that a’tall. The men who died didn’t just drop like flies. There was noth­ing quick or easy about it. They had frozen feet, and fin­gers too numb and cramped with the cold to wipe the tears from their eyes. Tears from tough, fear­less, grown men. And a good many of them young, too!” Then, how did they die? “Most of them,” Ce­cil con­tin­ued, “just lay down on the ice, frozen solid, al­most, weak from hunger and too tired to get back up. They gave up the ghost. Died of de­spair, most of ’em did. And with tears frozen to their cheeks, too. ’ Twas cruel to look upon, you know. We fig­ured no one was lookin’ fer us. Oh, my boy, that was the sad­dest part of all! We fig­ured we were left to die. Turns out we were right, too.”

Left stranded

For the few read­ers who are un­fa­mil­iar with the har­row­ing tale of the “New­found­land” seal­ing dis­as­ter of 1914, for two freez­ing days and nights a party of seal hunters — 132 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. Those who lay down to rest died. By the time help ar­rived, two-thirds of the men were dead.

I asked Gary if there are lessons re­lated to pride and hubris to be learned from the dis­as­ter.

“In­ter­est­ing,” he opined, “you should use the Greek word for defin­ing the gods — hubris. Ac­cord­ing to many ac­counts, the seal­ing skip­pers of 1914 were cer­tainly con­sid­ered to be God­like! Though some of the cap­tains were con­sid­ered to be ‘drag­on­hearted’ and ‘slavedrivers,’ it is clear they were lead­ers of a hard, dif­fer­ent breed of men in a to­tally dif­fer­ent era. He who had the hard­est of names — Abram Kean — was, in real life, a com­pas­sion­ate man who cared for many of the less for­tu­nate of his time.

“The fierce com­pe­ti­tion among fish­er­men is still alive and well to­day, as is so ev­i­dent in the ex­cel­lent re­al­ity show, ‘Cold Wa­ter Cow­boys.’

“Over­shad­ow­ing, by far, the lessons learned in 1914 of ships be­ing ill-pre­pared to take care of their crews are the vol­umes etched for­ever by the valiant who pro­vided the true love of men to­ward their mates; men com­forted their fel­low seal­ers, they fed them, they tried to keep them alive and, when that failed, some of them died with them.”

Gary says he has cre­ated “a dra­matic retelling” of the dis­as­ter. I pre­dict that “Left to Die” will be­come a clas­sic. I know it will find pride of place in my li­brary.

“This tale,” Gary con­cludes, “be­yond the cruel loss of life, re­veals the true essence of men car­ing one for the other. For me, that is the true les­son learned from that cruel time of

un­be­liev­able ad­ver­sity.” — Bur­ton K. Janes lives in Bay Roberts. His col­umn ap­pears in The Com­pass ev­ery week. He can be reached at

bur­tonj@nfld.net

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