An in­ter­ac­tive look at the 1914 New­found­land seal­ing dis­as­ter

The Compass - - OPINION - Bur­ton K. Janes bur­tonj@nfld.net Bur­ton K. Janes lives in Bay Roberts. His col­umn ap­pears in The Com­pass ev­ery week. He can be reached at bur­tonj@nfld.net.

I have a par­tic­u­lar fond­ness for books that come with rare, newly re­searched and re­mov­able fac­sim­ile documents and other me­mora­bilia of his­toric im­por­tance.

“The Trea­sures of Beethoven” by John Suchet re­pro­duces an ex­tract from the mu­si­cian’s orig­i­nal hand­writ­ten score for the “Pas­toral” Sym­phony.

Wal­ter Isaac­son’s “Ein­stein: The Life of a Ge­nius” is a val­ued book in my per­sonal li­brary. I can hold in my hands a fac­sim­ile of the physi­cist’s hand­writ­ten notes for his univer­sity lec­tures on rel­a­tiv­ity.

“The Trea­sures of Mozart,” by John Irv­ing, holds pages from the mu­si­cal prodigy’s orig­i­nal scores.

Cor­nelia Hom­burg’s book, “The Trea­sures of Vin­cent van Gogh,” in­cludes a copy of the med­i­cal anal­y­sis of the artist’s ill­ness.

“The Ti­tanic Ex­pe­ri­ence: The Leg­end of the Un­sink­able Ship” by Beau Rif­f­en­burgh pro­vides the reader with a post­card sent by a pas­sen­ger at the ill-fated ves­sel’s fi­nal stop be­fore she sailed into the At­lantic.

Closer to home, Jenny Hig­gins is a writer and re­searcher liv­ing in St. John’s. Her pub­lisher, Gavin Will of Boul­der Pub­li­ca­tions, Por­tu­gal Cove-St. Philip’s, showed her what she calls “an­other book about the Ti­tanic that had all sorts of beau­ti­ful fold-out documents.”

Will asked her if she “would like to do a sim­i­lar thing” with her book, the story of the 1914 “New­found­land” seal­ing dis­as­ter.

“I jumped at that idea,” Hig­gins says in an email to this colum­nist, “be­cause it’s the per­fect way to show­case all the lovely archival documents I wanted to in­clude.”

The re­sult, “Per­ished,” is the first book pub­lished in New­found­land and Labrador that con­tains fac­sim­ile pull-out documents.

On March 31, 1914, 132 men jumped from the steamship “New­found­land” onto the North At­lantic ice floes to hunt seals. Lost in a sud­den blizzard, they wan­dered for two days and nights be­fore res­cue ar­rived, vic­tims of the weather, mis­com­mu­ni­ca­tion and their em­ployer’s neg­li­gence. Only 55 sur­vived to tell of their har­row­ing ex­pe­ri­ence.

The reader of Hig­gins’ book can re­move and hold such documents as ex­cerpts from the diary of 17-yearold A. Stan­ley Har­vey dur­ing his trip to the ice­fields in 1908, Ce­cil Mouland’s ticket for a berth aboard the “New­found­land” dur­ing the 1914 seal hunt, the Seal­ers’ Agree­ment all seal­ers on­board the ves­sel were re­quired to sign, and en­tries from the log­book. These and six other pull-outs come as a bonus, a collection of fas­ci­nat­ing ma­te­ri­als not nor­mally avail­able to the gen­er­al­ist. All of them to­gether help the reader un­der­stand more clearly why the 1914 seal­ing dis­as­ter had such a deep and last­ing ef­fect on the colony.

“One hun­dred years later,” the pub­lisher states, “the story still res­onates.”

Hig­gins of­fers an im­por­tant les­son to be learned from the dis­as­ter which, she says, “has to do with worker safety. One hun­dred years later, we are still a place that asks men and women to work in dan­ger­ous off­shore en­vi­ron­ments.” Bring to mind, for ex­am­ple, the Ocean Ranger (1982) and Cougar He­li­copters Flight 491 (2009).

“Emer­gency re­search and tech­nol­ogy,” Hig­gins continues, “only seem to keep pace with the last ma­jor dis­as­ter. It can be quickly over­taken by new tech­nolo­gies for find­ing and har­vest­ing re­sources.”

The “New­found­land” seal­ing dis­as­ter points to our own “on­go­ing re­spon­si­bil­ity to en­sure that the men and women who work in our off­shore in­dus­tries are taken care of – that their safety and com­fort are held far above prof­its and other con­cerns.”

As Hig­gins writes in her book, the “story of hu­man en­durance, courage and heart­break ... is about people who fought for their lives in a hos­tile en­vi­ron­ment and a ruth­less in­dus­try.” Not sur­pris­ingly, it “was seared into New­found­land’s col­lec­tive con­scious­ness.”

More t h a n 2 0 0 rarely seen archival pho­tos and documents grace the pages. A sig­nif­i­cant fea­ture is the in­clu­sion of a log Wil­liam Coaker (1871-1938), founder of the Fish­er­man’s Pro­tec­tive Union, kept of his voy­age to the seal hunt in the same year as the “New­found­land” dis­as­ter.

“Per­ished: The 1914 New­found­land Seal­ing Dis­as­ter” is a stun­ning ret­ro­spec­tive that makes the tragedy come a l ive in a unique way. A re­source of en­dur­ing im­por­tance, it is des­tined to be­come a clas­sic por­trayal of a con­stituent part of our past.

We will hear from Jenny Hig­gins again. “Right now,” she says, “I’m work­ing on a se­ries of short on­line doc­u­men­taries for the Her­itage Web­site at Me­mo­rial Univer­sity. Each doc­u­men­tary is about 10 min­utes long, and they are about dif­fer­ent as­pects of New­found­land and Labrador his­tory. There’s one about the 1929 tsunami, for ex­am­ple, and an­other about women’s suf­frage. There will also be a se­ries of videos about the First World War. The ten­ta­tive plan is to be­gin post­ing them on our web­site this Septem­ber.”

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