An interactive look at the 1914 Newfoundland sealing disaster
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.”