An oral his­tory of the New­found­land seal hunt

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

A cou­ple of weeks ago, I had my first meal of seal flip­pers of the sea­son. How­ever, I had to pop them in the oven while my wife was at work. Sherry doesn’t like seal meat. Nor does she like moose, cari­bou or rab­bit. About the lat­ter del­i­cacy, she says, “It re­minds me of cat.” Of course, my first in­cli­na­tion is to ask, “And when did you last eat cat?” But that’s an­other story for an­other day.

Co­in­ci­den­tally, I ate my two seal flip­pers around the same time as I read “The Last of the Ice Hunters: An Oral His­tory of the New­found­land Seal Hunt,” edited by Shannon Ryan, an hon­ourary re­search pro­fes­sor of his­tory at Me­mo­rial Univer­sity.

Af­ter the River­head, Har­bour Grace na­tive was in­vited by three aca­demics at Me­mo­rial to con­cen­trate on the his­tory of the seal hunt, he de­ter­mined to re­search its oral com­po­nent. As part of his Oral His­tory Project from 1986 to 1988, he trained people to in­ter­view re­tired seal­ers about their ex­pe­ri­ence at the ice.

“The Last of the Ice Hunters” is a tran­scrip­tion of the in­ter­views. Ryan be­gins with a sub­stan­tive chap­ter on the in­tro­duc­tion, back­ground and de­vel­op­ment of the seal hunt up to 1950. The bur­den of the book is de­voted to long in­ter­views, fol­lowed by in­ter­view ex­tracts on selected topics. It is in­struc­tive to dip into the book to catch a tan­ta­liz­ing glimpse of the seal­ing prac­tices and tra­di­tions that ex­isted from the Great De­pres­sion to the Com­mis­sion of Govern­ment. Young and old alike worked un­der harsh con­di­tions to eke out an ex­is­tence. The book also marks the end of New­found­land’s tra­di­tional seal hunt.

Ryan sug­gests, “By hav­ing the seal­ers speak for them­selves, the reader can bet­ter ap­pre­ci­ate their lives and work ef­forts.”

Ge­orge Adams of Bri­gus, at 76 years-of-age, re­calls his trip to the ice in 1937: “we had a lot of flip­pers, and no trou­ble to sell them … We were for­tu­nate.”

Fred Bad­cock of Bay Roberts, 71, re­mem­bers: “It was hard work, but ev­ery­one was used to work then … We had to paunch the seal and cut off the tip of the tail. The sculpers com­ing be­hind would sculp and haul the pelts to a pan.”

Robert Bad­cock of Co­ley’s Point, 77, rec­ol­lects: “A lot of people took bot­tles of Red­ways (a pop­u­lar medic­i­nal drink) to the ice be­cause you could drink that mixed with wa­ter to go with your hard bread.”

Nath Bar­rett of Bishop’s Cove says, “The worst thing down in the hold of the old ‘ Ranger’ was the lice … The lice were so bad,” he adds, “that they took off their clothes and changed into other clothes; they put elas­tic bands around the bot­tom of their rub­ber pants and around their wrists and necks and that’s how they had to sleep.”

Clarence Bartlett of Bare­need got his first berth in 1926, cel­e­brat­ing his 17th birth­day at the ice. He speaks about “seal fin­ger,” caused “when the grease gets in the joint. If you had a nick or lit­tle cut and you use your fin­gers to haul the pelts along or to turn them over, it was easy to put your fin­ger in the eye of the seal …”

The sec­ond part of “The Last of the Ice Hunters” con­sists of in­ter­view ex­tracts on selected topics, rang­ing from ac­ci­dents to women, from beer to tragedies, from cats to square flip­pers, from death to re­li­gion, from fall­ing in to quin­ter­ing, from gun­ners to pan­ning, from hard bread to money, from ice­blind­ness to knife, and a whole lot more.

He

con­cludes,

“In

re­cent decades, Cana­dian/New­found­land seal hunters have come un­der much crit­i­cism for hunt­ing seals and more money has been made by many of the people op­pos­ing the seal har­vest than hunters can make in the in­dus­try it­self. How­ever, as we (in 2014) can ob­serve, this seems to be chang­ing as we are all be­gin­ning to ac­cept that a bal­anced ap­proach to har­vest­ing the re­sources of the seas is pos­si­ble and nec­es­sary.”

“The Last of the Ice Hunters,” which is pub­lished by Flanker Press of St. John’s, is an in­dis­pens­able re­source for those who want to lis­ten to the au­then­tic and res­onat­ing voices of the seal­ers them­selves. It may not be the last word on an in­dus­try that is now but a shadow of its for­mer self, but it is a sturdy com­pen­dium of data for oth­ers to use in their pur­suit of in­for­ma­tion on seal­ers and their de­pen­dants, along with the so­cial and eco­nomic cir­cum­stances of the first half of the twen­ti­eth century.

— 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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