Impact of the 1914 Sealing Disaster
On 31 March 1914 the sealing vessel SS Southern Cross and its crew of 173 failed to arrive in St. John’s from the Gulf of St. Lawrence as scheduled. Two days later, an already anxious public learned that sealers with the SS Newfoundland had spent 53 hours stranded on the North Atlantic ice floes in blizzard conditions. With a combined death count of 251, the double tragedy caused widespread mourning and ultimately changed attitudes and legislation surrounding the Newfoundland and Labrador sealing industry. The government and public began to hold ship owners and captains more accountable for their crewmembers’ safety, and society began to examine its own responsibility toward the sealers.
News Reaches Newfoundland and Labrador
News of the Newfoundland disaster reached St. John’s by telegraph on the evening of April 2 and quickly spread across the country. The following day, telegraph offices were crowded with people waiting for word of the sealers and the Evening Telegram reported that “business was practically stagnated. Everybody seemed unable to work.” Local newspapers printed dozens of letters of sympathy and began receiving donations from people wishing to help victims and their families.
On April 4, hundreds of anxious spectators lined the St. John’s waterfront as the sealing vessel Bellaventure steamed through the Narrows carrying 69 corpses stacked on its deck. “The vision sent a shudder through the crowd,” wrote a reporter with the Evening Telegram. “The bodies had been laid there just as they were brought in from the ice, many of them with limbs contracted and drawn up in postures which the cold had brought about.”
The crowd watched for more than an hour as dozens of injured men left the Bellaventure. Many had swollen wrists and necks, or limbs blackened by frostbite; others suffered from ice-blindness and wore dark glasses. Twenty-two sealers could not walk because their feet or legs were frozen and medical personnel carried them off the ship on stretchers. These men received treatment at the General Hospital, while the Grenfell Building accepted survivors in less serious condition and served as a temporary mortuary for the dead sealers.
Photographs and stories of the dead and injured men circulated throughout the country and greatly affected public attitudes surrounding the seal fishery. People expressed concern over the dangers that sealers faced and questioned existing regulations governing the hunt. The Daily News printed letters to the editor calling for wireless sets on all vessels, insurance policies for sealers, and tents for men having to walk miles from their ship.
Compounding the disaster’s impact on the public was the loss of the Southern Cross. On the same day the injured sealers arrived at St. John’s, the Evening Telegram reported that: “Grave concern is now felt for the steamer, though the owners and many nautical men hold the opinion she got driven off to sea on the recent storm … and she will turn up all right.” Despite this cautious optimism, it soon became apparent that the Southern Cross had sunk, taking with it a crew of 173. With 251 sealers now dead, the impact on Newfoundland and Labrador society was immense. Hundreds of families had lost their loved-ones and their breadwinners. Small communities where the sealers lived and spent money also suffered in the short term from a damaged economy and declining morale.
In his autobiographical book N by E, Rockwell Kent describes the impact of the loss on Brigus, where many of the sealers from the Southern Cross had lived. “It will pretty well clear out this place,” said one resident of the ship’s loss. According to Kent, an American artist who owned a home at Brigus, many people in the community suspected the vessel had sunk as soon as it went missing: “The dread of the loss of this steamer had passed almost to certainty and the mention of the house, the wife, the children, the hopes and ambitions of any of those on her became a tragedy.”
In 1914-15, the government held a commission of enquiry to examine the Newfoundland and Southern Cross sealing disasters. Although no criminal charges were laid, the commission’s findings made it clear that sealers faced unnecessarily dangerous working conditions on the ice. To remedy this, the commission recommended that captains be prohibited from ordering their crews so far from their ships that they could not return the same day; that sealers work on the ice only between sunrise and sunset; and that all sealing ships carry wireless equipment, thermometers, and barometers. The commission also recommended that ship owners be made accountable for any injuries or deaths sustained by their crews and that sealers carry compasses, signaling equipment, and a means of providing fire on the ice.
In response to these recommendations, and with much prompting from the Fishermen’s Protective Union, the Newfoundland and Labrador government passed 26 articles into law in 1916 to protect future seal hunts. The new legislation made radios and flares mandatory on all sealing vessels, prohibited sealers from being on the ice after dark, and required ship owners to pay out compensation for dead or injured sealers. Doctors or pharmacists also became mandatory on many ships, as did navigating officers.
In response to theories that the Southern Cross sank because of overloading, the government made it illegal for any ship to return from the hunt with more that 35,000 pelts and empowered the minister of marine and fisheries to mark load lines on sealing vessels – any ship that returned to port with its load line below the water could receive a fine of up to $2,500.
Although the commission found no one person accountable for the sealing disasters of 1914, public opinion held Captain Abram Kean morally responsible for the dead and injured sealers of the SS Newfoundland. Newspapers published numerous letters to the editor angrily criticizing Kean for leaving the sealers on the ice in deteriorating weather conditions, and on 5 March 1915, the Mail and Advocate published a petition demanding that police charge Kean with criminal negligence; within a week it had collected 6,000 signatures. Although Kean won a defamation suit against the paper on March 11, the public remained unsympathetic and that same night 1,000 protestors paraded through downtown St. John’s to call for Kean’s retirement. Their efforts were unsuccessful and Kean departed for the ice floes the following day aboard the Florizel. He continued sealing for 20 years and in 1934 received the Order of the British Empire for bringing home his millionth seal pelt.
Unlike the Newfoundland disaster, the disappearance of the Southern Cross remained largely unexplained as no crewmen or record of the voyage survived. Although a marine court of enquiry determined that the ship sank in a blizzard on March 31, little evidence existed to verify this or to determine how the sinking could have been avoided. In its wake, the disaster inspired several songs, rumors, and stories which often pointed to natural and supernatural forces behind the ship’s disappearance or suggested clues to its final resting place. Some historians suggest these narratives evolved to help relatives, friends, and communities better understand and accept a tragedy that could not be concretely explained.