Designated in 2012 as an Outstanding Historic Event.
Nominator: Jeremy Roop, on behalf of the Elliston Heritage Foundation
The seal fishery was a very lucrative yet exceedingly dangerous fishery. Thick ice often hampered the maneuverability of the steamers resulting in men walking for miles across the ice flow to reach a seal herd. Once on the ice the men were at the mercy of the elements. Sudden blizzards forced the men to fight their way back to the ship in brutal conditions. The lack of communications between men and ship and the distances traveled to reach a seal heard could lead to disastrous situations. Such was the case on March 31st, 1914 when the men of the S.S. Newfoundland went over the sides to hunt seals.
Having been notified of a seal heard in the area by the S.S. Stephano, Captain Westbury Kean was unable to pilot the Newfoundland through the thick ice. Frustrated he ordered his men over the sides seven miles away from the heard. He told the sealers to make for the Stephano when they were done fishing and spend the night on board. Not anticipating bad weather Kean sent 166 men out onto the ice. By mid morning the sealers were concerned by an approaching storm. 34 of the men decided to turn back while the rest pushed on to the neighbouring ship.
The men reached the Stephano by noon and were welcomed aboard by Captain Abram Kean. In the midst of driving snow, mistakenly believing that the Newfoundland was only two hours away he ordered the sealers off deck to kill 1500 seals before returning to their ship that evening. The Stephano then moved off to retrieve its own crew. The storm worsened and the crew of the Newfoundland were forced to head back to their ship. As darkness fell the men attempted to build shelters to guard against the elements. Many of the 132 sealers died during the night. The survivors spent the following day and evening stranded and exposed on the ice. The captains of the Newfoundland and Stephano each believed the men were safe on the other’s ship. It was not until April 2nd that the men were rescued. 77 of the 132 sealers died on the ice, while many of the survivors lost one or more limbs to frostbite.
During the same storm the S.S. Southern Cross was lost with all 173 hands on board. Although the Southern Cross took more lives, it was the Newfoundland disaster that resonated most viscerally with the general public. The landing of the injured men and frozen corpses at St. John’s on April 4th coupled with the dramatic accounts of the survivors and controversy over the level of blame Captain Abram Kean was to shoulder, ensured the story a prominent place in local conversation. Likewise the loss of 77 sealers resulted in an immediate and severe backlash from the public and highlighted anger towards the social inequality felt by many fishermen.
Although the event was quickly overshadowed by The Great War, the vivid imagery and feelings related to the loss of the men of the Newfoundland sparked a debate that played out in our province’s rich oral, literary and artistic traditions. The S.S. Newfoundland sealing disaster of 1914 continues to elicit an intense and emotional response from Newfoundlanders and Labradorians.