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Expect No Favours: William Coaker and the Newfoundland Disaster (Pt. 2)

By: | March 31, 2014

April 1: Gale blowing “with very little abatement… Ice very tight. Ship made but little progress. Freezing hard. A real February Day.”

Sealers haul pelts to a central location where they will be collected by their steamer, a practice known as 'panning'. This was a dangerous method as it scattered crews over great distances and left them exposed to sudden changes in the weather. Photo courtesy John Crowell.

The fleet began to move at daylight, March 14, with Coaker’s Nascopie being the fourth ship to pass through the Narrows. Captain Abe Kean, the ‘Commodore of the Fleet’ and the most successful sealing skipper in Newfoundland, led the way with the modern Stephano. Fighting against heavy ice the steamers vied for the lead and struggled to find open water, but only the steel-hulled ships could make any progress while the older and locally built wooden hulled ships, such as the Newfoundland, quickly fell behind. Coaker and the Nascopie passed the first white coat at 8 a.m., about 40 miles off Cape Fogo. “The little chap was quite lively,” Coaker recorded, “and we knocked him into the water in forcing through.” By nightfall the steel steamers were concentrated in two groups, with the Nascopie resting alongside the Stephano and three other ships. Observing the bright cluster of steamers huddled against the oncoming night Coaker thought their appearance “more like a town than the Arctic Atlantic, as all the ships were brilliantly lighted.”

Nascopie and its companions resumed their struggle against the ice and against each other the following day. “The four ships were working almost within a space of two hundred feet side by side,” Coaker wrote on March 17. “We had to go astern to allow the Stephano to come astern and by doing so our ship got nipped in a rafter.” Around this time Coaker also received the first of many complaints about the food, with the Stephano failing to supply the brewse required by the sealing bill (which was an informal agreement between the FPU and ship owners, rather than a piece of legislation). Coaker contacted the owners by wireless, trusting that “their action will remove all grounds for future complaint; if not, owners and masters are responsible for the breaches of the law and may be sued before the courts.”

On March 18 the first patch of white coats was spotted south of Belle Isle. “The men all stood by, with gaffs and hauling ropes ready to jump… About 5 pm we ran into quite a patch and the ship was stopped and all hands ordered on the ice for a tow of seals… The slaughter had begun and in about an hour five hundred young seals were on board.” Coaker was somewhat shaken by his first encounter with “the slaughter”. “The crying of a herd of white coats,” he wrote, “is something not easily to be forgotten… It is a pitiable cry and and it seems hard to slaughter those innocents. They are so purely white in appearance and so harmless. Just a tap on the nose with a gaff ends their life instantaneously.” Nevertheless, Coaker managed to kill nine for himself, though his diary again laments, “those little innocents pleading so pityfully for their lives.”

By March 20 the hunt was properly underway and Coaker and a small group of sealers—having been dropped off earlier in the day to collect seal carcasses around their ship’s marker, a method called ‘panning’—waited anxiously for the return of their steamer. How they passed the time and stayed warm is worth repeating in full:

Sealers labour on crimson ice. Note the pelts about to be lifted aboard. Photo courtesy John Crowell.

Sealers labour on crimson ice. Note the pelts about to be lifted aboard. Photo courtesy John Crowell.

Sealers gather alongside of their steamer. Safe again. Photo courtesy John Crowell.

Sealers gather alongside of their steamer. Safe again. Photo courtesy John Crowell.

One – James Harris, of Harbour Grace – sang one of those old fashioned witty songs which compelled the singer to dance at the finish of each verse. Skipper Jim’s exhibition brought down the house at the close and a hearty cheer was given him when he had finished. Although about twenty-five miles S.E. of Belle Isle – away out on the bosom of the mighty Atlantic Ocean’s ice floe – and with little hope of seeing our ship before eight or nine that evening and with expectation of a snow storm, yet the men’s hearts were full of life and enthusiasm.

Just as dark appeared the Nascopie returned to collect its sealers and a “rush was made for the sticks and ladders which presented a sight impossible to comprehend unless viewing it on the spot. How I wish it was light enough to secure a snap shot. The whole side of the ship was covered with black objects with faces all looking upwards, each pushing his gaffe before him…”

Coaker was equally impressed with the officers and cook of the Nascopie. Captain George Barbour was “a very cool man. Absolutely proof against excitement. Very little shouting.” His son Pearcey, second in command, was “a chip from the old block in every respect. He says little but takes in the whole situation at a glance.” Perhaps because Coaker was on board, the Nascopie was provided with all food items stipulated by the sealing bill, while the cook was “a jewel so far as his duties go”.

Unusually, the crew of the Nascopie was also provided with a doctor, the “only Doctor gentleman they ever sailed with.” The Bonaventure, unfortunately, had no doctor of its own, and on March 20 Henry Pridham of Petty Harbour fell through the hatch, succumbing to his injuries two days later. The Seal Fishery Act of 1916—a major, if costly, victory for the Union—would require the staffing of qualified doctors and navigators aboard every steamer, but Pridham’s death was just another example of the avarice of ship owners at the expense of the sealers’ welfare.

“Almost made a jink of it”

While Coaker greatly admired Captain Barbour and his son, he would soon come to despise Captain Abe Kean of the Stephano for his part in the Newfoundland disaster. Kean was a Newfoundland icon, and he was called the ‘Commodore of the Fleet’ because he was widely considered the most successful sealing captain of the steamer-era fishery — but not by everyone. Coaker records a dispute that arose one evening on board the Nascopie regarding the quantity of seals brought in since 1900 by Barbour and Kean, and after consulting Chafe’s Sealing Guide it was found that Barbour was the winner by a slim margin of 3,142 seals (the Sealing Guide was an annual statistical compilation published by Levi Chafe). In going back over the Guide Coaker also discovered that Kean “almost made a jink of it in 1905, when his voyage numbered 4,553, and his men made the small bill of $13.97.” This innocent barb (or perhaps it was added later) presaged a fierce rivalry that would personify the FPU’s fight with Water Street over the conditions and rights of sealers. But while Kean’s political connections would ensure his survival, prosperity and reputation, Coaker was exposed to the reactionary hostility of an establishment on the defensive.

Complaints about poor food continued to reach Coaker, and on March 27 the crew of the Fogota reported a shortage in sugar, beans, and potatoes, while no fresh beef or brewse had been supplied as per regulations. Meanwhile the crew of the Adventure complained that their cook would not prepare Sunday breakfast. Coaker, growing frustrated, decided that it would be necessary to place “an official on board of each ship to see that regulations are observed and in case of default to institute actions against cooks, master and owner.”

A large number of sealers were Methodists, many from Wesleyville, and for these men participation in the hunt was an affirmation of religious faith through struggle and endurance. Coaker wrote briefly of a Methodist service held in the hold of the Nascopie on March 29, two days before the disaster, that was led by Ariel Burt of Old Perlican, “who has led service at the seal fishery under Captain Barbour’s command for eight years. Splendid order prevailed throughout the ship during service… The strong voices of 100 men singing some of the grand old hymns was something to be long remembered.” Unfortunately, one crewman “outraged the feelings of all who attended the service by chewing tobacco. The indecency of such an action did not seem to disturb him…”

“All was contentment”

Work and religious service was punctuated by games and music. Skipper James Harris was “elected mocking [king] of the commons sealers. His duty is to govern the crew and to enforce sealers’ sea laws. The king is aided by a judge, sheriff, and two constables… The prisoner and king is represented by a lawyer. The two lawyers selected being Chief Engineer Ledingham and Dr. Bunting. The writer being selected for judge.” Punishments included filling a boot with water and shaving off half of a sealer’s mustache.

On April 1 Coaker recorded a gale blowing “with very little abatement… Ice very tight. Ship made but little progress. Freezing hard. A real February Day.” That evening the crewmen of the Nascopie occupied themselves with music and stories. “Uncle Darius Hall sang a song entitled The Bold Hero, Levi Green sang Come all ye jolly ice hunters, and David Rodgers sang On the Banks of the Clyde… That sung by Levi Green was composed by a sealer on board the Leopard, the spring Captain Bob Fowlow secured so many whitecoats.” In the forehold the men played the accordion and danced until it was time to turn in. “All was contentment and enjoyment under decks. Such is life on a steel ice hunter on a wintry day…”

Full Pressure

But all was not well. At 10 a.m. on April 2 the Nascopie received a message from the Florizel reporting heavy loss of life on Newfoundland. The Adventure, already in the vicinity, seemed to confirm the terrible message after sighting Newfoundland’s flag flying half-mast. Captain Barbour immediately sent his ship “at full pressure” for the area he supposed the Newfoundland to be. Meanwhile, the crewmen of the Nascopie, many with fathers, sons and brothers aboard the stricken Newfoundland, waited silently for news.

Read Part 1 here, and Part 3 here.

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