Expect No Favours: William Coaker and the Newfoundland Disaster (Pt. 3)

“They’ll work you twice what you can take and pay you half you need” – ‘I will bring you home’

“They’ll work you twice what you can take and pay you half you need.”  – ‘I will bring you home’

“We must await full particulars ere we decide who or what is responsible for this last and greatest disaster known in the history of the seal fishery,” Coaker wrote as he waited with the rest of the Nascopie’s crew to arrive on the scene of the tragedy, but progress was agonizingly slow. “If 1000 men were dying on the ice we could offer no aid. The mighty powers of Nature had brought about conditions that the most powerful ship could not force.”

Unknown to Coaker, the powers of Nature were being invoked in St. John’s as a ready-made explanation for the disaster. Work on the North Atlantic is inherently dangerous, it was said in the city’s newspapers and by government officials, and men who sail upon it expose themselves to a level of risk that can never be entirely controlled. It was sheer chance that the sealers were left on the ice when “the Storm King of the North,” as the Newfoundland Quarterly wrote, trapped them far from safety. “Our men, hardy and courageous in their calling,” wrote Acting Premier J.R. Bennett in the Evening Telegram, “are continually wresting their bread from the very jaws of Death, and occasions arise when Death conquers in the struggle.”

It would not be until later that Coaker’s “particulars” became widely known and questioned: Why was the Newfoundland not fitted with a wireless set, or even a thermometer? Why were the men of the Newfoundland ordered by Captain Kean over the side of the Stephano, where they were promised rest and shelter, in a gathering snowfall and far from home? And why was sealing master George Tuff, a simple fisherman, assigned partial responsibility by an enquiry for failing to disobey the orders of the Commodore of the Fleet, Abe Kean? These were questions that forcefully exposed the merchant establishment and colonial government as greedy and negligent. However, much like the Ocean Ranger many decades later, and despite a Commission of Enquiry’s recognition of negligence and human error, the politically self-serving narrative of men against the perilous sea continued to resonate more powerfully. Indeed, it continues to shape public memory of the disaster today.

“Heartlessness in the extreme”

At about 4 p.m., April 3, the weather cleared. The Nascopie found the Newfoundland in company with the Florizel and Stephano. Four other steamers were within five miles, but no attempt at communication was made between the Nascopie and the other vessels. “Those on board here who had relatives on the Newfoundland are frantic with grief,” Coaker recorded. “All are grief stricken and don’t want to handle any more seals this spring.”

By the afternoon of April 4 the casualty figure was known, but not the names. The dead and rescued were placed on board the Bellaventure, which departed immediately for St. John’s, and “every sealer expected owners of steel ships would order them in, accompanying the Bellaventure as a mark of respect for the dead…” But the order did not come.

Frustrated, Coaker marconied Nascopie’s owners, Job Brothers, in St. John’s:

Job, St. John’s
Crews grief stricken. Prospects nil. Suggest owners recall steel fleet accompany Bellaventure St. John’s respect dead.

The answer arrived at 4 p.m.:

Coaker, Nascopie.
Via Cape Race.
Decisions as to prospects getting more seals must be left entirely to captains. Please don’t interfere. JOB.

His appeal to have his “comrades” escorted in a “national manner” dismissed, Coaker fumed that “Heartlessness in the extreme is the action of the owners of the steel ships… and to make the disrespect more pronounced, the Beothic should fly away at high pressure in order to secure the honour of being the first ship to port, leaving the Bellaventure to creep along as she may with her 69 dead forms of human freight and 46 souls just rescued from the jaws of death”. The “fame-seeking anxiety” of the Beothic’s captain, Coaker wrote, meant that “even this small token of respect was denied our almost assassinated countrymen. ‘They were only toilers’ was the innermost thought of the slave-owners; let us take it quietly and the whole thing will blow over in a few days.”

“Those who reap the cream of the seal fishery”

On the evening of April 5 a joint memorial service was held aboard the Nascopie: “The Burial Service was splendidly read by Fred Tulk, of Newtown; Wesley Howell, of Cat Harbor, reading the lesson. Many an eye was wet with tears. Skipper Peter Gaulton spoke very feelingly of his experience at the time of the Greenland disaster, he being one of the crew on that voyage. Probably 50 of our present crew were on board the Greenland that spring.” Coaker assumed that few of the crew “will waste much time considering how much respect the ship owners at St. John’s have for those who risk their lives from year to year in order to maintain their country, their homes and maintain in luxury those who reap the cream of the seal fishery.”

While the crew of the Nascopie and those of the rest of the fleet were coming to terms with the full extent of the disaster another steamer, the Southern Cross, had disappeared while en route to St. John’s. Initially, it was assumed that the Southern Cross had been driven to sea by the gale and would reappear shortly; nevertheless, the vanished steamer caused “much uneasiness” on board the Nascopie. Last sighted off Cape Pine, low in the water under the weight of its cargo of pelts, the Southern Cross was never heard from again. The old steamer, a veteran of Antarctic expeditions, took with it another 173 men.

“A useless blocking ornament”

As the hunt sputtered amidst the fallout of the disaster and the Nascopie waited for information, Coaker turned his attention to the safety and working conditions of the sealers and legislative barriers to reform. With a hint of the authoritarian shift to come in the post-war years (though in this particular instance he was justified), Coaker branded the Legislative Council “a useless blocking ornament” packed with “swollen heads” who amended the Sealing Bill to a point where it was effectively meaningless. Ship owners and captains had largely failed to comply with its provisions, particularly concerning food and the responsibilities of the cooks, and “Nothing like satisfaction is now afforded except on one or two ships.”

Coaker’s anger at the Legislative Council, Prime Minister Edward Morris, and Governor Walter Davidson fills the remaining pages of his diary. Coaker wrote that Davidson should be impeached for allowing the “constitution destroyer” Morris to “stuff the House” with two “political undesirables”, Sidney Blandford and R.A. Squires (who were ousted from their seats in the House of Assembly by majorities), and using it as a “blocking instrument to guillotine the decisions of the electorate.” Another of Morris’ appointments to the Upper House, Augustus Frederick Goodridge, “actually moved to have the Sealing Bill shelved and submitted to the Select Committee which was considering some fisheries matters. That should be an eye-opener to the Toilers.”

The ship owners, for their part, deliberately “attempted to codd and fool the people by pretending to do what they had solemnly agreed to do three years ago, and which binds their honor as business men and respectable citizens… the interest of three or four ship owners is not what will best preserve the interest of the Colony amendment of the so-called Upper House had no object but to serve the interests of the owners and captains.”

The Seal Fishery Act

While Coaker spilled his anger onto the pages of his diary the 1914 voyage of the Nascopie had come to an end, the steamer arriving under Sugarloaf Hill in an early-morning fog. With decks washed, gaffs stowed, and a clean bill of health given by the port quarantine officer, the crew and officers of the Nascopie gave thanks for a safe return and proceeded through the Narrows.

Sealers navigate the ice pans. This was made more hazardous bu the rising and falling of the ocean swell. Photo courtesy John Crowell.
Sealers navigate the ice pans. This was made more hazardous by the rising and falling of the ocean swell. Photo courtesy John Crowell.

A Commission of Enquiry was established soon after and while it made a number of recommendations, including the installation of wireless sets, no prosecutions against captains or ship owners followed. Amidst growing discontent, particularly in the outports, the FPU began a determined campaign for sealers’ rights, but with the onset of war in Europe the campaign promised to be a protracted and bitter one. Indeed, although social tensions in Newfoundland were not comparable to those of Europe, the colonial government, like its European counterparts, certainly welcomed war as a distraction from domestic challenges raised by the sealing disaster.

Nevertheless, in May 1916, shortly before the Battle of Beaumont Hamel and two years after the Newfoundland disaster, the Seal Fishery Act was passed in the House of Assembly, providing for proper food, doctors, navigators, communications, a ban on the use of steel ships, compensation for death and injury, and “the treatment of those responsible for such exposure as felons,” as Sean Cadigan describes it in Death on Two Fronts. After the war Coaker turned to fascist Italy for a solution to the corruption and instability of Newfoundland’s political system, but in the middle of the Great War, where dissent was suppressed as much as possible, the Act was a major success for Newfoundland democracy and labour.

Read Part 1 and Part 2 of this Independent exclusive 3-part series.

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