Death on the Ice: The Great Newfoundland Sealing Disaster of 1914 – Cassie Brown GUEST REVIEW

GUEST REVIEWER – Surly Joe


DOTI

 

  • Title: Death on the Ice: the Great Newfoundland Sealing Disaster of 1914
  • Author: Cassie Brown
  • ISBN: 0385685068 (ISBN13: 9780385685061)
  • Series: Stand Alone
  • Published: March 3rd 2015 by Anchor Canada (first published January 1st 1972)
  • Genre/s: Non-fiction/History

SYNOPSIS – (From Goodreads) Each year, for generations, poor, ill-clad Newfoundland fishermen sailed out “to the ice” to hunt seals in the hope of a few pennies in wages from the prosperous merchants of St. John’s. The year 1914 witnessed the worst in the long line of tragedies that were part of their harsh way of life.
For two long days and nights a party of seal hunters—132 men—were left stranded on an ice-field floating in the North Atlantic in winter. They were thinly dressed, with almost no food, and with no hope of shelter against the snow or the constant, bitter winds. To survive they had to keep moving, always moving. Those who lay down to rest died.
This is an incredible story of bungling and greed, of suffering and heroism. With the aid of compelling, contemporary photographs, the book paints an unforgettable portrait of the bloody
trade of seal hunting among the ice-fields when ships—and men—were expendable.

 REVIEW

In the cafe where I prefer to read and write, there are three possible problems that I can face. One – my coffee will be too cool. Two – the people sitting near me will be obnoxious or, at the least, too loud. Or three – the place will be full and I will have to skulk away dejectedly. Obviously these are the minimalist of trifles, but if I’m not careful, I can slide into my first-worldliness and be annoyed.

Death On The Ice, written in 1972 by Newfoundland author Cassie Brown, is the perfect slap-in-the-face reminder not to take our comparatively peaceful life for granted. In the 19th and early 20h century, the Newfoundland seal hunt was easily one of the most dangerous jobs on the planet. Every winter, crews of usually poor, small-town men would sign up for the hunt and venture out into the icy sea. By 1850, in a season that only lasted a few weeks, half a million seals could be killed. The ship owners and pelt merchants made a fortune and became Newfoundland’s aristocracy. The sealers averaged $29. The risk was atrocious. Between 1863 and 1900, forty-one out of fifty wooden ships were lost at sea. Not until 1913 was a law passed that guaranteed the sealers “decent food, full-time cooks, and other crumbs of civilization”. Still, there was so little food that they had to eat melted snow and raw seal hearts to survive.

In the winter of 1914, the Newfoundland, a forty-two year-old wooden ship with a new young captain, joined the fleet and sailed out into the “constantly moving, splitting, wheeling, cracking, roaring, jagged mass of ice”. At the first sight of seals, the hunters left the ship. It was the beginning of the end. When a blizzard of “apocalyptic fury” hit, the men got lost on the ice. For two days and nights, they wandered blindly, trying to keep their minds occupied by singing, dancing, pretending to fish. Several times, they were close to rescue, with other ships less than a mile away, but the storm was so bad that they could not be seen and the ships sailed away obliviously. With hope shattered, some men gave up and walked purposefully into the sea to die. The majority of the one hundred and thirty-two man crew did not survive. It was the worst tragedy the industry had ever experienced. Disgustingly, even before the final body count was tallied, some ship owners were demanding that the hunt continue.

Injured Sealer, 4 April 1914
Injured Sealer, 4 April 1914

Based on court documents, archival newspaper articles, and witness testimony from the fifty-two survivors, Death On The Ice is a gripping re-telling of a largely unknown tragic episode outside of Newfoundland, where the book has actually been required reading in schools. But it is more than just a historical account and classic Canadiana. It is also another example of the haves versus the have-nots, where the poor are seen as expendable, and where the greed of the powerful few can snuff out the lives of the desperate many. The document is historical. The underlying themes are timeless.

Sealers-742x494
Home from the Sea – Sealers Memorial in Elliston

 ABOUT THE AUTHOR

cassie-eileen-brownCassie Brown was born in Rose Blanche, but moved to St. John’s with her family in the 1930s. She began writing as a teenager and later worked as a freelance writer of scripts and educational broadcasts for CBC.

From 1959 to 1966, she was a reporter for The Daily News. During this time she also published and edited the magazine Newfoundland Women (1961- 1964). Cassie retired from The Daily News to work on her book Death on the Ice (1972), a gripping account of the 1914 sealing disaster and a work that established her as an author. Her other works include: A Winter’s Tale (1976) and Standing into Danger (1979).

CKIn his own words – Surly Joe is a moderately nondescript Toronto-based white guy who spends too much time contemplating the nature of boredom.  His aspirations waver between wanting to be either a professional gambler or a Zen monk, with a touch of writing on the side.  After completing university with a degree in a subject that does not readily lead to any sort of viable employment, he wandered through Europe and Northern Africa for a while collecting stories and useless trivia, circumstance led to a career back in Toronto.  He now spends his money on food, friends, wine and annual trips to Las Vegas.

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