COLUMN: An oral history of the Newfoundland seal hunt

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A couple of weeks ago, I had my first meal of seal flippers of the season.

Burton K. Janes

However, I had to pop them in the oven while my wife was at work. Sherry doesn’t like seal meat. Nor does she like moose, caribou or rabbit. About the latter delicacy, she says, "It reminds me of cat." Of course, my first inclination is to ask, "And when did you last eat cat?" But that’s another story for another day.

Coincidentally, I ate my two seal flippers around the same time as I read "The Last of the Ice Hunters: An Oral History of the Newfoundland Seal Hunt," edited by Shannon Ryan, an honourary research professor of history at Memorial University.

After the Riverhead, Harbour Grace native was invited by three academics at Memorial to concentrate on the history of the seal hunt, he determined to research its oral component. As part of his Oral History Project from 1986 to 1988, he trained people to interview retired sealers about their experience at the ice.

"The Last of the Ice Hunters" is a transcription of the interviews. Ryan begins with a substantive chapter on the introduction, background and development of the seal hunt up to 1950. The burden of the book is devoted to long interviews, followed by interview extracts on selected topics. It is instructive to dip into the book to catch a tantalizing glimpse of the sealing practices and traditions that existed from the Great Depression to the Commission of Government. Young and old alike worked under harsh conditions to eke out an existence. The book also marks the end of Newfoundland’s traditional seal hunt.

Ryan suggests, "By having the sealers speak for themselves, the reader can better appreciate their lives and work efforts."

George Adams of Brigus, at 76 years-of-age, recalls his trip to the ice in 1937: "we had a lot of flippers, and no trouble to sell them … We were fortunate."

Fred Badcock of Bay Roberts, 71, remembers: "It was hard work, but everyone was used to work then … We had to paunch the seal and cut off the tip of the tail. The sculpers coming behind would sculp and haul the pelts to a pan."

Robert Badcock of Coley’s Point, 77, recollects: "A lot of people took bottles of Redways (a popular medicinal drink) to the ice because you could drink that mixed with water to go with your hard bread."

Nath Barrett of Bishop’s Cove says, "The worst thing down in the hold of the old ‘Ranger’ was the lice … The lice were so bad," he adds, "that they took off their clothes and changed into other clothes; they put elastic bands around the bottom of their rubber pants and around their wrists and necks and that’s how they had to sleep."

Clarence Bartlett of Bareneed got his first berth in 1926, celebrating his 17th birthday at the ice. He speaks about "seal finger," caused "when the grease gets in the joint. If you had a nick or little cut and you use your fingers to haul the pelts along or to turn them over, it was easy to put your finger in the eye of the seal …"

The second part of "The Last of the Ice Hunters" consists of interview extracts on selected topics, ranging from accidents to women, from beer to tragedies, from cats to square flippers, from death to religion, from falling in to quintering, from gunners to panning, from hard bread to money, from ice-blindness to knife, and a whole lot more.

He concludes, "In recent decades, Canadian/Newfoundland seal hunters have come under much criticism for hunting seals and more money has been made by many of the people opposing the seal harvest than hunters can make in the industry itself. However, as we (in 2014) can observe, this seems to be changing as we are all beginning to accept that a balanced approach to harvesting the resources of the seas is possible and necessary."

"The Last of the Ice Hunters," which is published by Flanker Press of St. John’s, is an indispensable resource for those who want to listen to the authentic and resonating voices of the sealers themselves. It may not be the last word on an industry that is now but a shadow of its former self, but it is a sturdy compendium of data for others to use in their pursuit of information on sealers and their dependants, along with the social and economic circumstances of the first half of the twentieth century.

— Burton K. Janes lives in Bay Roberts. His column appears in The Compass every week. He can be reached at burtonj@nfld.net

Organizations: Commission of Government, Flanker Press, The Compass

Geographic location: Newfoundland, Bay Roberts

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