Sealing disaster remembered in 'Left to die'

Published on April 9, 2014
Left to die

The shelves of my personal library hold certain books that I regard as classics.

I would neither sell nor give them away. Only under duress would I consider lending them. Such iconic works break fresh ground and open up new vistas.

One such classic is "Death on the Ice: The Great ‘Newfoundland’ Sealing Disaster of 1914," written by Cassie Brown with Harold Horwood.

I am not alone in elevating this book to classic-like status. Gary Collins, the beloved author of such books as "Cabot Island," "Soulis Joe’s Lost Mine" and "The Gale of 1929," calls Brown’s book the "only real, authoritative story of that event."

When Gary was invited by Flanker Press of St. John’s to retell the story of the "Newfoundland" sealing disaster of 1914, he was both flattered and frightened.

"How could I dare disturb the unique work of the late Cassie Brown?" After all, it can "be found in nearly as many homes as the Bible." He admits in a recent email to this columnist that writing his most recent book "was a challenge, for sure (because) ‘Death on the Ice’ has cast a deep shadow!"

Any writer worth his salt looks for a hook to grab the attention of his readers. Gary is no exception. He begins his tale with the memory of a conversation he had in the fall of 1971 with a survivor of the "Newfoundland" sealing disaster, Cecil Mouland, who lived in Collins’ hometown, Hare Bay. Gary and his wife, Rose, picked Cecil up and were driving him to a seniors home in St. John’s.

"They didn’t die like flies, you know, like I’ve heard some reporters say over the years," Cecil said. "Oh no, wasn’t like that a’tall. The men who died didn’t just drop like flies. There was nothing quick or easy about it. They had frozen feet, and fingers too numb and cramped with the cold to wipe the tears from their eyes. Tears from tough, fearless, grown men. And a good many of them young, too!"

Then, how did they die?

"Most of them," Cecil continued, "just lay down on the ice, frozen solid, almost, weak from hunger and too tired to get back up. They gave up the ghost. Died of despair, most of ’em did. And with tears frozen to their cheeks, too. ’Twas cruel to look upon, you know. We figured no one was lookin’ fer us. Oh, my boy, that was the saddest part of all! We figured we were left to die. Turns out we were right, too."

Left stranded

For the few readers who are unfamiliar with the harrowing tale of the "Newfoundland" sealing disaster of 1914, for two freezing days and nights a party of seal hunters — 132 men — were left stranded on an icefield floating in the North Atlantic in winter. They were thinly dressed, with almost no food, and with no hope of shelter on the ice against the snow or the constant, bitter winds. To survive, they had to keep moving. Those who lay down to rest died. By the time help arrived, two-thirds of the men were dead.

I asked Gary if there are lessons related to pride and hubris to be learned from the disaster.

"Interesting," he opined, "you should use the Greek word for defining the gods — hubris. According to many accounts, the sealing skippers of 1914 were certainly considered to be Godlike! Though some of the captains were considered to be ‘dragon-hearted’ and ‘slavedrivers,’ it is clear they were leaders of a hard, different breed of men in a totally different era. He who had the hardest of names — Abram Kean — was, in real life, a compassionate man who cared for many of the less fortunate of his time.

"The fierce competition among fishermen is still alive and well today, as is so evident in the excellent reality show, ‘Cold Water Cowboys.’

"Overshadowing, by far, the lessons learned in 1914 of ships being ill-prepared to take care of their crews are the volumes etched forever by the valiant who provided the true love of men toward their mates; men comforted their fellow sealers, they fed them, they tried to keep them alive and, when that failed, some of them died with them."

Gary says he has created "a dramatic retelling" of the disaster. I predict that "Left to Die" will become a classic. I know it will find pride of place in my library.

"This tale," Gary concludes, "beyond the cruel loss of life, reveals the true essence of men caring one for the other. For me, that is the true lesson learned from that cruel time of unbelievable adversity."

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