Death on the Ice: The Great Newfoundland Sealing Disaster of 1914 by Cassie Brown with Harold Horwood was published in 1972. I bought it during my trip to Newfoundland in 2012, so it has taken me only nine years to read (and there are still other books I bought during that trip which I haven’t read yet either). While I was in St. John’s I was riveted by an exhibit by artist John McDonald at The Rooms entitled You Don’t Know Cold. It featured life-size paintings of the men who suffered on the ice for two days and nights during the Newfoundland Sealing Disaster (where the term “Newfoundland” plays double duty as it was also the name of the sailing ship which lost nearly two thirds of its crew). I wanted to learn more about the circumstances that led to the deaths of these 78 men, who were stranded on the ice for 54 hours with inadequate clothing, hardly any food and no shelter. I saw Death on the Ice for sale and realized that it was about the paintings I had just seen.
Brown wrote a brief history of 217 pages wherein she gave the reader both literal and figurative chills. She got down to business and did not need to set the story with a lengthy introduction. In late March 1914 men came from all over Newfoundland to St. John’s to take part in the seal hunt out on the open ice. Brown captured the brutality of the ordeal (and I’m not talking about the seal carnage)–where sealers were given only hard tack to eat and maybe hot tea–and had to supply everything else themselves. It was not an easy time on board even when they were not on the ice, yet the financial reward was too enticing to pass up. She was best at describing the struggle atop the sometimes smooth yet often jagged ice as the sealers risked their lives hopping from floe to floe in search of harp seal pups, sometimes becoming stranded as floes drifted too far apart to jump across.
Miscommunication, assumptions and the lack of a wireless on the Newfoundland all contributed to the circumstances that led to the death of 78 men when they were let off their ship yet dismissed from another, the Stephano. 132 sealers roamed the ice searching for their own ship–or any ship–to pick them up before nightfall. A storm was approaching and they faced a night upon the open ice.
We feel their optimism when they spot ships nearby, but succumb to their helplessness when they see them, time and time again, departing in opposing directions. The waves of emotion varying between rescue and desertion were as rugged as the waves upon which the ice floes bounced and crashed. Brown captured the physical horrors of freezing to death, describing ice blindness and frostbite as the starving and exhausted men could go on no longer. After a second night upon the ice men witnessed others die if they took a desperate break to rest or sleep. Men also died standing up, kneeling in prayer, or in the example below, in a paternal embrace:
“[Edward] Tippett’s arms were frozen around his sons’ bodies and they still huddled close to him in death. They stood like pieces of sculpture, planted solidly on the ice in a standing embrace, the drifting snow swirling around them.”
Brown included witness testimonials at the public commissions of enquiry yet kept coverage of the legal proceedings brief. The two commissions disagreed in their assignment of blame and “[n]ot a single cent of damages or other liability was ever assessed against the companies that sent the men to their deaths without proper clothing, a decent survival outfit, the food needed to keep them going under stress, or signalling equipment on their ships.”
A large photo insert showed the horrific sight of frozen men being winched and piled onto a ship three deep. They had to be thawed in order to be identified.