The story of the SS Newfoundland sealing disaster of 1914, in which 78 of 132 men died on the ice, is told in arresting fashion by Newfoundland author Gary Collins in Left to Die (2014, Flanker Press). Known as “The Story Man” in his native Newfoundland, Mr. Collins has written a book that will appeal to those who enjoy reading actual survival accounts from history.
Having personally known two of the last remaining survivors of that tragedy, Mr. Collins uses those accounts, plus other information he has painstaking gleaned from public archives and relatives of other survivors. However, before getting right into the account, he provides plenty of background information on the migration of Harp seals, how the ice, the “Great White Plain” descends from the north, past Newfoundland and on into the Atlantic. On this Great White Plain, thousands upon thousands of Harp seals gather to mate, give birth, then return to the sea. Mr. Collins also goes on to explain how the sealing industry provided vital jobs to Newfoundlanders at a time of the year when they needed it most. From all over Newfoundland, men would travel to the port of St. John’s by any means they could to get a precious berth on a sealing ship.
At this point in history, sealing ships were of various types; some newer and built of steel, strong enough to plough through the ice pans; others, made of wood and only able to get through the ‘slob’ ice easily. The SS Newfoundland was of the latter variety. To make matters worse, the wireless set was removed from it before it set sail, so the only way it could communicate with other ships was by getting close enough to hail them, or use flags or the ship’s whistle. To add to this perfect storm of circumstances, the winter of 1914 was considered to be one of the worst (so the ice was thick and not breaking up as easily) and a beast of a storm was rising from the south. Caught out on the ice by circumstances beyond their control, the 132 men of the SS Newfoundland did what they could to survive without a compass, little food and with only the clothes on their back. Some gave up, laid down to rest and died almost instantly, others tried to survive by staying in motion and keeping warm as best they could.
Personal feelings about the sealing trade aside, and recognizing this was over a hundred years ago and attitudes were different, one cannot help but feel for the men left out on the ice, stranded between ships and unable to find the SS Newfoundland because of the blinding storm and wandering directionless due to having no compass. The fact that any survived under the circumstances is remarkable. A compelling account, and as I mentioned earlier, this book will appeal to those who like to read about Maritime survival accounts, especially those dealing with the frozen north. Left to Die is also notable for the depiction of the sealing industry and life in Newfoundland at the beginning of the 20th century. I especially appreciated the maps of Newfoundland and the tracing of the SS Newfoundland’s route on that fateful voyage to the sealing grounds in March of 1914.
With B & W photos, maps, a bibliography and lists of those who perished and those who survived.
Gary Collins is Newfoundland and Labrador’s favourite storyteller, and today he is known all over the province as “the Story Man.” His favourite pastimes are reading, writing, and playing guitar at his log cabin. He lives in Hare Bay, Newfoundland, with his wife, the former Rose Gill. They have three children and three grandchildren.