Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Greatest Hunt in the World

Captain Abram Kean was the most successful seal hunter in Newfoundland history.

In 1922, American writer and explorer George Allan England traveled with Kean aboard his sealing ship, the Terra Nova, publishing a book of his account two years later.

Vikings of the Ice (the title was later changed to The Greatest Hunt in the World) is the only eye-witness account ever written of the daily life aboard a wooden-wall, or sealing vessel.

On signing on

“The hardships some of these men suffer even before they reach St. John’s and ‘sign on’ would kill the average American. For days before the sailing of the fleet, hundreds of them pile into St. John’s. Some walk all the way from home and some travel on the partly snowed-in, irregular streak of rust that Newfoundland calls a railroad. Many of them walk forty or fifty miles to reach even this rust, braving blizzards that scourge and flay. They carry their pitiably meager equipment in ditty bags. A lot of them, in the spring of 1922, got marooned at a place called Gambo, on the railroad. They had to sleep in cold empty cars there for two or three nights, till an engine could get through and pick them up — second-class cars; and if you have ever seen a second-class Newfoundland car, you know the worst. But none quit and none died. They came along eventually and all ‘signed on,’ and thought themselves lucky to get the chance.”

On Kean

“The Cap’n looked a splendid type of seaman and a famous ice master: ruddy, hearty, hale with shrewd blue eyes, a grizzle of snowy beard, a bluff manner, the vigour of a man of fifty, for all his seventy years, and a full half-century of seal killing to his credit."

“The Admiral of the Fleet,” they call him in Newfoundland. And well he deserves the title, for he has come in as ‘high-liner’ more often than any other captain, and knows the ice fields as other men know their palms. Many decades he has commanded ships plying into the Far North, “down the Labrador,” and has never lost a passenger. A skipper of the Royal Naval Reserve, a former member of the House of Assembly, a writer and lecturer, he understands more about seals and sealing than any other man alive.”

On the Terra Nova

“As far as being a slave ship is concerned, this one looks the part. The Australian convict ship Success is luxurious by contrast. This veteran of the ice is dark, dingy, coal-dusty, and dirtier than anything I have ever seen; with snowy decks, rusty old hand pumps; a stuffy and filthy cabin, extremely cold; tiny hard bunks, a dwarf stove, a table covered with smeared oilcloth; everything inexpressibly dreary and repellent.”

On the seal diet

“Anybody who knows the voracity of a seal can imagine what a million or two of them will do to our fish supply. Levi G. Chafe, the world’s greatest sealing authority, estimates that the seals dispose of three million codfish a day, to say nothing of other kinds.”

The seal birthday

“Feb. 28th is called 'the seal’s birthday,' and the accuracy with which practically all the young harps are born within a day or two of that date is one of the most amazing phenomena of nature.”

On the sealers

“Some of the men wore jackets of old bags, with printing still visible. Many were ragged and extensively bepatched. Poverty! Lord, what poverty! All was rough, dark, dirty —incredibly dirty, gorgeously and grotesquely dirty. And this at the beginning of the trip. Later, when the men had really “grased deyselfs to de helbows in de fat,” and when everything had become tainted with grease and blood, and the sculps were stowed at the aft end of the ’tweendecks and many others were dragged through it to be flung below, forward, conditions there beggared description. Oh dignity of Labour!”

On the pay

"If a hunter makes $50 or $60 dollars, he's doing well. That comes to $10 to $12 dollars a week, and board . . . for hardships, perils, and toil beyond anything we know here at home. I have never known a country where employers enjoyed such a sinecure as in Newfoundland. Labour, there, has hardly begun to dream that it has any rights. And the game of exploitation goes merrily on."

George Allan England died on June 26, 1930, in Concord, New Hampshire. His New York Times obituary compared Vikings of the Ice to Kipling's Captains Courageous.

1 comment:

littlenormy said...

What books did Captian Kean write?