Finished: Oct. 1, 2010
First Published: 1972
Publisher: Doubleday Canada
Genre: non-fiction, Canadian history, sealing, disasters
On a black midnight, March 9, 1914, the S.S. Newfoundland ground her way through the loose ice of St. John's harbour heading for The Narrows and the ice-fields beyond.
Acquired: Won from John Mutford at The Book Mine Set.
Reason for Reading: I read the book a long time ago and knew it was a good read.
This book is a chilling tale of how 132 men were stranded for two days and nights during a freezing storm on the ice-fields of the North Atlantic with only one-third of them surviving to be rescued. First, though, it is the story of the harsh life of the early 20th century Newfoundland fisherman who scraped a living from the sea. Fishing when it was warm and sealing at the end of a long winter when the money was direly in need. The fur seals came up onto the ice for a brief period of time and it was a race against the clock to get out to the seals until the sealers were done and home, safe, again. It wasn't a job anyone liked, there was no sport in clubbing baby seals and the conditions on the frozen ocean were dangerous, but it was one of only a few ways to make a living.
The year of 1914 would prove to be one of the worst tragedies the Newfoundlanders had seen in their entire harsh way of life. The men from one ship, the SS Newfoundland were stranded on the ice, and none of the captains of any of the other ships including the Newfoundland knew they were out there. Everyone assumed they were aboard another ship. The Newfoundland had been stripped of its wireless the previous year as the company found it unprofitable, thus communication with this one ship which was stuck in the ice was impossible.
A harrowing tale of what men will do to survive under the most extreme conditions. How the will to survive kicks in, the mental state one goes into to come out of such an ordeal alive. A gut-wrenching tale of how men slowly succumb to the elements, how it affects first the body then the mind causing some to end their own lives by walking off the ice into the ocean, others to lay down and die and many more died frozen in mid-step; these are the worst as they had the will but their bodies just couldn't hold out.
"Death on the Ice" also shows the complete and utter folly of those in charge to do anything to save these men. The disaster could have been prevented if one of any number of things had been done either prior to or during the expedition. "The men" were concerned for them and spoke to their superiors who then spoke to their superiors but word never got beyond that point because "Old Man" Kean was out there and he was the one who had sent the men out into the upcoming storm. No one questioned Kean or told Kean what to do; he was a seasoned Captain, as well as a respected and feared man. The complete mess that goes on back on the ships while these men are freezing to death is unbearable. A riveting and compelling read of human survival, suffering and death versus company greed and disregard for human comfort at a time when employers counted human lives as expendable.