(from History, a column in The Sunday Express, by Don Morris, March 6, 1988, page 27
The Angel of Death Rode on Icy Blasts
Newfoundland mourned the death of 25 men and boys in violent storm 96 years ago
The last of the dead were still being interred 96 years ago today in little graveyards of some fishing hamlets
fringing the north shore of Trinity Bay.
It was barely a week after the great storm which, with swift and surprising suddenness, had frostily
descended to claim 25 lives from among groups of men and boys who had hurriedly put to sea in small boats
to harvest large herds of seals brought, somewhat freakishly for that time of year, alluringly close to land.
The doorstep bonanza had to be reaped for the sake of family larders and many who went after it were
scantily-clad and without adequate provisions; encouraged to launch upon a deceptively placid bay in
unusually temperate weather and under fair but fickle skies.
Day Of Infamy
However, that mild-mannered Saturday morning was later to change into a day of infamy. The totally
unexpected Angel of Death rode in on the icy blasts of unforeseen tempest and throughout the ensuing
Sabbath window blinds of many dwellings in half a dozen or more villages were mournfully drawn in
bereavement for those lost through nature's carnage.
The event, notorious in our chronicles as the Trinity Bay Disaster of Feb 27th, 1892, plunged all
Newfoundland into shock and disbelief at the widespread extent of casualties. News of the disaster's extreme
proportions was telegraphed to the North American Continent and to Europe. In England Queen Victoria
sent a message of condolence to her oldest overseas colony.
Ancient Trinity, justifiably esteemed as the capital of the bay. had is won newspaper, The Weekly Record.
An edition was rushed out reporting the latest but painfully distressing details which could be gleaned up
to its urgent press deadline. Each page of the four-sheet journal was heavily black-bordered, with
conspicuous black bars separating each column of hard set type throughout.
Wrote the sorrowing editor, C. C. Webber:
"This week has brought to our town and the neighbouring settlements a
terrible calamity, and it is our painful duty to record what has proved the
direst catastrophe ever known in the history of Trinity, - surpassing, as it
does in point of individual and general suffering, hair-breath escapes,
heartrending tales and scenes unlike anything ever heard of by the oldest
The black-edged March 5 edition of the newspaper and subsequent issues told the full, harrowing story, how
groups of sealers, totalling about 200 in all, started the hunt just after dawn. But before the day ended 25
at least were dead from exposure and many other terribly frostbitten.
All went well until about 11 a.m. on Saturday, Feb. 27. The reports of sealing guns echoed across the water
as the men and boys took seals. Suddenly a gale, accompanied by intense cold, came from the north
northeast. With the rising wind the sea was lashed into foam. Some of the boats were miles off land and the
sealers found it impossible to return to their landing stages because to do so they would have to row into
the teeth of the howling gale.
Some of the crews, however, were not far off the Horse Chops and they began a life and death struggle at
the oars to reach that point of land. These crews were from Robin Hood (now Port Rexton) and Salmon
Cove (now Champneys) and from English Harbour. Other crews in different parts of the bay made their own
decisions on what point of land to head for as the wind blew harder and the frost became more intense.
Death By Exposure
Six boats in one spaced-out cluster, headed for the Horse Chops. Ocean spray rained down on them and
turned to ice on their clothing. One crew lost their oars and were in the greatest peril of being swamped
when another boat managed to take the four occupants aboard. With eight persons aboard the small craft,
the danger of foundering was imminent. One man died from exposure and to lessen the load his body was
placed in the water. Not long after another man succumbed to exposure and he, too, a brother of the first
victim, was committed to a watery grave.
After five hours of incredibly hard rowing the first of the boats reached the Horse Chops. Some of the men
were so exhausted and numb with cold that they could not get out of their craft. Among those who witnessed
the pitiful flotilla struggling to reach safety was John Butler of Robin Hood. He was visiting English
Harbour at the time and when the storm broke he hurried to the cliffs to see if any of the boats were coming
On his way to the Horse Chops, he met Robert Penney and Robert Ivany, both of English Harbour, bent
on the same mission. The trio continued on to the vantage point. Butler related afterward:
"We waited for half an hour, but saw no sign of boats, and then we made
a fire of some brushwood. I went to the edge of the cliff again and I saw
Henry Batson's boat coming slowly shoreward, the men in her hardly able
to make a stroke with their oars. Looking down the cliff I saw that several
other boats had landed in the cove, and I saw my brother, Alexander,
trying to get William Stockley up the hill.
"I also saw my nephew, James Butler. He was in poor condition. I ran
down and took him on my back and after a while we got to the top and
near the fire. Penney and Ivany were also working hard to get men up the
steep gulch. All the men who landed were covered with ice and hardly
able to move. Two died before landing and four died after landing, two of
them near the fire and two down the hill. Robert Bannister managed to get
partly up the hill, but now he was on his hands and knees and unable to
move. He just mutter 'God bless us' and he died. His son had died just
While that stark drama of life and death was taking place at the Horse Chops, others of a similar nature were
taking place in other parts of the bay. Exhausted and ice-encrusted crews landed at Trouty, Bonventure,
Ireland's Eye, Thoroughfare, Deer Harbour and other settlements. Some of the boats bore stiffened corpses
of men and boys.
Many men from scattered settlements who didn't participate in the hunt put to sea in small boats similar to
those which were caught in hurricane-force sleet storm. They knew well their launching posed great risk
to their own lives as the sea ran mountainously high. But the off-shore islands had to be searched for any
survivors. Some were found and brought to safety.
Steamers on the bay also hastened into the search and rescue operations. Because of this, some sealers barely
cheated death. That was the fate of other hunters who expired just before the rescuers arrived.
It wasn't until Sunday, the day after the great tempest, when the full, dreadful consequences of the gales's
wrath hit home to the people of Trinity Bay. It would be a nightmare for many to remember for the rest of
their days. All was not well with some of the survivors. Amputations because of frostbite and other surgery
was necessary. Careful medical vigilance became part of the lives of a number of Trinity Baymen who lived
through the ordeal.
All Newfoundland went into mourning when tidings of the disaster came. Special church services were held
throughout the islands and messages of sympathy poured in from all over the world. A fund, spear-headed
by the governor, was started for the widows and orphans and the parents of those who lost able-bodied
young men, some the sole support of the household.
As a marine-bred people, used to the give and the take of the sea, the population responded quickly and
liberally to the fund appeal as they had done so many times in the past when the grey, ambivalent North
Atlantic choose to extract its human toll.
Note: Some typographic errors have been corrected from the original newspaper article.
Transcribed by James Butler, 1997
Revised by Jim Butler, September, 2002