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(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 residents."

Harrowing Tale

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 in.

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:

Stark Dramas

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



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