The 1914 sealing disaster: 100 years later

Sunday marks the 100 year anniversary of the 1914 sealing disaster, when 251 Newfoundland sealers perished in two separate but simultaneous disasters.
251 Newfoundland sealers perished in two separate but simultaneous disasters 2:59

Sunday marks the 100 year anniversary of the 1914 sealing disaster, when 251 Newfoundland sealers perished in two separate but simultaneous disasters. 

On March 30, 1914, 132 men left the SS Newfoundland to hunt seals and became caught in a sudden blizzard while out on the ice. Only 55 survived.

During the same storm, the SS Southern Cross sank while returning to Newfoundland from the Gulf of St. Lawrence. All 173 men died.

An animated film about the sealing disaster from the National Film Board of Canada will be released Sunday at 2 p.m. at The Rooms in St. John's.

Michael Crummey, who wrote the script for 54 Hours, said he wanted to show people across the country what the event means to the people of Newfoundland and Labrador.

"For me, that story, it's about the disaster and it's about loss, but it's also about survival — about those men who actually made it through that entire ordeal," he said.

"I wanted to show, first of all, how brutal that industry was for the people that worked in it, but also how necessary it was to those people — how important it was to their economic survival. They were there because the money was so important to those families and those communities."

You can watch a preview clip of the film below.

Paton Francis, one of the animators of the film, who also has a family connection to the disaster, said working on the project was a more emotional experience than he anticipated.

"There's definitely a few moments when I was writing my original pitch that, as I was writing it, I was getting emotional and all that … and those little keystone moments are actually back in the film, they made it through the final cut," Francis said.

"I'm extremely happy with how it turned out and I'm looking forward to seeing what kind of life it's going to have outside in the world."

Dangerous way to make a living

Jenny Higgins, author of Perished: The 1914 Newfoundland Seal Hunt Disaster, has spent years collecting information for her book about the sealing disaster.

She said the men working on the seal hunt put their lives at risk for a small amount of income.

"A typical pay would have probably been between $30 and $40, that would have been for about six or seven weeks of very hard physical labour, severe deprivation, little food, and basically putting your life at risk," said Higgins.

Higgins said the amount may seem like a pittance, but it made a world of difference to the men, their families, and their communities.

"To the sealers, it was actually quite a bit, because they were desperately poor and Newfoundland, at that time in 1914, was still a place of merchant credit so it was one of the very few accesses they had to actual cash.

"It really is story about men who are putting themselves in harms way to put food on the table."