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In 1914 there was a tremendous loss of life for Newfoundlanders, not from any battle of war, but from a cruel battle with nature on the North Atlantic ice floes. Let us now remember the cry of our fallen sealers, especially that of Reuben and Albert John Crewe. For my tribute, I’ve included a few lines of poetry taken from “I’ll Bring You Home,” a song written about this tragedy of father and son.
It’s a haunting tale of human suffering and loss, and our history records that although there have been many tragic accidents associated with the seal hunt, the 1914 Newfoundland Sealing Disaster stands out above all others. It is hardly a story where you would expect to find any sense of good feeling, however, amid the horror and sadness we find it in the beautiful expression of love displayed by Rueben Crewe for his 16-year old son, Albert John, who together boarded the SS Newfoundland and sailed into our history as victims of one of the greatest sealing disasters of all time.
This painful truth tells of how for two nights, in clothing ill-suited for sudden squalls and with no seal pelts available for warmth, sealers were stranded on the ice floes battling to survive frigid temperatures, howling northwest winds and freezing sleet, which pierced like a knife into their flesh. Although they managed to light fires, the flames only flickered for a short time and then went cold. By morning the frozen dead and dying lay all over the ice and, when found, Reuben and Albert John were frozen to death in each other’s arms. Free at last from the nasty forces of nature and cradled by suffering and love, their souls journeyed into peace.
“How little can a poor man do to keep a son from harm I wrapped him in my guernsey and I locked him in my arms.”
Meanwhile, at home, Mary Crewe is restless and unable to sleep. She gets up and lights a fire but eventually goes back to bed. She has a premonition. Her husband and son are kneeling at the foot of her bed in an embrace, as if in prayer. At some moment, one of them raises his head and looks at her. His face is gentle and his expression so full of peace that in her heart, she knows. Love, so powerful, had reached beyond the barriers of death to comfort her and prepare her for the terrible news she was about to receive that morning.
Nearly a century later, I listened as the Honourable John C. Crosbie spoke of this tragedy of frozen sea, frozen bodies and one frozen embrace. I couldn’t forget the images, especially of a young boy who was eager to go on his first trip to the ice and even more excited when his father decided to go with him that first time.
“Your ma and me, we couldn’t see to send you out alone I brought you to this frozen waste, and I will bring you home”.
I wonder what Albert John must have been thinking as they sat on the chilly ice floes and faced the unknown. Did he curse the biting cold or did he think only of how he was safe within his father’s loving arms. I decided he surely must have done both and as I was writing the following poem in their memory, the words of an old familiar hymn came to mind, “Safe in the Arms of Jesus, sweetly my soul shall rest”. What a precious reward for Reuben and Albert John, and for all who perished with them, before them, and after them on the frozen Atlantic ice floes.
MY FATHER'S ARMS
Loving arms now cradle me As the northwest winds howl fierce and free And I curse their paralyzing chill Upon my flesh, stone cold and still But love, which gave me life, and name Love, greater than all mortal pain Will let me rest without alarm To awaken in my Father’s arms.
Grace Butler Difalco