Tales of doom and deliverance in the icy Atlantic — Frank Galgay spent more than a year and a half sifting through page after page of historical papers to compile stories of dramatic rescue and terrifying voyages for his latest book.
“Rocks Ahead! Wrecks, Rescues and a Coffin Ship,” is Galgay’s 15th book of historical non-fiction, and his fifth about shipwrecks. In it, Galgay tells sea stories of Newfoundland and Labrador, spanning between 1704 and 1944, from the loss of the Anne and the survivors’ refuge in St. John’s harbour to the torpedoing of the SS Livingston while transporting 2,000 tonnes of cement from the United States to Fort Pepperell in St. John’s.
“I was always fascinated by the rich marine history in Newfoundland and Labrador, and I’m interested in aspects of heroism, self-sacrifice, sadness, joy, disappointment — all these human characters that surround these stories,” Galgay, a St. John’s city councillor, explained. “A lot of them bring out the best in humanity, with concern for your neighbour and concern for those who are in distress, which is typical of Newfoundlanders.”
Galgay researched the tales in a number of different places around the province as well as outside; he visited The Rooms and Memorial University’s Centre for Newfoundland Studies, among other places, and he went through hundred-year-old copies of local newspapers. Some information was sent to him on microfiche from the National Archives of Canada in Ottawa, and he wrote the Moravian Archives in Herrnhut, Germany for illustrations. Other bits and pieces were given to him by family members of sailors involved in the stories or by researchers.
There was a plethora of information to go through, Galgay said, and in the end, he chose 30 of the stories he found the most dramatic and interesting to include in the book.
Among those is the loss of the sloop George in 1774, and the Moravian missionary Jens Haven’s rescue.
The sloop left from Nain, headed north to look for mission stations, in August 1774. On the return trip a little over a month later, the George encountered a raging wind and struck a submerged rock. Most of the crewmembers got safely into a lifeboat, but not without a close call, as written in a report from Moravian Society spokesman James Hutton, dated Jan. 15, 1775, from which Galgay quotes in his book.
“Mr. Jens Haven was thrown out of the boat at her first filling and delivered himself over into the merciful hands of Jesus that He might do with him as He thought best,” Hutton wrote. “After swallowing a good deal of water, he was cast by the return of the wave into the boat again as he was drove towards the shore, he resolved to keep fast hold of her and presently saw our people ashore standing upon the rock, who cried out to him to catch a hold of the oar which he did. The Esquimaux Pilot caught hold of Mr. Haven’s feet and thus the sailors drew them both up the rock.”
The “coffin ship” in the title of Galgay’s book refers to the Fanny, a ship which set sail from Waterford, Ireland in April 1811, bound for St. John’s with an overcrowded load of 12 crew and 184 Irish immigrant passengers.
“A coffin ship referred to ships that left Ireland with a lot of immigrants in them, and a lot of them died of malnutrition or lack of food,” Galgay said. “Some of those vessels were substandard and disease-ridden, and a lot of the passengers couldn’t afford the cost of taking the more comfortable and expensive ships, so (they) were totally at the mercy of the masters of the ships, and often lacked sufficient accommodations, food and water.”
When the Fanny arrived in St. John’s, it was discovered that a significant number of passengers had perished during the journey, and its captain, James Lannen, was arrested and charged with improper care of his “human freight.” He was later convicted and fined 100 pounds.
Galgay hopes “Rocks Ahead!” will appeal to a varied audience, including people living in the communities involved in the stories, seniors who might have known people on board, and history buffs. He’s also hoping the younger generation will find it interesting for its tales of heroism and tragedy.
“I’m hoping it’ll give them a deeper appreciation of our marine history,” he said, “and hopefully at the end, when they read them, they’ll be proud of the fact that although there were some joyful moments and some sad moments in our history, these are true stories and events. We are people of the sea.”
“Rocks Ahead! Wrecks, Rescues and a Coffin Ship,” published by Flanker Press, sells for $17.95 and is available at bookstores across the province.