Monday, April 18, 2011

"Vikings of the Ice": American Writer George Allan England's Newfoundland Seal Hunt

Just before American writer and adventurer (remote islands were his specialty) George Allan England went to the Newfoundland seal hunt in 1922, he was told that the ship he was about to spend six weeks on in the northern icefields "was condemned years ago."

The last of the old "wooden walls," the SS Terra Nova (top photo) had indeed been condemned, but that didn't stop her owners from sending the ship out on the lucrative chase after seals. In 1922, as England recorded in Vikings of the Ice, the seal hunt was worth nearly $200, 000, a significant sum in those days.

England was the first and only person to observe the Newfoundland seal hunt first hand and to write about it. A committed socialist (England ran for governor of Massachusetts on the Socialist ticket in 1908), this is one of the things he wrote:

If a hunter makes $50 or $60 dollars, he's doing well. That comes to $10 to $12 dollars a week, and board . . . for hardships, perils, and toil beyond anything we know here at home. I have never known a country where employers enjoyed such a sinecure as in Newfoundland. Labour, there, has hardly begun to dream that it has any rights. And the game of exploitation goes merrily on.

England's admiration and sympathy for the sealers of Newfoundland (bottom photo) is evident in Vikings of the Ice. His fascination with their culture - in particular, its idiosyncratic habits of speech - and his ability to place the reader or listener right on the icy, bloody deck of a 1920s' wooden wall make Viki
ngs of the Ice a compelling experience. Veteran narrator Frank Holden's seamless handling of Rattling Books' Audie-nominated audio book version of Vikings of the Ice's many voices and accents - individual sealers, ship's officers, England himself - brings the book alive. It gives England's experience directly to the listener : six hard weeks of blood, sweat and, despite the circumstances, humour. (One reader described Vikings of the Ice as a "strange admixture of implacable cruelty toward animals [and] . . . man-to-man, human warmth.")


George A
llan England was born in Nebraska in 1877. His father, George Allen England, was a U.S. Army chaplain who served on bases from Virginia to Nebraska (including Fort Nebraska, General George Armstrong Custer's base of operations against Native Americans). The family moved to Boston when England was a child; he attended Boston English High School, and was accepted at Harvard. England graduated from Harvard in 1902 with Phi Beta Kappa honours, and a special award for writing. After he obtained a master's degree from Harvard in 1903, he married and began work at an insurance company, where (he once wrote) he honed his ability to write fiction.

England soon quit the insurance business, and spent the rest of his life as a freelance writer, and a traveller (except for failed attempts at chicken farming and treasure hunting in the Caribbean). Besides writing articles for popular publications of the day (e.g., Collier's, The Saturday Evening Post), England wrote fiction, including Utopian novels based on his socialist ideals. The most famous of these is his Darkness and Dawn trilogy.

George Allan England died on June 26, 1930, in Concord, New Hampshire. His New York Times obituary compared Vikings of the Ice to Kipling's Captains Courageous.