On the morning of January 9, between 2,000-3,000 men marched with fife and drums to Saddle Hill, between Harbour Grace and Carbonear. The gathering consisted of men from both communities and from varying religious backgrounds. The men had gathered to discuss getting rid of “truck,” the in-kind payments merchants used to negotiate exchanges with Newfoundlanders in the fishery and, partly, in the sealing industry. Often cash payments and “truck” practices were combined in the sealing industry, though the sealers now wanted rid of the latter practice for good – it was wages or nothing.
The men discussed the issue, christened Saddle Hill “Liberty Hill,” and departed peacefully.
On February 9, a second meeting was held, this time with sealing masters invited to attend. They were to bring their proposals, their new agreements, to the public meeting for discussion. If the agreement was acceptable, the men cheered; if not, they tore the agreement in pieces.
While Harbour Grace merchant Thomas Ridley attended the February 9 meeting, he did not comply with the sealers’ demands. This disagreement would soon cause great damage to his property.
In the early morning on February 18, at around 2:00 a.m., more than 200 men boarded Ridley’s ship Perseverance, docked at Harbour Grace. The men were armed with saws, axes and guns. According to W.A. Munn’s account of the incident, a “mate was sleeping in the cabin, and ascended the companion ladder…[when] his progress was stopped by armed men with guns.” In about ten minutes, the men cut the masts, rigging, yards and gaffs – damage estimated at £120.
This action incensed the mercantile and magisterial elite of Conception Bay. Governor Sir Thomas John Cochrane proclaimed any future meetings on Saddle Hill illegal, offering £100 reward and pardon for anyone with information regarding the destruction of Ridley’s property.
Constables from St. John’s posted Cochrane’s proclamation at various mercantile establishments in Harbour Grace and Carbonear. Within two hours the notice had been torn down; the sealers even tore down the copy posted near the newly built Harbour Grace courthouse, leaving the board smashed in pieces.
The sealers used disobedience and intimidation to great effect after the vandalism on February 18. In her article “Collective Action in Outport Newfoundland,” Linda Little details these brutal tactics:
The fisherman were careful in selecting their targets. They attacked only those who they felt were interfering with their progress. A planted named Nichole was met by three men with a pistol, a large stick, and a scythe but was released when they discovered he was not the man they were after. Seven men with blackened faces visited the home of a ship’s master where a member of the household was suspected of being untrue to the cause. Amidst a great commotion the traitor was dragged from his bed and beaten. A man living near Saddle Hill who claimed to know some of the ringleaders was visited during the night by more than 100 armed men and was only saved from shooting by his wife’s pleading. Another man, who had intended to identify the vandals on Ridley’s ship, suddenly withdrew his offer of information and claimed to know nothing about the incident. (28)
The men posted a final notice on March 1: the deadline for settling an agreement was March 3. Each agreement would have two copies, one for the master of the vessel, one for the crew.
In preparation for this “illegal” gathering, the magistrates had over 100 special constables stationed in each town and at Saddle Hill. Between 500-600 sealers gathered at William Innott’s pier, on Harbour Grace wharf. The magistrates, with police and specials in tow, could do little to quell the gathering. Though the Chief Magistrate read the Riot Act, the men only dispersed briefly, soon rallying again at Ridley’s wharf, the scene of the February 18 fracas. The magistrate demanded they hand their agreement over, which the sealers did, much to to his surprise. Not knowing what then to do in front of this hostile crowd, he gave the agreement back and seemingly fled. He reported to the governor that “the noise, uproar, and numbers made any attempt to stop them futile.” The sealers then paraded through the streets, halting in front of each merchant house to call out their agreement. Each merchant agreed to the terms in turn; each agreement was saluted with a cheer and the men moved on. Surely spotting a bellicose mob on one’s front lawn, with no lawmen in sight, had something to do with accepting these newly satisfactory terms.
Later, at Carbonear, another radical procession occurred on March 6. As at Harbour Grace, the merchants agreed to the new terms. However, at the Best & Waterman’s pier, some sealers signed on despite dissatisfaction with their agreement. In response, about 200 men boarded Best & Waterman’s two vessels and ordered the scabs ashore. Three or four men on the vessel Morning Star refused to leave, and the strikers physically hauled them from the boat; one man, Thomas Scalon (Scanlon), was severely beaten with sticks and gaffs. The strikers threatened Waterman with violence if he did not draft a new agreement. Waterman acceded to the demands.
Peace had been established by March 14, and the fleet sailed for the ice.
The sealers’ strike of 1832 is one of Newfoundland’s most fascinating instances of labour agitation. The strike set the stage for other collective action – and violence – in the following decade.
This post is part of the Harbour Grace Notebook series. Follow the updates on social media with the hashtag #hgnotebook.
Photo source: From the animated short film 54 Hours (2014), National Film Board of Canada.
Author’s note: If you’re interested in the broader socio-economic context of the 1832 sealers’ strike, I highly recommend reading Linda Little’s “Collective Action in Outport Newfoundland: A Case Study from the 1830s,” published in Labour/Le Travail. This post is merely a brief sketch of the history. Also, see W.A. Munn’s serialized history of Harbour Grace and Shannon Ryan’s writing for more information.
Sources & Further Information
Little, Linda. “Collective Action in Outport Newfoundland: A Case Study from the 1830s.” Labour/Le Travail, vol. 26, no. 1, 1990, pp. 7-37.
Ryan, Shannon. “Newfoundland Sealing Strikes, 1830-1914.” Northern Mariner/Le Marin du Nord, vol. 4, no. 3, 1994, pp. 19-37.
— Written by Matthew Gerard McCarthy (Communications Officer) for the Conception Bay Museum, Harbour Grace.