According to the owner of these buildings who I talked to a few years ago when buying steel tubing here the wooden sheds have a fascinating history that dates to the late 1800s. They were built as bunkhouses for the crews from the sealing schooner fleet to stay when they were ashore. If only these walls could repeat some of the stories they heard but failing that there are historical sources to fill some gaps.
The sealing schooners hunted northern fur seals in their breeding grounds along the Alaska coast, taking with them crews not only from Victoria but from the First Nations up the coast, especially Nuu-chah-nulth and often Haida. The Nuu-chah-nulth brought their own canoes and harpoons for hunting.
There are many photos of the sealing fleet in Victoria harbour, as can be seen on this link. There are lots of great shots in the archives; this is one of my favourites.
A few years ago I posted photos of SGang Gwaay Llnagaay the Haida village that is a World Heritage Site at the south end of Haida Gwaii. In this blog post (one of my all time favourite posts), the second photo shows a deeply eroded pole – most likely a mortuary pole or a house frontal pole that has been burned. It is said that part of the village was set afire by Nuu-chah-nulth sealers who came ashore from a schooner on their way south. They had an old grievance with the Haida and were exacting retribution. Also, during work I have done in Nuu-chah-nulth territories I have been shown sealing harpoons in people’s houses in small coastal communities on Vancouver Island from their grandfathers or great grandfathers who went on these schooners.
A truly fascinating contemporaneous book (Condition of Seal Life on the Rookeries of the Pribilof Islands by Charles Haskins Townsend) has observations made on a sealing schooner and is on-line here. It has to be one of the more complete accounts of the daily working life of First Nations hunters in the early industrial economy. It includes photos of the schooners in the Bering Sea, with details of the Nuu-chah-nulth canoes and gear, various appendices regarding catches, biological information about the seals and so on (some interesting bits reproduced below). The descriptions are sometimes marred by the nearly ubiquitous racism of the time but there is a lot to learn from this document.
CRUISE OF THE DORA SIEWERD IN BERING SEA (from an appendix by A.B. Alexander)
Pursuant to instructions from the Hon, Marshall McDonald, United States Commissioner of Fish and Fisheries, to secure passage on a pelagic sealing vessel for the purpose of making a cruise in Bering Sea, with the object of gathering information concerning the pelagic habits of fur seals, the methods employed for their capture at sea, their food, the proportion of each sex represented in the catch, etc., I left the Albatross at Unalaska, the middle of July 1895, to await the arrival of the sealing fleet. Subsequently accommodations were obtained, through the kindness of Capt H.F. Siewerd, on his vessel, the Dora Siewerd, a schooner of 100 tons register, and one of the largest in the fleet. She carried 18 canoes and 2 boats, and a crew of 36 Indians and 9 white men. As two Indians go in a canoe, the spearsmen and boat steerers were equally divided. (page 123).
It also has descriptions of the traditional gear that was repurposed for the commercial slaughter.
Of the Canadian fleet in Bering Sea all but six schooners carried Indian hunters from Vancouver and Queen Charlotte Islands. These natives have been taking seals off their own shores with the spear from time immemorial and it was a fatal mistake on the part of the Paris Tribunal to underestimate the efficiency of spears in such hands a fact doubtless well known to those having charge of the British side of the case.
The spear used during the past season is very similar to that figured by Scammon twenty years ago in writing of pelagic sealing by these natives¹. The spear pole is 12 to 14 feet long, pronged, with two detachable barbed iron spear points, secured by a 30 yard line, the end of which is tied to the boat. When a seal is struck the barbed points slip off the pole, the latter being recovered after the seal has been pulled alongside the canoe and clubbed. Seals fight vigorously at such times and seldom fail to leave permanent marks of their sharp teeth on boats and canoes, while large bulls are very dangerous to handle.Pelagic sealing is altogether impracticable for our own Aleut natives, their light skin covered bidarkies not being constructed to withstand such attacks as wounded seals make with their teeth. (page 21).
On stormy days a lookout is kept by the hunters, and the one who first sees a seal is entitled to stand in the bow of the canoe as spears-man. At such times three men go in a canoe, the weather usually being too rough for one man to manage it. No selection of canoe is made the most handy one being used, and also the first spear that can be gotten hold of. (p. 126).
The number of seals killed directly, and indirectly, by the hunt was enormous, even in a somewhat regulated environment.
The steamer Albatross having left Bering Sea in 1895 somewhat earlier than usual, I did not visit the rookeries on the Pribilof Islands in September to repeat the observations made by me at the same season in 1894, respecting the loss of young seals resulting from pelagic sealing. Arrangements were made, however, with the resident Treasury agents for a full and explicit report as to the extent of the damage that was certain to result from the presence of a large sealing fleet in Bering Sea during the breeding season. Such report recently forwarded by Messrs. Adams and Judge, the resident agents of the Treasury Department in charge, gives the number of dead pups upon each rookery to October 10, the total loss of young seals for both islands up to that time amounting to 28,066. Many weak and emaciated pups were observed on all the rookeries and these have doubtless since died. Pup seals are very fat and can not be killed by starvation in less than a month’s time. Although many thousands of young seals were lost by starvation in September and October 1894, on account of sealing done in August, I found no dead pups until after September 1. From that time on the death of the young was continuous.
Twenty dead bulls and 101 dead females were found on St Paul Island during the season of 1895, 3 of the latter having spear points and lines attached.
The total number of seals taken in Bering Sea during the season by the pelagic sealing fleet was 43,697. There can be no doubt that at least 75 per cent of those were breeding females, the death of which would necessarily involve the loss of over 32,000 young. The proportion of the sexes represented in the season’s catch, as reported by the sealing fleet, is untrustworthy, judging from our experience with reports of this kind in the past and from what we know at present of the actual conditions (page 38)
Bunkhouse photo with Pentax Espio 120SW, Agfa Vista Plus 200, commercially processed and scanned.
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Do we know if A.B. Alexanders report from the cruise of the Dora Siewerd resulted in restrictions on hunting seals during their breeding season? It appears there may have been some concerns about diminishing returns.
Hi Valerie, it took a great deal of carnage and extensive depopulation and years before these efforts to regulate the impacts of hunting took hold. This post has some information on that side of things: http://bit.ly/1qmy2j6.
It says that “By 1902, only 200,000 northern fur seals remained. Forced to the bargaining table, in 1911 the U.S., Canada, Russia and Japan negotiated the North Pacific Fur Seal Convention, outlawing the open-water hunt in exchange for a percentage of a controlled hunt on the Pribilofs. It was the first international treaty dealing with the conservation of a species.”
Thanks Ehpem thats very interesting
Thank you so much for sharing this piece (and the fantastic photo)!!
Thank you Ashoke – it did all start with that photo, another one where I extended the lens a bit and stuck it through the fence. The photo kind of gets buried in this story, and rightly so since the story is so much bigger than usual.
Great post! I had no idea that this place existed. A good book on the sealing fleet, as I am sure you know, is Peter Murray’s Vagabond Fleet, published by Sono Nis Press.
Hi Richard. I am not familiar with Vagabond Fleet, but really should look it up. I get the feeling these bunkhouses are off the heritage radar in Victoria, though they should not be.
So much research, so fascinating! I loved your link to the post you did about the eroded totems. Your photos were fabulous. Stupid iPad wouldn’t let me like the post, for some reason.
That those old huts had so much history to discover, it was serendipitous that it was you who visited. No one else could have fleshed out the story so thoroughly. I will need to visit again to explore the archives photos more carefully.
Hope you and yours are very well, Mr E. X Kate
Thanks Kate. I only knew a bit about the sealing schooners when I started this post last night. You can imagine my delight to come across that book so full of cool information and pictures. I am glad you like the photos from Sgang Gwaay – it is an amazing place that I am privileged to have visited during work trips a few times now.
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You have some of the best work places in the world, don’t you Mr E.? I hope to get another look at those pics today. My desk top is playing up but fingers crossed!
Indeed, that is one of the best places I can imagine working.
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