Death aboard the steam whaler Diana

A memorial to the doomed whaling ship Diana is located in Lerwick, Shetland. (Photo by Kenn Harper)

By Kenn Harper

Disasters were common in Davis Strait in the whaling days of the 1800s. Many ships were beset in the ice and unprepared crews were forced to spend long winters of privation in the Arctic.

Those iced in near land could occasionally rely on help from the Inuit but most wintered far from shore. In many seasons, the loss of life was huge.

One of the greatest tragedies in Arctic whaling occurred on a whaling ship sent out from Hull, England, in 1866. She was the steam whaler Diana, and her captain, John Gravill, was a veteran of 50 years in the whaling business. But his years of experience were of little help in this desperate year.

In May, Capt. Gravill, outbound for the Arctic, put in at Lerwick in Shetland to hire the rest of his crew. With 50 men, 30 of them Shetlanders, he made for Davis Strait and to its farthest northern reaches, Baffin Bay.

In company with other whaling ships Narwhal, Esquimaux, Intrepid and Truelove, the Diana made her way through the pack ice of the bay to the north water, where she took two whales valued at 2,050 British pounds.

Later, the Diana and 10 other ships were trapped by heavy ice near Pond Inlet but eventually it was able to struggle southward. With little fuel left, the crew burned everything that would burn, including many of the ship’s spars.

Inuit Child First, Indigenous Services Canada

However, on Sept. 21 the ship was firmly beset off Clyde River, imprisoned in the ice and with only two months’ provisions remaining.

For the next six months, the ship zig-zagged southward in the grip of the ice. On the day after Christmas, Capt. Gravill died. His body was not consigned to the sea, but rather was sewn in canvas and placed on the quarter deck.

Half the crew was ravaged by scurvy. The living quarters were encased in ice.

A survivor recalled: “Our beef got done in January; coffee and sugar about that time also; and our last tea was served out in the beginning of February.

“Tobacco was likewise all gone, and some of us tried to smoke tea leaves and coffee grounds. The tea leaves burned the mouth bad, but the coffee grounds were not so disagreeable. I do assure you it was precious cold — especially at night, when your breath froze in the top of your berth, till the ice came to be three or four inches thick, and we had a day every week to break it off and scrape it down with the ship’s scrapers… The men began to get down-hearted, and some of them were so weak that they dropped at the pumps.”

In mid-March in southern Davis Strait, the ship was finally released from the ice and began a race against death across the Atlantic, leaking badly all the while.

Public Notice – Canadian Navigable Waters Act, Replacement of the existing clear-span bridge

On April 2, 1867, it limped into Ronas Voe, an inlet on the west side of Shetland. The captain and eight other seamen lay dead on deck, and four more men were breathing their last.

The remaining men were so weak that only three could go aloft to stow the sails when the ship anchored. One man is said to have dropped dead in shock at the sight of land.

One report described the Diana while anchored in Ronas Voe as “a charnel-house of scurvy-stricken, dysentery-worn, dead and dying men.”

The Diana took on a new crew in Shetland and continued on to Hull, reaching her home port on April 26 after an absence of 14 months. It was repaired and returned to whaling.

In 1869, it sank, the last whaler to sail from the port of Hull.

The vessels’s surgeon, 29-year-old Charles E. Smith, survived and wrote an account of the tragedy. He returned to the Arctic on a voyage of exploration to Spitzbergen and Novaya Zemlya, then emigrated to New Zealand. But his health broke down, and he returned to England, where he died at only 42 years of age.

Many of the Diana’s dead were Shetlanders, and in 1890 the surgeon’s brother had a large memorial fountain erected near the harbour in Lerwick. It bears the words: “In Memory of the Providential Return of the S. Whaler Diana of Hull.”

It’s hard to miss. At the edge of a parking lot at the dock a few steps from the town centre, it keeps the tragedy of the Diana alive in the minds of Shetlanders.

It is still spoken about, an integral part of Shetland’s history, and a symbol of the fate of many island men who went to the Arctic whaling.

Taissumani is an occasional column that recalls events of historical interest. Kenn Harper is a historian and writer who lived in the Arctic for more than 50 years. He is the author of “Minik: The New York Eskimo” and “Thou Shalt Do No Murder,” among other books. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to [email protected].

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(5) Comments:

  1. Posted by Oluva Funding on

    Thank you for sharing the stories.
    What a beautiful statement on the memorial: “God is faithful”
    and the Bible verse from the Book of Psalms 107:13 Then they cried unto the Lord in their trouble, and he saved them out of their distresses.

  2. Posted by Marilee Pittman on

    What a heartbreaking story. I’ve read about the Shackleton Expedition to Antarctica.where the ship The Endurance was crushed in the ice in 1915. These stories of tragedy and courage need to be retold again and again.

  3. Posted by Yak on

    Great story Kenn! Hard times were abundant, this reminded me of the show/book that I recently watched. What are your thoughts on North Water Kenn?


    • Posted by Kenn Harper on

      I enjoyed the book North Water. It is a quite raw portrayal of the whaling industry. I didn’t see the movie.

  4. Posted by Paul Fraser on

    Thank you Kenn. Yet another impressive read. Difficult to imagine the hardships the whalers experienced or the will to live that the survivors possessed.

    Paul F. Fraser

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