Sealing captain and politician
Newfoundland Studies Archive
Born: 8 July 1855 on Flowers Island, Bonavista Bay, Newfoundland
Died: 18 May 1945 in St. John's, Newfoundland
Abram Kean began fishing at age thirteen and within ten years, he was commanding his own fishing schooner. Over the next sixty years, he would set records for sealing, become involved in politics, and be considered by many as responsible for the worst sealing disaster in Newfoundland's history.
In 1889, Kean became the captain of his own sealing ship, the Wolf. That year, on a trip lasting eleven days, he brought home 26,912 pelts. In 1910, while in charge of the Florizel, Kean brought in a load totalling 49,069 pelts, a record that would stand for twenty-three years. By 1934, his career total reached one million pelts and his many accolades included the Order of the British Empire.
Kean was first elected to the Newfoundland House of Assembly as the Reform member representing Bonavista in 1889 and, in 1897, he was the Conservative member representing Bay de Verde. When then Prime Minister of Newfoundland, James Winter, formed the Department of Marine and Fisheries in 1898, Kean was asked to serve as the very first Minister. In 1927, he was appointed to the Legislative Council and remained there until its dissolution in 1934.
Despite his records and his significant contribution to politics, Kean may be remembered most for his involvement in the 1914 sealing disaster. On 30 March of that year, Kean was the skipper of the Stephano and his son, Westbury, was in command of the Newfoundland. A crew of men was sent from the younger Kean's ship to the Stephano in order to receive directions to a patch of seals. Despite the fact that a storm appeared to be brewing, Abram told the men where to find the seals and instructed them to return to their own ship when they were done. The storm became significantly worse but each captain assumed the men were safe on the other's ship and, because neither ship was equipped with a radio, no search party was sent out. With no shelter, food, or protective clothing, the men spent fifty-three hours stranded on the ice before being spotted by the Bellaventure.
Of the 115 men and boys involved, 78 died of either exposure or drowning and 11 of the survivors were permanently disabled. A government inquiry found Abram Kean partially responsible but he was not punished and he continued to hunt until his retirement twenty-two years later.
Abram Kean published his autobiography in 1935 and retired in 1936. He died nine years later at St. John's.
The Southern Cross was lost at sea during the same seal hunt. Between the two tragedies, Newfoundland lost 253 sealers in 1914.
Death on the Ice: The Great Newfoundland Sealing Disaster of 1914 by Cassie Brown
Old and Young Ahead by Abram Kean
Added 22 April 2002.