It’s one of those holiday long weekends when we, as Canadians, will reflect on the year past and be thankful for the peace and prosperity we enjoy. Some of us will be fortunate enough to enjoy the company of our loved ones over a meal. Generally speaking, again as Canadians, we have a lot to be thankful for: universal healthcare, social programs, human rights, and the freedom to think and act as we choose (so long as we do not encroach the rights of others).
Coffee in hand, enjoying the view of the morning sunshine on the brilliant palette of fall colours among the trees around my home, I should be happy and content with my lot in life. The smell of turkey and pumpkin pie already permeates the house and I can hear my children laughing together in another room. It is a perfect day, and although I am smiling, my contentment is subtly guarded. I am preoccupied by the story of the Vigour:
The Vigour, under the command of Captain Abraham James Whiting, sailed from Halifax harbour with crew of forty-eight on October 8, 1876. The Vigour’s holds were packed with furs, lumber, root vegetables, and rum (we mustn’t forget the rum), all destined for the port of Plymouth on the Southern coast of England. The Vigour was renowned as one of the fastest private mercantile vessels of the day. Captain Whiting was respected for his ability to pilot his ship safely back and forth across the Atlantic, sometimes days ahead of schedule. On that October morning, moments before the Vigour would cast off, Captain Whiting received a letter from his wife in Brixton. His hands trembled with joy and his eyes filled with tears as he read the news of his first child’s arrival into the world. Immediately he mustered his crew to inform them that this crossing would be their fastest yet. He had to get home to see his son, Emanuel James Whiting. They were underway and sailing out of Halifax harbour past Georges Island toward the open ocean within minutes.
By the early afternoon of October 9, Thanksgiving day, the sea air had become warm and still. Captain Whiting had asked his friend, the ship’s cook, to prepare a Thanksgiving feast for the men. It would be a celebration of both their good fortune and of the Captains passage into the realm of Fatherhood. Throughout the day the crew performed exceptionally and the deck of the Vigour looked as though she had just been launched; not as the weathered and seasoned vessel that she was. The sails, which had hung flaccidly for most of the day, were shifting to and fro as an irregular, early evening wind pushed and pulled. Captain Whiting gathered the crew in the galley and the celebratory feast began.
The sky darkened early, as it always did over the North Atlantic in October. Had it darkened earlier than usual, perhaps Captain Whiting would have realized what was happening. Had his mind not been whirling with the anticipation of meeting his new son, perhaps he would have paid closer attention to the signs. Had he and his crew not overindulged in the plentiful turkey, turnips, bread stuffing, and free flowing rum (you haven’t forgotten about the rum, have you?) they would have been able to cope with the last hurricane of the season as it bore down on the Vigour through the night. Coping, however, was exactly what the crew was unable to do.
The Easter tides were higher than usual in 1877. Seamus Moore was walking the rocky shoreline just south of Dungarvan, Ireland, looking for his nets which had been carried away in the storm surge of early April. He might have found his nets further down the beach, had he not been distracted by the small, locked trunk on the shore. Seamus, a resourceful and tenacious fisherman, accepted the challenge of the lock. Inside, he found the usual contents of a sailor’s trunk; clothes, trinkets, a bible, and a diary. The diary was sent to London with the news that Vigour was likely at rest on the bottom of the Atlantic. Emanuel James Whiting would grow up without ever having known his father. The clothes in the trunk were fair and Seamus would wear the shirt to his daughter’s wedding in the summer of 1877. The trinkets, from ports around the world, were fascinating and would sit on the mantle above the fireplace in Seamus’ home until it crumbled, abandoned, sometime during WWII. The priest would read from that bible as Seamus lie dying from the Spanish flu in 1918.
Sitting here, with my coffee in hand, surrounded by the sights, smells, and sounds of this wonderful day, I am overwhelmed with gratitude for the immeasurable joy in my life. Beneath it all, however, in a dark corner of my mind, I worry that perhaps at times like this we may be distracted and caught unaware of storms brewing just below the horizon.