George Gordon Byron, the sixth baron Byron, wrote the famous epitaph for his Newfoundland, Boatswain, that has remained to this day the foremost tribute to the breed: “…Beauty without Vanity, Strength without Insolence, Courage without Ferocity, and all the virtues of Man without his vices…”. About five years ago I was browsing in a second hand book store in Oshawa and came upon an article in an old book that suggested the famous epitaph for Boatswain was written by Lord Byron as a joke. This has particularly bothered me ever since even though much of the rest of the glorious history of the Newfoundland dog is also being seriously questioned, for instance, the very existence of the heroic Newf of the Titanic. To put my mind at rest, I finally decided to delve further into the matter. To my great relief, my research proved to me that the famous epitaph was definitely not a joke. Some of the facts that convinced me that Lord Byron’s love for Boatswain was genuine follow.
Byron was known to regularly play with Boatswain and another Newf, possibly named Thunder. A typical game was to get into a boat with his two Newfs, row into the middle of the lake, drop the oars and tumble into the water. The faithful Newfoundlands would immediately follow, seize him by the coat collar, one on each side, and take him to shore.
The baron had a painting commissioned of his beloved Boatswain and this portrait can be seen at Newstead Abbey today.
Boatswain had habit of following the postboy to Mansfield and one day was bitten by a rabid dog in the town and fell ill. Even though rabies was an incurable disease in 1808 for both beast and man, Byron was observed, as the dog foamed at the mouth, gently wiping away the slaver with his own hands.
When Boatswain succumbed to the disease, Byron who was heavily in debt at the time, commissioned an impressive marble monument for his canine pal. This was, in fact, the only structure that he ever had built at his ancestral home, Newstead Abbey. Boatswain was not only buried in a vault on the grounds, but Byron declared at the time that he, along with a favourite butler, would be buried together with the dog. Despite this sincere tribute, it never actually came to pass as Lord Byron was buried in the family vault in Hucknall and the butler subsequently quit over it, obviously not appreciating the honour that was to be bestowed upon him.
The poet’s last years were spent with another Newfoundland dog, Lyon, said to have been descended from Boatswain. Lyon accompanied him to Greece and their romps together provided Byron with his only relief from the stress that he was then undergoing. When Lord Byron died in 1824, the faithful Lyon accompanied his master’s body home to England. He then became in the words of Washington Irving “…a cherished inmate of the Abbey…honoured and caressed by every visitor.”
Peter Maniate has been writing columns for the Newf News, the magazine of the Newfoundland Dog Club of Canada, since 1979. In 1996 he started writing a Newfoundland dog column in the Breedlines section of Dogs in Canada magazine on behalf of the Newfoundland Dog Club of Canada. When Dogs in Canada ceased publication at the end of 2011 he continued the Breedlines column in the Newf Newfs.
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