Hasiera · Home
Ezaugarriak · Features
Oharrak · Notes
Sarrera · Introduction
Kirolak · Sports
Musika · Music
Janedanak · Gastronomy
Tokiak · Places
Historia · History
Politika · Politics
Albisteak · News
Nahas Mahas · Misc

buber.net > Basque > Diaspora > The Basque Presence in Labrador
For security reasons, user contributed notes have been disabled.

The Basque Presence in Labrador

This document was sent to me by André Escaravage

In the late 1500s ships sailed each year from the Basque Provinces of France and Spain to hunt right and bowhead whales in the Strait of Belle Isle in Labrador. The primary port for this 16th century enterprise was the sheltered harbour of Red Bay, Labrador, now a national historic site.

Some ship owners made fortunes in the world's first oil boom. Others were not as fortunate: lives were lost and ships were sunk at Red Bay and elsewhere along the Labrador coast.

In 1977 Canadian archaeologists began excavations that were to reveal what was Canada's first industrial complex and to help write a new chapter in the early European history of North America.

Underwater archaeologists excavated a 16th century whaleship, probably the San Juan which was sunk in a storm in the year 1565.

The ship is the best preserved example yet found of the type of vessel which allowed Europeans to colonize the new world.

Several small boats, some used in the whale hunt, were also recovered. These appear to be the forerunners of the Nantucket whaleboat made famous centuries later by New England whalers.

At least two more whaleships and untold other historical evidence still remain beneath the waters of Red Bay Harbour.

A whalers' cemetery on Saddle Island revealed more than 60 graves, containing about 140 skeletons. The burial of more than one individual in a single grave likely indicates accidental deaths due to drowning or exposure, daily hazards for the Basque whalers.

Archaeology on the land has revealed the shore stations where whales were brought for processing and where their blubber was rendered into marketable oil. More than 20 "tryworks", the oil refineries of the 16th century, have been located. Cooperages, where barrel-makers worked and lived, contained the tools of the coopers as well as ceramics, glassware and a variety of other personal possessions that made life in 16th century Labrador somewhat less harsh.

The Red Bay Visitor Center commemorates the whaling period. Visitors may see many of the original artifacts such as whaling implements, coopers' tools, ceramics, glassware and personal possessions, including the only known examples of 16th century seamen's clothing.

Life size reproductions and scale models help to explain life and work in 16th Century Red Bay.

Visitors may take a boat ride to Saddle Island to see the remains of 16th century structures and the whalers' cemetery. A one-hour feature video presentation describes the archaeological excavations. A gift shop in the visitor centre offers an excellent selection of Labrador and other crafts.

Development of Basque Whaling

This summary is derived from Chapter 1 of "Basque Whaling in Labrador in the 16th Century", by Jean-Pierre Proulx, published by the Canadian Parks Service, 1993.

The Basques who voyaged to Red Bay and other Labrador ports during the 16th century held a long heritage of whaling. From the 12th to the 15th century the Basques pursued an intensive whale hunt during winter months in their home waters, the Bay of Biscay. Late in this period the Basques began expanding their activities northward, reaching Iceland by the year 1412 according to one writer. >From Iceland, an expansion to northern North America was a logical next step.

Historians have suggested a number of reasons for this territorial expansion of whaling activities:

  • Whales may have been over-hunted in the Bay of Biscay, resulting in a depletion of whale populations;
  • Change in ocean currents may have occurred, causing a reduction in the fish and other sea life upon which whales fed, which in turn forced whales to seek more suitable feeding areas;
  • Whale population may have, in time, instinctively moved away from a place which was (for them) highly dangerous;
  • The desire to expand whaling from a seasonal (winter) activity in the Bay of Biscay to a year-round industry may have spurred the Basques to follow whale populations to their summer habitats.

Writers and historians have debated whether the Basques may have reached North America before Christopher Columbus's arrival in 1492. The weight of opinion today is that they did not. There are no historical documents demonstrating that they did, and there are no oral traditions in the Basque country of a pre-Columbian exploration of the New World. Fifteenth and 16th century Basque seafarers were not explorers or colonists in the tradition of some other European nations. Indeed, rather than publicize their voyages, the Basques desired to keep their discoveries secret in order to protect them from competitors.

The earliest known archival documents referring to Basques in North America date to the early 16th century, beginning in 1517. During the first half of the century the northern Basques, ruled by the French crown, established a cod fishery in the waters of Newfoundland and Labrador.

In the years after 1540 the southern Basques (ruled by Spain) developed the whaling industry in Labrador waters known to them as the Grand Bay. The decades after 1545 saw a tremendous growth in the Basque economy, spurred by profits from Labrador whaling.


This page is part of Buber's Basque Page and is maintained by Blas Uberuaga.
Please report any problems or suggestions to Blas.
Eskerrik asko!