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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:
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.