Des­ti­na­tions

Ex­plore the his­tory of six­teenth-cen­tury Basque whalers at Red Bay, Labrador.

Canada's History - - CONTENTS - by Diane Slawych Diane Slawych is a Toronto-based writer.

A whale of a tale from Red Bay, New­found­land and Labrador.

THE QUIET FISH­ING TOWN OF RED BAY, New­found­land and Labrador, pop­u­la­tion 264, is not a place most Cana­di­ans could read­ily find on a map. But in the six­teenth cen­tury, Gran Baya, as it was then known, bus­tled with ac­tiv­ity as the cen­tre of the largest whale oil pro­duc­tion fa­cil­ity in the world.

Basque mariners from north­ern Spain and France came by the hun­dreds to what is to­day the Strait of Belle Isle off the coast of Labrador to hunt bow­head and North At­lantic right whales. As many as fifty ships, each with a crew of fifty to seventy-five men, would cross the ocean each spring and re­main for eight months ev­ery year from the 1540s to the early 1600s.

From their net­work of shore sta­tions, which in­cluded ren­der­ing ovens, cooper­ages, work­shops, tem­po­rary dwellings, and wharves, they set about ren­der­ing the blub­ber into oil and as­sem­bling the wooden bar­rels needed to bring the com­mod­ity home to Europe. Whale oil was once a valu­able light­ing fuel (it burned brighter than the more com­mon veg­etable oils) and was also used in a wide range of other prod­ucts in­clud­ing paint and soap.

This in­trigu­ing chap­ter in Canada’s his­tory was all but for­got­ten un­til the 1970s, when his­tor­i­cal ge­og­ra­pher Selma Barkham, who was re­search­ing Basque ar­chives, found vague ref­er­ences to whal­ing in Labrador. By 1979, Red Bay be­came a Na­tional His­toric Site of Canada. In June 2013, it re­ceived world­wide recog­ni­tion as a UNESCO World Her­itage site for be­ing the ear­li­est, most com­pre­hen­sive, and best-pre­served ar­chae­o­log­i­cal tes­ti­mony of a pre-in­dus­trial whal­ing sta­tion.

Thou­sands of ar­ti­facts con­nected to the life and work of the six­teenth-cen­tury Basque whalers in Canada have been found and put on dis­play in the visi­tor ori­en­ta­tion cen­tre in Red Bay and the nearby visi­tor in­ter­pre­ta­tion cen­tre. Items in­clude har­poons, wooden plates, cloth­ing, and the ear­li­est known orig­i­nal will writ­ten in Canada. Dated June 22, 1577, the last will and tes­ta­ment of Juan Martinez de Lar­rume asks that monies be do­nated to var­i­ous church causes and de­tails names of those to whom he owes money and those who owe him.

Other im­por­tant ar­ti­facts re­main be­low the sur­face of the bay, in­clud­ing three Basque galleons and four small whal­ing craft that are gen­er­ally con­sid­ered to make up one of the most pre­cious un­der­wa­ter ar­chae­o­log­i­cal sites in the Amer­i­cas.

One of those smaller boats, an eight­metre-long wooden ves­sel called a chalupa, was brought to the sur­face, re­stored over a twelve-year pe­riod, and now sits on dis­play in a tem­per­a­ture-con­trolled en­vi­ron­ment at the ori­en­ta­tion cen­tre.

The Basque mariners set up most of their op­er­a­tions on Sad­dle Is­land — a one­minute boat ride away. On this tiny, tran­quil is­land, you can hear the calls of her­ring gulls and black-backed gulls that nest on the op­po­site side of the is­land and see the highly prized cloud­ber­ries (known lo­cally as bakeap­ples) ripen­ing on the grassy hills in the sum­mer.

Visi­tors, who are few in num­ber, can fol­low a nar­row, me­an­der­ing dirt path dot­ted with thirty-four mark­ers in­di­cat­ing var­i­ous his­toric In­dige­nous and Basque sites. Most are now just de­pres­sions in the ground. They in­clude the lo­ca­tions of nu­mer­ous “try­works” — used to hold and heat cop­per caul­drons in which whale blub­ber was melted — and a cooper­age where bar­rel mak­ers worked and lived.

The trail winds past a rusted, half­sunken French ship, the Bernier (a re­cent wreck that sank in 1966). Hid­den be­neath the waves nearby is a galleon loaded with eight hun­dred bar­rels of oil, which broke its an­chor dur­ing a storm in 1565 and sank in Red Bay har­bour. The sunken ship, be­lieved by some to be the San Juan de Pasajes, was dis­cov­ered in 1978. Over the course of seven years, ex­perts dis­man­tled the ship, recorded its in­ven­tory, and then re­turned it to the har­bour. A small-scale model of the ship, as well as ar­ti­facts re­cov­ered from the wreck, are on dis­play at the site.

At the western end of the is­land is a ceme­tery that holds the re­mains of 140 whalers buried in sixty graves. It is be­lieved that many of them died from drown­ing or ex­po­sure. The graves are marked by large stones, some of them ar­ranged in a row.

By the early 1600s, the Basques mariners aban­doned the Labrador coast. Whether it was due to the de­cline in the whale stocks, or some other rea­son, no one knows for sure.

Cap­tion An aerial view of Red Bay Na­tional His­toric Site in Labrador.

A re­stored chalupa on dis­play at Red Bay’s visi­tor ori­en­ta­tion cen­tre.

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