Red Bay a wor­thy UNESCO site

The Compass - - OPINION - Peter Pick­ers­gill is an artist and writer in Sal­vage, Bon­av­ista Bay. He can be reached by email at the fol­low­ing: pick­ers­

What won­der­ful news it was to hear that Red Bay, Labrador had been cho­sen re­cently as a UNESCO World Her­itage Site. It joins the two other sites in this prov­ince — Gros Morne National Park and L’Anse aux Mead­ows — which have al­ready been granted this global hon­our. Red Bay, a town of 200, like many other small places that have his­tor­i­cally de­pended on the fish­ery, is hav­ing a dif­fi­cult time hang­ing onto its young peo­ple.

Adding the 500 year-old his­tory of Basque whal­ing in the Straits and south­ern Labrador to the list of 17 other sites in Canada and 981 world­wide may change the au­to­matic ex­o­dus of Red Bay’s youth. The UNESCO des­ig­na­tion will bring many, many more vis­i­tors to see what ar­chae­ol­o­gists have un­earthed here. It is a beau­ti­ful site and like so many other com­mu­ni­ties in this prov­ince, is brim­ming with his­tor­i­cal de­tail.

Lisa and I vis­ited Red Bay over 30 years ago when the ar­chae­o­log­i­cal work was just start­ing. We were liv­ing in Gatineau, Que­bec then, and spend­ing sum­mers in Sal­vage. We en­joyed the jour­ney east in June and the re­turn west in Septem­ber. Look­ing to change the rou­tine though, one sum­mer in the early 80s we boarded the Lo­gis­tec coastal boat at Havre St. Pierre the end of the coastal high­way on the north shore of the St. Lawrence. We sailed down­stream to Blanc Sablon at the Labrador bor­der. It was an ex­tra­or­di­nary trip with the day­light last­ing so long and the com­mu­ni­ties where we stopped so dif­fer­ent from one an­other.

Coastal boat or plane were the only way to reach the towns be­tween those two points and thus they were lit­tle known to one an­other. The lan­guages spo­ken in them were dif­fer­ent: English spo­ken in one, 20 kilo­me­tres fur­ther down­stream Innu only was spo­ken and then an­other 30 kilo­me­tres we stopped at an en­tirely French-speak­ing town. The names of the com­mu­ni­ties re­flect that: La Ro­maine, Har­ring­ton Har­bour, Natashquan, Tête de la Baleine, Mut­ton Bay, La Ta­batière, and Baie St. Paul.

What an amaz­ing coun­try we live in. Even be­fore waves of im­mi­gra­tion started swelling the pop­u­la­tion of Canada, there were dozens of first na­tions lan­guages spo­ken. Then came the Eu­ro­peans: French and English speak­ers. Some­where in among them came the Basques, look­ing to har­vest whale oil. They didn’t stay long and left no trace of their lan­guage among place names.

The Basque lan­guage is spo­ken to­day by a small and shrink­ing num­ber of peo­ple on the At­lantic coast where France and Spain meet. It is al­most com­pletely with­out rel­a­tives among other lan­guages. Be­cause Red Bay was set­tled by English speak­ers some time af­ter the Basques packed up their whale oil and dis­ap­peared, its name is sim­ple and clear in its English ori­gin.

The same can­not be said for New­found­land and Labrador’s other two UNESCO sites.

L’Anse aux Mead­ows is an ex­am­ple of the same process that changes a French word into an English one that sounds sim­i­lar. The best ex­am­ple is the french name “Baie d’Es­poir” (Bay of Hope) whose mean­ing changes 180 de­grees, con­vert­ing it on the English tongue into “Bay De­spair.”

French fish­er­men re­ferred to the shore­line at the tip of the great North­ern Penin­sula as L’Anse aux Mé­duses ( Jel­ly­fish Cove), which in English be­came L’Anse aux Mead­ows.

Gros Morne in French means a big hil­lock or knoll if the word Morne is trans­lated as a noun. But the ma­jes­tic moun­tains that tower over Bonne Bay, so tall they re­tain their snow­caps deep into sum­mer, are surely more than hillocks or knolls.

How­ever, if the word “morne” in Gros Morne is an ad­jec­tive, it would mean Big Gloomy, Big Dreary, Big Bleak, Big Dis­mal, Big Sullen, Big Drab, Big Cheer­less, Big Som­bre, Big Gray, Big Glum, Big Dole­ful, Big Life­less, Big Moody, Big Joy­less, Big Drear, Big Stern, Big Leaden, Big Gaunt, Big Hap­less, Big Do­lor­ous, Big Len­ten, Big Star­less, Big Griz­zly, Big Win­try or Big Lachry­mose.

I have seen th­ese moun­tains look like some of those things at var­i­ous times, but also Big Glo­ri­ous, Big Su­perb and Big Sub­lime as well. Hard to know, but the peo­ple writ­ing the tourist brochures would likely pre­fer the lat­ter to the for­mer.

Back 30 years ago when Lisa and I vis­ited Red Bay one of the high­lights was cross­ing the har­bour to an is­land where ar­chae­ol­o­gists had un­earthed a num­ber of bod­ies in a mass grave, likely from a sin­gle ship­wreck. They were laid out side by side and head to foot, about a dozen of them. They were mummified.

As the ar­chae­ol­o­gists gen­tly brushed away the dirt, re­mark­able de­tails were re­vealed, in­clud­ing facial fea­tures, teeth and some cloth­ing. The tex­ture of their leath­ery skin had been pre­served by the chem­istry of the soil mere me­tres from the shore­line. They looked al­most alive as if they might at any mo­ment sit up and speak, not that we would have un­der­stood, our Basque be­ing a lit­tle rusty.

I am told that th­ese mum­mies, like ev­ery­thing else in this prov­ince, have been moved to the Avalon. Maybe it was nec­es­sary for their preser­va­tion. With the UNESCO an­nounce­ment per­haps they will be able to come back to Red Bay to stay. Maybe it will start a trend.

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