Red Bay a worthy UNESCO site
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.