The Basques and Whaling

The Basques are considered to have been the first group to carry out a large-scale international whale hunting industry. Although a starting date is widely argued, from the tenth century and on, whaling shaped the culture of a small and traditionally fishing society. Located on the coasts of the northeast of Spain and the southwest of France, the Basques travelled all the way to Labrador and the northwestern Atlantic waters to capture whales and cod. What started as an economic activity, became the first industry in North America. Then, it also shaped the culture of a thriving community and nurtured the sense of “Basqueness”. Whale hunting in North America also had consequences in the relation with native communities, British and Dutch whalers, pirates and the decline on the numbers of targeted whale species. The Basques where among the first to make of whaling a productive economic activity. They brought their craft to New Foundland and Labrador, which then expanded throughout coastal North America when other nations, such as the British and the Dutch, followed them to the new lands.

Who are the Basques?

The sense of belonging among the Basques plays a big part on the identity of this community. The Basques were, and still are, located on the northern coast of Spain, and south west coast of France. Although divided in two political countries, the Basques have preserved a common identity among its people. The mother tongue is Basque, a pre-Indo-European language that is still considered a mystery by linguists. The language itself has evolved to fit the needs of today, however, it is its grammatical composition that differentiates it from Romance and other surrounding languages. The language is sometimes considered to be an essential part of the identity of this community. Despite the repression, the language and the Basque identity prevailed. (MAP)

The economic resources of this community have also evolved with time. However, the Basques made use of their ports and sea-focused economy to develop what it will then become a lustrous economic resource. The Basques are considered to be the pioneers of whaling in North America. Whaling was an economic activity that the Basques first followed nearby their coast. Then, they followed this economy further away from home. In contrast to what the popular thought says, the Basque whalers did not follow the whales until they ‘happened upon’ American land. Rather, it was an intentional travel that brought them to these lands. It is important to note that Basque whaling was coastal. By the time we have knowledge of Basque presence in North America, whales in the Bay of Biscay were not exterminated (Huxley 1984, 515). Basque whalers also followed this activity in Asturian and Galician coasts. It was around 1540s that the industry at Southern Labrador was the focus of these whalers. 

SanchoPanzaXXI, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons.árroa#/media/Archivo:Escudo_de_Ondarroa_2000.svg

Pictured above is the shield of the coastal town of Ondarroa, located in the Basque province of Bizkaia. In the shield, we can appreciate a group of five whaler who have caught its pray at sea and will now row ashore with they prize. Whaling scenes are also included in the shields of other Basque towns like Lekeitio, Getaria, and Biarritz. This shows the impact that the whaling activity had on Basque culture.