The Voyage

The Basques were not the firsts to travel to North America for fishing purposes. Selma Huxley-Barkham presented 1517 as the earliest date where French-Basque presence can be verified in the continent. However, it is cod what they were looking for in the earliest voyages. It is not until 1530 that we find the first documented whaling-focused voyage to present Canada. This was also performed by Basques under the French crown. Basques on the Spanish side were probably later travelers than those on the French. It is believed that Basques from Gipuzkoa and Bizkaia did not set foot in Terranova at least until the 1520s. Basque whalers did not stop their activity in the 1550s during the Habsburg-Valois War (1551-1559).

A document was signed by the Spanish Crown in 1557 authorizing basque whalers to travel to New Foundland. This date was therefore set as the beginning of whaling in North America as an institutionalized activity (Azcarate and Escribano-Ruiz 2014, 216-218). Between the years 1561 and 1581, about a voyage was done yearly. 81% of these voyages were done for whale hunting. This means that by then, and although it started otherwise, whale hunting in New Foundland was preferred over cod-finishing.

Piérre Detcheverry Dorre, Map of the Island of Newfoundland, 1689. World Digital Library, Library of Congress.

The title of this map explains that it was done by the cartographer Piérre Detcheverry Dorre in Plaisance in 1689 for Governor Antoine Parat. The map shows anchorages and other relevant information about the Gulf of Labrador. What is most interesting here is that some names are in Basque, such as bayaederra, which could be translated as pretty bay, portuchoa, little port, and baleabaya, bay of the whales.

The Ships

The Basques travelled to Terranova in galleons. Although French Basques arrived first to the Labrador Peninsula, Spanish side Basques built bigger ships. It must be noted that ship building in the Basque Country was of great importance to the Western world’s historical achievements. Basque ports, and an especial mention must be given to the port of Pasajes, were key elements to seafaring at the time. Pasajes was considered to be the best port on the coast. Basque ports, for example, were the construction places of ships such as the Nao Victoria, the first ship to sail around the world. It was the only surviving ship to arrive back to Spain out of the five that sailed from Seville under Magallanes’ command. The competition of the voyage and the Nao Victoria was commanded by Juan Sebastián Elcano, a Basque sailor native to Getaria, a coastal town 20km away from Pasajes. Basque shipyards were often located a few kilometers upstream the rivers in locations close to sources of oak that served for the production of the ships.

Selma Huxley pointed out that although the harbors at Bordeaux and Santander were sometimes part of the whaling expeditions, Pasajes was the preferred one because its deep-water entrance and it could serve as shelter from storms. Also, the oak and iron used for the Basque galleons were found in large quantities in the Basque Country, which benefitted the Basques in the dominance of the whaling industry in the Atlantic. During the peak years of Basque activity at the Strait of Belle Isle, Basque galleons could load up to 600 to 700 tons (Huxley 1984, 518). The more barrels they liked to bring home, the bigger the boat’s hull had to be, and for that, the galleon was the best kind of ship whalers could use. The same author was the contributor to one of the most important archaeological discoveries on this topic. In 1978, with the support of Parcs Canada, a submerged Nao San Juan was found lying on the bottom of the Canadian sea. This medium sized ship weighted 200 tones and was built in 1563 in Pasajes. Its deck was 22 meters long and 7.5 meters wide. It was made in oak and it could have supported almost a thousand barrels of oil, 60 sailors and five small boats (Peraza 2014, 52). The information from the Nao San Juan, which reflects the extraordinary industry that the Basques built in America, was extracted due to the almost untouched state of the ship after a storm sunk it while near the Labrador coast. It is, in fact, the best sixteenth century ship to be preserved. After this discovery, since 2013 the Albaola Museum in Pasajes has been working on building a replica of the Nao San Juan, using the craftmanship that was followed when it was launched from the same port in 1565. After its construction, the museum and its workers pretend to travel to Labrador just like it would have been done in the past. The suggested date for this event is the Spring of 2022. 

Above, we can observe different kinds of galleons. On the top right, we can see a small replica of the Nao San Juan built in Pasajes. On the top left, a silver model owned by the NHA shows a different type of galleon. On the bottom, a Spanish galleon (on the left) and a dutch warship (right) battle.

Diet on Board

Archaeological excavations in Red Bay found bones of small birds and fish around the Basque settlements. The diet seems to have been based on cod, salmon, caribou and wild ducks hunted locally. However, the sailors brought provisions from the Basque lands. Wine, cider, biscuits, peas, beans, chickpeas, olive oil, and bacon are among the most popular supplies of food that the Basques brought with them (Huxley 1984, 517).

On board, Basque sailors avoided scurvy by drinking apple cider. Scurvy is a disease that derives from lack of Vitamin C. Kept in barrels, accounts show that the sailors on board could have around two litters of cider per day. Cider was, therefore, a key element in keeping the whalers healthy to make long voyages. This beverage became an important element to Basque rituals and traditions. Today, cider restaurants open barrels (”kupela”) for the clients to drink from. The traditional pouring act is commonly known as ‘txotx’.