Life in the Settlements

The Basques arrived in North America once the ice was melted, around early summertime. They left the area depending on the cargo. They could have left later in the summer when the right whale season ended, or more often than not, during early winter, when bowhead whales arrived in the area. The abundancy in food supplies attracted the right whales into the Gulf of Labrador, while bowheads arrived around the fall (Logan and Tuck 1990, 66). It is still widely discussed what of these two types of whales was the main target for Basque whalers between the 13th and 18th centuries. Some authors suggest that the right whales’ behavioral characteristics, slow paced swimming, and closeness to shore made them easy targets for the very experienced whalers. Additionally, the buoyancy of the carcasses facilitated their transportation to shore (A. Rey-Iglesia et al. 2018, 396).However, it is still unclear what whale species was the main target for Basque whalers in the North Atlantic waters. Different hypotheses point in different directions, the main discussion focusing between the bowhead and the North Atlantic right whales. An investigation of the DNA samples of 218 whale bones found in Basque whaling ports indicated that it was the main target was the bowhead whale and this whale most probably suffered the most significant impact in its numbers (B.A. McLeod et al 2008, 61). The results of this investigation also indicated how small the right whale catches were in proportion to the overall hunts. 

Basque whalers did not settle permanently at the stations. Although remains of housing structures have been found in the area, Basque whalers only visited the area for the whaling season and left once this concluded. The Spanish Crown was not interested in claiming these lands a colony either, which was part of the disruption of Basque presence in the area.


Tryworks were built close to the harbor. There the oil was rendered from blubber. About seven or eight fireboxes were placed in each. Because of the materials used to build them, it is understood that they were rebuilt frequently. Wharf and cooperage remains have also been found. Lots of red roof tiles were found at the Basque settlement in Red Bay. These kind of roof tiles were and still are a distinctive feature of Basque household, which served as a great protection from the rain. Because of the amounts of roof tiles that had been found, it is believed that these covered if not all, most buildings that constituted the settlement.  

Basques and the Natives

Not much is documented about the relationships between the Basque whalers and the North American natives. It is widely believed, however, that the whalers established relations mainly with two groups, the Micmacs and the Montagnais (Azcarate and Escribano-Ruiz 2004, 224). They both helped the Basques with their activities, and they might have partaken in fur exchange. Example of their relation is the Basque-Algonquian pidgin. Pidgin languages happen when two different societies need to communicate and create an in-between language of their original tongues. A similar case took place in Iceland. Although the origins of this pidgin language are in constant discussion, it is believed that the language is a mixture of Basque, Germanic, and Romance languages that was brought to Iceland by Basque sailors in the seventeenth century where it was written down and translated into the local language. On the other hand, it is understood that Inuit and Basques did not have a cordial relationship.