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Basque Whalers in Southern Labrador 1540 - 1610





During the latter half of the sixteenth century Basque whalers from northeastern Spain and southwestern France conducted a profitable whale hunt each summer in southern Labrador. While more than a dozen whaling ports are known, the most important of these was located at what is now Red Bay. Archaeologists have been working on land and under the waters of the bay since 1977 to uncover the remains of the shore stations where whale blubber was processed into marketable oil and the wrecks of a number of ships and boats from the sixteenth century.

Underwater archaeologists have excavated completely a whaling galleon of about 300 tonnes. It is believed to be the "San Juan" which sank with a full cargo of whale oil late in the year 1565, just as it was ready to sail for Spain. Remains of the cargo of barrels, now collapsed upon themselves, as well as the ship itself were remarkably preserved by the cold waters of Red Bay Harbour. Divers have recovered large portions of the hull, the capstan, bits of rigging-including almost perfectly preserved hemp ropes and wooden blocks-, a compass and other navigational instruments. There were also a large number of personal possessions of the ship's crew discovered in the wreck. These included shoes, baskets, ceramic vessels and a variety of other objects. One of the most interesting finds is a carving of a ship, somewhat roughly done on a softwood plank, which may be a representation of the "San Juan" herself.

Scattered around the wreck were the bones of whales which had been killed during the late sixteenth century and a thick layer of codfish bones of exactly the same kind as those discarded by present day fishermen when preparing cod for salting. Also found near the underwater site were the remains of several small boats, about eight metres long and with positions for oarsmen. They are almost certainly the remains of the small vessels from which whales were hunted. They were, in many respects, similar to the more recent, and more famous, New England whaleboats of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

These wrecks were located close to one of the shore stations and surveys in other parts of the harbour have revealed two more large vessels and a smaller "pinnace", about 40 feet long which may have been used to travel from harbour to harbour during the Basque whaling period.

The large ships did not actually figure in the whaling. They were moored in the harbours and served as floating warehouses for the refined oil. The hunt took place from small boats, in a fashion very similar to that of later periods. The whales were then towed ashore to stations located along the harbour edge.

These shore stations consisted of a number of tile-roofed buildings where industrial activities were carried out. A wharf or "cutting-in" stage extended into the water and it was here that right and bowhead whales were stripped of their blubber. It was cut into small pieces and each of which supported a copper cauldron which held about 45 gallons of blubber and oil. Fires kindled with scrap wood were replenished with skin and fat from the cauldrons to fuel them during the rendering process.

The rendered and purified oil was ladled into oak and beech casks assembled by coopers who worked and lived in nearby buildings, often on terraces overlooking the tryworks. Two such structures have been excavated and have revealed the coopers'tools and personal possessions of the men who lived and worked there. The latter include ceramics, drinking glasses, knives, coins and even parts of a wooden rosary. In water-saturated areas nearby, refuse from the cooperages-barrel staves, heads and hoops, offcuts, shavings and sawdust-was found.

While the coopers enjoyed accommodation in fairly substantial buildings, many of the other crew members made do with much more humble dwellings. Many small hearths have been found, often located in small rock crevices which provided some shelter from the wind. Archaeologists believe that they are the remains of small structures that were framed with wood and covered with cloth or baleen, the plastic-like plates suspended from the whales' upper jaws which they use to strain their food from seawater.

At the extreme south end of Saddle Island, in Red Bay Harbour, the whalers' cemetery was discovered in 1982. More than 60 graves have been exposed, containing the skeletons of more than 140 individuals, With the exception of two boys aged about 12 years, all of the skeletons are those of adult European males, short of stature but of very robust build. Most are resting on their backs, heads to the west and hands folded on the chest or near the waist. The main cemetery is now restored and the original rock grave markers have been placed above the soil so that they are visible.

Some of the skeletons were remarkably well preserved while others had been almost completely dissolved by the acid groundwater. In some cases, however, the same conditions which were harmful to the bones preserved other items in the graves. In 1984, a pair of trousers and a shirt were found on an almost completely disintegrated skeleton of one of the whalers. In 1986, an individual with a large wooden cross on his chest and wearing what appears to be a cape or cloak was discovered. Speculation is that the man may have been a priest, but it is impossible to confirm this hypothesis. In the same year, in a grave some distance from the main cemetery, another set of clothes was found. This was much more complete than either of the earlier discoveries and included a knitted cap, long-sleeved shirt and jacket, knee-length trousers and stockings-all made of wool-, and a pair of leather shoes intact even to the leather ties at the front.

Archaeological work at Red Bay has continued to provide more evidence of life and work in southern Labrador during the late sixteenth century. It is the site of one of the New World's earliest industrial complexes and probably the world's first oil spill. As long as this work continues visitors are welcome at the site. They will have an opportunity to observe the excavation and preservation of the finds as well as a chance to see some of the conserved artifacts on display.



Page contributed by: Bill Crant, April 30, 2000
Page revised: August 2002 (Terry Piercey)

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