This article was translated by John R. Bopp

They say that a people who forget their history are condemned to repeat it.  We imagine that this sentence refers to negative aspects, because for the history of the great, positive events, the sentence should be more along the lines of the people that forgets their history is condemned to lose it.

In the four years that we’ve been writing this blog, we’ve realized that our level of ignorance about our people, the Basques, was almost offensive.  But this wasn’t, at least not exclusively, our fault, because that History (with a capital H) was hidden by those who defined what we had to study.  We’ve discovered fragments of our history as a Nation, and been surprised like children when we find a treasure, and telling it to our readers with that same wonder.  Like now.

The problem becomes more serious when the policy of cultural diffusion of institutions as strategic as EITB ends up financing documentaries like “A Swastika over the Bidasoa”, which casts (absurd) doubt about the attitude of Basque nationalism towards Naziism, or like “A Story of Vasconia: Late ‘Basquisation’”, for which taxpayer money was spent turning a theory that is not at all highly regarded into a documentary that puts forward the idea that in the sixth century in Western Vasconia, Basque wasn’t spoken.  Meanwhile, information of a different tone and meaning is hidden from the Basque people, forgotten.  For example, we’ve all heard that quote attributed to Philip II, “In my empire, the sun never sets.”  Well, few will know that the Basques at the time were considered the best navigators and boat builders in the world, or that their chalupas were considered the Formula 1 of the sixteenth century

Biscayarhalvøya peninsula on the central part of the north coast of Albert I Land, northern Spitsbergen.
Biscayarhalvøya peninsula on the central part of the north coast of Albert I Land, northern Spitsbergen.

We Basques are “rediscovering” some parts of Basque history throughout the world thanks, in good part, to the field work of local researchers.  The case of the role of Basques in whaling, or in cod fishing, are a model of this local forgetfulness and foreign research.  Specifically, in the case of Basque whalers, we’ve published many articles on the Basque presence in Red Bay and what all that meant, including the islands of Saint Pierre and Miquelon.  We also did this for the information about the role of Basque sailors in the creating of the whaling industry in colonial Brazil.

A general vision of the role the Basques played in that great industry that has existed since at least the tenth century (and continues today, for no reason whatsoever and which the Basques abandoned in the eighteenth century) can be obtained here and here, thanks to the work of Carlos Mey.

Why are we telling you all this?  Because, thanks to a good and wise friend, who surprises us every day with a story about the History of the Basques that leaves us dumbfounded, we just learned that these historical Basques didn’t only reach the coast of modern Canada, or faraway Brazil to hunt whales.  They were hired, in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, to go whaling in the Svalbard archipelago, situated and the juncture between the Arctic Ocean, the Barents Sea, and the Sea of Greenland.

It was Jens Munk, a Norwegian-Danish sailor and explorer at the service of Christian IV of Denmark, who saw the economic potential the whaling industry could mean and hired Basque ships with Basque crews to carry it out.  In the spring of 1617, he recruited eighteen Basque whalers for the first Danish whaling expedition to Spitsbergen, the largest of the Svalbard islands.  From that adventure, all we have to do is look at those islands a mere ten degrees from the North Pole to see clear, permanent signs: toponyms.

These days, the Norwegian Polar Institute has a map of the Island of Spitsbergen with the geographical features named, and among those names are many related with the Biscayers (a term that was synonymous with Basque at the time).  The list is long (click on a name to see its map position):

  • Biscayarfonna Glacial mesa on the Biscayarhalvøya peninsula between Raudfjorden and Breidbogen, Land of Haakon VII.  Origin: For the whalers from Biscay (Basques) who whaled in Spitsbergen in the 17th and 18th centuries.
  • Biscayarhalvøya Peninsula between Raudfjorden and Breibogen in northwestern Haakon VII Land, surrounded by Rabotlaguna to the south and Rabotvatnet and Rabotdalen to the north
  • Biscayarhuken Point to the east of Raudfjorden, Biscayarhalvøya, Haakon VII Land. Origen: For the whalers from Biscay (Basques) who hunted whales in Spitsbergen in the 17th and 18th centuries.  Biscayarhuken is located so close to Ermaktangen that on old maps it’s hard to tell which point the main name is referring to.
  • Biskaiers-huk: Old, no-longer-offical name for Velkomstpynten.  It’s the northernmost point of Reisdyrflya, west of the Woodfjorden mouth.
  • Biscayers Hoek: Old, no-longer-official name for Ermaktangen.  The lower point to the east of the mouth of Raudfjordnen, Biscayarhalvøya, northernmost point of Haakon VII Land

We can also find some references to a map that was “a bit older” and closer to the historical moment of the arrival of the Basque sailors.  We’re referring to a map dated 1758 that represents the Carte du Spits-Bergs suivant les Hollandois (Chart of Spits-Bergs according to the Dutch) where we can clearly see a “Cape Biscay” where Biskayerhuken, meaning something like “Sons of Biscay” in Norwegian, is now.  The locals also call it “the place of the Basques”.

Biscay Cape on the island of Spitzbergen (Arctic Ocean)
Biscay Cape on the island of Spitzbergen (Arctic Ocean)

We’ll leave you with a reference to an interview from the Levando Anclas program on Radio Euskadi, where Ángel Quiroga talks about this Basque whaling station on the island of Spitzbergen, in the middle of the Arctic Ocean.

By the way, there is a curious piece of info about this island: this is where the Global Seed Vault, an “ark of the final judgment”, is located.  It houses up to 10,000 different kinds of seeds in mountain tunnels near Longyearbyen, and protects them in case of nuclear war or sudden climate change.

El blog de Roge – 18/8/2007 – Euskadi

Ángel Quiroga: Estación ballenera vasca en la isla de Spitzbergen, ártico noruego

Ángel Quiroga es un donostiarra que tiene el bonito oficio de director de hotel en barcos de expedición por la Antártica y el Ártico. Durante este verano ha navegado en el buque ruso Grigoriy Mikheev por las más altas latitudes del norte de Europa. En la isla de Spitzbergen organizo una excursión al encuentro de una antigua estación ballenera vasca y la hallo en una zona denominada Biskayerhuken (“Hijos de Bizkaia” traducido del noruego). También es denominada “el sitio de los vascos”.

(Continue) (Automatic Translation)