There can be little doubt that one of the most important traces left by the Basques in Canada is the remains of what was the Red Bay whaling station.  As you can see in that link, we’ve written about it just a bit.

logo del programa Patrimonio Cultural Subacuático de la Unesco, con la imagen de la imagen del ballenero vasco San Juan encontrado en Red Bay
Logo of the Underwater Cultural Heritage program at UNESCO, with the image of the Basque whaler ‘San Juan’, which was found in Red Bay

The story of this extraordinary place in the history of the Basques was discovered thanks to researcher Selma Huxley, who took these epic voyages, and their protagonists, out of oblivion.  It was in this corner of the Atlantic coast of North America that the wreck of the San Juan was discovered.  The discovery of the Basque whaling ship had a huge scientific impact.  So huge was it that UNESCO used its image as the logo for the Underwater Cultural Heritage program.

In August of 2014, UNESCO gave the Canadian authorities three bronze plaques stating that this place was so important in not only Basque but also human history that it was now cataloged as a World Heritage Site.  The three plaques say the same thing, in three different languages: the two official languages of Canada, English and French, while the third is in Basque, in honor of those Basque whalers who lived, worked, and even died in that place.  They lived, died, were buried, and even left their wills.  Indeed, a will drawn up in 1563 by a Basque whaler in Newfoundland has become the oldest legal document known in Anglo-America.

National Geographic and the Basques
Joanes or the Basque Whaler II. Guillermo Zubillaga
Joanes or the Basque Whaler II. Guillermo Zubillaga

National Geographic published this discovery in issue 168, in July 1985, with extensive coverage over four highly interesting articles, which Barakaldo-born artist and illustrator Guillermo Zubiaga discussed in the article he wrote in memory of Selma Huxley.  In it, the creator of the comic series Joanes or the Basque Whaler explains how that issue of National Geographic inspired him to create that saga and bring its protagonist to life.  If anyone is interested in reading it, there’s a link to a digital version of it in our entry.

Honestly, National Geographic has written quite a lot about the Basques and their history, and they’ve done a very good job of it.  We’ve brought you a good collection of articles that have been published in their English-language version.  Perhaps the jewel in the crown of all these articles is the one written by Basque-American author Robert Laxalt, with photos by William Albert Allard, which was published in August 1968.  That this amazing article was published in a journal with National Geographic’s prestige in the middle of Franco’s dictatorship served to remind readers that the Basques were a nation that crossed over to both sides of the Pyrenees, and who had their own history and culture.

As we explained in the entry we wrote about this story, “Let’s not forget that in 1968, if a Basque had this map in Francoist Spain and was caught, he’d be in big trouble with the Régime and its henchmen.  And it just so happens that at that time, the Francoist ambassador to the US was Alfonso Merry del Val y de Alzola, born in Bilbao in 1902.”

“On the Hunt with Basque Whalers”

Back in August 2018, the website published a report, which we’re finally bringing to you now, covering, with excellent graphic detail, the journey those sailors took from their home port of Pasajes (which, if anyone wants to visit this town on the Basque coast, can check it out with the video and photos we included in our “Viewpoints” episode there) out to North America and back.

Told in four stages (preparation, voyage, hunting, and the San Juan itself), this work by Fernando G. Baptista (a man from Bilbao we’ve spoken about before), Riley D. Champine, Eve Conant, Patricia Healy, Shizuka Aoki, and Elijah Lee helps us understand the epic nature, the organization, and the economic importance of this activity.  And we don’t say “economic importance” lightly: a fully-loaded ship like the San Juan could return with a load worth $10 million in 2018 money.

National Geographic, detalle sobre otros lugares del Atlántico norte donde cazaban los vascos (2018/8)
National Geographic, a detail about other places in the North Atlantic where Basques went whaling (2018/8)

The article also recalls other places where Basques went whaling, in addition to Newfoundland.  These included Greenland; Iceland, where a Basque-Icelandic pidgin was developed, and where there a very curious tale about the persecution of Basque castaways took place; the volcanic island Jan Mayen, located on the route the Basques took to Spitsbergen, other places where Basque whalers had an important presence.  What we’re getting at with all this is to try to show that for two centuries, the North Atlantic was the “sea of the Basques.”

The only detail we wish had been included is quite a small one, but full of important symbolism for us Basques: the fact that during the outbound trip, roof tiles were used as drag.  These tiles were also used to repair the roofs of the buildings the Basque whalers took shelter in in Newfoundland.  These tiles can still be found today as part of the landscape of Red Bay.

We say these tiles are hugely symbolic because they and the roofs they made up are themselves full of symbolism, as we recalled in a comment we left on an article The Telegraph published about Red Bay, titled Red Bay: a corner of Canada that is forever Basque:

…For the Basques, the tiles have a very important symbolic meaning, which is tied to their fundamental and structural use on the house, the ETXEA, which for many centuries was the nexus of the life and social structure of the Basques.

Newborns who did not survive but who had not been baptized were buried under the eaves of the houses, so that they would be protected by it.  This tradition was maintained until the 19th century in some parts of the Land of the Basques.

The roofs, the tiles, marked city limits.  It’s quite easy to find official documents that use phrases like “the spouts of the city reach up to that point.”  Today, every year, the mayor of Bermeo throws out a tile in front of Izaro island to remind everyone it belongs to that town.  While throwing it, everyone chants, “Honaino heltzen dira Bermeoko itxuginak” (the spouts of Bermeo reach out to here)

For two centuries, the spouts of the Basques reached all the way to Red Bay.

National Geographic – 8/2018 – USA


After the wreck of a Basque galleon—thought to be the San Juan—was discovered off the coast of Canada, National Geographic wrote about its exploration in 1985. Now, we revisit the 16th-century ship’s history to illustrate what we’ve learned about the risks and rewards faced by the Basques in the new lands they called Terranova. Their quarry: baleen whales and the oil from their blubber, worth millions in today’s dollars.





Last Updated on Jan 30, 2023 by About Basque Country

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