Red Bay National Historic Site of Canada
Red Bay Harbour (larger version)
Right and bowhead whales once attracted whalers from the Basque region of Spain and France to the Strait of Belle Isle during the mid to late 16th century. The Basques had begun hunting right whales in their own waters as early as the 11th century, and whale oil had become a valuable commodity in European markets. It was in demand for a variety of uses, including lamp fuel, lubrication, paints, varnishes and soap. By the beginning of the 16th century the number of whales in the Bay of Biscay had declined significantly. Fishermen from the Basque Country were now making the voyage to Newfoundland each summer in search of cod. Their reports of large numbers of whales in the Strait of Belle Isle drew the whalers to this region.

A thriving industry for the production of whale oil developed along the Quebec and Labrador coast. At least 16 harbours between Petit Mecatina in Québec and Cape St. Charles in Labrador show evidence of use as 16th century whaling ports. Years of archival and archaeological research has revealed that Red Bay is the most complete and best preserved example of these ports.

Red Bay Basque Whaling Station was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in June,2013.
Archival Research
Vague references in Basque archives to whaling in Labrador led historical geographer Dr. Selma Barkham to document a previously unknown period of Canadian history. After moving her family to Mexico to learn Spanish, Barkham spent ten years researching in archives throughout the Basque Country. Her work painted a vivid picture of 16th whaling in Labrador as she uncovered hundreds of documents, including insurance policies, crew agreements, provisioning lists and the oldest original will written in the New World.

Read the Last Will and Testament of Juan Martinez de Larrume, written at Red Bay, 22 June 1577.
430 year old chalupa (larger version)
Beneath the Harbour's Waters
The discipline was still relatively new when a team of underwater archaeologists from Parks Canada, led by Robert Grenier, arrived in Red Bay in 1978. Their initial dives located a wreck which they believe to be the San Juan, a galleon which Barkham's research indicated had wrecked in the harbour at Red Bay in the fall of 1565. Six years of underwater archaeology revealed the most complete 16th century ocean-going vessel excavated to date. Two other galleons were located in the harbour as well as several smaller boats associated with the whaling industry.

Among the smaller vessels found was a whaling boat known as a chalupa. Its position beneath the larger vessel helped preserve the chalupa and allowed it to be conserved and restored for display at Red Bay National Historic Site of Canada. The unique construction of the chalupa made it an exceptional boat for hunting whales, and its overall shape and design are still in use today.
The Whalers' Cemetery
A whalers' cemetery on Saddle Island in Red Bay Harbour revealed more than 60 graves, containing about 140 skeletons. The burial of more than one individual in a single grave likely indicates accidental deaths due to drowning or exposure, daily hazards for the Basque whalers.
Work Stations Along Shore
Barkham's research was reinforced in 1977 when she led archaeologists from Memorial University of Newfoundland to Red Bay. Led by Dr. James Tuck, the team found the remains of processing stations used to render whale fat into oil. Fourteen seasons of archaeological investigation revealed as many as 15 stations along the shores of Saddle Island and mainland Red Bay. A number of cooperages, where barrel makers lived and worked, were found, as well as a cemetery containing the remains of 140 Basque whalers.

Artifacts from the work stations, along with personal items left behind by the whalers, form an incredible collection of 16th century Basque material culture that is unequalled in even the Basque Country itself.
A great story! (larger version)
Red Bay National Historic Site of Canada commemorates 16th century Basque whaling in Canada and the role that it played in the history of our country. One of the principal 16th century whaling ports, Red Bay was designated because of the numerous, well-preserved cultural resources associated with it. In addition, the various vessels found at Red Bay represent major developments in the evolution of ship design and construction in the 16th century.

At the Visitor Orientation Centre visitors can view The Basque Whalers of Labrador, a 30 minute video that documents the research associated with the site. They can also get a close-up look at the authentic 16th century chalupa. Through interpretive displays and numerous original artifacts the Visitor Interpretation Centre tells the story of hardship, exploitation and profit associated with 16th century Basque whaling in Labrador. Visitors can also take a self-guided walking tour of the archaeological sites on Saddle Island or visit the Heritage Shop for a wide selection of site-related merchandise.
More About Red Bay
Development of Basque Whaling
This summary is derived from Chapter 1 of Basque Whaling in Labrador in the 16th Century, by Jean-Pierre Proulx, published by the Canadian Parks Service, 1993.

The Basques who voyaged to Red Bay and other Labrador ports during the 16th century held a long heritage of whaling. From the 12th to the 15th century the Basques pursued an intensive whale hunt during winter months in their home waters, the Bay of Biscay. Late in this period the Basques began expanding their activities northward, reaching Iceland by the year 1412 according to one writer. An expansion to northern North America was a logical next step from Iceland.

Historians have suggested a number of reasons for this territorial expansion of whaling activities:

  • Whales may have been overhunted in the Bay of Biscay, resulting in a depletion of whale populations;
  • Change in ocean currents may have occurred, causing a reduction in the fish and other sea life upon which whales fed, which in turn forced whales to seek more suitable feeding areas;
  • Whale population may have, in time, instinctively moved away from a place which was (for them) highly dangerous;
  • The desire to expand whaling from a seasonal (winter) activity in the Bay of Biscay to a year-round industry may have spurred the Basques to follow whale populations to their summer habitats.

Writers and historians have debated whether the Basques may have reached North America before Christopher Columbus's arrival in 1492. The weight of opinion today is that they did not. There are no historical documents demonstrating that they did and there are no oral traditions in the Basque country of a pre-Columbian exploration of the New World. Fifteenth and 16th century Basque seafarers were not explorers or colonists in the tradition of some other European nations. Indeed, rather than publicize their voyages, the Basques desired to keep their discoveries secret in order to protect them from competitors.

The earliest known archival documents referring to Basques in North America date to the early 16th century, beginning in 1517. During the first half of the century the northern Basques, ruled by the French crown, established a cod fishery in the waters of Newfoundland and Labrador.

In the years after 1540 the southern Basques (ruled by Spain) developed the whaling industry in Labrador waters known to them as the Grand Bay. The decades after 1545 saw a tremendous growth in the Basque economy, spurred by profits from Labrador whaling.
Contact Information
Address: P.O. Box 103, Red Bay, NL A0K 4K0
Times: 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. from June 2nd to September 24th 2015
Admission: Adult $7.80, Senior $6.55, Youth $3.90, Family $19.60
Contact Information: Cindy Gibbons
(709) 920 2142 (Telephone)
(709) 920 2144 (Fax)

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