Basque Whaling in Red Bay, Labrador

The Basque whalers of France and Spain enjoyed at least 50 years of prosperity off the Labrador coast hunting right whales and bowhead whales during the 16th century. Evidence of their presence has been found in Red Bay, Labrador, a haven 400 miles north of St. John's.

Between 1530 and 1600, Basque whalers from France and Spain launched at least 15 whaling ships and 600 men a season, capturing whales migrating the Strait of Belle Isle waters between the island of Newfoundland and the Labrador coast. Red Bay first came to the attention of the Basque in the 1520s, when they were fishing the waters nearby for cod. However, attention soon shifted to whales that migrated through the straits.

Red Bay in the Strait of Belle Isle
Red Bay in the Strait of Belle Isle
Illustration by Duleepa Wijayawardhana. ©1997, Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Web Site.

Basque whalers hunted both the right whale and bowhead whale. Both floated after being slaughtered and yielded a large supply of baleen. They shared common migrating patterns as both journeyed through the Strait of Belle Isle, although at different times of the year. In early June the right whale passed through, while the bowhead whale usually did not arrive until October. If the larger number of bowhead bones in Red Bay is to be taken as evidence, it appears that the bowhead whale was the more important of the two and yielded a greater profit. Over 80 years, the Basques killed thousands of whales off the Labrador coast.

Basque Whaling Ships

Before a whaling ship set sail, details concerning the responsibilities of both the owner and outfitter were finalized. A contract identified the parties and listed the obligations and powers of the owner. This contract stipulated the responsibilities of the outfitter regarding crew, wages, meals, and equipment. And it laid out the division of products obtained from the voyage. Normally, the owner received a quarter, the crew acquired a third, and the outfitter secured the remainder.

Averaging 700 tons, the whaling ships were the largest but unfortunately also the slowest of the vessels sailing across the Atlantic Ocean. During the journey, at least four large barrels, measuring nearly half the length of the ship, were stored in the hold. This enabled the transport of a great abundance of oil. One such vessel, the San Juan, lost in the autumn of 1565 during a storm, was found submerged in only ten metres of water in Red Bay Harbour. Over 200 oil barrels, various navigational instruments, personal possessions, and a large portion of the ship's hull have been uncovered.

Pitcher from the San Juan Excavation
Objects such as this pitcher were discovered during the San Juan excavation in Red Bay Harbour, Labrador.
Courtesy of J. A. Tuck, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John's, NL.

After arriving in Red Bay the first priority of the ship's crew was to find a suitable location that provided access, safety and security. Then they had to construct on-shore facilities and repair those that remained from the previous year. Ideally, these facilities were constructed near the water, not only because it provided the best shelter from the weather, but because they furnished the best areas for the creation of tryworks.

Adaze, Axe, and Knife
Adaze, Axe, and Knife
These tools were discovered during the San Juan excavation in Red Bay Harbour, Labrador.
Courtesy of J.A. Tuck, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John's, NL.

Some of the prime locations were those along the southeast shore of Red Bay's harbour, the southeast of Saddle Island (facing the harbour), and Organ's Island and the western end of Saddle Island, which were used only during the peak whaling period from 1560 to 1580, when the former two areas were already occupied.

Saddle Island and Red Bay, Labrador
Saddle Island and Red Bay, Labrador
Illustration by Duleepa Wijayawardhana.
©1997, Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Web Site.

Tryworks, the most visibly striking structures, ranged from 1.2 to 1.5 metres and were arranged in a linear fashion that faced the beach. Essential to the shore stations, they were used to hold and heat the copper cauldrons in which the blubber melted. At least 20 tryworks were simultaneously employed during intense whaling periods.

Techniques of Whaling and Rendering

Before the rendering process began, the whale hunt itself had to take place. This happened when a lookout spotted a chalupas, a small hunting boat, pursuing a whale. Once the boat was close enough to the whale, the whaler would thrust a harpoon deeply into the whale.

Basque Whaling Harpoon
Basque Whaling Harpoon
Basque whalers used harpoons to kill their prey. This harpoon was found during the excavation of the San Juan.
Courtesy of J. A. Tuck, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John's, NL.

Then he would stab it several more times with harpoons that were armed with a small sea anchor known as a drogue. Consequently, the blood loss suffered by the whale decreased its speed and enabled the whalers to cause the whale's death by thrusting a harpoon into any accessible vital organ.

A Drogue
Harpoons would be armed with these small sea anchors.
Illustration by Wendy Churchill and Duleepa Wijayawardhana, 1997.

Removal of the whale's flippers and tail enabled rotation of the carcass so the skin and blubber could be removed. The rendering process commenced when a man stood on the terrace, forked blubber into a cauldron and transported the melted oil into storage barrels using a long-handled ladle. Once this process was completed, the pure oil floated to the top and the dross was left on the bottom.

End of Basque Whaling

Due to a lack of any concrete evidence, there exists much uncertainty surrounding the demise of the Basque whaling in Red Bay. One factor which contributed to its failure was the significant decline in both the bowhead and right whale herds due to over-hunting. In only 50 years, over 20,000 whales were killed. This stock depletion influenced, in turn, migration patterns. Today, bowhead whales only travel in Arctic waters and right whales only in the Bay of Fundy and the Gulf of Maine during summer months. Consideration should also be given to the whale hunting performed by indigenous peoples and attacks on whaling ships by smaller, private vessels. However, such explanations are purely speculative. There is not enough evidence to offer any definite conclusions as to why Basque whaling disappeared in Labrador.

Although whaling did not prevail for very long, Red Bay has been frequently occupied since the departure of the Basques. Red Bay's physical characteristics have offered a prime location for fishing expeditions. Even today along the Red Bay coast, the trademark industries of whaling and cod-fishing left behind by the Basques have partially managed to survive.

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