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Death far from home

For the week of Monday December 21, 1998

On Christmas Eve, 1584, Joanes de Echaniz dictated his last will and testament at Carol's Cove, near Red Bay, Labrador. This will of a dying Basque whaler is one of the oldest surviving wills in Canadian history.

Basque Whalers

Basque Whalers
© Geneviève Després

The Basque people came from an area in southwest France and northeast Spain known as the Basque country. Traditionally, they were shepherds, shipbuilders and fishermen; they also whaled from the earliest times in the north seas. Although no one knows exactly when they first visited Canada, evidence suggests that Basque fishermen caught and dried cod off the Newfoundland coast from the first years of the 16th century. Although they continued fishing cod, the growing demand for oil in Europe made whaling much more profitable. When Joanes wrote his will, Red Bay was considered the largest whaling centre in the world!

Part of the San Juan discovered at Red Bay

Part of the San Juan
discovered at Red Bay

© Parks Canada

Each spring the men arrived, well equipped for whaling, but with little more than the clothes on their backs. Immediately, someone began watching for whales, while others repaired the shelters and whaling stations damaged by winter storms. When whales were spotted, two or more boats of men rowed out to harpoon them. The whales were then towed near shore, where men worked day and night melting the fat into oil. Harpooning whales was extremely dangerous work, but harpooners achieved both financial and social privileges. In those days, oil was so hard to come by, it's estimated that one barrel was worth as much as $5000 in today's currency! By January, winter weather forced the men back to Europe.

After 1600, Basque whalers gradually stopped coming to Canada. In recent years archaeological research both on land and underwater has uncovered evidence of these Basque whaling stations. Most remarkable is the discovery of a wreck believed to be the San Juan, a Basque galleon which sank at Red Bay in 1565. This ship is the oldest found in America north of the Gulf of Mexico and, at the moment, the best preserved Spanish ship of its period. Red Bay National Historic Site, Labrador, displays some of the artifacts recovered by archaeologists, and lets visitors explore where these whaling stations once stood.

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