16th-century Basque Whaling

Right and bowhead whales, once plentiful in the waters of coastal Labrador, attracted whalers from the Basque country during the 16th century. A thriving industry based on the production of whale oil developed along the Labrador coast during the mid to late 1500s. The busiest port for this historic enterprise was the sheltered harbour of Red Bay.

Underwater archaeology at Red Bay
Underwater archaeology at Red Bay
©Parks Canada/GMNP / O1-151

More than 15 years of archaeological research has unearthed the remains of some 20 whaling stations along the shores of Red Bay Harbour. Underwater research in the harbour led to the discovery of three Basque galleons and several small boats, superbly preserved examples of 16th-century shipbuilding. Dr. Selma Barkham's documentary research in the archives of the Basque country has contributed significantly to our understanding of these historic voyages.

Sixteenth-century Basque whaling in Labrador is portrayed in the exhibit "A Whaling Station" at the Canadian Museum of Civilization.

Basques were expert fishermen and skilled mariners from the southeast corner of the Bay of Biscay. With the Portuguese, they were early arrivals to Newfoundland's Grand Banks.

The Basques controlled the fishery along the northeast coast for more than a century. Every spring until about 1626, they sailed to their North American whaling stations, where they set up scaffolding to dry codfish and built stone ovens to prepare whale oil, a commodity that was highly prized in Europe.

Labrador's Maritime History

From 9000 years ago to the present day, residents of the Labrador Straits have depended upon the resources of the sea. Prehistoric people hunted seals and walrus along the coast and fished for Atlantic salmon in the rivers. Specialized technologies and adaptive lifestyles developed as bands of ancient Indians and Palaeoeskimos learned to exploit the rich maritime resources.

During the last 400 years Basque, French, English and Jersey fishermen harvested fish, seals and whales for export to world markets. In the 19th century, fishermen/settlers from Newfoundland, England and the Channel Islands occupied the Labrador Straits, the ancestors of today's residents.

Discover more about Labrador Straits History.

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