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CONTACTS MENU INTRODUCTION ICELANDIC SAGAS AND INUIT LEGENDS BASQUE FISHERMEN A MYSTERIOUS DISAPPEARANCE FUR TRADE
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Basque Fishermen

From the early years of the 16th century, Basque, Breton and Portuguese fishermen began to fish cod stocks off Newfoundland and in the Strait of Belle Isle. Soon, Basque whalers were making trips to the St. Lawrence estuary to catch whales. These people would return every summer to certain sites and set up their installations. Evidence of their presence has been found at several places along the North Shore, but their activities were mainly concentrated in the Strait of Belle Isle region and around Tadoussac. Traces left by the Basque whalers have been uncovered at Middle Bay, Bon Désir, Chauffaud-aux-Basques and Red Bay (Newfoundland), as well as on Île aux Basques and Île Nue, in the Mingan Archipelago.

The Basques stayed at these sites while they hunted whales and produced whale oil. The sites are characterized in particular by the remains of tryworks, or processing stations, used to render whale fat. Dwelling structures have also been uncovered. At Red Bay, a cemetery was found on land, while the wrecks of four ships were discovered underwater. Until 1630, the Basques built their rendering stations on the shore, but after this date processing was done on board ships. These European fishermen and whalers visited North America solely for economic reasons; they were motivated by growing demands for fish and whale products on European markets and competition among different countries’ fleets for the fish stocks of North America.

BASQUE OVEN TILE
BASQUE OVEN TILE

THE RIGHT WHALE: THE BASQUES' FAVOURITE QUARRY

The Basques’ favourite quarry was the right whale (Eubalaena glacialis), which measures 10 to 15 metres in length. This whale is comparatively easy to harpoon from a small rowboat, since the animal swims slowly and, once caught, floats to the surface. Whaling was a fundamental aspect of Basque economy and life. French and Spanish ports were full of businesses dealing in whale products that ranged from meat, fat and oil to the much sought-after baleen, or “whalebone.”

Whale oil was widely used as a lubricant and entered into fibre processing, as well as the manufacture of soaps and medicines. Fine oils, prized by watchmakers and the manufacturers of precision instruments, could be extracted from the whale’s tongue and liver, which together might weigh several thousand kilograms. Whale oil was also used as fuel and was sometimes burned in lamps for lighting, as an alternative to beeswax and tallow candles.

BETWEEN TWO WORLDS

The regular visits that European fishermen, whalers and merchants made to the St. Lawrence estuary from the 17th century onward had significant repercussions, since they laid the groundwork for the development of a new trade, in which goods and cultural influences of all kinds were exchanged. According to documents written in 1625, the Basque whalers distinguished three Aboriginal groups in the Strait of Belle Isle region. These were the “Esquimoas,” the “Montaneses,” and the “Canaleses,” whom researchers generally identify respectively as the Inuit, Montagnais and Iroquoians. In the Basques’ opinion, the “Esquimoas” were a fierce people, while the other groups revealed a more friendly nature.

The Basque and Breton fishermen had regular contact with the local Amerindian populations and were among the first Europeans to exchange manufactured goods for furs. As early as 1580, Basque merchants combined their whaling operations with fur trading in the area surrounding their installations. From Europe, they brought items such as metal knives, iron axes and copper caldrons, as well as glass beads and clothing. This trading activity continued until the very end of the 16th century, when the first permanent European settlements were established and the fur trade became a monopoly.

 

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