Soldiers of the Sixteenth Century

The Gold Of The Northern Seas

Basque Whaling Fleets on the Labrador Coast

Mid-sixteenth century ship

Caption: Mid-sixteenth century ship

Recent discoveries have confirmed that the Labrador coast also had its hour of glory during the second half of the sixteenth century, when it was frequented year after year by whalers from the Spanish Basque country. These intrepid sailors alone possessed the techniques and audacity needed to hunt the giant cetaceans. The whale oil that they obtained, used primarily for lighting, was worth a considerable amount of money. Every spring, about 2,000 Spanish Basque sailors arrived on board some 20 galleons and settled down for the season on the Labrador coast, notably at a place named "Butus" facing the Strait of Belle Isle, which was then part of the "Provincia de Terranova." Today it is known as Red Bay. In view of the fact that the entire Spanish fleet in the West Indies bringing back the gold and silver of the conquered peoples numbered only 70 to 80 ships, the presence off Labrador of some 20 galleons may seem surprising. However, it provides a good indication of the importance of "Terranova." To some extent at least, whale oil was the gold of the northern seas.

The Basque settlements in Labrador were not intended to be permanent. They were temporary, designed just to last for the season. Sometimes, however, the whalers were forced to spend the winter. Galleons were sometimes wrecked there, as was the case of the San Juan, which sank in 1565 and was discovered again during the 1970s in the waters of Red Bay. Detailed underwater archeological studies were carried out as this type of ship has played an important role in world history.