The Basque Country: The place of Europe’s first whaling industry

In the first week of April I took off a week from the desk and went on vacation to Biarritz in the very south-western Part of France, close to the border of Spain. The Basque Country stretches from Bilbao, Pamplona, San Sebastian up to Biarritz and Bayonne, and the area is considered to have been the first to enter the whaling industry already in the 11th century.

While today, the city of Biarritz is rather known for its many surfing schools and tourism, the whaling heritage of Biarritz is only evident in the city coat arms, which can be seen in the local museum. According to the “North American Basque Organization”, at least six Basque cities contain whales or the whaling process in their coat of arms.1

Private Pictures: Museum of Biarritz

The local museum as well as the maritime museum provide their visitors with (albeit superficial) information about the early days of this maritime industry, which would later grew of high importance in the 18th and 19th century. The whaling ships of the Basques hunted predominantly right whales and focussed on the Atlantic Ocean. Some words, which are familiar in the whalig industry have actually Basque origins. Did you know for example that the term harpoon comes from the Basque word “arpoi”?

Private Picture: Maritime Museum in Biarritz
Private Picture: Maritime Museum in Biarritz

The Maritime Museum only gave a few and superficial and introductory remarks of the Basque whaling industry, yet the North American Basque Organization give a helpful historic overview of the whaling industry on their website.

Around the 11th Century, many of the Basque communities along the coast found that these whales were very profitable to slaughter when one occasionally was beached. The blubber could be boiled down for lighting fuel, and the meat could be eaten. These accidental strandings were so advantageous, the Basques took to taking boats out to try to drive whales into shallow water. If noise and threatening advances forced the whale to beach, it could be killed with lances.

By the 12th Century, this was a highly organized business. Stone watchtowers were built, and when a whale was sighted, the alarm would be sounded, and everyone would head out after it. As many as 20 villages would combine to slay a single whale, sharing the rewards, except for the tongue, which went to the church as a favored delicacy.

Basque whaling, in: North American Basque Organization, Basque Whaling (nabasque.eus), Last Access: 28.04.2022.))

As soon as the ship began to go out into the Atlantic, they sailed as far as Canada in order to hunt whales during the 16th century. Since the Basque whalers had contact to the North American continent, I was able to find further articles and information in Canadian institutions and museums.

Peter Pope, Professor at the Memorial University from Newfoundland, has analyzed very extensively and in very detail the history of the Basque whaling industry, their economic activities, and their transatlantic connection to Canada and also the constitution of a whaling crew as well as their interaction with Indigenous communities.

Each Basque whaling crew consisted of oficiales (officers and tradesmen), ordinary seamen, and boys apprenticed either as seamen or oficiales. The captain made verbal agreements with his crew, hiring about 25 men per 100 tons of vessel, so perhaps 60 men for a 250-ton ship. The captain normally invested in the whaling tools himself, but coopers and carpenters had to supply their own tools. Even a small crew included a boatswain, a boatswain’s mate, a steward (purser), a cooper, a caulker, a gunner, harpooners, flensers and boys. Chaplains and pilots might serve several ships on a single expedition. Larger ships might carry their own, as well as a surgeon, and even a diver to make hull repairs. At sea, the division of labour differed slightly from that on land, since coopers and harpooners served only as sailors at sea.

Prof. Peter Pope, Memorial University, Newfoundland, Basque Whalers | Virtual Museum of New France (historymuseum.ca)

And even in Canada one can see impressive insights into the whaling industry and the role of Indigenous communties:

European crews interacted with Aboriginal peoples from the earliest days of the transatlantic industries in Atlantic Canada. Significant Basque participation in the cod fishery, in the 1540s, followed Breton and Norman commitment to the industry by a decade or two, so it is not surprising that the Normans preceded the Basques in the beginnings of a fur trade with Aboriginal peoples in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Yet, in the second half of the sixteenth century, the Basques became the pre-eminent European traders in the region. Basque crews are known to have traded with the Beothuk of Newfoundland, the Innu (Montagnais) of Labrador and the St. Lawrence North Shore, and the Mi’kmaq of Gaspé, Chaleur Bay and Cape Breton. Sometimes, they also employed Innu workers at their whaling stations in the Strait of Belle Isle. The Basque fur trade peaked in the late 1580s and culminated in the establishment of a Basque trading post at Tadoussac at the end of the century. Unfortunately for Basque merchants, they were forced out of the Canada trade after 1600. Their exclusion became official in 1645, when migratory fishers lost the right to trade for furs with Aboriginal peoples in New France. Only companies to which the king of France had granted a monopoly could engage in such trade. Between 1560 and 1600, or even a bit later, the Basques dominated trade with the Aboriginal peoples of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. This dominance is reflected in the widespread archaeological survival of distinctive Basque trade goods, including axes and copper kettles, which found their way inland, far into the Iroquoian and Huron territories in what is now Ontario. Another indication of close Basque interaction with Aboriginal peoples was the development, in the sixteenth century, of a pidgin trade language that left traces of Basque in the vocabulary of some Aboriginal languages in the region. Did the Basques have some special interest or ability in dealing with Aboriginal peoples? This is not far-fetched, keeping in mind that they are themselves an ethnic isolate, surrounded by peoples of another language family. The Basques were already used to dealing with people who spoke another tongue, incomprehensible at first, and with the complex arrangements that might permit strangers to engage in mutually profitable trade.

Prof. Peter Pope, Memorial University, Newfoundland, Basque Whalers | Virtual Museum of New France (historymuseum.ca)

“The Baque whalers” article2 which Professor Pope wrote for the Canadian Museum of History /Musée Canadien de L’Histoire, is very fascinating and is worth to be read for everyone, who is interested in the whaling industry, as it appears that many facets and characteristics of the ‘typical’ whaling industry in the 18th and 19th century can be observed and traced back to very early periods of time.

Those who are more interested in a rather local overview of the Basque whalers in the area of St. Lawrence, I can also recommend to read the article Jaime O’Leary too.3

  1. Basque whaling, in: North American Basque Organization, Basque Whaling (nabasque.eus), Last Access: 28.04.2022. []
  2. Pope, Peter: Basque Whalers, in: Canadian Museum of History /Musée Canadien de L’Histoire, Basque Whalers | Virtual Museum of New France (historymuseum.ca), Last Access: 28.04.2022. []
  3. O’Leary, Jaime: Basque Whaling in Red Bay, Labrador, in: Heritage, Newfoundland and Labarador, Basque Whaling in Red Bay, Labrador (heritage.nf.ca), Last Access: 28.04.2022. []
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