This is the second part of our two part series that aims to highlight and offer a more detailed picture of each of the places our expedition will stop at. This month we train our sights on Red Bay, St. Pierre, Gros Morne and Placentia. Read our first instalment here.
Red Bay is a tiny inlet situated on the northeast tip of the province of Labrador on the Strait of Belle Isle. It was, in the mid-16th Century the center of the whaling industry worldwide. At its peak throughout the 1560’s and 1570’s over a thousand men would arrive annually to hunt and work in the business of hunting whales. This work was operated almost exclusively by Basques and up until the beginning of the 17th Century, Basques held a virtual monopoly on the very lucrative industry or whaling. The geography was important. The island of Newfoundland sits right inside the migratory path of whales going from north to south. While many whales would travel south on a path east of Newfoundland on the open Atlantic, many would also head down west of the island through the tiny Strait of Belle Isle that separates Newfoundland from Labrador. This created a natural bottleneck of the migrating cetaceans and unparalleled opportunity for hunting.
Here is where Basques set up the very first large scale industrial endeavor in North America.
We know this thanks to the work of many people over decades, but the primary discovery to shed light on this history is the Nao San Juan. In 1977 a team from Parks Canada led by the underwater archaeologist Robert Grenier (O.C.) identified the remains of the Nao San Juan just a little ways off the coast at Red Bay. Built in Pasaia, Guipuzkoa in 1563 and sunk at Red Bay, the Nao San Juan is the oldest, best conserved and most studied example of the earliest transatlantic ships that were used for the purpose of hunting whale.
The innovative techniques that were used in the raising of the San Juan, the extremely well conserved state it was found in, and the very thorough documentation of the process has made the San Juan famous throughout the world of subaquatic archaeology. Today the image of the San Juan serves as the logo of the Subaquatic Cultural Heritage Division of UNESCO.
The Basque Whaling Station at Red Bay was built in the early fifteen hundreds and was used as a base for the hunting and butchering of the whale as well as the rendering of blubber into oil. It was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2013. Today there can be seen vestiges of ovens, cooperages, docks, tile, and temporary living quarters. There is also a museum erected on the site that holds the world’s oldest chalupa, found in the Nao San Juan discovery. There is also a small island cemetery where 140 Basques who perished at Red Bay are buried.
Gros Morne National Park
With over 1800 Kilometers squared of protected parkland on the west coast of Newfoundland, Gros Morne is the second largest national park in Eastern Canada. Holding forests, fjords, cliffs, bogs, mountains, flatlands and coastline within its extended reach, the geographical and biological diversity here make this park a destination for photographers, athletes and nature lovers from around Canada and the world.
There’s even a section of the park -the Tablelands- which is unlike almost anywhere else on earth. The tablelands are made up of the flat and extremely compact rock peridotite which is mostly found deep inside the earth and is theorized to make up the majority of the earth’s mantle. A massive collision of tectonic plates over 500,000,000 years ago forced the peridotite to the surface and this is the site where scientists were able to prove the theory of plate tectonics for the first time.
Walking along this stretch of exposed mantle surrounded by so much living nature one has the impression of passing through a desert, or a stretch of Mars. The park was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1987.
St. Pierre is the capital and largest island of the St. Pierre and Miquelon archipelago situated 25 kilometers south of Newfoundland. It has the distinction of being the last vestige of the former French empire in North America. Today it is still considered French territory; the Euro is the official currency and residents enjoy French citizenship and suffrage.
In the early 16th Century the islands served as important fishing sites for Portuguese, Breton and Basque fishermen who gave this islands their names. Today the island pays homage to its Basque history by including the Ikurriña in the top left corner of its flag. There is an Euskal-Etxea on the island with one of the oldest frontons in North America. Every year during the third week of August the islands celebrate its “Fete-Basque” or Basque Festival with cultural, folkloric and athletic activities.
The city of Placentia situated on the southern coast of the Avalon Peninsula in Newfoundland has had an extensive and important role in the history of Canada, and one that has always been intertwined with the Basques. Placentia was, until the signing of the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, the capital of French Canada. The city’s name appears in the oldest original Canadian civil document which happens to be the will of a Basque fisherman.
Dated May 15th, 1563, the will of Domingo de Luca of Hondarribia, Guipuzkoa includes the line “Should this sickness take me from my present life that my body should be buried in that port of Plazencia to a place where those who die are often buried”.
In Placentia there are also several engravings on funereal stones in French and Basque, including the gravestone of Giannis de Salle which can be found in the local Castle Hill Museum and represents the oldest Basque inscription in North America. Other relics are held at the O’Reilly Museum in the center of town.
It’s also believed that Placentia was named by Basque fishermen after the town of Plentzia, Bizkaia in the Basque Country, a town with a long history of fishing and whale hunting. Today both towns recognize their historical ties and are in the process of finalizing a town twinning agreement which will culminate with a celebration in Placentia coinciding with our expeditions stop there.