The Spanish Basques created the first industry in North America
The importance of the Basque whaling factories settled along the coasts of Newfoundland, the Labrador Peninsula and the mouth of the San Lorenzo River, sometimes reached 9,000 Basques. Sometimes fishing or catching whales and others or when the weather did not allow adequate navigation, working in factories, making whale oil.
The first industry established in North America was the Basque whaling industry. Their factories were scattered throughout Newfoundland.
It is not surprising the surprise of the French explorer Jacques Cartier, when on his first trip to Newfoundland he noted in his letters:
“In those remote waters I found a thousand Basques fishing for cod.”
But the Basques were also going to do another activity. They reached Newfoundland possibly following the whales. After catching whales, their job was to transform their fats into oil. A highly valued product in Europe.
Basque Country whaling tradition
Long experience with the whale
An example from Hondarribia (Fuenterrabía, Guipúzcoa), with its seal with the whale as a characteristic element of its activity. Many Basque coastal towns used the whale. Tradition that provided knowledge and experience, probably with many killed in an activity so dangerous to try to kill a whale.
Danger and high risk
The technique of sticking two harpoons into him was very effective, but very dangerous. The whale was stirring and could finish off the little boat. Once the harpoon was nailed, it was trapped, because they tied a log to the end of the rope attached to the harpoon and it could no longer submerge. Another of the harpoons reached another rope, but this one was too long, so that the whale could move, but not escape.
The capture in a way had to be quite a spectacle for the natives, who from land watched the harpooners and sailors on the longboat desperately paddling to safety, moving as quickly as possible from the whale’s reach.
The industrial uses of the whale
Permanent and seasonal installations
The Basques normally traveled once a year, taking advantage of the good weather. It took them almost a month and a half to get to Newfoundland. Once there they proceeded to repair their facilities from possible damage during their absence. Because of them, their old houses, furnaces and warehouses, were once again in working order during their stay.
They were dedicated to catching whales and preparing them to take advantage of them as much as possible. They broke their fat into pieces that they called cubes, so that they could be melted in the ovens and create the oil. There was a lot of work going on with chopping the whale, placing the blubber in the right places, creating the oils, and storing them in barrels, some very heavy. Once the season was over, these thousands of barrels were loaded into the galleons’ holds and headed back to the Basque Country.
Good relationship with the natives
In general the coexistence with the natives was very good. They maintained a collaborative relationship with them and helped them with their jobs. In exchange, the Basques supplied them with cider and bread. The indigenous people did not feel threatened, since they knew that the Spaniards would march back to their land, at the end of the season, as they did so many times before.
The French explorer Jacques Cartier, on his first trip, already mentioned that he was surprised to see some thousand Basques in such remote lands. That was a large number of foreign people in a territory, which could be hostile. Sometimes, depending on the campaign and season, up to 9,000 Basques settled fishing and in factories in the area
There could have been a certain fascination of the natives when observing with what courage they dared to hunt the huge whales from the small boats. The greatness of the robust galleons never seen by those seas, had to be an impressive sight, for the eyes of the natives. Seeing them sail with all their sails unfurled, was something never seen by someone, who had only seen a canoe.
The relationship with the French who came later was much worse. The French were seen as a danger, although only a few hundred people arrived, which is in contrast to the Basques, who sometimes numbered several thousand. The French were seen as a threat, since they did not get to work fishing like the Basques. They arrived and began to set up a permanent colony and with the purpose of staying on their lands.
By transforming the blubber, a high quality oil was obtained, highly valued throughout Europe. Its high prices, made it extraordinarily profitable, sent
At that time there were few and expensive metallic products as complements for the products that were made. Whale baleen were used to make springs, umbrella rods, corsets, watches, etc. Their hardness and long life made them very efficient to manufacture flexible elements with them, which could return to their original position many times, without being deformed or damaged.
North America’s first proto-industry
Jefferson, a connoisseur of the history of Spain and an admirer of it. He knew it well from its origins and had works of history such as the famous “History of Spain” by Juan de Mariana, of which he was as much an admirer as was Adams.
He was the father of the Homeland and the Independence of the 13 colonies. With his great knowledge of Spanish History and Literature, he was very clear about it. In a statement in 1788 talking about the first works in North America, that is, the first works considered proto-industrial, he explained:
“The Basques started it” (The Spanish)
The Basques developed the technique of industrial whaling. They set up factories in their catch areas and in them they made the most of the components, from fat, bones, beards, etc. And they also got the collaboration of the indigenous people in their projects.
Fathers of the Nation and Gardoqui, Amezaga, Unzaga
The Fathers of the Nation had contact with Basques and they were very important from the moments before the Revolution of the 13 colonies and in their independence. Unzaga with a Basque father, and Gardoki’s cousin, was Governor of Louisiana and the first to help the North American patriots. Together with Gardoqui and his nephew Amezaga, he would create a mercantile society in New Orleans, through which he would send aid, covertly, to the rebels of the 13 colonies. Gardoki, I supply weapons and all kinds of military supplies to the rebels. That deal they had with Gardoki, who helped the 13 colonies so much in their fight against England, would give him more knowledge about the Basque Country. GardoKi would become, the first Ambassador of Spain in the 13 colonies, once constituted as an independent country.
John Adams in the Basque Country
On his trip to Europe, Adams visited his friend Gardoki in what he would call “The Republic of Bilbao”. This indicates that he knew the functioning of the Basque Juntas and their traditional laws (called Fueros), sworn in by the Kings of Spain. It is not surprising that there is a bust of him in Bilbao, the capital of Biscay. There is also a statue of Gardoki at U. S.
During his stay, John Adams learned more about the history and seafaring traditions of the Basque Country. The Gardoki family, managed a shipping company with a long family tradition. Their ships traveled through Europe and even America.
A network of whaling factories
Remains of 16 factories
There are remains of a wide network of coastal factories. Investigations have led to finding a whole area of interest, proclaimed by UNESCO as the only world of the sixteenth century.
Submerged in the sea, the remains of 4 whaling boats and several small boats (txalupas) have been found. Through them you can learn about the naval construction methods of the 16th century.
On land, the remains of cooperages, smelting furnaces, warehouses, workshops, docks and seasonal homes have been found. Among the remains found are Iberian pottery, tools and quantities of whale bones.
Red Bay First whaling factory
Red Bay (Canada) World Heritage
If we compare this whaling station with other English, Dutch and even Basque whaling stations, none of them can be compared with it, because of how complete it is. The complexity of its facilities and number make it exceptional. For this reason, it is awarded the category of “Exceptional Universal Value” by preserving all the main components of the industrial process. It covers an area of 300 hectares of land and sea.
In the 16th century, this recently discovered station was the most important and largest in the world. It is an example of collaboration between the European continent and America, in a peaceful way.
Both submerged and terrestrial archaeological remains have been found in the area, now known as Belle Isle Strait. A reflection of the life in the place, as a consequence of the whaling, of the commercial relations between the Native Americans and the Basques. The submerged remains are exceptionally preserved.
Factoría ballenera vasca (Basque whaling factory)
Una historia vasca desconocida (An unknown Basque history)
Red Bay Basque Whaling Station