Nfld. & Labrador

16th century Basques boat construction underway and a voyage to N.L. in the future

The construction of a replica of a Basques whaling vessel that sank in Red Bay, Labrador in 1565 is underway, and a local boat builder is involved in the project.
The Basque-whaling ship San Juan, which is being recontructed, has strong Newfoundland connections 5:43

There's a 16th century wooden boat under construction across the pond in the Basques town of Pasaia — and it could be sailing into harbours in Newfoundland and Labrador in the coming years. 

One place the vessel will surely tie up is in Red Bay, Labrador. The boat being built is a replica of the Basques whaler, the San Juan, and Red Bay is where the original ship met its end, way back in 1565. 

The San Juan and its Basques crew were on the hunt for right whales and bowhead whales off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador. The oil rendered down from the blubber would be taken back and sold on the European market as lighting fuel, and was the main ingredient in paint and soap. But the San Juan encountered a storm and sank in Red Bay's harbour.

Canadian Selma Barkham's tireless archival research in Spain pointed to Basques remains in Labrador on both land and in the water. Archeologist James Tuck excavated whaling bases and Basques burial sites and in 1978, the underwater exploration began.

The harbour here, when you look at that you're going to see St. John's harbour, the narrows. It's exactly the same.- Jerome Canning, Wooden Boat Museum of Newfoundland and Labrador

A Parks Canada team of underwater archeologists, led by Robert Grenier, located wrecks in harbours, including what is believed to be, The San Juan. 

I was in Red Bay the summer of 2013, the year the site was granted UNESCO's World Heritage Status. I met archeologist Robert Grenier, and heard him speak about the incredible thrill of uncovering a piece of Canadian maritime history from the 16th century.

He gave a speech at the town hall and choked up as he recounted the excitement of his many days spent underwater in Red Bay's harbour. He remembered the first moment he waved away sand from the ocean floor to reveal an old wooden barrel.

Grenier placed his hand inside and felt oil that more than 400 years earlier was destined to light the lamps of Europe. "Suddenly, I could see that I was touching — I was seeing — the 16th century."

Staying true to 16th century construction

The underwater archeologists spent years taking the San Juan from the ocean, piece by piece, and documenting its every measurement. Xabier Agote is grateful for the detailed work. Agote is the president of Albaola Basque Maritime Heritage Society and is heading up the San Juan reconstruction project.

"Because of the work of the archeologists and then the following research that happened in Ottawa, we know exactly how the San Juan was built and we know exactly the shape of that ship," Agote said.

I recently had the pleasure of visiting the Albaola boat building facility and interpretation centre. I watched as local craftsmen shaped huge pieces of oak and slowly pieced together a 90-foot galleon. The workers are staying true to 16th century construction by using the same techniques and tools that would have been used by their seafaring ancestors.

Suddenly, I could see that I was touching — I was seeing — the 16th century.'- Archeologist Robert Grenier 

When I was there, Jerome Canning of Newfoundland's wooden boat museum was working on the vessel too, on a six-week, government-sponsored exchange. Canning was more than impressed by the scale of the project.

"You would think it's an exaggeration until you come in and see what they're doing and then you think that they're not exaggerating. In fact, they're underplaying it."

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      What was also impressive to Canning was the community spirit surrounding the replica. Hundreds pour into the facility every week to watch the progression of 16th century Basques history coming to life. 

      "They're very proud of this project. When they talk about this boat, it's really a big historic moment for them because it was at a golden age of Basques exploration so they're very prideful. It represents when the Basques went out into the world exploring and seeking resources," he said.

      Xabier Agote believes Canadians – and in particular Newfoundlanders and Labradorians – have reason to be proud too.

      "We see this as a shared heritage. We still have to promote the project not only in the Basques country, but also in Canada," he said. 

      Because of the work of the archeologists and then the following research that happened in Ottawa, we know exactly how the San Juan was built and we know exactly the shape of that ship.-  Xabier Agote, Albaola Basque Maritime Heritage Society

      "I would encourage the people to visit our project and also the Basques country in the same way that we encourage Basques people to go to Red Bay and Canada to visit the places where our ancestors used to go fishing, so I think it would be a very good thing to get to know each other."

      Canning said anyone visiting from our side of the pond would appreciate how prominently our province is featured in the storytelling of this significant Basques history.

      "When you come through the door here, the first thing you're going to see is maps of Newfoundland and Labrador. You're going to see charts that show the Basques whaling fleet going to Red Bay," said Canning. 

      And it's not just the historical connections that might make some Newfoundlanders and Labradorians feel at home in the Basques country.

      "The harbour here, when you look at that you're going to see St. John's harbour, the narrows. It's exactly the same," said Canning. 

      Curious without suspicion

      The Newfoundland boat builder and I sampled the area's famous cider and had a chat over local tapas known as pintxos. When it comes to the culture and the people, Canning told me it was hard to deny the similarities between the Basques and our lot back home. 

      "They're very engaged with you and very physical, so you better get used to being slapped on the back and hugged and just welcomed in a very, very friendly way. They're boisterous and talkative. They still have, let's say, outport ways. They're curious about where you're from and curious without suspicion. They love fun." 

      Canning hopes to make another trip to Pasaia during the construction phase of the vessel. For now, there's no specific target date for its completion, and no timeline set for its voyage to Red Bay as well as other harbours in Newfoundland and Labrador.

      In the meantime, if you're on the move in the coming months in our own province, I'd recommend a visit to Red Bay to discover the incredible story of the Basques. And, if you find yourself in the Basques country, be sure and let them know you're from Newfoundland and Labrador. It'll win you a smile, maybe even a hug and most certainly, a glass of cider.

      Interesting facts about Basques country:

      • The Basque language is Euskara, and it is the oldest European language. It's unrelated to any other language in the world – and is traced back to a language spoken 20,000 years ago in Europe.
      • The Basque population is genetically and culturally distinct. They are believed to be prehistoric inhabitants of Europe – and quite possibly the direct descendents of Cro-Magnon man, who appeared in Europe and the Middle East some 36,000 years ago.
      • The Basques country includes seven provinces: three in France and four in Spain. 
      • Basques have their own version of Santa Claus, called Olentzero. He wears a giant Basque beret on his head. Families leave him wine instead of milk and cookies.
      • Basque cuisine is regarded by many to be one of the best in the world, because of techniques used to draw out flavour rather than using spices. 

      About the Author

      Jane Adey

      CBC News

      Jane Adey hosts CBC Radio's The Broadcast, and has worked for many other CBC programs, including Here & Now, Land & Sea and On The Go.


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