Nfld. & Labrador

Document in Spain sheds light on Placentia Basque history

A newly-discovered will written by a Basque fisherman in Placentia in the 16th century has caused quite a stir in both Spain and Newfoundland and Labrador.

Basque document

Here and Now

8 years ago
A 450 year old Basque will in Spain is causing excitement in the province, reports Peter Cowan 2:16

A newly-discovered will written by a Basque fisherman in Placentia in the 16th century has caused quite a stir in both Spain and Newfoundland and Labrador.

Michael Barkham, whose mother, Selma Huxley Barkham, discovered the Basque site in Red Bay, Labrador, uncovered the document in Basque country in Spain.

Barkham said the will, written by Domingo de Luca on May 15, 1563, was likely brought back across the ocean by the captain of the ship Domingo fished on.

"It's a great pleasure to come across nuggets like these," Barkham said. "There are only a handful of original documents — European documents — written in what is now Canada in the 16th century. I mean, we can count the fingers on one hand."

According to Barkham, Domingo requested to be buried at a Basque burial site in Placentia.

"One of the first stipulations of the will is, 'If I die … I wish my body to be buried in the place where those who usually die here are buried,'" he said. "Which is a clear reference to a European cemetery in Placentia already by the middle of the 16th century."

Exciting discovery for community

Amanda Crompton, an archaeologist in St. John's who studies Placentia history, said this discovery, and others like it, are vital to understanding the history of the province.

"It's fantastic for me as an archaeologist, because of course, we spend our time not only looking in archives for written information like this, but we also look for the material remains of peoples' presence in Newfoundland," Crompton said.

"The notion that somewhere out there, somewhere in Placentia, there are remains, or at least partial remains, of a 16th century graveyard is fascinating.

"We knew that the Basque played a big role in Placentia's history in the 17th century … but these records are fully a hundred years earlier, which is fascinating," she added.

According to Crompton, the community will be eager to learn more information about the discovery.

"I'm sure that they're incredibly excited — as excited as I am — because it's just another demonstration of how important that community has been for hundreds of years," she said.

Crompton said she is hoping to see a translated version of the will.

"For the community to be able to present a copy of the document — a translated copy — will be a great thing to show tourists who come to the area."

The historical society in Placentia wants to raise money to get a translation of the will from the original old Spanish into English.