Daniel Francis

Reading the National Narrative

Basque Whalers

Jun 24, 2013

Some thirty years ago while I was researching the history of whaling for my book on the subject (The Great Chase, Penguin Canada, 1990) I had the pleasure of chatting with Selma Barkham about her work in the Basque archives.

Last Saturday I thought of our conversation as UNESCO declared that Red Bay, Labrador, located on the north shore of the Strait of Belle Isle, would be Canada's newest World Heritage Site. Almost 500 years ago, the tiny settlement was one of the whaling ports used seasonally by ships which arrived each spring from northern Spain and southern France to hunt whales in the offshore waters before returning to Europe in the fall.

It was thanks to Ms. Barkham's research in the Spanish records during the early 1970s that the extent of this "fishery," and its organization, were first understood. Yet none of the press articles I read about the World Heritage classification mentioned her name.

Of course the full exploration of the Red Bay site involved many people, among them archaeologist James Tuck of Memorial University and underwater archaeologist Robert Grenier of Parks Canada. Eventually the battered hulk of a whale ship, the San Juan, was located resting in the silt on the bottom of the bay, along with the remains of other, smaller vessels, while onshore many artifacts relating to the rendering of the whale oil were unearthed.

The Red Bay site is a landmark in the use of marine archaeology to reveal previously unknown details about the activities of Europeans in Canadian waters not so many years after Columbus. As a World Heritage Site, the remote little settlement on the Labrador coast now joins the ranks of celebrated tourist attractions like the Taj Mahal in India, Chichen Itza in Mexico, the Egyptian pyramids and the Acropolis in Athens.

It seems only right that the woman whose initial digging in the records did so much to get the ball rolling should share in the credit. 

You can read more about the Red Bay site here and here.

UPDATE I stand corrected; attention has been paid. A friend has alerted me that CBC Television ran an item about Selma Barkham last week. You can watch it here.