A history of whaling in the Basque country

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All words by Fabien Clouette and Jeremie Brugidou. This post is part of the Charismatic Encounters research project. Images (including header): ‘Scenes from a whale hunt’ by Antonio Sañez Reguart, 1791, © Collection of Donostia Aquarium.

In present-day France, when whales and other cetaceans are protected by law, it’s hard to believe that they were once hunted in Europe by French sailors. However, the whaling industry provided a living for coastal communities, particularly in the south-west of France, for centuries. Some historians state that the Basques even invented whaling and that, following the whales, they supposedly discovered the Americas long before Christopher Columbus. So what is the historic relationship between the Basque coastline and these charismatic animals?

The first sources mentioning the exploitation of whales by the Basques date back to medieval times, when the bodies of stranded whales were used as an immense source of food, energy, and building materials. These strandings were considered lucky days and celebrations were organised around the whale’s body. Each stranded whale would have provided thousands of kilograms of meat, oil, baleen, and bones.

At the time, whales were present in large numbers off the Atlantic coastline, which sparked a hunting spirit in the Basque country. To begin with, hunting consisted of driving the whales towards shore to force them to beach. Then, little by little, sailors started hunting with harpoons and building specially adapted hunting vessels, slender boats called ‘biscayennes’.

The right whales of the Basque region were, sadly, easy to hunt; once harpooned, their bodies would float in the water and could be brought to shore without difficulty. They migrated along the Basque coast from September to May, where it seems that they mated and gave birth.

The Basques installed lookout posts, which allowed them to watch the migratory route and sound an alert whenever a whale was spotted. Competition for ownership of a hunted whale was tough, as they were often spotted from several lookout points, including Biarritz, Guéthary, Bidart, Saint-Jean de Luz, and even as far as Spain.

Over the years, the right whales of Bizkaia were driven to extinction. The last recorded strandings of this subspecies date from the 19th century but, even by the 16th century, only a few whales were seen each year. The last hunting episode on the Basque coast dates back to 1688, when a trial was called by the sailors of Hendaye against their Spanish colleagues around a disputed catch.

Whaling products had many uses, the main one being oil, which was used in the lighting of street lamps and as a lubricant in various crafts and future industries. Whale meat was eaten and the tongue was considered a delicacy, reserved for the highest dignitaries. Bones were used for carpentry and construction, and baleen, in great demand from the end of the 16th century, was used to make corsets, decorations for soldiers’ helmets, and umbrellas.

The history of Basque whaling also illustrates the development of capitalism and international trade. It was the export of hunting techniques to the other side of the Atlantic that really made the fortune of towns such as St Jean de Luz, Ciboure and Donostia. On their way to catch cod in Newfoundland, Basque sailors noticed the presence of bowhead whales (grandbaiako balea, ‘whale of the great bay’), a subspecies of right whale similar to those that the Basques had exploited in the Bay of Biscay. They decided to equip ships to bring barrels of whale oil back to Europe and a large-scale trade was established in the 1500s.

Cargo sailing ships left the Basque ports, but also those of Nantes, Brittany and Normandy, for the American coast. Around 1545, whaling intensified and, in the 1570s, between 20 and 30 ships dedicated to this hunt left for Newfoundland each year. This was the peak of Basque whaling. On the coasts of Newfoundland and the St. Lawrence, Basque sailors also developed working relationships and traded with Indigenous communities, particularly the Montagnais (Innu).

We can tell from the names used for whales in the Basque language before 1700 that the Basques knew several species, including the beluga (zuria, “the white one”), sperm whale (trumpa, “movement of wind whirlwind on the sea”), humpback whale (jibarta, “humpback”), gray whale (otta sotta; indicating that there used to be a gray whale population in the Atlantic, which has since disappeared), the right whale of the Basques (eusko balea), and the right whale of Greenland (grandbaiako balea, “whales of the great Baye”).

The whale trade brought marine fame to the Basques, who were sought after by shipowners, especially for the construction of ships and for the key position of harpooner. Other nations quickly became interested in recruiting Basque sailors and French ships had to compete with the English and especially the Dutch.

From the end of the 17th and the beginning of the 18th century, Basque whaling lost its intensity, mainly due to the fleets being weakened by wars, but also because of the collapse of whale populations. In 1713, the Treaty of Utrecht was signed, granting Britain possession of Acadia and Newfoundland. France kept some fishing rights in these areas, but their whaling ports, particularly Saint-Jean de Luz, suffered the consequences of this treaty. New horizons were considered, including the “southern fishery” in Brazil and the “northern fishery” around Spitzberg.

French sailors sought the support of the crown to arm ships, but the risks of unsuccessful campaigns became very high. Many ships returned empty, or with too little cargo to reimburse the armament costs. In the 19th century, only the ports of Le Havre and Nantes in France were still involved in whaling, supported by government subsidies. This ended in 1868 with the return of the Winslow to Le Havre.

However, the legacy of whaling in Basque maritime heritage and international relations can still be seen today. In 1978, divers in Red Bay, Labrador, found the remains of the wreck of the San Juan, a Basque whaling ship built in 1563. This has allowed historians to rediscover the impressive construction techniques of these ships and a replica, the Nao San Juan, is being built by the Albaola shipyard in Pasai as a joint European-Canadian project.

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