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Rediscovering a piece of Canada’s ancient history

An expedition in 2017 will explore the history of Basque whaling in Newfoundland and Labrador. (Photo Credit: Barrett and MacKay/Newfoundland and Labrador Tourism)

An expedition in 2017 will explore the history of Basque whaling in Newfoundland and Labrador. (Photo Credit: Barrett & MacKay/Newfoundland and Labrador Tourism)

If Iñaki Arizmendi has his way, several hundred people will soon be retracing the steps of legendary Basque whalers along Canada’s Atlantic coast for the first time in 500 years.

The adventurers will be part of a new expedition to circumnavigate Newfoundland and Labrador in June 2017 put together by Arizmendi, a businessman originally from the Basque country of Spain.

“This mysterious piece of history… It’s been on my mind for many years,” says the 63-year-old father of three who started a travel incentive company in New York City 25 years ago. “There was always a big gap in the story between Newfoundland and Labrador and my home country,” he says.

Facsimile of a 16th century woodcut depicting whale fishing from the 'Cosmographie Universelle'.

Facsimile of a 16th century woodcut depicting whale fishing from the ‘Cosmographie Universelle’.

The ancient Basques were formidable whalers who dominated the trade from the 11th century. In the early 1500s, reports from cod fishermen about large numbers of right and bowhead whales enticed them to explore the Labrador coast.

Despite hundreds of years working off the Newfoundland and Labrador coast, very little remains of the story of those brave fishermen. Given his travel expertise and his own heritage, Arizmendi decided to address that gap.

He took an initial trip to archaeologically significant but off-the-beaten-path places like Red Bay, Labrador, to build a trip itinerary, but very quickly had to rethink his plan. “There were no tangible historical artifacts in place,” he says. “I couldn’t point to a bridge and say, ‘the Basque, they built that.’ I had to use my imagination.”

There was another problem. The type of amenities required of a major modern expedition to these very remote places – hotels and restaurants, for example – were practically non-existent and those that were there could not easily be geared up to handle the kinds of numbers he envisioned.

An aerial view of Red Bay, Labrador. (Photo Credit: Barrett & MacKay/Newfoundland and Labrador Tourism)

An aerial view of Red Bay, Labrador. (Photo Credit: Barrett & MacKay/Newfoundland and Labrador Tourism)

Undeterred, he went back to the drawing board.

“Some days, I thought this [expedition] wasn’t going to happen,” Arizmendi says. “We’re doing all the heavy lifting,” he adds, noting that the expedition has not received any assistance from the governments of Canada or Spain. Instead, in a rather fitting way, he is channeling the spirit of those brave Basques who went before him with nothing but entrepreneurial drive and the promise of rewards in the New World.

The result of his efforts, with the support of his 30-year-old son and expedition partner, Aimar, is nothing short of groundbreaking.

Dubbed ‘In the footsteps of the Basque Whalers,’ Arizmendi and son are re-opening this important historic sailing route as a week-long adventure cruise – one that mashes up history, learning excursions, food and entertainment. The goal is to educate, but also capture the essence of a long, proud history of Basque seafaring in Newfoundland and Labrador in a way that bridges a cultural divide between Canada and Spain, but that also gives Canadians a special lens through which they can celebrate 150 years of Confederation.

A painting of Basque galleons at anchor in Red Bay, Labrador.

A painting of Basque galleons at anchor in Red Bay, Labrador.

After Arizmendi’s initial exploration trip, and in recognition of a lack of tangible historical artifacts to which he could point, he saw the inherent value of having the right people on board to recount the rich heritage of the Basque in Canada.

In March, at an event hosted at the venerable Explorer’s Club on New York City’s Upper East Side, about 100 wannabe adventurers filled a wood-panelled hall to meet some of those experts in person. Latonia Hartery, a Newfoundland archeologist, and Robert Grenier, Order of Canada recipient and pioneering aquatic archeologist, were on hand to fill in some of the details for the Explorer’s Club discussion; they will also lead the expedition when it sets sail in 2017.

Four decades ago in Red Bay, Labrador, Grenier (and his Basque counterpart, Manu Izagirre, who was not at the event but will be part of the excursion) uncovered the remains of the San Juan, a Basque whaling ship that sank in a terrible storm in 1565 in the harbour at Red Bay. That discovery provided important historical evidence of Basque culture and proof of some of the earliest visits by Europeans to the Americas. Given his extensive knowledge, Grenier’s presentation was nothing short of remarkable.

Basque domination of the whale hunt in the North Atlantic peaked in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. (Photo Credit: Barrett & MacKay/Newfoundland and Labrador Tourism)

Basque domination of the whale hunt in the North Atlantic peaked in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. (Photo Credit: Barrett & MacKay/Newfoundland and Labrador Tourism)

“The Basque invented whaling,” Grenier says. “For centuries, they controlled whaling all around the world.” In fact, he says the Strait of Belle Isle was the Saudi Arabia of the period. “[It was] the world’s capital for oil,” which included significant infrastructure to process, render and package whale oil for transport back across the Atlantic. Whale oil was critical at that time for illuminating Europe’s homes and cities.

As a testament to just how important Red Bay was, the first book to be published in the Basque language after the Bible was a mariner’s handbook with sailing directions into and out of the harbour there. And, so accurate were the directions in that ‘rutter,’ Grenier says “we could still use it to get into the harbour today.”

It’s worth noting that Grenier’s meticulous dossier chronicling the discovery, excavation and reconstruction of the San Juan is considered the best of its kind in the world. This is no small feat considering the archeological expedition took place in zero degree waters at a time when digital tools for underwater photography, scanning, and drafting were still largely science fiction.

But the discovery of the San Juan (a replica of which is now being built in San Sebastian, Spain, using full traditional methods), uncovered deeper and more significant linkages to the history of world exploration. That’s why, when Grenier speaks of Basque shipmaking, its in hushed, reverent terms.

Trying to cross the Atlantic with “side rudders, as used by the Vikings, the Romans, the Greeks, would [cause the rudders to] split open and disintegrate,” Grenier says. “The Basque are associated with the invention of the [rear] rudder on large ships… on the San Juan it was made in one piece… a giant tree had to be cut. It was incredible.”

In reconstructing the San Juan, he discovered something even more profound than the rudder. The hull design for 16th century galleons, long attributed to English engineering and design was, in fact, a Basque innovation, one that was used with great effect by larger powers such as the Spanish, French, Portuguese and English in their conquests of the world.

“The galleon… was one of the major ships of the expansion of the world in the 16th century. It’s the beginning of the global village… and the Basque were instrumental in this.”

Disclaimer: The co-founders of Rustik Magazine have booked tickets for this unique exploration of Canadian and Basque heritage however, Rustik has in no way been remunerated for this article, nor does the article constitute an endorsement of any products or services provided by 5a Incentive Planners, the organizer of In the Footsteps of Basque Whalers.

To inquire about cabin availability or to book tickets, contact: Aimar or Roman at (212) 286-3333

In consideration of Canada’s 150th birthday, the calibre of the guides, the itinerary around Newfoundland and Labrador, the breathtaking scenery, the amazing history and the bounty of Basque food and drink, the question remains: Why book two years in advance of the trip?

“This is a unique trip,” say Arizmendi. “It took a long time to find the right ship. And we are taking this ship off its regular itinerary. Everything has been planned and is scheduled. So now it’s time to sell.” A couple of the cabin levels have already sold out, but tickets at varying price points (all of which include meals, drinks and excursions) still remain.

Grenier, on the other hand, sums up the spirit of this trip less in business terms and more in historic terms: “Unlike the seamen [accompanying] Jacques Cartier on his explorations, no Basque sailor ever died of scurvy… They were allowed three bottles of wine or cider a day. They survived because of this. What a way to live!”

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