A little known chapter of Canada’s history, associated with the Atlantic Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador, just got tagged as the 17th World Heritage Site from Canada. The United Nation’s Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) acknowledged the 450 year old Basque Whaling Station of Red Bay on to the heritage list on June 22 at the UNESCO annual meeting held in Cambodia.
This relatively unknown piece of Canada’s history began nearly 450 years ago when this whaling station was the largest and the most important port associated with the fledgling global whaling industry. Fishermen from the Basque regions of France and Spain would make annual visits to the coasts of Labrador and Quebec in search of Northern and Greenland Right Whales.
The Basque fishermen who established the facilities used to call it the ‘Gran Baya’. Today it houses the most complete archaeological record of the fledgling days of the whaling industry. It houses 15 whale rendering ovens, cooperages where the barrels used to be made and a cemetery that now contains the mortal remains of 140 Basque whalers.
The whaling station was in continuous use for a period of 70 years and gave birth to a flourishing industry producing whale oil, which at that time in Europe was worth its weight in gold. Whale oil was used for lamps, in manufacturing paints, varnishes and soaps.
A large number of artifacts that still remain are of personal nature, used by the Basque whalers who worked here and used the facilities. They are an important collection of Basque materials from that era, nowhere else to be found in the world, not even in the Basque country.
RedBay’s shallow waters are known for yet another piece of Canadian history, the grave of San Juan, a 250-ton ill-fated galleon that got caught in a storm and sunk in the Strait of Belle Isle in the autumn of 1565. This 450 year old shipwreck is the oldest known in Canada.
A number of artifacts have been collected from the site of the shipwreck. In fact almost the entire galleon has been excavated making it an ideal specimen to study ship building technology from that era.
San Sebastian, a Spanish Basque country will be unveiling a working replica of the three-masted 52 foot vessel sometime in 2016.