Basque: Whaling & fishing, stations & settlements

An interesting quirk of history, let the isolated Basque language establish itself in the New World shortly after Christopher Columbus’s rediscovery.

Basque fishermen from Spain and France, who had a long tradition of fishing and whaling in the Atlantic Ocean, where among the first Europeans to establish a presence on the American continents. (There were actually some Basque sailors on the 1492 discovery voyage). They had expanded their operations from the Bay of Biscay to Ireland, Scotland, the Faroe Islands and Iceland, before further expanding into North America. They probably were fishing for Cod on Grand Banks off the coast of Newfoundland before it’s official discovery by John Cabot. Voyages were for the season before returning to Spain and France to sell their catch. The Basque subsequently established stations and settlements to smoke and preserve fish and whale meat, and to refine whale oil.

Map of Basque whaling & fishing stations & settlements, bellow a depiction of the hunt and slaughter of whales by Basque and Native Americans.

They also interacted with the native populations there and employed them in their operations to exploit the ecosystem. The populations mixed and a Algonquian-Basque Pegdin evolved that was attested to until 1710. The Basque also had competition from fishermen from Breton, Normandy, Ireland, Scotland and England, who established similar settlements and colonies. Further north a second Pegdin is documented, the Labrador Inuit Pegdin French, which incorporated elements of Basque and Breton.

Wonder why these didn’t develop into permanent colonies?

  1. After 100 years of whaling the ecosystem was exploited, decimated and devastated. The whaling fleets then shifted their focus to the south Atlantic, Antarctic and finally Pacific. In this scene from Masters & Commander the British are pretending to be whalers in the Pacific to fool the French into battle in close quarters.
  2. In that film the French are out to steal cargo from British whalers, and raid other commerce. The Basque faced the same problems 200 years before. The Queen of England allowed privateers and pirates to operate around the British Isles and confiscate (steal) shipments of the hard working Basque fishermen on their way home to Europe. The Spanish crown was stretched thin in their capability of protecting their treasure ships, and then basically abandoned their claims further north.
  3. The Spanish crown also tried to land some knock out punches against the uppity English and built up an invasion force and armada to stamp out the Protestants on that island. To man their Navy they recruited / impressed sailors from all over the Kingdom(s), including the best sailors from the Basque County. They also confiscated a lot of the Basque ships so they could be part of this Armada. But things did not go so well and a lot of experienced sailors / fishermen died and ships sunk in 1588. This further reduced Spain capability to hold on to the areas around Newfoundland.
  4. The Basque were not an independent country. If they had been, then maybe they could have cut a deal with the English, Dutch and French and be left in peace to develop this into a permanent colony. Spain had at this point in time already conquered the Aztec and Inca Empire and had bit off more than they could chew.
  5. French, English and Dutch started poaching Basque fishermen and sailors, offering them better conditions, pay and share of profits in their fleets. This caused a talent drain and the Basque whaling industry waned and did not keep up.
  6. The Basque had already exploited, decimated and devastated the whale populations in their home waters, around Ireland, Scotland, Faroe Islands, Iceland, Norway and Greenland. Newfoundland was just another step in this cycle of exploiting a natural resource until it was depleted and then moving on.
  7. The French and English were linguicidal and made conscious attempts at eliminating minority languages.

Ultimately the Basque language did not survive. Basque withered and did not survive in past the eighteenth century in what is now eastern Canada.


Further Reading

Edit: 2021.04.30: included a more detailed list of reasons for demise.

Edit: 2021.05.03: added some links to further reading

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