Sunday, June 26, 2005


Buried treasure under a remote Labrador bay


Toronto Star
By Kelly Toughill
June 25, 2005

16th century Basque galleon found on harbour bottomArchaeologists say whalers operated a thriving industry
HALIFAX—Decades before Jacques Cartier sailed up the mighty St. Lawrence River, perhaps even before John Cabot landed on the rocky shores of Newfoundland, the lure of big money drew Basque whalers to a tiny harbour on the coast of Labrador.

This summer, a team of government archaeologists will journey to Red Bay to excavate a 16th-century Basque galleon sitting in the chill waters of the Strait of Belle Isle.

The dig is likely to be the largest underwater archaeology project on the continent this summer. It will certainly be one of the most interesting.

The galleon wasn't supposed to be there. The team that will once again descend into the freezing waters off Labrador has been back and forth across that harbour bottom for years, tracing and tracking the remains of a huge economic boom of the 16th century. They have already found three full galleons and five smaller harpoon boats. They have mapped and catalogued hundreds of artefacts.

Red Bay is one of the most studied sites in the country. They thought they knew it all. Then this.

"It was routine monitoring," says Willis Stevens, an archaeologist with Parks Canada who will be leading the team.

"I was collecting whalebone when I came across a site under the water that just blew me away. We had been through that area many times and seen nothing."

The story of Red Bay's founding and rediscovery reads like a mystery novel. Once one of the biggest whaling ports in the world, its role in European commerce was forgotten until 30 years ago. That is when historian Selma Barkham discovered references in Spanish archives to a Basque shipwreck in Labrador. That led to a survey of Red Bay in 1978.

Peter Waddell, an archaeologist now retired from Parks Canada, was on that first survey. What it found changed his life and shaped his career.

"People get excited about treasure ships down south, gold and so forth," he says. "But the dollar value was a great deal more in whaling than in ripping off (indigenous people) for their trinkets and resources."

`I was collecting whalebone when I came across a site ... that just blew me away'
Willis Stevens, Parks Canada

Oil was nearly as precious in Europe five centuries ago as it around the world today. The biggest difference is where the oil came from. Today, it is crude from deep underground. In the 16th century, it came from the world's largest mammals, whales that roam the deep.

Archaeologists believe that at least 20,000 right and bowhead whales were dragged into Red Bay's processing stations in just 50 years. The precious barrels of boiled blubber were returned to Europe where the oil was used in everything from lamps to soap and manufacturing.

The scale of the operations was huge by 16th-century standards. The galleons were often more than 30 metres long, with three masts and more than 50 crew. The operation was so large that they had permanent buildings and even a cemetery where 140 Basque are buried.

Whaling was just one part of Basque operations in Newfoundland and Labrador. Historians don't agree about when the Basque showed up in North America, but they do agree that they were among the first European settlers.

Basque fishermen were drying salt cod on the shores of the New World long before Cartier officially discovered the Maritimes. In fact, Cartier reported seeing 1,000 Basque fish boats when he reached the western edge of the Atlantic.

Mark Kurlansky, author of Cod, A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World, says the Basque were in North America long before Cabot, who officially discovered Newfoundland in 1497. He calls the 15th century trade in cod from North America the "Bristol secret" for the name of the harbour where the Basque liked to trade.

"There is an awful lot of feeling outside academia that the Basque were here before," Waddell says.

Archaeologists have dated the Basque at Red Bay to 1534. The lure of Red Bay's story led to last summer's discovery.
Archaeologists suspect that the prop wash from a cruise ship uncovered the galleon from the mud of the harbour. The cruise ship was stopped in Red Bay to view the historic site.

Stevens, Waddell and the others will have only five weeks to explore the ship. They must bring their gear from Ontario through Nova Scotia, by ferry to Newfoundland, then by ferry to Labrador and up the coast road. They'll work in 10 metres of water that hovers at about 3C, staying down for two hours at a stretch.

They are looking for telltale signs of the period — the way the mast is stepped into the keel, the shape and lines of the ship.

Before they leave, they will rebury the ship under 200 tonnes of sand, cover it with a heavy tarp and weight that down, to make sure neither the pointy end of an iceberg nor the prop of a cruise ship chews through the ancient timbers.


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