Fire Cloud...
An irregular marking on the exterior of Native American pottery: usually resulting from burning fuel coming in direct contact with the vessel during firing

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Did the Basques Beat Out Columbus?

A Day trip to Labrador

We set the alarm for 6 AM (Newfoundland time is an hour and 30 minutes ahead of the Eastern time zone) and boarded the ferry for the 90 minute trip to Labrador. The trip over the straight from Newfoundland to Labrador is about 23 miles according to my GPS. I left the camera memory card in the computer for the Labrador expedition, so I’ll substitute some ancient Basque-related vacation pix. We experienced heavy fog and rain in the morning which cleared to blue skies in the afternoon. We saw a whale in the rain and fog and an iceberg late in the day. The iceberg had seen better days.

We’re parked in sort of a gravel parking lot. All the water up here is requiring a five minute boil before drinking. We have 15 amps of electric from an extension cord running out of an office window. We were in Basque territory back before we retired. It was one of those short trips to Paris, Versailles, Mt. St. Michele, Normandy, Marseilles. the Pyrenees, Pamploma and back to Paris. We were in Bayonne on the France/Spain border when we ran into the Basques for the first time. They speak Etruscan, which is not remotely related to any other human language. Apparently they are an ancient people of the Pyrenees Mountains.

We saw a Basque wedding in Bayonne and a group of young women stalking the wedding party. One of them had a hat with giant penis hat with testicles. I’ve always wondered what that was all about and if it was an ancient Basque tradition. I Google "Basque" and "penis hats" quite frequently, but the Internet can shed no light on this strange event.

The Basques came to Red Harbor, Labrador, about 1517 A.D. merely to fish, not to explore or colonize. It’s a piece of lost history. They caught cod, salmon and harpooned 20,000 Right and Bowhead whales over a 50 year period which they rendered into barrels of whale oil. They built shelters and workshops with terracotta tile roofs and returned to Basque ports laden with 1,000 or more barrels of whale oil to light the lamps of Europe. At one point over 800 Basque whalers were spending the whaling season in Red Harbor. You could get 2,000 ducats for 1,000 barrels of whale oil back then, a small fortune. Red Harbor, Labrador, is one of the finest natural ports in North America. An island protects the mouth of the harbor. An archeologist, reading old Basque documents, such as the wills of two fishermen who died in Labrador in the 1500s began to suspect that the Basques were some of the earliest travelers to the new world (other than the Vikings). There is no proof that the Basques arrived before Columbus, but then they were very secretive about their fishing grounds.

An English archeologist read about a whaling shipwreck in a document that was actually a power of attorney relating to lawsuits over 1,000 barrels of lost whale oil cargo. As a result, an almost intact Basque whaling ship that went down in Red Harbor, Labrador, in 1565 was subsequently discovered. Ice had quickly crushed the ship which was then covered with mud. That and the cold water preserved the ship (which was proven to have been laden with about 1,000 crushed barrels of whale oil) in pristine condition. Careful excavation provided some very interesting detail of ancient Basque shipbuilding techniques. On the land, pieces of copper kettles which were used to render whale blubber into oil were unearthed. Many pieces of broken terracotta roofing tile and other artifacts (cooperage artifacts from barrel makers) were also discovered to confirm the early visits to Newfoundland by the Basque fishermen. All in all, it was an interesting day trip.

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