Chapter II. Basques in America. Saddle Island, The mystery of the red tiles

Port-au-Choix, Terranova, Canada. ⒸDavid Quintas
Port-au-Choix, Terranova, Canada. ⒸDavid Quintas

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We continue our journey through the life of the Basques in America and we do it now in Newfoundland, Canada. Photographer David Quintas and writer Martin Ibarrola.

ⒸDavid Quintas
ⒸDavid Quintas

When Basque whalers reached the frozen islands of eastern Canada in the mid-16th century, cartographers were still drawing monsters on the map's borders. It is believed that some two thousand Basque fishermen set out annually for the inhospitable estuary of the St. Lawrence River in search of the great Arctic mammals, whose blubber produced a highly prized and lucrative oil.

Despite becoming the first industrial activity in North America, the exploits of these whalers were lost in time and the names with which they christened their settlements ended up camouflaged under local accents. The remains of the red tiles that the Basque fishermen had loaded onto their boats were shattered and ended up in the hands of the native children, who used them innocently to paint the rocks. Four centuries later, Selma Huxley Barkham dusted off the pages of a chapter that nobody seemed to remember any more.

ⒸDavid Quintas
ⒸDavid Quintas

The red tiles that stained the waters

The Anglo-Canadian researcher devoted her life to studying old insurance policies, Renaissance maps and all sorts of other documents, including one of the oldest written civil documents in Canada (the sale of a chalupa in 1572).

Barkham thus identified the modern names and locations of several 16th century Basque whaling ports and organised an expedition to Newfoundland and Labrador in 1977 with the help of the Royal Geographical Society of Canada. He sailed with archaeologist James Tuck to the ancient port of Butus, now known as Red Bay, where they unearthed the evidence that would confirm their theories: the red stones that the children used as paints were actually pieces of Basque tile. Apparently, the whalers used these pieces of reddish clay to build the roof of the ovens, where they then melted the blubber of the immense mammal. An old legend claims that the name Red Bay comes from a ship that lost its cargo of tiles and stained the waters scarlet, although there is no hard evidence of this.

Saint-Barssbe-TERRANOVA_CAN

The red stones that the Newfoundland children used as paints were actually pieces of Basque tile.

Albaola and the replica of the ship San Juan

Archaeologists continued their investigation and uncovered the rusted remains of harpoons, encrusted pieces of whalebone and perhaps the greatest find of all: the nao San Juan. This 16th century wreck had been preserved intact at a depth of about ten metres under a thick layer of rocks and sediment. Its condition was so astonishing that Albaola decided to build an exact replica in Pasaia, the same port that launched it into the water.

The Red Bay whaling station was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2013 and a small local museum now tells the story of those strange sailors who came from distant lands to hunt whales. There is a record of the 140 graves on Saddle Island, where the remains of those fishermen who never returned home lie. Before historians explained their research, the people of this quiet village used charcoal found on the ground to stoke their cooking fires. The villagers were shocked to discover that these coals dated back four centuries and were considered archaeological remains.

ⒸDavid Quintas
ⒸDavid Quintas

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Inside Hondalea

Hondalea reopens its doors

The 2022 season is open for visits to the island of Santa Clara in San Sebastian to visit Hondalea, subject to prior booking. The artistic intervention will also include a programme of guided and educational visits.

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