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In Search of Historic Basque Whalers

Meet the bold navigators of yesteryear.

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Fewer than 50 years after Christopher Columbus made his landings in the Caribbean and at around the same time Ferdinand Magellan embarked on his circumnavigation of the globe, Basque whalers were plying the waters around Newfoundland and Labrador.

As early as the 1520s, sailors from the Basque region of the Pyrenees arrived in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, chasing cod across the Atlantic Ocean. By the 1530s, the fishermen had expanded their hunt to include whales and, by the 1540s, had begun to establish a vibrant network of whaling stations at ports along the jagged coastline. Meanwhile, nearly 2,000 miles to the south, it would be 50 years before settlers founded the colony of Jamestown, Va.

The history of the first Basque presence in North America is mostly lost amid flashier expeditions such as those of Jacques Cartier, who claimed the land that would become Canada for the French, and Samuel de Champlain, who established New France and the city of Quebec.

In honor of Jaialdi 2015, New York-based 5A Incentive Planners is showcasing the late-medieval Basque whaling industry with the presentation "In the Footsteps of Basque Whalers in Newfoundland and Labrador," on Thursday, July 30 at the Grove Hotel.

"It's a story that very few people know," said 5A owner Ignazio Arizmendi, who added that the event is meant to drum up interest for a cruise around the old Basque whaling areas.

"We charter a boat and we're going to sail for a week all around Newfoundland," he said.

Centered on sites including St. John's, Fogo Island and Red Bay—the latter which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site—"In the Footsteps of Basque Whalers" explores the "bold navigators of yesteryear," who ventured from the shore in specialized skiffs to harpoon right and gray whales—hauling them back to port for processing into meat and oil for export.

The trade, considered by historians to be the first commercial European whaling enterprise, made the Basque home cities among the most prosperous in Europe and set the template for future whaling practices—including the Basque ship design, which remained largely unchanged for 200 years. It was in Red Bay, Arizmendi said, that a sunken galleon was found, establishing the area as a historic site.

"In Boise we're going to do a presentation because we expect a lot of Basque people from all over the world will be there," he said.