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Bertan > Corsarios y piratas > Versión en Inglés: The whalers

The whalers

In pursuit of whales

Whaling and corsairs were intimately related to one another. This former activity was carried out prior to that of privateering, but later led to the latter.
The first Basque corsairs were whalers who alternated between whaling and pillaging their enemies on the Newfoundland fishing shoals, on the strength of their letters of marque. Their cod prizes, for example, were as covetted a booty as the most luxurious merchant silks, gold and the best wine.
Basques and Cantabrians would seem to have been the first whalers, inventors of the whaling industry and, as such, existed in an organized manner from the 7th century onwards.
At first whales were hunted on the Cantabrian coast, when they were making their way back from the frozen North seas, in fishing trips lasting from October to March. The first mention of a whale being sold appears in 1059 in a document in Bayonne. Later documents mention the collecting of whale bones for their use in repairs and the appearance of vats to hold whale oil.
Whale hill in Ulia. Donostia-San Sebastian
59. Whale hill in Ulia. Donostia-San Sebastian. Whales would be spotted from the lookouts along the coast, and the people would be called out to chase them. © Joseba Urretabizkaia
A book of christenings dating from 1526 in Zumarraga.
60. A book of christenings dating from 1526 in Zumarraga, has a drawing of a skiff with five oarsmen, the skipper at the helm and a harpooner, with an imprisoned whale. © Joseba Urretabizkaia
At first whales were hunted on the Cantabrian coast, when they were making their way back from the frozen North seas, in fishing trips lasting from October to March. The first mention of a whale being sold appears in 1059 in a document in Bayonne. Later documents mention the collecting of whale bones for their use in repairs and the appearance of vats to hold whale oil.
However, by the 14th century, whales were becoming scarce on the Basque coast and the Basques had to go to Ireland and Newfoundland to hunt them. The latest discoveries made in Canada, with respect to the frequent Basque toponymy of the place, the Basque words used by the Indians and the way in which they harpoon the whales are all evidence that the Basques were the first to arrive and start dealing with indigenous people. So, around the twentieth year of the 16th century, whales were first hunted in Newfoundland, although there is previous evidence of Basque presence in theses lands.
The ships would meet at a place some fifty kilometres from Newfoundland and Labrador, where they would stay until the end of January, since the freezing temperatures obliged them to stop fishing. During these fishing trips, which would last eight months, from spring to autumn, some whaling ships would return home with empty holds, while others either didn’t return or lost their load to pirates.
Whale capture and hunt.
61. Whale capture and hunt.
© Joseba Urretabizkaia
Lintel from a house in Azara street, Zarautz.
62. Lintel from a house in Azara street, Zarautz.
© Joseba Urretabizkaia
Around the mid-16th century, and mainly during the decades 1570 and 1580, there was an important movement of Basques to Newfoundland, bringing great change to the economic life of the Basque Country.
Basque whaling went into decline from 1585 onwards. That year, which marked the beginning of the war with Great Britain, a great number of ships were requisitioned by the Spanish Armada, to reinforce its insufficient fleet. Three years later, the defeat of this Armada meant that only a few ships set out to fish in Newfoundland.
Gun with wheel, 16th-17th century.
64. Gun with wheel, 16th-17th century
© Joseba Urretabizkaia
Harpoon.
65. Harpoon. © Joseba Urretabizkaia
In addition to this was the peace that was reached between Spain and France in 1598. England, France and Denmark took political charge of the lands and seas of North America. In addition, France sent a governor to Newfoundland. This situation wasn’t resolved until the 18th century when, in 1713, in virtue of the Utrecht Agreement, Philip V negotiated a treaty for free fishing in favour of the Basques in Newfoundland, even although there were almost no whales left in the area by that time.
The Basques reacted by privateering more systematically. Years earlier they had already obtained letters of marque from Philip II in order to confront the pirates.
Coast of the french basque country.
66. Coast of the french basque country.
© Joseba Urretabizkaia
Wall musket, 16th century.
67. Wall musket, 16th century.
© Joseba Urretabizkaia


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