16th-century Basque galleon to be resurrected

Basque whalers in labrador

Spanish maritime experts plan to reconstruct a 16th-century Basque whaling galleon, creating a replica of the oldest shipwreck ever found in Canada.

The 90-foot, three-masted San Juan sank in Red Bay in Labrador 450 years ago, just offshore of a 1560s-era whaling station in the Strait of Belle Isle.

The ship was part of a fleet that brought millions of barrels of whale oil to Europe, a treasure every bit as valuable at the time as the gold taken by Spanish conquistadors from more southerly parts of the Americas, according to Postmedia News.

Now plans are in place for the San Juan to be resurrected by a Spanish team which is seeking to construct a full-scale, seaworthy model of the original vessel.

Archaeologist Robert Grenier discovered the wreckage in 1978 and said the reconstruction project will be one of the world’s first, according to the CBC.

“Transforming these 3,000 pieces of wood we found in Red Bay, Labrador, into a very fateful, precise scientific replica of the original – this is more than a dream come true for me,” he said. “This will be the first time that the Spanish or Basque galleon is reconstructed that way in the world.”

Xabi Agote, a Basque ship expert, will be undertaking the reconstruction, the CBC added.

Red Bay LabradorThe San Juan was believed to have been carrying a cargo of nearly 1,000 barrels of whale oil when it foundered during an autumn storm in 1565.

She sank some 30 yards from shore in Red Bay, according to a 1985 National Geographic article on the wreck.

Parks Canada underwater archeologists met last week with Spanish officials to begin sharing decades of research on the San Juan’s design and construction, according to Postmedia News.

Spain’s goal is have the new ship afloat by 2016, which will coincide with the Basque city of San Sebastian’s year as Europe’s “cultural capital.” The resurrected San Juan will serve as a floating tribute to the Basque whaling crews that traveled to the New World from the approximately 1550 until 1700.

“Right from the start, we thought this was a really, really great idea,” said Marc-André Bernier, Parks Canada’s chief of underwater archeology. “For archeologists, this is basically the ultimate final product. You’re taking all of the research from a site that’s been excavated, then you take it to the maximum in experimental archeology,” physically recreating “what is lost.”

The replica galleon is expected to travel between European cities during 2016, then set sail for Labrador and other East Coast destinations in 2017 – in time for the 150th anniversary of Canadian Confederation – to help spread awareness of the deep historical connection between Canada and Spain, according to Canada.com.

Bernier said that the San Juan represents a shared heritage of both Basques and Canadians.

The Red Bay wreck dates from an era before European shipbuilding had developed to the point of creating blueprints prior to construction, he added.

“There were no ships’ plans — they were built with traditional knowledge,” Bernier said. “Everything was in the shipbuilders’ minds. That’s why the data from the archeology is so critical.”

(HT: A Blog About History)

11 thoughts on “16th-century Basque galleon to be resurrected

  1. Fascinating. Two questions: Do you know the source of the smoke in the artist’s conception of the whaling fleet? Would the whales referenced be “right whales?”

  2. They did hunt Right whales but apparently Bowhead Whales were more popular than we previously realized. See:
    You can download a PDF of an article entitled “Bowhead Whales, and Not Right Whales, Were the Primary Target of 16th- to 17th-Century Basque Whalers in the Western North Atlantic.”

    The smoke was from land based massive copper pots used to render (boil/process) the whale fat into whale oil.
    More information on the Basques:

    • Thank you for the information. I was actually reading the second link this morning when I was looking for some background for my post. Very interesting stuff.

      I had known that the Basques had ventured to Newfoundland and Labrador in the 16th century but had never given much thought to how treacherous a voyage it must have been in ships not much different from those Columbus sailed on, but in regions where the weather could be far worse.

      And while I understand that parts of Spain, especially the Basque region, can get cold in the winter, it can’t be anything like Labrador, even Labrador in the spring or fall, when the whalers might have been arriving or getting ready to leave.

  3. “Spain’s goal is have the new ship afloat by 2016, which will coincide with the Basque city of San Sebastian’s year as Europe’s “cultural capital.”

    – Do not miss San Sebastian’s year as Europe’s “cultural capital.” Forget whales, try the jamón ibérico – ! Heaven on the hoof. Mr. Cotton Boll continues to impress!

  4. Well, thanks for the updates guys. When I first looked at the smoke I thought that perhaps the whale blubber was being cooked down but wasn’t sure. Just had eye surgery and still can’t focus well so I couldn’t distinguish between ships and land. Learned a little about the pre-Roman Basque culture (Spain & France) years ago when they were trying to gain their independence –again. They haven’t given up that political possibility. Have to admire their tenacity. Reminds me a little of what happened in Quebec not too long ago.

    Everytime I read these posts I learn some new historical facts that are both healthy brain food and great for interesting conversations.

    • If I had to bet between the Quebecois and the Basques gaining independence, I’d put my money on the former. Spain has shown a remarkable determination to hold onto its disparate peoples, while Canada has been willing to let the Quebecois hold referendums on going their own way.

      • “Spain has shown a remarkable determination to hold onto its disparate peoples, while Canada has been willing to let the Quebecois hold referendums on going their own way. ”

        Those damn Canadians! Always acting reasonably in the face of passionate suggestions. A marvelous economy in effort.

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