Article | Basque Country

Red Bay, Apple Cider, Whaling, and the Basques

Some of Europe’s earliest mariners, the Basques first came to Newfoundland and Labrador around the 1520s, drawn by the plentiful marine life. Learn more about the unique historical ties Basques hold to this special region of Atlantic Canada.
Red bay labrador 2

© Dennis Minty

Red Bay, Labrador: a UNESCO World Heritage Site of a five-hundred-year-old Basque whaling station

There I was with a boatload of people from Basque Country on the back deck of the Ocean Endeavour in St. John’s, waiting to depart for a very special Newfoundland Circumnavigation expedition. The trip was called, “In the Footsteps of the Basque Whalers”. The golden sun of early evening bathed everything and everyone as the excitement built and folks gathered for a festive beginning. Earlier in the day a large cask of apple cider, supplied by the Astarbe family, had been craned onboard and was now mounted on a purpose-built stand on deck.

In the Footsteps of the Basque Whalers

Apple cider is an important beverage of the Basque people and has been for centuries. The Astarbes have been making cider since 1563. Members of the family gathered round the cask, as did the Basque guests, all knowing what was going to happen next. But I didn’t!

Music dancing cider on ship back deck

© Dennis Minty

After some celebratory opening words, all in the Basque language of Euskera, Hur Astarbe, a fifteenth generation cider-maker, opened the spigot and a stream of cider squirted out. It did not reach the deck before the first celebrant caught it in his glass, followed by another and another. Following the lead of others, I filled my glass too, with more folks tight behind me until everyone had their portion. Then, after a rousing toast, out came Xabi Solano with his accordion and Nerea Alias with her tambourine. Holy mackerel! Were they ever good! Xabi had previously won the competition for the world’s best accordion player and Nerea played the tambourine with such mastery it became a whole new instrument.

Hur Astarbe pours cider from cask

© Dennis Minty

In seconds people were singing and dancing to lively, traditional melodies. Everyone knew the words and the dance steps—except, that is, the Adventure Canada staff, but we all joined in, too. Although we awkwardly fumbled along, we felt totally welcomed into this joyous ritual and spirit. We knew then that it was going to be a great trip.

Guests dance back deck

© Dennis Minty

Every day following at around 5:00 p.m., we all joined in the same ritual that became known as “The Cider Moment”. If the weather gods felt benign, it was on deck outdoors, or, if they didn’t, we moved inside. Either way, it was not to be skipped.

Cask cider inside ship

© Dennis Minty

Basque Maritime History

So, what’s the big deal with the cider? Patience, dear reader.

The Basque people were master ship builders, navigators, and mariners. The history is a bit murky, but they may have even reached North America before Columbus! Some French historians from the 1600s claimed that Basque whaling in the western North Atlantic was underway perhaps as early as the late 1300s. Some have asserted that Columbus had some Basque sailors on board who already knew of North America. At any rate, the Basque reach into the Atlantic was long and early: it extended to Brazil, Newfoundland and Labrador, and as far north as Svalbard. The first man to complete the earth’s circumnavigation was the Basque Juan Sebastian de Elcano, Magellan’s second-in-command who completed the voyage after Magellan died in the Philippines.

During the early days of extended sea travel, large quantities of freshwater were needed to keep the crew hydrated. Stored in casks, the water would stagnate, so alcohol such as rum, brandy, or wine were added to make the fetid water a bit more appealing. (I doubt that it made it good.) Staying hydrated and healthy was challenging. Scurvy, a disease caused by the lack of Vitamin C, was also a serious problem for early mariners. The ingenious Basque solution was apple cider. It kept the crew hydrated and, thanks to the ascorbic acid (Vitamin C), staved off scurvy, making the Basques perhaps the healthiest mariners afloat!

Whale bones red bay

© Dennis Minty

The skulls, ribs, and vertebrae from North Atlantic right whales and bowhead whales emerge from the shoreline vegetation along a stretch of Red Bay called the Boney Shore.

So it was that the Basque mariners came to Newfoundland and Labrador for cod and whales beginning around the 1520s (or possibly earlier) and with them they brought cider. The record shows that each whaler onboard was apportioned more than two litres of cider per day. Studies of the remains of men buried in Red Bay, Labrador showed that they died young, strong, and healthy. Apparently, their demise was caused by the inherent danger of their work or forced overwintering due to storms, rather than by poor general health.

The Red Bay Connection

Of course we would know none of this but for the ground-breaking work of Selma Barkham, who, through her studies of the Basque Country archives in the late 1970s, was able to find thousands of documents that connected the Basque people to Terra Nova (Newfoundland and Labrador). Through these documents she identified the Basque whaling and fishing presence on the Strait of Belle Isle (“Gran Baya” in the archives) between Labrador and the island of Newfoundland, and with her collaborators, Jim Tuck and Robert Grenier, discovered the wreck of the Basque galleon San Juan at Red Bay, Labrador. This discovery, as well as significantly more evidence of the Basques at Red Bay, led to the historic designation of Red Bay as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2013.

Why was Red Bay so important? Whaling was a huge enterprise in the sixteenth century and its global epicentre was Red Bay. The UNESCO designation document says that Red Bay was “the largest and most important port in the world associated with the initial phase of international whaling.” The mighty creatures at its heart, mostly right whales, bowheads, and some humpbacks, were the first and only animals ever to be used to produce commercial energy—energy that was considered an indispensable necessity of life. Whale oil lit homes, factories, churches, streets, and lighthouses around the world for 300 years until alternate sources replaced it, first petroleum and later electricity. Whale oil even paved the way for the industrial revolution by providing superior factory lighting that allowed for longer working hours. It cannot be overstated just how important it was in the creation of our modern world.

Whaling exhibit red bay labrador

© Dennis Minty

A chalupa, the oldest known whaling boat in the world, was found under the remains of the San Juan in Red Bay.

When we visited Red Bay aboard the Ocean Endeavour with the spirited crowd from the Basque Country, everyone was pumped. For most of the folks, this was their first time to feel their historic connection with Newfoundland and Labrador. The community hall was dressed up and the tables were laden with local delicacies like fish cakes, bakeapple tarts, and tea buns with partridgeberry jam.

Wanita Stone Red Bay beer plaque gift

© Dennis Minty

Red Bay’s finest, glowing and proud, were there to greet us. The Mayor, Wanita Stone, who was a key figure in the UNESCO designation process, was front and centre receiving special recognition and gifts from the Basque folks, including a large wooden plaque about a new Basque-brewed beer in honour of Red Bay.

Cindy Gibbons and Hur Astarbe gift

© Dennis Minty

In a gift presented to Cindy Gibbons of Parks Canada, Hur Astarbe shows the Last Will and Testament of one of his ancestors written before going whaling in Red Bay in 1596. Think about that! Here was a descendant standing in Red Bay’s community hall more than 400 years later, honouring a centuries-long bridge between our nations. After that it was full-on party mode with food, music, and dance, and, of course, cider.

About the Author

Dennis Minty

Dennis Minty

Photographer, Wildlife Biologist

Dennis has been working with Adventure Canada since 2002. Dennis’s path—from his small island roots in Twillingate, Newfoundland to his current career as a photographer and eco-tour leader—has taken him through more than three decades of local and international work.

For him, nature and photography are inseparable. Dennis immerses himself in nature through photography and seeks to inspire in the viewer a deeper connection with the natural world. Dennis has authored nine books on subjects such as environmental science, his home province of Newfoundland and Labrador, and his photography.

To see more of Dennis' work, visit his website.