There is much excitement up in Red Bay, Labrador this summer. The town has just been named a United Nations World Heritage site and the official ceremony is coming up August 2. The villagers can hardly contain themselves.
Why has this small, isolated coastal community of less than 200 souls been honoured with such a prestigious designation?
To answer that, we need to begin with this woman:
Meet Dr. Selma Huxley Barkham.
Before reaching Red Bay yesterday, I had never heard her name.Today, she is a hero of mine, as she is to the villagers.
Selma is a historian — but no ordinary historian. She’s a history sleuth: as tenacious as a Columbo, as relentless in her pursuit as a Hercule Poirot.
Here’s the story. Sometime in the 1960s, Selma picked up the barest whiff of a historical clue. Someone had told her there was a vague reference to places along the coast of Labrador written in ancient archived documents in, of all places, a museum library in Basque, Spain. Historians had known that the Basque fishermen came to North America in the 1500s, but there were scant details and the information was sketchy.
Curious, and armed with a powerful intellect, she began a quest to find out more. But before she could even begin her research, she first had to learn Spanish, then Old Spanish. She then spent months in the Basque region of Spain poring through yellowing, handwritten documents that hadn’t seen the light of day for centuries. She eventually discovered several which indeed made tantalizing references to this Labrador coast so far, far away: here a ship manifest, there an invoice, a bill of lading, a will, a lawsuit of the time, and others.
Gradually, she began to piece together a narrative, accumulating evidence that there had been a major — a huge — whaling operation involving dozens of ships, as many as 2,000, perhaps 2,500 men making the voyage from Basque to what we now call Red Bay year after year. This tiny coastal town had been the centre of a mammoth and ongoing whaling operation. The largest in the world. And not a single person on earth knew anything about it.
A phenomenal discovery by any measure.
And then Selma stumbled on something even more intriguing. A reference to a galleon, the San Juan, laden to the gunwales with 300 barrels of whale oil — that had sunk somewhere off the Labrador coast in the mid-1500s.
If there had been a wreck, might evidence of it still exist?
The hunt began in earnest and divers finally found, in 1978, what most believe is the San Juan right in this harbour, right here in Red Bay. It was remarkably intact and yielded hundreds of artifacts, many exceptionally well preserved, now on display at the Parks Canada Red Bay National Historic Site here. And more evidence of the Basque whaling enterprise has since been discovered on land nearby and on Saddle Island which sits at the mouth of Red Bay and helps provide such an ideal, protected harbour.
These momentous discoveries have forced a rewrite of the history of the 16th century and have led to the UNESCO designation for Red Bay.
What I find intriguing about this whole story is that such a huge annual operation was completely and utterly unknown to historians before Selma unearthed it.
How could this be? Dozens of galleons crossing the Atlantic each year. Two thousand or more men that made the 6-8 week trip annually here and back (they didn’t overwinter unless trapped by early ice). An enormously lucrative enterprise. The Red Bay resources provided oil for lamps and cook stoves throughout Europe. As one guide put it to me, “Red Bay was lighting Europe for a century”. On land, a number of “Trayworks” were built: structures used to render the whale oil in heated cauldrons. They even imported tile for the roofs of these structures, some broken bits of which can still be seen.
The galleons would have been the oil tankers of their day and the whales, sad to say, the tar sands.
Some say the Basques deliberately kept the enterprise as quiet as possible for fear of others horning in. Not for them the grandiose voyages of discovery, the claiming of territories for king and country, the planting of flags on foreign soil. They came to fish.
The operation thrived for many years — about a century — but by the early 1600s began to peter out. It is said that even back then, overfishing had led to a depletion of the whaling resources along the Labrador shores. The rise of British and French naval power acted as a further damper. Eventually, the operation ceased altogether.
And then became lost to history. It sank completely from our collective memory. Like a stone.
Parks Canada runs an outstanding interpretative site here with films, exhibits, artifacts and a actual chalupe, the small open boat used to hunt the whales, recovered from the bay, restored, and now on display.
Selma has been invited to the August 2 celebrations but sadly won’t be able to make it. She’s old now and too infirm to make the trip.
A small mound of staggering significance
About three kilometres down a gravel road from the main coastal highway south of L’Anse Amour, if you look carefully, you’ll find this small mound beside the road. It may not look like much, and you might not give it a second glance as you wander by towards the tiny village of L’Anse Amour.
But this is no ordinary mound.
This is the grave site of a small child. She was buried face down, hands by her side. Her body had been covered in red ochre, wrapped in skins and surrounded by artifacts: spear heads, a bone whistle, a walrus tusk and painted stones.
It has been dated at a staggering 7,500 years ago.
And it’s the earliest known burial monument in North America.
A thriving archaic culture was active in the region as early as 9,000 years ago. And it left enough artifacts behind to allow archeologists to track its technical progress, particularly in the development of spearheads.
Tragedy and Hope: Stories of the Coast
One of the delights of staying in B & Bs is the encounters with their owners. Here at L’Anse aux Loups, my ‘Labrador Headquarters’, Mary Barney is my host, a woman of uncertain age but who probably won’t ever see the south side of 80 again. She is a marvellous raconteur who told me stories of the coast, its communities and its people well into the evening, delivered with that unique Newfoundland lilt that is at once colourful and at times, difficult to understand. In her voice and her tales, I began to appreciate, perhaps a little, both the hardships and the strong sense of community that this harsh environment breeds. Thank you, Mary.
I asked her if she would tell some of her stories to the video camera, but she was too shy.
I’ll relay a couple of them to you. The first involves the wreck of the HMS Raleigh, a British cruiser, which ran aground in August of 1922. (There are many wrecks off these unforgiving coasts.) It occurred before her time but the wreck itself begat a subsequent tragedy that affected her own kin years later. One evening, some small children had made a fire on the beach, and were throwing various pieces of debris they had found nearby onto it. Among the debris was explosive material from the wrecked ship. It blew up and they were instantly killed. They were relatives of hers, but I didn’t quite catch the relationship.
I was intrigued by the story, so the next day I went down to the coast to see if I could still find pieces of the wreck.
There’s not much left of it. Just a few scraps of rusting metal broken up on the shore. But because of the story, they now held significance for me.
The name Dr. Wilfred Grenfell still resonates along this coast, though the man died 65 years ago. This British doctor brought hope, medicine and the gospel to the then-impoverished villagers in the 1920s and 30s, before the time of roads and aircraft, when the only access was by boat, and when boat arrivals were few and far between. In doing so, he is still revered up and down the coast. I had been through a museum dedicated to Grenfell in St. Anthony a few days ago (sorry, no photographs!), so I was familiar with the story. Turns out that Mary’s husband , as a young lad, had met the man. So the man and his works were close to her. It also turns out that there’s a connection in my own family. My sister Susan tells me that an aunt of mine, Mabel Gowdy, had knit items for Dr. Grenfell’s missions, part of a North-American-wide effort to bring badly needed clothes and supplies to the coast. Full circle.
Back to The Rock
The ferry that crosses the Strait of Belle Isle is called the the Apollo. I was going to write that it sailed back to Newfoundland yesterday, but, since it’s an old clunker of a ship, it would perhaps be more accurate to say that it lurched, shimmied, shook, throbbed and heaved its way across. But it made it! (Actually, it wasn’t that bad. I’m just exaggerating a tad for theatrical effect.)
(Today, July 18, I’m back on the island, starting to head east.)
To be continued . . .