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Red Bay, Labrador


Cook's Chart of Red Bay, 1766

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During the summer of 1763 Cook, the King's Surveyor of Newfoundland, aboard Grenville, surveyed the southern coast of Labrador. His chart of the Strait of Belle Isle, published in 1766, includes a detailed inset chart of Red Bay but, sadly due to the fact that his log for this part of his voyage is missing, we know nothing of any survey details he may have written. However, we do know from research undertaken by Cindy Gibbons, who lives in Red Bay and is the Manager of the Parks Canada site, that Cook would have found a little community going about the business of fishing as they had done for at least 200 years. Some thirty years ago, in 1977, one person's visit to Red Bay was to find the place still a very active fishing community, but was to reveal a previously unexplored chapter of Canadian history that was to change the fate of the community. That person was Dr Selma Huxley Barkham, a member of the CCS, and author of a number of articles and books including "The Basque Coast of Newfoundland" ISBN 0-929108-00-0 (1989)

Selma had spent the previous five years studying and transcribing documents relating to Labrador in the archives of the Basque Country, the region nestled between the mountains and the sea in northern Spain and south western France. Largely forgotten, those documents revealed what had unfolded at Red Bay and at least fifteen other small ports in Southern Labrador during the 16th century. The Basques had been hunting whales since the 11th century but were only drawn to the Labrador coast during the early 1500s by the reports of the cod fishermen on the large number of right and bowhead whales. In the Basque archives Selma had pieced together the history of a large-scale undertaking that included agreements between ship owners and outfitters, insurance policies, crew hiring agreements and provisioning lists. She also made use of maps and sailing directions to determine the present day location of the 16th century whaling ports.

Red Bay from Saddle Island, showing the remains of the red tiles used by Basque fishermen
As Cook's chart shows, Red Bay has an extremely well protected harbour due in large part to the protective presence of Saddle Island on its southern side. It was mainly on Saddle Island that Selma Barkham and her family, along with the archaeologist James Tuck from Memorial University of Newfoundland and other friends, found physical evidence of Red Bay's early links with European history - the remains of stone tryworks. These structures consisted of a number of stone fireboxes, each of which supported a copper cauldron that held about 45 gallons of blubber and oil. Fires kindled with scrap wood were replenished with skin and fat from the cauldrons during the rendering process. The tryworks formed part of shore stations that consisted of a number of tile-roofed cooperages and a wharf or "cutting-in" stage extended into the water. Piles of the red roof tiles can still be seen today.

There followed fifteen further years of research and archaeology that revealed a vivid picture of the 16th century Basque whaling industry. Several documents discovered told of the loss of at least two important ships: one in 1565, San Juan; and another in 1574, Madalena. San Juan was a 300-ton galleon, laden with whale oil and about to sail for home when driven aground on Saddle Island in Red Bay and in 1978 the wreck of the ship was found, excavated, recorded and reburied. The subsequent study of the vessel has revealed much of the technology involved in building ships in the 16th century which were required to sail the Atlantic Ocean and in the construction of the strong and agile chalupa (shallops) used in the whale hunt. One eight-metre whaling chalupa was found pinned beneath the collapsed starboard side of the large whaling vessel. The chalupa was excavated and meticulously recorded prior to its complete disassembly, recovery, conservation and re-assembly and is now on display at Red Bay.

Red Bay no longer boasts a fishing economy but has now been developed as a National Historic Site of Canada and has been visited by thousands of people from around the world since it was officially opened in July 2000. There are two visitor facilities, a self-guided walk on Saddle Island and a variety of community events and attractions to tell the story of the 16th century Basque whaling. It is thirty years since Selma made her initial visit to Red Bay and little could she have realised then what difference her research and work would make to the place.

Red Bay can also claim fame of a rather different kind, in that it is unique among Canadian Post Offices in having been operated by members of the same family for over 100 consecutive years. The current Postmistress is Mrs Linda Gibbons, (mother of Cindy Gibbons mentioned earlier) who happily continues the work undertaken by her father, grandfather and earlier members of the family. In 1987 Canada Post issued a special stamp featuring Red Bay and the wreck of the San Juan, which is illustrated here together with a Red Bay postmarks of 1998.
See also Cook's Log, page 1613, vol. 22, no. 2 (1999)

Alwyn Peel
With acknowledgement to Cindy Gibbons and Selma Huxley Barkham

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 22, volume 30, number 3 (2007).

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