Canada’s oldest shipwreck to be resurrected in replica of 16th-century Basque galleon
It’s the oldest shipwreck ever found in Canada and one of the most important in the world: a 16th-century Basque whaling galleon that lies at the bottom of Labrador’s Red Bay, a sunken relic from the Age of Discovery that symbolizes the early spread of European civilization — and commerce — to the New World.
Now, the 450-year-old San Juan, a jumble of thick beams and broken barrels lying in shallow waters off the site of a 1560s-era whaling station in the Strait of Belle Isle, is to be resurrected by a team of Spanish maritime heritage experts planning to construct a full-scale, seaworthy replica of the original 16-metre, three-masted vessel.
Parks Canada underwater archeologists, who discovered the 250-tonne San Juan in 1978 after following documented clues about a lost galleon traced by federal archivist Selma Barkham, will meet this week with Spanish officials to begin sharing decades of amassed research on the ship’s design and construction, Postmedia News has learned.
Then, to mark the Basque city of San Sebastian’s year as Europe’s “cultural capital” in 2016, Spain expects to christen its floating tribute to the whaling crews that — for several decades during the 16th century — transported millions of barrels of whale oil to Europe from the future Canada, a treasure every bit as valuable at the time as the gold taken by Spanish conquistadors from more southerly parts of the Americas.
“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.”
For Robert Grenier, Bernier’s predecessor as Canada’s top marine archeologist and the leader of the Red Bay discoveries more than three decades ago, the planned construction of a San Juan replica is “like a dream.”
The 75-year-old Grenier, whose work at Red Bay was featured in a National Geographic cover story in 1985, is now retired but has agreed to serve as a consultant to Spanish shipbuilders on the San Juan project.
He previously collaborated with Basque heritage experts on the recreation of a chalupa — a smaller boat used by whaling crews to pursue and harpoon bowhead and right whales — that was also found at the Red Bay site.
“To the Basques, this is the Holy Grail,” he said of the planned San Juan replica on Monday, while visiting a display on Basque whaling operations at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, Que.
The Canada Hall exhibit features a 20-to-one scale model of a Basque whaling galleon, as well as a full-scale reproduction of the stern of the ship.
“They are so thankful to us — Canada and Parks Canada — to have restored to them the glory of their golden age,” said Grenier.
The replica galleon to be built in the coming years is expected to travel between European cities during 2016 to mark the San Sebastian celebrations, then set sail for Labrador and other East Coast destinations in 2017 — in time for the 150th anniversary of Confederation — to help spread awareness of the deep historical connection between Canada and Spain.
“It’s their heritage,” Bernier said of the Basques, who live in the coastal region straddling the border of northeast Spain and southwest France. “But it’s also a shared heritage.”
Significantly, Bernier noted, the Red Bay wreck dates from an era before European shipbuilding had developed to the point of creating blueprints prior to construction.
“There were no ships’ plans — they were built with traditional knowledge,” he said. “Everything was in the shipbuilders’ minds. That’s why the data from the archeology is so critical.”
In the decades following the New World discoveries of Christopher Columbus and John Cabot, the expert shipbuilders, sailors, fishermen and whalers from the Basque country began making transatlantic voyages to exploit coastal Canada’s cod and whale populations.
Lamp oil from whales killed in the Strait of Belle Isle became the key commodity for Basque entrepreneurs, who developed shoreline “factories” to render hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil and organized regular shipping schedules between Canada and Europe to deliver the product.
The sinking of the San Juan, which was loaded with thousands of barrels of rendered whale blubber when it foundered close to the Red Bay shore in 1565, was essentially Canada’s first oil-tanker disaster. Much of the cargo was, however, recovered before the vessel was crushed by winter ice.
Although the presence of Basque whalers in 16th-century Canada was long known to historians, it wasn’t until Barkham presented fresh evidence at an Ottawa archeological conference in 1977 that plans were made to search for physical traces of the whalers’ activities in present-day Labrador.
Along with the wreck of the San Juan, Parks Canada archeologists eventually found traces of three other galleon-class cargo ships, as well as the well-preserved chalupa rowboat.
Land-based excavations led by Newfoundland archeologist James Tuck also yielded burial sites, clothing, tools and countless other relics that recalled a time when hundreds of Basque workers might spend a whaling season in 16th-century Canada.
Today, Red Bay is a national historic site and Parks Canada tourist centre. An image of the San Juan is used by the United Nations as its logo to promote the preservation and celebration of the world’s underwater heritage, and a five-volume, 2008 compendium of Red Bay archeology written by Grenier and Bernier has been hailed internationally as a model for scholarly research on shipwrecks.
Red Bay is a leading contender to become Canada’s next UNESCO World Heritage Site.