The 1563 Basque Will

A researcher in Spain uncovers the oldest civil document written in Canada.

Interview by Joanna Dawson

May 8, 2014

In 1563, a Basque sailor named Domingo de Luca could sense his end was near. So, on May 15th, he dictated his last will and testament while fishing near Placentia Bay, Newfoundland. Four hundred and fifty years later, Dr. Michael Barkham uncovered de Luca’s final words in an archive in Spain and the discovery has communities on both sides of the Atlantic buzzing.

Tom O’Keefe, president of the Placentia Area Historical Society, spoke with Canada’s History.

We know that Basque whalers and fisherman voyaged to Atlantic Canada beginning in the 16th century. In fact, much of what we know about Basque history in Canada is thanks to the work of Dr. Barkham’s mother, Dr. Selma Barkham. But the Basque were a private lot — not publicizing their exploits and adventures like other European travellers — and so the written record is a bit sparse.

De Luca’s will is one of few such records and is believed to be the oldest original civil document written in Canada. For the residents of Placentia, Newfoundland, the will is particularly fascinating. One of de Luca’s final wishes was to be, “buried in this port of Plazencia to a place where those who die are usually taken.”

Tom O’Keefe explains the will is an important key to unlocking this history of the Basque in Newfoundland.

“This gives documented proof that there was a graveyard even in 1563 existing in Placentia,” O’Keefe says, “which would indicate that the Basque and others had probably been here at least a few years before that.”

Placentia has a diverse history with footprints left behind from many different nations. Evidence suggests that both the Beothuk and Mi’kmaq lived and travelled in the area prior to contact with European colonists, moving up and down the coast to fish, hunt and trap.

In 1662, the French set up a permanent colony called Plaisance, which was the French capital of Newfoundland. The English took over following the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 and even the Americans once reigned when they established a military base in Argentia during the Second World War.

O’Keefe hopes that de Luca’s will encourages further investigation and interest in yet another layer of the community’s history. The historical society raised money for a translation of the will, which was unveiled in a community ceremony this year. In addition to involving local dignitaries and community members, O’Keefe and other volunteers reached out to researchers in Spain in preparation.

“We want to develop our links with the early Basque,” O’Keefe explains. ““We want to solidify knowledge in Placentia among local people.”

And as for de Luca? Did he get his final wish?

Well, that’s yet to be determined.

Basque headstones have been found in a local churchyard in Placentia, although none bearing de Luca’s name and none dating back as far as 1563. We can expect that historians and archaeologists will be anxious to solve this mystery in the coming years.

For more information about the Basque will or the Placentia Area Historical Society, visit PlacentiaHistory.ca. Thank you to Tom O’Keefe for the interview and for providing the images.

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