In the 16th century, when Jacques Cartier had barely traveled the St. Lawrence and not much was happening on the Europeans side, the Basques were already engaged in commercial activity in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
Every summer, they came here to hunt whales, fish for cod and — this is what makes Île aux Basques so special — to interact with the Indigenous populations for the fur trade.
It is the oldest and westernmost place of commerce between Indigenous people and Europeans.
I am Mikael Rioux, I am the keeper, captain and guide on Île aux Basques. Here, on this island, the seasonal Basque presence on the island is estimated around 1580 and 1630.
The historical significance of Île aux Basques rests in the fact that it was an important highway junction for First Nations.
The Wolastoqiyik Wahsipekuk are in the area. They used to come in the summer, especially on the riverbank, there were also the Mi’kmaq who frequented the area, the Innu as well and the Iroquois of the St. Lawrence. They came here to trade, to trade with each other, and when the Europeans came, this was where the fur trade began and so on.
There was a lot of bartering that was done with the Basques who frequented the Island.
At that time, the Basques had hunted just about all the whales that were to be hunted in the Bay of Biscay in Spain. They reached the point of crossing the Atlantic to get their resources which were very abundant here in the estuary and in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
The most hunted whale was the right whale. In English, we used to say “the right whale,” “the right whale to kill,” because it is a whale which is slow, which is very fat and which floats on the surface when shot.
Here in the background are the remains of the stoves that were used by the Basques to melt whale fat. They were restored, of course.
Archaeological excavations took place in the early 1990s, but at the time vegetation completely covered these stoves. There is the base which is still original, but it was all reconstructed with the stones that we found around it.
We see black here, it’s charred whale fat. We still find it through these stones. This was really where the oven was discovered, because the seats were still there. There’s another one right next to it here.
This is the Whale Cove, there were two ovens which often operated 24 hours a day.
Inside, there is the hole where we put the wood and then on top there was a huge copper cauldron that was there.
There was a small staircase to go up to drop off the pieces of whale bacon. Often, from the small bay right over there, we would bring up the whale at high tide and once the tide went down one could climb on the whale and butcher it.
The work had to be done very quickly because the smell of a decaying stranded whale is quite strong. They had to hurry, that’s why sometimes they had two stoves in the same place, to speed up the transformation of the whale into oil.
It was very, very important in the European economy to have whale oil, and cod, because of the lean 120 days of the Catholic Church. It was a very, very important food resource for Europe too.
So the Basques made a fortune coming here. The Basques were there to trade, they weren’t there to settle, to take land, to invade.
They didn’t even have a country, the Basques; they had nothing to conquer, nothing to defend. The Basques chose Île aux Basques probably for the reputation as a commercial hub that it already had.
In the history of Indigenous people, if we go back further, archaeological excavations have shown that several very, very distant peoples converged on Île aux Basques and engaged in exchanges.
Here we are at the crossroads of roads that linked all of eastern North America, the Great Lakes, the Far North and the Northwest.
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