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Chapter 5

Whale Hunting – Île aux Basques, 16th Century

We find ourselves on Île aux Basques, just off the shore from Trois-Pistoles. We’re transported back to the 16th century with its try-pots (or tryworks) and other tools used by Basque fishers to render whale blubber.

Indigenous History and Archeological Digs

Before the arrival of Basque fishers, this island had been visited by Indigenous people for millennia. They would come to hunt, fish, forage, and trade. Seal hunting was a particular draw for them. Archeological excavations on this small site have found evidence of Indigenous settlement dating back to the Woodland period, or about 1000 to 1500 BCE. These suggest that it was a relatively important location for trade among the Indigenous populations of northeastern North America. This hypothesis is supported by the presence of exotic rocks among the artifacts found on the island: quartzite from north-central Quebec near James Bay, quartz from Ramah Bay on the northern coast of Labrador, and Appalachian chert from Maine.

Arrival of Europeans

The discovery of a few Scandinavian-style buildings and the remains of a drakkar (longship) at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland is evidence of the presence of Scandinavians and Northmen (Norwegians, often referred to as Norse or Vikings) on this side of the Atlantic circa 1000 CE. Starting in the 15th and 16th centuries, European explorers from France, England, Spain, and Portugal began to venture deeper into the Gulf of St. Lawrence, where their ships would probably have been seen by Indigenous people who lived along the river.

Well before Jacques Cartier, whalers travelled to the shores of Newfoundland, the St. Lawrence River and Chaleur Bay to hunt whales and fish for cod. European contact arrived in the person of explorers such as John Cabot (a Venetian sailing under the English flag); Gaspar and Miguel Corte-Real, João Fernandes Lavrador and João Álvares Fagundes of Portugal, and Thomas Aubert of Dieppe, France, who was the first to capture Indigenous people and bring them back to Europe.

First Contact

Early encounters between Europeans and Indigenous peoples were coloured by a mutual unease. Giovanni da Verrazzano wrote about an encounter with a group of Algonquians during his 1524 voyage along the east coast of North America. Unwilling to approach his boat, the group traded objects “using a rope.”

According to Laurier Turgeon, the first interactions between Europeans and Indigenous peoples took the form of exchanges of objects. These interactions were often impromptu, and fishers rarely thought to bring items specifically for trade. The first European whalers and cod fishers brought only tools, clothing, blankets, and food for the fishing season, not items to trade.

Yet, slowly, over decades of contact, trade became more frequent. As the fishing season approached, Europeans would stock their ships with a larger quantity of goods to trade for furs: hatchets, cooking pots, metal arrowheads, awls, greatcoats, blankets, bread, peas, beans, and more.

The seasonal presence of Basque fishers influenced the lives of local Indigenous peoples.

The Basque Economy

The Basque country is located in southern France and northern Spain, along the Atlantic coast.

The inhabitants of this region hunted whales, honing their techniques from as early as the 9th century. They sold whale products, primarily oil, throughout Europe. Made by rendering down the fatty blubber of the animal, this product was used to light homes. High demand for whale oil made it an extremely valuable good. As for the other parts of the whale, its bones were used for toolmaking, while baleen was used to make whips, bows, shields, and helmets for military use, as well as in millinery and to make trim for clothing.

Arrival of the Basques in America

Starting in the 14th century, Basque fishers began traveling beyond the coast of the Bay of Biscay following whales, which grew more plentiful as they traveled north along the European coast. In the early 15th century, they often trawled the waters off Scotland and Iceland, and soon turned toward the New World. Sailing into the waters of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, they made their first encounters with the First Nations.

Documents also attest to the presence of Basque fishers during Champlain’s voyages to Red Bay (in Labrador) and Tadoussac in 1603. Until 1604, the Basques set up temporary villages on the shores of the river for the duration of the fishing season, without attempting to settle there permanently.

Hunting and Fishing Seasons

At the start of the season, the Basques would locate a flat beach or island where they could set up camp for a period of three to four months. They would unload all of their gear, depending on the type of fishing they planned to do, and set up what was needed to process the products they intended to sell.

Onboard their large ships would be 50 to 100 crew members and all of the equipment needed for a full season of whaling and cod-fishing.

Initially, they came to the St. Lawrence strictly for whaling. Over the years, as the number of whales dwindled, they began filling their ships’ holds with salted and dried cod. Later still, during leaner fishing seasons, they added beaver pelts to their wares.


A large whale could provide approximately 64,000 litres of oil. A ship could carry the equivalent of five large whales, for a total of over 300,000 litres of oil. A shipment of oil was worth enough to cover insurance, wages, the purchase of the ship and provisions, with profit on top of that. The Basques were masters of a very profitable industry, which nonetheless went into decline around 1580.

For many decades, the Basques brought back to Europe an average of 20,000 barrels of oil per year, or the equivalent of 50 large whales. As a result, the whale population dropped significantly.

International tensions gradually forced the Basque whalers to retreat from the St. Lawrence River. In addition, the Dutch, who had hired Basque whalers to learn their techniques and subsequently equipped themselves with a fleet of over 200 whaling ships, rapidly overtook the Basques and put an end to their domination of the European whale-oil trade.

Whaling Techniques

Historian Mario Mimeault summarized Champlain’s descriptions of Basque whaling techniques as he observed them during his voyages in the Americas:

“Champlain’s journal provides an excellent description of the techniques used by these fishermen. Work would begin as soon as they arrived on the fishing site, where the whaling ship had to be secured. Next, the men would build an observation post on the highest outcropping overlooking the sea, and post a lookout there. This lookout would spot whales as they emerged from the water, or by the spout of water projected from their blowholes, using this to estimate the animal’s size and to alert the others if he deemed it worth hunting. Meanwhile, other crew members prepared for the hunt, loading at least 150 fathoms (one fathom measures 1.62 metres or five and a half feet) of hawser (thick rope) and a large number of partisans (a weapon measuring 1.25 metres, or just over 5 feet and a half long), with a sharp 15-cm-long blade at the tip used to lacerate and weaken the whale. Their most important tool was ‘a long yron two and one half feet long at the baſe, fitted into a shaft meaſuring one demy-pique, with a hole in the centre where the hawſer attaches.’”

Here is the full quote on whaling that can be found in the accounts of Champlain’s second voyage to America:

“Thoſe who are moſt adept at this fishing are the Baſques, who do so by placing their vessels in a safe harbour, or cloſe to where they believe there is a good number of Whales, & stock several rowboats with good Men & hawſers, which are small ropes made of the best hemp that can be found, with a length no shorter than one hundred & fifty fathoms, & many partiſans meaſuring one demy-pique with iron tips six inches wide, others meaſuring one & a half feet & two long, & very sharp. In each boat there is a Harpooner, the most skilled and willing of them all; lykewiſe he draws the largest wage from the maſters, as his is the most dangerous taſk. When the rowboat leaves the harbour, they look in all directions for Whales, going from the edge of one shore to the other: & seeing nothing, they land & search from an outcropping, the hyghest they might find, to see as far as possible. There they place a lookout who, upon sighting the Whale, which he may diſcover both by its size as by the water that it spouts through its blowhole, which exceeds one poinçon in volume & reaches the height of two lances & from this Spout they determine how much oil it can afford. Some can bear vp to twenty tymes six poinçons, others less. Vpon sighting this Dreadful Fish, they make haſte to embark in their rowboats &, sped by oars or wind, will rush vntil they are upon it. Spyeing it between two waves, in that very inſtant the Harpooner is to the Bow with his harpoon, a long yron two and one half feet long at the baſe, fitted into a shaft meaſuring one demy-pique, with a hole in the centre where the hawſer attaches, & as soon as the same Harpooner sees his tyme, he throws his harpoon at the Whale and it pierces the animal deeply; the Whale, upon realyzing it has been wounded, goes into a fury & will plunge to the depths of the sea. And if, in its wriggling, it should happen to strike the rowboat or the Men with its tail, it will break them as eaſily as a Glass. As such they riſk being killed by harpooning it; But as soon as they have thrown the harpoon on it, they let out the hawſer vntil the Whale reaches the bottom: & sometymes, when it does not go straight down, it will tow the rowboat more than eight or nyne leagues & will go as swiftly as a horse, & the Men will be most often Compelled to cut the hawſer for fear it will drag them below the water: But when it goes straight down, it will rest there some time & then return slowly to the surface: & and as it reſurfaces they will surround it with two or three boats and their partiſans, with which they will deal the animal several Blows, & feeling them, it returns below the water, looſeing blood, & by this way it is weakened, & when it is dead, it will dive no longer to the bottom, & they tie it with Good Rope & drag it ashore, to the place where they have made their Degrat, which is the place where they render the lard of the same Whale, to make oil. This is the manner in which they fish, and not by cannon fyre, as many believe, as I wrote above. To return to my earlyer Discourſe, after the wounding of the Whale, we took a number of Porpoiſes, which our third offycer harpooned, to our pleaſure and contentment”. (Translated from the original French, Second Voyage, chapter III, pp. 227–9.)

Cod Fishing

The Basques fished for cod to make a dried and salted product called merluche. The cod was loaded onto racks by the fishers; it was then cut, cleaned, and laid out on stones or branches to dry.

Many ships of different tonnages would voyage to America with between 30 and 50 crewmembers aboard, or even up to 100 for very large ships (200 register tons). They carried rowboats, wood to make barrels, and huge quantities of salt to prepare the cod, which was a very lucrative fish.

Mario Mimeault describes the steps involved in cod fishing as follows:

“The first, called splitting, involved three operations. The header cut open the cod and cut off its head, the gutter removed its entrails, and the splitter removed its backbone. The next phase was salting. Once it was laid flat, the fish was covered in salt. The cod would remain like this for twenty-four hours, during which blood and water would be leeched out. The third step, drying, would start once the fish had been washed and laid out on the beach. It would remain there, exposed to sun and wind, for a period of about fifteen days. The cod was then piled and, at the end of the season, loaded aboard. This process required specialized labour and resembled a production line.”

The Transatlantic Cod Trade

In 1520, archives from Cape Breton and Bayonne list only eight vessels in total that were equipped to fish for cod. Later, during the 1550s, this number swelled to 150. Cod became a product that the French imported in large quantities.

In addition to these ships, others would leave from France, Spain, Portugal, and England. Each year, 500 ships sailed the North Atlantic, with a total capacity of 40,000 barrels and 12,000 sailors. In the 1580s, the Basques and the Malouin (residents of Saint-Malo) travelled deep into the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Within a century, French fishers had located and fished nearly all the cod stock from an expanse twice the size of England.

Cod and Indigenous Peoples

Archeological and historical research show that Algonquian populations were not especially interested in cod. The Wolastoqiyik, who lived in what is now Maine and along the St. John River, seem to have been the only peoples who ate this fish. French fishers thus met with little opposition when setting up temporary camps on the shores of the gulf and the river. Cod fishing offered an opportunity for the French to develop relationships with Indigenous peoples, occupy the shoreline, appropriate the space, and develop a colonial territory.

The Fur Trade and Notions of Conquest

Gradually, as impromptu seasonal trading gave way to a formal trade system, the verb conquérir (to “conquer”) made its appearance in legal documents for supply contracts. Laurier Turgeon explains:

“The selling of pelts, or, to use the standard term in colonial history, the fur trade, is associated with the notion of conquest. In the 16th century, trade was seen as a means of establishing and maintaining economic and political domination over Indigenous people and the land they lived on. The verb conquérir (to conquer, as a new market) thus began to appear in early French legal documents to describe the acquisition of goods, especially furs, from the Indians. Contracts signed by the king with the captains of the Roberval expedition to Canada in 1542 stipulated that they would receive “one third [of what] they conquered from trade in goods with the natives of that land.” The expression conquérir des marchandises reappeared in a 1565 supply contract issued by one of the first French vessels chartered for trade by private merchants … The use of the verb conquérir was neither an innocent turn of phrase nor a legal convention, for it had never before appeared in contracts to supply fishing vessels. If its use was restricted to the fur trade, that is certainly because furs were a land-based resource associated with the region and the people who harvested them. ‘Conquering furs’ meant subordinating the Indian labour required in trapping, cutting up, drying, and carrying hides over long distances. This also meant forming alliances with Indigenous peoples, establishing trading posts and, ultimately, conquering land. Samuel de Champlain, founder of the first permanent colony in Canada in the early 16th century, understood the crucial role of trade in establishing dominion over territory. He considered it the best way to subjugate the Indians and lay the foundations for New France in America.”


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Mimeault, M. (2011). Destins de pêcheurs: Les Basques en Nouvelle-France [Fishers destinies: The Basques in New France]. Septentrion.

Baptista, F. G. (2018, August). [Illustration of whale fishing onboard a “chalupa”]. National Geographic.

Proulx, J.-P. (1993). Les Basques et la pêche de la baleine au Labrador au XVIe siècle [The Basques and whale fishing in Labrador in the 16th century]. Environnement Canada, Service des parcs, Lieux historiques nationaux.

Turgeon, L. (2019). Une histoire de la Nouvelle-France: Français et Amérindiens au XVIe siècle [A history of New France: French and Indigenous peoples in the 16th century]. Belin Éditeur.

Illustration: Chapter 5