A Basque harpoon on display at the Red Bay National Historic & World Heritage Site.

A Basque harpoon on display at the Red Bay National Historic & World Heritage Site. Credit: Zack Metcalfe

The Debt We Owe to Giants

A Sober Encounter with Historic Whaling

I cannot account for my fascination with whaling. For at least eight years I have studied these historic slaughters with morbid curiosity, sometimes for work, often for pleasure, committing to memory names like Spitsbergen and South Georgia with all the zeal of a WWII buff swotting D-Day and Vimy Ridge. But why, I’ve been asked, would an ardent admirer of whales peer so intently at a past in which we gleefully destroyed them? I have given many plausible and long-winded answers to this question, but the honest trust requires only a shrug and a few words of abdication – “it’s history.”

Most (though not all) of this unpalatable past was put to bed before my birth in 1991, giving the early days of commercial whaling a certain sterility when viewed through museum glass, dusty books and grainy documentary films. This temporal distance has been reassuring to me, giving the old annihilation of creatures both intelligent and peaceable the uncomplicated thrill of myth. The history of whaling has been made clean by time, allowing people like myself to read romanticism into what, back then, was unambiguous butchery. Maybe that’s why I went to Labrador, to tear down the illusions in my own mind.

It began with the Basque, an enduring society in western Europe universally accepted as history’s first commercial whalers, taking to the Bay of Biscay with harpoons in hand by the 1100s or earlier. While the opportunistic and subsistent killing of whales has been the labour of countless cultures globally and for millennia, it was the Basque who first developed the tools and techniques for killing whales at scale, and for rendering the products of those whales for an insatiable market. And when the Bay of Biscay was empty, they took their new vocation to the open ocean, pursuing whales where once they had been untouchable.

And we know the Basque came to Atlantic Canada, a region dubbed The Sea of Whales by early European explorers for its abundance and diversity of the largest creatures in all of natural history. Dozens of archeological Basque fishing and whaling sites have been discovered throughout the Gulf of St Lawrence, with no fewer than seven excavated along the coast of southern Labrador since 1978, the first and most famous being Red Bay, now a National Historic Site & World Heritage Site. It operated throughout much of the 1500s, and put to death 25,000-35,000 whales, stripping each of its blubber, baleen and meat. A visit to this open and undulating stretch of Labrador was the natural conclusion to uncouth curiosity.

I arrived mid-July, the wind still bitter cold, Red Bay itself a humble collection of homes, wharves and small businesses standing adjacent to the edifices of Parks Canada – a museum and discovery centre, flanked by plaques and signage. Many of the artifacts which demonstrated Red Bay’s significance to the world, excavated on the mainland, on the nearby Saddle Island or else recovered from the bottom of the bay itself, have since been reburied to preserve them from the ravages of time. To forestall their decay in the relative warmth and brightness of human habitation is very expensive, so those objects which remain on display were chosen carefully – an iron harpoon, a flensing knife, an astrolabe, a single board from a sunken Basque whaling galleon, its surface spongy to the touch, disintegrating like layers of damp tissue. From there I was ferried to Saddle Island, and stood over the reburied tryworks where strips of whale blubber were boiled in cauldrons until they surrendered their oil, and the reburied cooperage, where men assembled 50-gallon barrels from oak so as to ship their riches home.

My affinity for this subject reached its peak when I stepped into a forthcoming exhibit, as yet unavailable to most who visit the Red Bay National Historic Site. Behind doors of glass, in a room with ocean views and temperature-controlled air, there was a Chalupa, a small boat employed in the actual pursuit and killing of whales. This one, which sank here in 1565, was exquisitely preserved by the near freezing temperatures and oxygen-free silt at the bottom of Red Bay. It has since been treated with polyethylene glycol to forestall decomposition, the environment of the room specifically and continuously tailored to stifle hungry bacteria.

Chalupa. // Credit: Zack Metcalfe

This Chalupa had space for seven men, each pulling an ore until their prey was within range, at which point the harpooner – celebrities of the whaling age – would detach his seat and set it aside so as to stand in the bow unhindered. His harpoons were not intended to kill the whale, merely to lodge in its flesh, connecting the whale by rope to a wooden buoy which would be thrown into the water, marking the whale’s position thereafter and exhausting the creature as it swam and dove. Once the whale had taken enough harpoons and spent enough of its strength, these small Chalupas would again close the gap, the harpooner now taking up his lance, plunging it into the whale again and again, working the weapon through holes in the flesh until a vital organ was pierced, achieved when blood began spouting from the blowhole. The dead giant was then towed by an accompanying ship into Red Bay, where it was stripped in shallow water.

I was captivated by this lone Chalupa, knowing that its wood and iron had witnessed such violent feats of strength and courage and capitalism. These men chased leviathans, stabbed them and listened to their death throes, all the while paddling through supernatural sums of blood and gore. History spoke loudly through this small boat, compressing the centuries between myself and deeds I could not have stomached.

The remains of whales slain by this Chalupa and others over 400 years ago have accrued on the coastline immediately opposite the community of Red Bay, on the so-called Boney Shore Walking Trail. The grass is tall on this particular shore, the detritus of centuries largely covered over with moss, bushes and the turning of soil, such that visitors imagine the bones of whales have been buried with time, but walk only a few minutes and you will discover, all at once, that what you mistook for scattered driftwood is in fact a spectrum of skulls, vertebrae, ribs, phalanges and mandibles, bleached white and splintered since 1604, when last the Basque added to the pile. It’s forbidden to disturb these bones, lest this open tomb lose its sense of scale. I ran my hands along the base of a skull, trying to imagine the totality of the organism it once constituted, but where imagination failed, fate provided.

A fragment of whale skull on the Boney Shore Walking Trail in Red Bay, Labrador.
A fragment of whale skull on the Boney Shore Walking Trail in Red Bay, Labrador. // Credit: Zack Metcalfe

The news worked its way through southern Labrador on the very day I visited the bones – a whale had beached in L’Anse-au-Loup, less than an hour’s drive from Red Bay, so of course I made the trip. This was an adult humpback pressed against the beach by the waves, its body bloated with decay, the exceptional seal of its skin and blubber trapping a cooked mass of gluttonous bacteria. It’s a tragic truth that when whales die and wash ashore, they become ugly, portions of the body collapsing under their own weight while others balloon.

I would have cried, were I prone to that sort of thing. The death of this giant was a final blow to my detached fascination with Basque whaling. Now it was real, or as real as could be expected 400 years after the fact, each and every one of those bones belonging to a creature related to this dead humpback, each and every one of those preserved tools and weapons used to achieve exactly this mortal outcome. I touched and then squeezed the mass of fibrous tissue which was her fluke, and mourned her passing in a quiet way.

A dead Humpback whale in L'Anse-au-Loup, Labrador
A dead Humpback whale in L’Anse-au-Loup, Labrador. // Credit: Zack Metcalfe

Connecting her with the Basque whalers of the 1500s was an emotional indulgence, not a logical one. The Basque, after all, hunted Right and Bowhead whales, species well represented on the Boney Shore Walking Trail, but they did not hunt Humpbacks, who were, at the time, too fast to be caught, and they retired from this industry in the 1600s, just when the international community began taking their techniques to new extremes. What’s more, I had no reason to suppose that we, humanity, were involved in this humpback’s death. There were no wounds.

What this beached whale really did was kill any remaining romanticism I attached to the history of whaling, a history which, after all, persists today, in the still crippled populations of various species globally, and in the commercial whaling ships of Norway, Iceland and Japan, still dragging these magnificent creatures onto steel decks for hasty disassembly and sale. My curiosity is augmented now, with the flesh and blood and pain which accompanied the hunt 500 years ago as it does today. We owe a profound debt to the world of whales, for which conservation is the only currency.

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Eastern Perspectives

Zack Metcalfe is a freelance journalist, columnist and author based in the Maritimes.