[write-up of a contribution made to the excellent MAD roundtables at IMC, posted here during ‘virtual’ IMC]

There is an important distinction between using whales and hunting whales: using whales means relying on beached whales, or opportunistic scavenging, versus actively hunting whales out at sea. The Basques are typically considered to be the earliest medieval whalers [1]. Their activities supposedly go back to the 7th century, when they supplied a kind of oil to light the abbey of Jumièges; this oil may have been whale oil, but the sources are not clear about the exact substance. The first reliable evidence based on legal and fiscal sources (levies on whaling revenues) stems from the 12th and 13th century [2]. “Historians believe that the Basques began whaling as many others did, with opportunistic beaching and scavenging, followed by driving whales ashore, followed by pelagic pursuit.” [3] From the 13th century onwards the Basques (and possibly other Atlantic seaboard people of Europe?) started hunting whales out at sea, since advances in their boat building technology meant that they no longer had to ‘scavenge’ beached whales, but now had vessels large and seaworthy enough to pursue whales out into the ocean. The Basques moved further out from the Bay of Biscay, as there is some indication that whales were not coming as close to land as they had before (due to climate change or over-hunting?). Something may have been going on in the natural environment of the 13th century that changed the migration patterns of whales. “Ultimately, it was the combination of market demands, investors, and better maps that allowed the Basques to move from subsistence whaling in the Bay of Biscay to the open waters of the North Atlantic by the fifteenth century. Most believe that the Basques were forced to leave Europe in response to the virtual extinction of whale stocks in their local waters.” [4]

In the 14th century the Basques “had begun their intensive quest for right whales” [5]. Right whales (Eubalaena glacialis) are common acrosss the North Atlantic, they migrate in spring and autumn, and it is thought their breeding grounds were in the Bay of Biscay [6]. Since they also appear in large numbers off the coast of Labrador, it is likely that Basque whalers following their quarry for longer and longer distances may have at some point reached North American shores. Hunting of whales by the Basques in the seas west of Britain may have already led to whaling in the oceanic region between Greenland and Labrador by the end of the 14th century. [7]

Bit by bit over the next 200 years the Atlantic waters off Portugal, Spain, France were discovered as whalers ventured further out, eventually leading to the northern trans-Atlantic voyages first securely documented for John Cabot who embarked from Bristol in 1497. Hence the rest of my talk concentrated on the Basque whaling station of Red Bay, Labrador, which was established in the 16th century, and was investigated by archaeologists in the 1980s (uncovering a shipwreck site, the remains of structures associated with train oil processing, and with hundreds of whale bones still scattered over the shore) following archival research into Basque documents – a ground-breaking example of the successful linking of documentary and material evidence, as well as some fascinating remains of whales and whaling practices. The type of boats the 16th-century Basque used were apparently not that different from the 13th-century versions; whaling techniques meant pursuing an individual whale out at sea by one or more smaller boats, using harpoons and spears, which were carried aboard or towed by the big, ocean-going vessel (‘mother ship’), hence the ability to travel great distances by the Basque whalers.

Hunting strategies in the 16th century consisted of watching for sighting of whales, either from the shore or from small rowing boats called chalupas or shallops; once sighted, larger whaleships were called in, and once a whaleship was positioned between the whale and the open sea, harpoons were thrown; whales were harpooned and held fast, also lanced, until they tired out and died. But in earlier times, it seems the strategies were more based on driving whales towards shore using multiple boats; once in the shallow water, “hunters could strike at whales with lances or spears, hoping to run them further aground or to deliver a killing blow.” [8]

In early 16th century Basque whalers crossed the North Atlantic by the hundreds, then thousands, to Labrador, although some historians insist upon an arrival in the 15th century or even earlier. The whales hunted were mainly right whales and bowhead whales. During the 16th century Basques whalers, concentrated around the great whaling station of Red Bay, took an estimated 20 to 40 thousand whales from the seas around Labrador and Newfoundland. [9] According to Mark Kurlansky, author of the popular Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, and an equally popular history of the Basques (The Basque History of the World), the Basques were in contact with Norse traders as early as the 9th century, from whom they learnt not just how to build better ships, but also about cod. Since the Basques had been salting whale meat, they applied this technique to cod, which enabled them to travel much further from the Bay of Biscay without catches perishing, but also to pursue whales further, since apparently right whales were getting scarcer about the Bay of Biscay. “By pursuing northern cod, and provisioning their ships with salt cod, they then were able to start chasing the whale into its summer grounds, up to Iceland, Norway, the Hebrides, and the Faroes.” [10] Kurlansky agued that by around the year 1000 the Basques were taking whales in their northern feeding grounds, more than 1,000 miles north from Basque territory. He mistook a generic reference to the sighting of twenty foreign ships sailing westward past Iceland in 1421 for specific reference to Basque vessels. “This alleged sighting and other unsubstantiated references, some of them from accounts dating to the seventeenth century and faithfully repeated by uncritical writers, have led to persistent theories that the Basques were fishing and whaling in North American waters long before John Cabot.” [11] But wishful thinking appears to play a greater part than actual evidence, for Brian Fagan has debunked the story: “Unfortunately Basque Atlantic voyaging is cloaked in the passions of nationalist mythmaking.” [12] Let’s leave the final word on this controversy to Selma Huxley Barkham, whose painstaking archival research led to the archaeological discovery of the Red Bay whaling station: “Those cheerful fellows who chased whales further and further out into the Atlantic (having first eliminated, in theory, all whales along their own Cantabrian coast), those pioneer Basques who sailed up to Iceland and then on to Greenland in medieval times, accompanied by some obliging pilot … those men who miraculously bumped into Terranova (and kept it secret) more than a hundred years before Cabot, those men are rather different from … more mundane Basques who installed a flourishing and efficient whaling industry during the … sixtenth century.” [13]

So what about the connection between whaling and trans-Atlantic voyages of discovery? The Norse, who some 500 years earlier had also reached North American shores, appear not to have hunted whales, but largely passively used whales, i.e. exploited stranded whales.[14] “Most historians assume that scavenging of stranded whales, and not hunting, was the primary means of acquiring whale products in the Middle Ages, and they are probably right.” [15] If the Norse did not actively hunt whales out at sea, nor have any documented contacts with the enterprising Basques, but had certainly reached North America by around 1000 (as the settlement of L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland incontrovertibly shows), how then did they brave the unknown Atlantic crossing?

Instead of the whale, the Norse may well have had another animal to follow across the Atlantic… There is the parallel of observing bird flight: observation of the routes migrating seabirds fly along may have led to mariners following the same path. Bird flight paths will have remained the same for millenia, unless drastic climate change or weather pattern change occurred. An example discovered only recently is the migratory route of the red-necked phalarope (Phalaropus lobastus), a rather small, insignificant-looking and endangered species of shore-living bird. Birds nesting on the Shetland Isles were tagged in 2013 with a tiny geolocator. From this the scientists learned that the phalarope had flown from Shetland across the Atlantic via the Faroes, Iceland and Greenland, south to Labrador and then down the eastern seabord of the US, across the Caribbean and Mexico, ending up off the coast of Ecuador and Peru. With the return journey this makes an annual round-trip of 16,000 miles. If Norse sailors followed the phalarope from Shetland (or Iceland or Greenland for that matter) they would have been led to sub-Arctic Canada and Newfoundland. The moral of the story is that sometimes it is not the largest —whales — but the smallest — the tiny phalarope — one should look to for an answer.


  • A. Aguilar, ‘A Review of Old Basque Whaling and its Effect on the Right Whales (Eubalaena glacialis) of the North Atlantic’, Report of the International Whaling Commission, Special Issue 10 (1986): 191-99
  • Red Bay archaeological report in 5 vols: R. Grenier, M. Bernier and W. Stevens (eds), The Underwater Archaeology of Red Bay: Basque Shipbuilding and Whaling in the 16th Century (Ottawa: Parks Canada, 2007)
  • Selma Barkham, The Basque Coast of Newfoundland (Newfoundland: Great Northern Peninsula Development corporation, 1989)
  • Selma Barkham, ‘The Documentary Evidence for Basque Whaling Ships in the Strait of Belle Isle’, in G. M. Story (ed.), Early European Exploration and Settlement and Exploitation in Atlantic Canada, St John’s: Memorial University of Newfoundland, 1982
  • Vicki Szabo, Monstrous Fishes and the Mead-Dark Sea: Whaling in the Medieval North Atlantic (Leiden: Brill, 2008)
  • Vicki Szabo, ‘Subsistence Whaling and the Norse Diaspora: Norsemen, Basques, and Whale Use in the Western North Atlantic, ca. AD 900-1640’, in B. Hudson (ed.), Studies in the Medieval Atlantic, pp. 65-99
  • Brian Fagan, Fish on Friday: Feasting, Fasting, and the Discovery of the New World, NY: Perseus Books, 2007

Read sceptically:

  • Mark Kurlansky, Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, NY: Walker, 1997
  • idem, The Basque History of the World, NY: Walker, 1999


[1] Szabo, ‘Subsistence Whaling’, p. 69

[2] Szabo, ‘Subsistence Whaling’, pp. 70 and 91n25

[3] Szabo, ‘Subsistence Whaling’, p. 70. At the beginning of the twelfth century, whales may have already been hunted close to shore off Normandy, cf. M. de Certain, ‘Raoul Tortaire’, Bibliothèque de l’École Des Chartes 16, 4e série, t. 1, 1839, pp. 489–521, especially pp. 510 and 515-16 (available in Open Access at http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k123908/) . I am grateful to Thierry Buquet for this reference.

[4] Szabo, ‘Subsistence Whaling’, p. 86

[5] Szabo, ‘Subsistence Whaling’, p. 76

[6] Szabo, ‘Subsistence Whaling’, p. 78

[7] B. Hudson, ‘Prologue’, Studies in the Medieval Atlantic, p. 18

[8] Szabo, ‘Subsistence Whaling’, p. 72

[9] Szabo, ‘Subsistence Whaling’, p. 65

[10] Kurlansky, Basque, p. 53, cited by Fagan, Fish on Friday, p. 203

[11] Fagan, Fish on Friday, p. 203

[12] Fagan, Fish on Friday, p. 204

[13] Barkham, ‘Documentary Evidence’, p. 53, cited Fagan, p. 204

[14] Szabo, ‘Subsistence Whaling’, p. 68

[15] Szabo, ‘Subsistence Whaling’, p. 91n24