ON THE HUNT WITH THE BASQUE WHALERS

After the wreck of a Basque galleon—thought to be the San Juan—was discovered off the coast of Canada, National Geographic wrote about its exploration in 1985. Now, we revisit the 16th-century ship’s history to illustrate what we’ve learned about the risks and rewards faced by the Basques in the new lands they called Terranova. Their quarry: baleen whales and the oil from their blubber, worth millions in today’s dollars.

PORT OF PASAJES, SPAIN

PREPARING FOR THE TRIP

Casks loaded with beans, dried peas, bacon, and ship’s biscuits (flour-and-water crackers) sustained the crew. Hearty meals were washed down with wine and hard cider and supplemented with berries, fish, and whale meat, when available.

Explore the Graphic

STRAIT OF BELLE ISLE, CANADA

HOW THEY HUNTED

Scouts patrolled in small boats called chalupas, signaling to other crews when they spotted whales in the Strait of Belle Isle. Skippers of the chalupas, each typically carrying six oarsmen and a harpooner, directed their crews to row in haste—but stealthily—toward the surfacing or sleeping giants.

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RED BAY, CANADA

READY TO RETURN

The Basques were the master whalers of their day, but not all their ships weathered the voyages. Seamen’s court testimony and insurance claims tell of a costly end to the San Juan: driven into the rocks by violent winds before departure in 1565. But the crew survived, many barrels were recovered, and the Basques dominated the hunting grounds of the north into the next century.

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OUTFITTING THE SAN JUAN

Canadian researcher Selma Huxley Barkham pored over Basque archives detailing the fate of the ship and how it was provisioned—

analysis that helped locate the 1565 wreck.

SHIP WEIGHT

CARGO

209

tons

239

tons

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

9

Legend

5 copper

cauldrons

Ship’ s biscuits:

240 barrels

1

5

1,000 barrels were transported in pieces to

preserve space.

5 whaleboats

(chalupas)

2

6

Floorboards could be

removed to fit barrels

on return trips.

3

7

Cider: 220 barrels

Stones secured

barrels.

8

Small barrels:

sardines,

olive oil,

bacon

4

9

Wine

WATER LEVEL

PACKING THE WHALE OIL

Barrels were interlocked to prevent shifting and maximize space. On a typical return voyage, chalupas may have been left behind and some men given extra wages to winter in Red Bay to allow more room for oil.

CARGO

tons

290

10

11

12

13

Fifteen to 20 whales yielded enough oil to fill the cargo hold.

Legend

Bundles of baleen—in higher demand at the end of the 16th century—were stacked and bound.

13

10

Cider

Barrels of ship’s

biscuits, cod

11

1,000 barrels

of whale oil

12

WATER LEVEL

MASTER AND COMMANDED

On a typical voyage, the captain handled navigation and ship operations; the master managed shore operations and cargo. A ship of this size usually had a crew made up of 60 to 65 men and boys.

Captain

Master

Steward (shipboard accounts)

Boatswain (rigging and sails)

Gunner

Carpenter

Caulker

Flenser (strips blubber)

5

Coopers (barrelmakers)

5

Chalupa skippers

5

Harpooners

20

Seamen

16

Apprentices

16TH-CENTURY PROFIT SHARING

The ship’s owners, outfitters, and crew each got a third of the cargo. The captain and master negotiated their share with the owners and outfitters, and the crewmembers’ shares varied based on their position.

$10,000,000

$10,000

per barrel

total value of cargo

in 2018 dollars

Owners and

captain

Outfitters

and master

Crew

Barrels per person

12

8

Officers

Harpooners

4

3

Seamen

Apprentices

PACKING THE WHALE OIL

OUTFITTING THE SAN JUAN

Canadian researcher Selma Huxley Barkham pored over Basque archives detailing the fate of the ship and how it was provisioned—analysis that helped locate the 1565 wreck.

Barrels were interlocked to prevent shifting and maximize space. On a typical return voyage, chalupas may have been left behind and some men given extra wages to winter in Red Bay to allow more room for oil.

5 copper cauldrons

Fifteen to 20 whales yielded enough oil to fill the cargo hold.

5 whaleboats (chalupas)

Cider

Floorboards could be

removed to fit barrels

on return trips.

Barrels of ship’s

biscuits, cod

Small barrels: sardines,

olive oil, bacon

1,000 barrels

of whale oil

Ship’ s biscuits:

240 barrels

WATER LEVEL

WATER LEVEL

1,000 barrels were

transported in pieces

to preserve space.

Bundles of baleen—in higher demand at the end of the 16th century—were stacked and bound.

Cider: 220 barrels

Stones secured barrels.

Wine

MASTER AND COMMANDED

16TH-CENTURY PROFIT SHARING

On a typical voyage, the captain handled navigation and ship operations; the master managed shore operations and cargo. A ship of this size usually had a crew made up of 60 to 65 men and boys.

The ship’s owners, outfitters, and crew each got a third of the cargo. The captain and master negotiated their share with the owners and outfitters, and the crewmembers’ shares varied based on their position.

OFFICERS

Owners and

captain

$10,000,000

total value of cargo

in 2018 dollars

Caulker

Gunner

Carpenter

Steward

(shipboard

accounts)

Boatswain

(rigging and sails)

Captain

Master

Outfitters

and master

$10,000

per barrel

Crew

OFFICERS

20

16

Barrels per person

5

5

5

Flenser

(strips

blubber)

Harpooners

Officers

12

8

Coopers

(barrelmakers)

Seamen

Apprentices

Chalupa

skippers

Harpooners

4

Seamen

Apprentices

3

OUTFITTING THE SAN JUAN

PACKING THE WHALE OIL

Canadian researcher Selma Huxley Barkham pored over Basque archives detailing the fate of the ship and how it was provisioned—analysis that helped locate the 1565 wreck.

Barrels were interlocked to prevent shifting and maximize space. On a typical return voyage, chalupas may have been left behind and some men given extra wages to winter in Red Bay to allow more room for oil.

SHIP WEIGHT

209

tons

Fifteen to 20 whales yielded enough oil to fill the cargo hold.

5 copper cauldrons

CARGO

CARGO

239

tons

tons

290

5 whaleboats (chalupas)

Cider

Floorboards could be

removed to fit barrels

on return trips.

Barrels of ship’s

biscuits, cod

Small barrels: sardines,

olive oil, bacon

1,000 barrels

of whale oil

Ship’ s biscuits:

240 barrels

WATER LEVEL

WATER LEVEL

1,000 barrels were

transported in pieces

to preserve space.

Bundles of baleen—in higher demand at the end of the 16th century—were stacked and bound.

Cider: 220 barrels

Stones secured barrels.

Wine

MASTER AND COMMANDED

16TH-CENTURY PROFIT SHARING

On a typical voyage, the captain handled navigation and ship operations; the master managed shore operations and cargo. A ship of this size usually had a crew made up of 60 to 65 men and boys.

The ship’s owners, outfitters, and crew each got a third of the cargo. The captain and master negotiated their share with the owners and outfitters, and the crewmembers’ shares varied based on their position.

OFFICERS

Owners and

captain

$10,000,000

Caulker

Gunner

Carpenter

Steward

(shipboard

accounts)

Boatswain

(rigging and sails)

Captain

Master

total value of cargo

in 2018 dollars

Outfitters

and master

$10,000

OFFICERS

20

per barrel

Crew

16

5

5

5

Barrels per person

Flenser

(strips

blubber)

Coopers

(barrelmakers)

Seamen

Apprentices

Chalupa

skippers

Harpooners

Harpooners

Officers

12

8

4

Seamen

Apprentices

3

FERNANDO G. BAPTISTA, RILEY D. CHAMPINE, Daisy Chung, and EVE CONANT, NGM STAFF; PATRICIA HEALY. SHIZUKA AOKI and ELIJAH LEE, BIORENDER (BOWHEAD WHALE, INTERNAL ANATOMY). SOURCES: XABIER AGOTE and MIKEL LEOZ AIZPURU, ALBAOLA Basque Maritime Heritage Association; BRAD LOEWEN, UNIVERSITÉ DE MONTRÉAL; NINYA MIKHAILA AND JANE MALCOLM-DAVIES, THE TUDOR TAILOR; J. CRAIG GEORGE, DEPARTMENT OF WILDLIFE MANAGEMENT, UTQIAĠVIK, ALASKA; ROSALIND ROLLAND, ANDERSON CABOT CENTER FOR OCEAN LIFE, NEW ENGLAND AQUARIUM; Brenna Frasier, Saint Mary’s University, Nova Scotia; cindy gibbons, Parks Canada

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