More than 25,000 whales were slaughtered in this quaint little harbour on Labrador’s Atlantic shore.
That’s where I thought it got its name – so much blood.
Red Bay, Labrador, is named for the red ceramic tiles scattered around its rugged shore. Basque sailors in Spain and France loaded the holds of their sailing ships with ceramic roof tiles to use as ballast as they set sail in the 1500s for the Strait of Belle Isle to hunt Bowhead and Right whales.
When they reached Labrador eight weeks later, the Basques dumped the red tiles on the beach and filled their holds with hundreds of barrels of whale oil. Whale oil 500 years ago was as valuable and as domestically sought after as petroleum is today.
Nearly everything in daily life in the 1500s was made easier with whale oil.
Naturalists estimate 80,000 whales once roamed the Strait of Belle Isle and the Labrador Sea.
Hunting whales died off in the early 1800s and natural growth took over the area’s beaches and shoreline covering up the red tiles. Red Bay became just an isolated, little fishing village on Labrador’s Atlantic shore until Dr. Selma Barkham started studying Basque history and lifestyles on the Bay of Biscay in France and Spain.
The Basques had recorded ancient history about sailing to Canada 500 years ago to hunt whales. In their records Red Bay was known as Butus.
Further study led to the discovery of Butus (Red Bay) as the whale hunting capital of the world.
Barkham’s studies got Parks Canada interested in Red Bay 15 years ago and their investigations uncovered an elaborate history of the little fishing port. It’s now a National Historic Site and a World Heritage Site.
Parks Canada archaeologists wearing scuba gear explored the harbour’s bottom and found hundreds of whale skeletons, plus three Basque whaling ships.
One of the smaller hunting boats called a Chalupa – in which six men rowed a harpooner to chase after whales that weighed up to 60 tons. They preferred Right Whales because they floated after being killed by a number of harpoon stabs. The Chapula is on display at Red Bay and is the world’s oldest known whale-hunting craft.
A much larger sailing ship – the galleon San Juan – was discovered well preserved in the cold water under tons of silt. It was studied and measured in every possible detail and then covered up again under the silt to be further preserved.
The details of this galleon that sank in a storm in 1565 are now being used to build an exact replica in Basque country in Spain. It is proposed to eventually sail to Red Bay as did about 2,000 Basque men and boys each summer.
On the rugged shores around the bay visitors can see the stone ovens the Basques built to boil whale blubber to extract the valuable oil. Whale bones were used for a variety of products and ladies’ corsets was one of the more popular items. Baleen, a flexible fabric found in the mouth of Right Whales was called whale bone and used to make . . .
. . . corsets, buggy whips and toys . . .
Whales’ teeth were carved into chess pieces, piano keys and other artwork. Whale oil was used to fuel lamps and candles, plus to make soap, margarine and other lubricants.
Parks Canada has a large information centre at Red Bay that displays many of the whaling artifacts found under the water and from archaeological digs around the village.
The Whalers Station Restaurant, next to the information centre, offers a fish chowder soup that is worth the drive alone. At the entrance to the restaurant there is a large vertebra from a whale’s backbone.
Roadstories.ca would like to extend a special photo Thank You to Chris Reardon and John McQuarrie for Parks Canada, as well as Barrett & MacKay Photo and Dru Kennedy Photography for Newfoundland and Labrador Tourism.