Of Fishermen and Navigators

Whaling Ship

This is a self- consciously Christian blog written for a Christian audience. Our hope at ChristianRoots Canada, is for you to be inspired to dig deeper into the material you read here. We hope you will become like the Bereans (See Acts 17:11), by being diligent to check any information against your own research.

In our first post, you were challenged to think about why we celebrate Canada Day and not Dominion Day.  July 1st, 1867, was the day that Canada was founded as the Dominion of Canada. Our primary mission is to show you through historical research, how God sovereignly used world events to bring Canada to this point in history in 2017. It is He who sets up nations and rules over all the earth, whether people believe it or not. (Daniel 2: 21 – He changes times and seasons; he removes kings and sets up kings… )

Next, you saw how the Reformation in Europe (mainly France) brought explorers to our shores. Do you wonder HOW they knew that this land even existed? Well, we will explore the part that seafarers played in God’s plan, which led to the settling of New France by French Reformers (Huguenots) .

You will notice how God orchestrates many players on the world stage at the same time, weaving an intricate series of plots and subplots. 

One such plot line was the desire people had for lighting their homes with oil, and fishermen (whalers) discovering that they could use whale oil to light their lamps AND have an abundance of meat for the winter months. We, then, get a whaling industry which peaks at or around the time that the explorers were setting out across the oceans to discover new lands and search for a passage to the Orient.

Following the whales led the whalers to their feeding grounds during migration. It is often quoted in older Canadian history books that Basque and Norman fishermen discovered Newfoundland, but not much detail is given. However, according to Wikipedia, (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Basque_whaling),

The first undisputed presence of Basque whaling expeditions in the New World was in the second quarter of the 16th century. It appears to have been the French Basques, following the lead of Breton cod-fishermen that reported finding rich whaling grounds in “Terranova” (Newfoundland and Labrador). The Basques called the area they frequented “Grandbaya” (Grand Bay), today known as the Strait of Belle Isle, which separates Newfoundland from southern Labrador.

Their initial voyages to this area were mixed cod and whaling ventures. Instead of returning home with whale oil, they brought back whale meat in brine. The French Basque ship La Catherine d’Urtubie made the first known voyage involving whale products in 1530, when she supposedly returned with 4,500 dried and cured cod, as well as twelve barrels of whale meat “without flippers or tail” (a phrase for whale meat in brine).

After a period of development, expeditions were sent purely aimed at obtaining whale oil. The first establishments for processing whale oil in southern Labrador may have been built in the late 1530s, although it wasn’t until 1548 that notarial documents confirm this.

By the 1540s, when the Spanish Basques began sending whaling expeditions to Terranova, the ventures were no longer experimental, but a “resounding financial success from their inception.

By the end of the decade they were delivering large cargoes of whale oil to Bristol, London, and Flanders. A large market existed for “lumera”, as whale oil used for lighting was called. “Sain” or “grasa de ballena” was also used (by mixing it with tar and oakum) for caulking ships, as well as in the textile industry.

Ambroise Paré (1510–90), who visited Bayonne when King Charles IX (r. 1560–74) was there in 1564, said they used the baleen to “make farthingales, stays for women, knife-handles, and many other things.

Most documents dealing with whaling in Terranova concern the years 1548 to 1588, with the largest quantity dealing with the harbor of Red Bay or “Less Buttes” – both names in reference to the red granite cliffs of the region. The last overwintering in Red Bay was made in 1603.

During their onshore stays, the whalers developed relations with American natives that led to the establishment of a purpose-specific language with both American native and Basque elements.

So we see that the desire for whale oil for lighting spawned other industries such as cod and whale processing, developing caulking for ships, stays for women’s clothing, and knife handles for cutlery. This ushered in a new era of mercantile trade. 

Yet another plot on the world’s stage was the demise of Genghis Khan and, at the same time, the rise of Islam, which made it dangerous to travel the “silk route.” That severely curtailed overland access to the Orient – or Asia.

Since the normal trade routes were now closed to Europeans, traders began to look for a passage to India and China to access the luxuries that they had become accustomed to.  It created the impetus for the growth in shipbuilding industry and sea exploration.

With the expansion of the Muslim world around the Mediterranean Sea, ships could no longer use the Suez Canal to access the goods of the Orient. The top items of trade were silks, tea and spices.

Canadian History books often repeat the narrative that fishermen came to Newfoundland and Nova Scotia where they traded their tools, equipment, and guns (trappings of Western life) for furs from the Natives. The narrative continued that the natives were intrigued with the western way of life that they observed on the beaches, and gradually emerged from hiding to trade their furs for those items. So began the Fur Trade.  

While that may be true, we will learn in the next post that the first intentional French settlers of New France were three Huguenot men Pierre de Chauvin de TonnetuitFrançois Gravé Du Pont (uncle of Samuel de Champlain), and  Pierre Du Gua de Monts

Pierre de Chauvin de Tonnetuit came from a wealthy merchant family, had served King Henry lV in the wars, and was elevated to service in the king’s court. Having developed an interest in maritime and commercial enterprises by 1596, he was granted a fur trading monopoly for New France by the King in 1599.

He was aware that Basque and Norman whalers used Tadoussac at the junction of the Saguenay and the St. Lawrence Rivers as the centre of the fur trade and fishing for about 50 years (about 1540’s). This, then, is another plot line in the great unfolding drama of HIS-story.   

Make It Personal:

  • Research the whaling industry. How has your life benefitted from that?
  • Read about King Henry lV of France and his influence on the French Reformation.
  • Note how the King recanted to Catholicism to unite the country.
  • Raymond Morton in his book, ‘The Story of Canada’ asserted that Champlain was a Huguenot turned Jesuit. Since he was the nephew of a Huguenot trader, that is very plausible. Can you find information on that?