Archeology

This sunken treasure is pure history

Julianne Labreche,Robert Plaskin December 4 1978
Archeology

This sunken treasure is pure history

Julianne Labreche,Robert Plaskin December 4 1978

This sunken treasure is pure history

Archeology

Just 30 feet down in the icy Labrador waters, archeologist Robert Grenier and his three-person diving team spied the wreck. There on the harbor floor in Red Bay, hidden by thick layers of silt and sea kelp, lay the missing hulk of a sunken 16th-century Spanish galleon, named the San Juan. The team’s discovery, after only three days of searching, seemed almost too easy. But it will take historians some time to evaluate the historical significance of the underwater find. When Grenier, a federal civil servant with Parks Canada, announced in late October that the 300-ton Spanish vessel had been found, the discovery was immediately hailed as the earliest archeological find in Canadian waters. But far more important, it represents a valuable missing link in a little known 60-year period of this country’s history.

Until recently, only vague knowledge had existed of the time between Jacques Cartier’s expedition to Canada in 1541 and Samuel de Champlain’s arrival in the early 1600s. Now, 16th-century insurance claims turned up in archives in Spain by Canadian archivist Selma Barkham—which led to the discovery of the San Juan—document the passage of many other Spanish Basque galleons that braved the Atlantic to make dangerous harpoon hunts of whales along the coastal shores of Labrador. “It’s incredible how accurate the documents have been in helping us to identify the period,” says Patricia Kennedy, head of the pre-Confederation records and manuscripts section at the Public Archives of Canada in Ottawa. Barkham was able to give Grenier an exact location of the San Juan sinking, which occurred in 1565, from descriptions of the site contained in legal records of a feud between two Spanish harpooners over whale oil recovered from the wreck. The vessel had almost been fully loaded with whale oil when a northeasterly storm blew up. The ship tore loose from its moorings, and the vessel was driven on the rocks and sank. The discovery is expected to provide invaluable new clues to research, which has already taken Barkham four years, in piecing together a first-ever scenario of the Basque voyages to Canada.

Already, she has unearthed evidence

that these whaling expeditions were an annual trek, often involving as many as 2,000 sailors, youths and priests. Once landed on the rocky shores, whalers constructed cabins roofed with red ceramic tiles carried from Spain. During the day, they slaughtered the whales and boiled down their oil for later use in weaving, soap and oil lamps on the European market. At night, the Basques would often return to their ships to escape the swarms of blackflies. In late fall, just before the ice set in, the Basques would return with their whale oil cargo to Spain, fending off pirates

with cannon, sword and crossbow. The hunts petered out after the 1620s, partly because the whales had been seriously depleted, but more significantly, because the destruction of the Spanish Armada by England in 1588 drained the Basques of money, men and ships.

Land sites of the early Basques are being excavated under the direction of James Tuck, an archeologist at Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland, who calls Barkham’s findings “a new chapter in Eastern Canadian history.” One of these sites is Red Bay, on the Labrador coast almost directly across the Strait of Belle Isle from the island of Newfoundland. Originally called Buttus by the Basques, the whaling station is believed to have had a population of 500 to 600 in the heyday of the hunts. Financially supported by the

National Geographie Society this year, Tuck is exploring a frozen bog that has preserved within it artifacts of 16thcentury organic material. Residents are trying to turn the area into a national historic site, partly to preserve it from naïve treasure seekers who it is feared will come searching for non-existent gold coins traditionally identified with Spanish galleons.

Meanwhile, Grenier is determined to bring the San Juan, piece by piece, to the surface next year, provided he can find federal funding. Grenier, who has dived for over three dozen sunken ships, including treasure ships in the Gulf of Mexico and a Greek merchant vessel off

says the oak galleon “is among the best preserved I’ve seen.” Protected in the sheltered bay from erosion by waves and preserved in the frigid waters from decay, the wreck is remarkably intact. He also wants to explore a second wreck, also believed to be a galleon, on his return trip to the eastern coast.

Though Barkham met Grenier by accident, their collaboration in finding the San Juan has solved a century-long puzzle in Labrador: The presence of thousands of red clay tiles, which generations of Labrador children have ground up for red ochre to paint their model boats, and the plentiful piles of sun-scorched whalebone, now covered with green mosses, left along the barren shores.

Julianne Labreche/Robert Plaskin