Why is it not said that Christopher Columbus sailed with many Basques who knew the existence of America by reference to other Basque sailors who fished whales off the coasts of Canada?

24 mayo, 2019

Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and the mouth of the St. Lawrence River

Many legends and myths have become a reality contrasted after passing centuries. My theory is that when coincidences have a very low probability of occurrence, we must think that there is some truth, if it is not everything.

There are a few legends that surround the figure of the Basque whalers who were the best whale hunters from the 8th century until almost the 19th century. Following the track of the whales, they left the waters of the Bay of Biscay to the Faroe Islands and Iceland, to sail towards the mouth of the Saint Lawrence River.


A legend locates the Basque whalers in the American continent, in the year 1375. Exactly, on the island of Newfoundland, more than 100 years before the arrival in the New World of the Genoese admiral. But they were not conquerors, but fishermen with a reputation as corsairs or pirates. They did not kill Indians but whales for their sustenance and in their factories the whale oil used in the lighting of European houses and cities was produced.

Other historical sources indicate that a score of men departed from the Bay of Biscay and Bayonne in the year 1412 where they later arrived in the territory of Newfoundland. And it is that there are data that corroborate the existence of Basque whalers already in the year 760 of our era. Others are related to the Vikings, especially by their matching naval constructions. Unfortunately, there is no archaeological evidence of all this.

Perhaps the most outstanding piece of the site of Red Bay, Canada. It is the Basque whaling ship that has become one of the greatest jewels of underwater archeology. It is the San Juan galleon, a whaleboat built in Pasajes that sank in Red Bay in the summer of 1565 when, loaded with whale oil, it was preparing to return to the Basque coast.

According to the version of a legend or a myth that circulated among the Basque sailors, they arrived in Newfoundland around 1375 and decided to keep the secret to avoid sharing with other fishing fleets the prodigious fishing grounds of the area. Between the myth and the reality, it is related that when the French explorers came into contact with the natives of the Island of Newfoundland, they greeted them with the formula “Apezak hobeto!”(“The priests are better!”, In Basque), that the Basque sailors used as a response if someone asked them about their health.

At the same time, there is an undeniable huge trace that the Basque language caused in the languages of the inhabitants of the Island of Newfoundland since the 16th century. During the two centuries of splendor of the Spanish Empire, a pidgin was spoken in Newfoundland, that is, a rudimentary language that mixed Basque and the local languages of the natives. The same thing happened in Iceland where a Basque-Icelandic Pidgin language was spoken in order to understand each other and where they presumably had to talk about the land that the Vikings discovered in the western seas.

Also, many of the current names of cities and other places in Newfoundland are of Basque origin. As an example, the city Port-aux-Basques is present in maps of 1612; Port-au-Choix is a disfigurement of Portutxoa,“small port”; and Ingonachoix which translates as“bad anchoring.”

On the other hand, Marq de Villiers and Sheila Hirtle are the authors of ‘Sable Island‘, a book that collects the history of this sandy island located 150 km southeast of Nova Scotia, Canada. At present only two people and a hundred wild horses inhabit this unstable strip of 50 km long and one kilometer wide, which for more than 400 years was known as the ‘Atlantic Cemetery’, causing more than 500 sinkings of ships when the ships ran aground against the changing sand dunes.

Although the official discovery of the island was carried out by Portuguese sailors at the beginning of the 16th century, the book echoes the possibility that in fact the first ones to arrive at Sable Island were Basque fishermen, in their whaling expeditions and in their constant search for new cod fishing grounds. Some researchers support the theory that the Basques came to North America, specifically to Newfoundland and the coast of the Labrador peninsula in the fourteenth or fifteenth century. These theories abound in the possibility that the Basque fishermen came to the area regularly, and perhaps even had small colonies of sailors working there, before Christopher Columbus discovered America in 1492 or that John Cabot arrived in Newfoundland in 1497.

According to the authors of ‘Sable Island’,long before these ‘discoveries’ the rumor was already running around Europe that Basque sailors had found land on the other side of the Atlantic, maybe an island, maybe something else. Some Breton sailors apparently tried to follow the Basque sailors, without success.

At the beginning of the XV century —the book continues saying— a history was known among the European sailors according to which two ships of the Western Baskonia, one commanded by Juan de Echaide and the other by Matías de Echeveste, would have reached earth beyond the Atlantic, at the end of the 14th century, although there is no documented proof of this. Recently, remains of important Basque whaling centers have been found on the coast of Labrador and in Newfoundland, but they date back to 1530. Only three decades later, the Basque population at the mouth of the San Lorenzo River would have reached 2,000 people.

The Basques in the discovery of America

It is no coincidence that the work done by the famous Basque cartographer Juan de Lacoza, and by the Basques in general, in the discovery of America was more effective than striking, more useful than agitated and more silent and modest than lucrative. I do not think it’s any coincidence, the enormous participation of the Basques in the discovery of America. Is it that Juan de Lacoza knew something about the Basque whalers who had come to lands located west of Iceland? Why did he abandon his own business by accompanying Christopher Columbus from his first trip and then in the second, as a pilot of the Santa Maria caravel, of which he was the owner?

Other Basques, also traveled in the expedition and, therefore participated in the Discovery of America, as assistants of Lacoza, the Basque sailors Juan Ustobia, Pedro Bilbao, Juan Lequeitio and his brother Txomin.

For his third trip, Christopher Columbus, who was no longer with Lacoza, had four Biscayan captains of the six who were in total, and other Basques such as Lope de Olano, who had already gone on the second trip; Pedro de Arana, brother-in-law of Christopher Columbus and brother of Diego Arana, Pedro Ledesma as senior pilot; Martín de Arriaran and Fernando Ibarra, secretary of Christopher Columbus, who distinguished himself by his culture and was a personality in the letters, in addition to the sailors Diego de Portugalete, Martin Arrieta, Domingo Vizcaino, Gonzalo Salazar, Diego de Mendoza, Pablo Ledesma, Gregorio Zaldua, Pascual Luzuriaga, Machin Vizcaino, Martín Fuenterrabía and those of the second trip Domingo de Arana, Miguel Larriaga and Juan de Quijo.

Seven trips in total made Lacoza to the newly discovered lands, in all of which he made many explorations and investigations as well as important discoveries. In the last of these trips the intrepid Basque sailor died on February 28, 1503 in Cartagena de Indias crossed by more than 20 poisoned arrows fired by the aborigines of that place after he came to support Alonso de Ojeda, provocateur of the fight with the Indians and who as soon as possible could flee the place leaving only Lacoza.

The result of the voyages of this exceptional sailor was his famous map of the world, which he elaborated after his third voyage in the company of Alonso de Ojeda, in Santa María, in October of the year 1500 and which is the first cartographic document on America and the most important of the time. A fact that nobody has ever heard but that, nevertheless, is a fact that is well demonstrated. If this information is hidden in history, will not other more important data have been hidden about the reason for the great participation of the Basques, and, especially, that of the cartographer Juan de Lacoza, in the discovery of Amárica?

Among the great lies of History, we find the fact that it was the Portuguese Ferdinand Magellan or the English corsair Francis Drake, the man who gave the world for the first time sailing, when it is fully proven that he was the Basque sailor Juan Sebastián Elcano. But we already know, “a lie, a thousand times repeated, becomes a truth” and in history there are many lies. Magellan died in the Philippine Islands, halfway, and the one that he gave for the first time round the world was the Basque Juan Sebastian Elcano on September 6, 1521 and the English Francis Drake made them in December of 1577, some fifty and six years later.