Basque Whalers, Ahoy! 

Basque Museum hosts unexpected exhibit

What shipbuilders constructed the flagship Santa Maria in Christopher Columbus' famous fleet, traveled with explorers like Amerigo Vespucci and Ferdinand Magellan to chart their epic discoveries, and invented the first onboard oil refinery station? Believe it or not, it was the Basques. The mountaineering people of the Pyrenees were not just sheepherders. They were a shipbuilding seafarers who led the world in whaling, mapmaking and exploring.

The Treasure Valley is home to around 15,000 Basque people, making it the largest Basque community in North America and the third-largest in the world. On July 27, Boise's Basque Museum and Cultural Center (the only Basque museum in North America) has the honor of opening a new exhibit featuring Basque whaling and shipbuilding artifacts and techniques. The exhibit also contains reproductions of everything from harpoons and whale oil lanterns to interactive displays where you can actually steer a txalupa (whaling boat), or try your hand at tying Basque sailing knots. Also a prominent part of the display are photos of actual sunken artifacts, paintings and wall-sized murals of whaling scenes donated from the National Geographic Society and the Smithsonian.

The Basque whaling exhibit is a global effort, featuring handmade barrels from Nova Scotia, fishing implements from the Basque country, artifact reproductions, murals, maps and tools from Canada, England, France, Newfoundland, Labrador, and Germany. Artisans from Idaho including a blacksmith, weaver, wood turner, seamstress, sculptor and boat builder provided their services as well. Over a hundred Basque and non-Basque volunteers, artisans and trade workers came together to help with the exhibit.

Boise Weekly sat down at the Basque Museum with historical researcher Christine Bender and museum curator Loni Manning to ask a few questions about the exhibit and the Basque community here in Boise.

Boise Weekly: Tell me more about the Basque community here.

Christine Bender: Many people, when they hear that we're Basque in this area, think of sheepherders because one or two generations ago, they came here and that was the work they could find—not necessarily the work that they did in the Basque country, but that's what they did here to start out. And the boardinghouses that sprang up were where they would come when they worked in the hills with the sheep, and they would learn English. And I really think the boarding houses were one of the things that were really instrumental to getting the Basques integrated into the culture so quickly because they learned the language. And now two or three generations later, we've had and we do have now a Basque secretary of state and we have a Basque mayor, and so the transition has been very rapid for a European group to come and meld into the melting pot of society here. And this is the largest population of Basques outside of the Basque country and outside of Argentina. This museum is the only Basque museum in North America.

Loni Manning: It's just amazing to me how strong the Basque community is here—how much they are able to preserve their traditions and to pass them on to new generations. There's a preschool associated with the Basque Museum and Cultural Center; it's a language immersion program for pre-schoolers. It's different from every other language in the world. [Experts] haven't been able to link it to any other known language. They've very tenaciously kept their language and culture throughout centuries, in the past with Romans trying to overtake them, and the more recent political problems in Spain. But the community here is very large and very active.

Can you give a history lesson on Basque shipbuilders?

Manning: Shipbuilding was the industry that the Basques excelled at a thousand years ago. Basque whalers probably came across the Atlantic to North America before Columbus—there's more and more evidence that was the case. Shipbuilding was a great industry for them, and they were also great navigators. Juan de la Cosa was Basque, and he made the Great Navigational Chart around 1500, one of the first of the New World, but it also showed Cuba as an island. And that map was published as the Admiral's Map in Strasbourg in 1513, credited to Columbus, but it was really based on Juan de la Cosa's map. Amerigo Vespucci explored the coast with Juan de la Cosa, so he was part of that as well.

Around the year 1000, Basques were already successful fishermen. They had an international trade program based on codfish. By 1540, there were reports of whales in the Grand Bay in Labrador, so the Basques decided to go in that direction. Early on before that, 1517, Basques had come to that area, to Labrador, for codfishing. So they were shipbuilders, navigators, mapmakers and definitely explorers, and have really been the forerunners in a lot of the industrial whaling and fishing advancements. They were also the inventors of the first onboard oil refinery stations. And Americans adapted their refinery stations so they were able to refine whale oil as well. They were the first whalers to sleep on board their ships in order to chase the whales out to sea. Before that, whaling had been kind of, "Oh, there's a whale, let's paddle out and get him," and the Basques started actually going in larger ships and chasing them out further. They were also hired out by other cultures, such as the Dutch, eventually the British and the Americas as well, to teach them new techniques.

What's happening for the exhibit benefit?

Bender: We're calling it our Gala Premiere Night. It starts at 7 p.m. on July 26. We'll have a variety of tapas provided by the Basque market and drinks. We'll have singers, and a cantor who will recite three ancient Basque whaling prayers. We'll have musicians that will be playing throughout the evening off and on, and we're going to have our curator, director and two of our artisans, and me as the emcee, dressed in period clothing. We'll give guided tours. And I'm very excited about this: We're going to light a 16th century whale-oil lamp with real whale oil; just a little, tiny bit that was brought from an [East Coast] Inuit hunt of a bull whale ... we're going to light and demonstrate how it was used. We're very excited. The funds raised will either go for operating expenses or it will go to refurbish funds for future exhibits and expansions. It's going to be a $100 a person and we're limiting that to the first hundred people. People can call the museum for tickets to the Gala.

"Basque Whaling: Danger and Daring on a Distant Shore" opens July 27, at the Basque Museum and Cultural Center, 611 Grove St. Call 208-343-2671 for tickets to the July 26 Gala Premiere Night benefit. Visit for more information.

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