Friday, February 17, 2012

Sea-faring folk

As a kid I remember memorizing the year America was 'discovered' by reciting the following:  1492, the year Columbus sailed the ocean blue.  However, as history unravels, many Americans are coming to find out that maybe someone else discovered thier land before the daring Italian.  From the Chinese to the Vikings, there are many who claim to have been to the Americas long before ol' Chris.  While there is no proof, the Basques are also in the running for having visited the continent of North America in the early 14th century.

In Mark Kurlansky's The Basque History of the World, he points out that the Basques probably were in pre-Columbian America based on two main reasons - thier fishing catches along with the fact that they were known as the best sailors in the world.  He explains that the amount of cod and whale meat that they brought to market was far too much to be caught in the nearby areas and that they would have had to had ventured farther and farther into the Atlantic.  The fact that they were the best sailors makes it seem unlikely that the people famous for sailing the furthest and crossing oceans to catch massive whales would just happen to miss an entire continent.  Either way, we will never know.  The Basques, if they had discovered the continent kept it a secret, as most fishermen do about a good spot.

A side note about Christopher Columbus and his famous expedition that is rarely noted is that although the Capitan was Chris himself, that many of the moving hands on deck were Basques in fact.  The ships were most likely even made by Basques, seeing as they had a reputation for building the strongest and best sea-faring transport at the time.  The Pinta even had two sailors from the county, Gipuzkoa, that I live in according to Kurlansky's book.  The second and third voyages made were manned by Basques and even set off from Basque Countryfishing villages - Bermeo and Getaria. 

With Basques maintaining thier reputation as the best seamen in the world, it is not strange that we also learn that the famous Magellan had a crew of Basques aboard his ship that circumnavigated the world.  The surprising and not-often-mentioned fact is that Magellan himself did NOT go around the world in said ship, because he died partway through the trip.  Who pulled the ship into port after that?  Juan Sebasti├ín de Elcano, a Basque.

Magellan and Elcano hated each other, but after Magellan was killed in the Phillippines, the experienced sailor took lead of the fleet and safely guided two remaining ships back to Spain.  Three years after having set off, Elcano steered his ship, the Victoria (built in Gipuzkoa, my county) in port.  Elcano is a very well-known name here and statues can been seen not only in San Sebastian but also his hometown, about 20 minutes from here.  While his name might not be as recognizable as Ferdinand's, here it is known what he did.

Known in the past as the best sailors and whale-hunters around, Basques still hold onto thier sea-influenced past.  From the regattas (rowing races) that started as races between different fishing towns to see who could race out to sea the fastest to catch a whale, to high towers in the hills on the coast that were used as lookout towers for a whale's air spurt as it came to surface, the Basque coastal towns are rich with history.  Standing near the main church in Getaria, it is possible to think that Juan Elcano,  man who circumnavigated the Earth, once stood there as well.  Or visiting the port town of Pasaia, it is possible to think that the ship Columbus sailed in was built by strong Basque hands here.  While not an attention-grabbing people, the Basques have made many contributions to the discovery of new lands and advancements in sea-faring customs and these were a few I thought you should know about!



Mom said...

Thanks for the history lesson. There's always a strong crew behind any figurehead.

Mom said...

Thanks for the history lesson. There's always a strong crew behind any figurehead.