The History Of The Basque In Placentia Bay

Cod fishThe first visitors to Placentia Bay were Basque fishermen, followed by French fishermen and officials. The Portuguese were present as early as 1500, the first of Gaspar and Miguel Corte-Real's visits. Gaspar charted the first map of Newfoundland in 1501 following his 1500 voyage, and the 1504 Revial and 1541 Mercator maps both show Placentia Bay as "Insulae Cortrealis". The first mention of "Isle de Plazienca" was on the Kallard map of 1547. The Basque name means "a harbor within a womb of hills". This seems to refer to the level beach set among towering hills. The first settlement was behind the beach which had a number of stages.

The community's name is possibly derived from the Basque town of Placenza on the River Tagus near Lisbon, Portugal. In 1524, the King of France sent a Florentine captain, John Verozzani, to find new lands, and he explored the south coast of Newfoundland. The community of Plaisance was included on a Portuguese map of 1546, but French settlement did not officially take place until much later.

The first church in the area and in Newfoundland was built by the Portuguese in the early 1500's, rebuilt by the French as early as 1650, and again by the English in the 1700's. A Basque priest was stationed in Newfoundland, probably at Placenza, in 1549, close to the centre of the Basque fishery employing 6,000 men. Both Portuguese and Spanish ships were very active throughout the 1500's.

Sir Humphrey Gilbert wanted to attack the French, Spanish and Portuguese fishing fleets in Newfoundland but Queen Elizabeth I was unwilling to risk a naval expedition, although in 1585 she did authorize Sir Bernard Drake to capture or destroy the Spanish fishing fleet in Newfoundland.

Queen Elizabeth's orders told him: proceed thither to warn all English vessels about the seizures in Spain, and prevent them making sale of their fish there, and to bring them into some of the Western ports of England, without disposing of the landing until further orders.

Drake met with George Raymond, who had similar orders from the English government in Bay Bulls and together they captured several Spanish and Portuguese fishing vessels before sailing to the Azores and capturing several fishing and cargo ships.

Drake was knighted for his actions, but was charged for maltreating the prisoners who were, by then, seriously ill. Ironically Drake soon died from a disease contracted from some of the prisoners, as did many of the people in court.

The Basques continued to fish off Newfoundland under French protection. An English visit to the area in 1591 found 40 Basque fishing vessels anchored in the harbor, and two English ships in 1594 reported over 60 Basque fishing ships from St. Jean de Luz. Apart from a few old headstones, many of them broken and illegible, today there is no remaining evidence of the Basques. Many of the larger headstones were removed during the English takeover to be used as doorsteps.

The oldest remaining Basque tombstone, that of John de Sale Cesana, dates back to 1676. The inscription translates as: "Here lies dead on the first of May, 1676 John De Sale Cesana, the son of the House of Sweetest Odour."


School of Continuing Studies and Extension, Memorial University. (1988). Decks Awash. The Placentia Area. Vol. 17, No. 3.

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This Page is part of a Historical and Cultural Web Site created by students of Laval High School, Placentia, NFLD (A0B 2Y0). February, 2000.