During the late Middle Ages and the following centuries, Basque fishermen had established themselves as world-renowned whalers. The local geography of the Basque Country made whaling both necessary and practical. The northern regions along the coast, such as Gipuzkoa and Lapurdi, had poor land for farming grains compared to the south. They did, however, have abundant forests to build wooden vessels. So, the people looked to the sea for sufficient food. Since then, whaling has influenced societies within the Basque Country and abroad.
Whaling was so important for coastal communities, that it became a prominent symbol in the local heraldry.
While they don’t have a whale or hunters, the coats of arms of Donostia and Plentzia feature the ships that were popular during these expeditions.
The first whaling hunts took place just off the coast in the Bay of Biscay during the 11th and 12th Centuries. By the 13th Century, the Basques had expanded their efforts west and north, from Galicia and Asturias to Ireland. In the early 16th Century, whaling became more organized, but also more competitive. Basque fishermen traveled as far as Newfoundland, though they may have been there before Columbus’s 1492 voyage. In the New World, the Basques were among the first Europeans to trade goods with the natives, namely the Montagnais and Iroquois. As a result, an Algonquian-Basque pidgin developed.
In the 17th Century, Basque whalers moved back east and north toward Iceland and Greenland to hunt for right and bowhead whales. Basques and Icelanders developed an economic relationship, and according to surviving manuscripts, a Basque-Icelandic pidgin arose for the sole purpose of trade. However, this relationship declined after Basque whalers were killed by native Icelanders in 1615.
The end of the era of Basque whalers began in the 18th Century, as whales were hunted to near extinction in the North Atlantic. Also, Spain as a whole could not keep up with the growing English and Dutch economies. Today, whaling is an obsolete industry, but it’s significance in Basque culture makes it relevant centuries later.