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The Basque city rebuilding its maritime history

  • Written by  Jules Stewart
  • Published in Cultures
The Basque city rebuilding its maritime history All images via Albaola.com
21 Jan
A chance discovery in the Basque Country has led to a maritime salvage operation and a ship reconstruction project that aims to celebrate the region’s seafaring past

In 1565, the Basque whaling ship San Juan set sail from its station in Labrador, a port established by Basque mariners. The ship was not to be seen again for more than 400 years. The 52-foot, 240-ton nao, a three-masted carrack, was making ready for its voyage home to the port of Pasajes with a cargo of whale oil. Pasajes, or Pasaia in the Basque language, was the port for San Sebastián. As well as being one of the major centres for shipbuilding, it was an excellent refuge and the most suitable in the Basque country for large vessels. As the San Juan made final preparations for departure, the ship’s anchor cable parted in a violent storm, casting the ship adrift. The vessel was quickly swallowed under the waves and sank to the ten metre-deep seabed. It was nothing short of a miracle that her 60-man crew survived the waters whose temperature, even in summer, never rises above 2˚C. It was thanks precisely to the frigid sea that the San Juan remained largely intact for four centuries.

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In the early 1970s, Canadian historian Selma Huxley Barkham was in the Basque village of Oñati, researching the archives of the Basque province of Guipúzcoa. The village priest who looked after the archives produced a bundle of crumbling records listing the 16th century voyages of Basque whaling ships to Newfoundland. One of these records turned out to be what is arguably the first example of a maritime insurance claim, relating to the loss of the San Juan’s thousand barrels of whale oil, a treasure every bit as valuable at the time as the gold taken by Spanish conquistadors from more southerly parts of the Americas. On their return to port, the crew members were paid in barrels of whale oil instead of cash, some five barrels each. The men were paid in accordance with their position, so the chief harpooner of the San Juan received another five for the use of his chalupa, the small rowing boat used to chase, harpoon and tow whales. One of these was discovered under the hull of the San Juan and is on display in Red Bay, the village that grew up on the site of the old whaling port.

SAN SEBASTIANThe Albaola musuem (left of the picture) sits in the bay at Pasaia

The earliest Basque records of whaling around Labrador date from the 1540s. They give details of the extensive trade in whale oil that was used for lamps, which burned brighter than those filled with vegetable oils. Whales were also prized for their blubber, used in the construction of ships, the manufacture of soap, pharmaceutical products and in the textile industry.

An average of 15 Basque ships a year sailed from Pasajes to Labrador, each with at least a thousand 400-pound barrels for transporting whale oil and blubber on board. The lamp oil from whales became the key commodity for Basque entrepreneurs, who developed shoreline ‘factories’, to render hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil, and organised regular shipping schedules between Canada and Europe to deliver the product to market. The San Juan was carrying almost a thousand barrels of whale oil when she went down. The year after its sinking, another Basque whaling ship recovered the oil and when it returned home, the captain was served a writ by the owners of the San Juan, suing for the return of its cargo.

Basque whaling ships would set sail from Pasajes in March or April, in order to make landfall in early June, toward the end of the spring thaw. The outbound journey covered a distance of some 3,400 nautical miles, sailing in the direction of Greenland and Iceland to take advantage of favourable winds and currents. On the return voyage, the pilot would set a course directly for the Basque Country, a shorter journey of 3,000 nautical miles.

ALBAOLA MUSEUMTraditional Basque craftsmanship methods and materials are being used for the reconstruction of the San Juan


Huxley took her findings back to Canada, where they aroused the interest of the conservation agency Parks Canada’s Department of Underwater Archaeology. This inspired senior underwater archaeologist Robert Grenier to carry out excavations in the sea around Red Bay. After days of work, one of the divers surfaced to exclaim, ‘I think there is something here.’ Indeed, what the team eventually uncovered was the San Juan, hidden under a thick layer of ballast stones and sediment, its hull split open like one of the whales it had come to hunt.

‘They proceeded to dismantle the vessel, piece by piece, some three thousand items in all,’ says Xabier Agote, chairman of the Albaola Shipyard Museum in Pasajes, where an exact replica of Canada’s oldest shipwreck is being built. Albaola refers to a notched sill plank that sits above a carved waterway on the side of each deck of a galleon. It is an archaic Basque word that was retrieved by Canadian historians from 16th century Basque shipbuilding contracts. ‘The job of photographing and documenting the ship required eight years of painstaking work. It required another 22 years to reassemble the vessel, bearing in mind that in this extreme climate it is only possible to work in the summer months. Once the project was completed in 2008, the San Juan stood as the world’s most important reconstruction of a 16th century commercial ship.’

The archaeological find from Red Bay, where the ship was reconstructed, shows that the barrel staves are mainly from Brittany, since oak from the Basque Country was in heavy demand for other uses such as shipbuilding, charcoal and construction material. The barrels were used to hold a multitude of items, from cider to nails, food and goods that needed to be protected from the elements. Brittany also supplied hemp fibre for the ship’s sails.

Xabi AgoteXabier Agote demonstrates a model of the original San Juan to museum visitors

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In 1990, an image of the San Juan was adopted by the United Nations as its logo to promote the preservation and celebration of the world’s underwater heritage. The San Juan became the official symbol of UNESCO’s Underwater Cultural Heritage. Twenty-three years later, Red Bay itself was declared a World Heritage Site, in recognition of the decades of work in bringing to light one of the most significant pages in Basque maritime history. Agote says he was concerned about the lack of awareness in the Basque Country of its seafaring history. ‘This tradition has also been in my blood,’ he says. ‘I was 18 years old when I decided to become a shipwright. I went to the US for an apprenticeship at the Maine Maritime Museum, with the objective of learning to construct wooden ships. It was an enriching experience, as I also learned to appreciate the world’s maritime traditions. This is what gave me the inspiration to build a replica of the San Juan.’

Agote says the saga of the San Juan highlights one of the Basque Country’s most singular traditions. ‘We are known as shepherds and producers of cheese, but those occupations are common to many countries,’ he says. ‘Whaling was carried out here on an industrial scale, while it is also the most dangerous activity a mariner can undertake. The Basques held a monopoly on this trade until the 17th century, when the English and Dutch emerged as competitors. Yet whaling remains deeply rooted in Basque history.’

ALBAOLA MUSEUMBuilding work has been underway on the replica San Juan since 2014


Agote founded Albaola in 1997 as a not-for-profit cultural association. Together with a team of carpenters, he set up temporary headquarters in a small shipyard in Pasajes. The objective was to build chalupas and traineras to sail around the coast of Galicia, Ireland or Bretagne. The trainera is a long-boat, today used mainly for racing competitions, which in the past brought in the day’s catch of anchovies and sardines from sea to market. The regional government of Guipúzcoa offered Agote a large disused dry dock at the extreme end of the port, now the site of the Albaola Shipyard Museum. In 2014, work began on the assembly of a full-scale replica of the San Juan.

Albaola currently employs three professional carpenters skilled in traditional shipbuilding techniques, who work with oak from the forests of the Sakana Valley in nearby Navarre. Before starting work on the San Juan, they constructed several vessels using Basque craftsmanship. By building and sailing these ships, the team has been able to gain ‘archaeo-navigation’ experience in the techniques employed hundreds of years ago.

In addition to the carpenters, there are 18 people employed on three-year apprenticeships, as well as a group of volunteers from a number of European countries, Mexico and the US. It is a daunting challenge as no one has ever discovered contemporary blueprints for the San Juan’s construction, nor for any other ship of the era. Written draughts were not widely used in shipbuilding until the late-17th century. Before that time, the master builder directed the construction work from memory, using a system of proportions based on the ship’s maximum beam or width, with the beam as the starting point for all other dimensions.

ALBAOLA MUSEUMAgote hopes to restore knowledge of the Basque region’s maritime history

The San Juan project and its construction process has brought new life the Basque Country’s maritime heritage. The reconstruction of this historic ship has set Agote and his collaborators on a journey back in time, experimenting at every stage, in the search of the raw materials, original tools and work procedures required for reproducing these ancient vessels.

‘For us, the guiding spirit behind Albaola is to spread the knowledge of the Basque Country’s seafaring history through the use and display of shipbuilding technology,’ says Agote. ‘Basque seafarers were prominent in ports across Europe, as well as in Canada. In the 15th century, about 80 per cent of the ships docking in Bristol were from the Basque Country. These merchant galleons came laden with iron ore, whale oil, wool from Castile and Bordeaux wine, in the days when Aquitaine was an English possession. In 1453 Aquitaine was annexed to France, but not be deterred, the Basques began shipping wine from Portugal.’

ALBAOLA MUSEUMShipbuilding workshops are a popular draw for the Albaola musuem

Agote has no intention of allowing Albaola to lie idle once the San Juan is launched. The shipyard museum currently offers workshops in various aspects of traditional shipbuilding, as well as seafaring techniques and Basque maritime history. Agote is also in touch with Friends of the Newport Ship about the possible reconstruction of the mid-15th century sailing vessel discovered by archaeologists in June 2002 in the Welsh city of Newport. He is likewise looking at building a replica of the Victoria, the first vessel to circumnavigate the globe as part of Ferdinand Magellan’s 16th century expedition.

Albaola can be considered a successful enterprise in terms of visitor numbers, according to Agote. ‘In 2018, 63,000 people came to visit the museum and watch the reconstruction of the San Juan as it takes place,’ he says. ‘This is an encouraging figure, when you consider that Pasajes is not the most accessible town on the Basque coast as well as being the only one lacking a beach. It’s not your typical tourist attraction.’ When it is launched later in 2020, the San Juan is expected to travel to European cities before setting sail for Labrador and other destinations across the Atlantic, with Canada high on the list, to help spread awareness of the deep historical connection between that country and the Basques.

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web map

• Geographic location:
Northern Spain
• Capital City: Vitoria-Gasteiz
• Latitude/Longitude: 42°50’0”N, 2°41’0”W
• Land Area: 7,234km2 (2,793 sq mi)
• Population: 2,189,534
• Population Density: 300/km2 (780/sq mi)
• GDP per capita: $40,147 (US)
• Religion: Roman Catholic (58.6 per cent), non-religious (24.6 per cent), Atheist (12.3 per cent)


2nd Century BC: The Romans reach the fringes of Basque territory

1st century BC:
The Romans found Pompaelo (modern Pamplona, Iruñea in Basque) in modern day Navarre (part of the greater Basque region) but leave the area relatively autonomous

Castilian crown gains sovereignty over Basque territories during the Middle Ages but they extract broad autonomy arrangements, known as the fueros

The kingdom of Navarra remains a separate kingdom until 1512 when it is annexed to the new, unified Spain

Following the Second Carlist War all provinces except Navarra are stripped of their fueros, fuelling Basque nationalism

The PNV (Partido Nacionalista Vasco or Basque Nationalist Party) is established

Spanish Civil War begins. The Basque provinces of Navarra and Álava support Franco, while Vizcaya and Guipúzcoa side with the Republicans

Franco takes control of Spain following Nationalist victory in the Spanish Civil War

Franco regime suppresses the Basques, banning the language and almost all forms of Basque culture until Franco’s death in 1975

Formation of the ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna) to promote traditional Basque culture

The new Spanish Constitution establishes the system of autonomous communities. The Basque Autonomous Community and the separate autonomous community of Navarre are formed

The Basque conflict, also known as the Spain–ETA conflict, involves armed conflict between Spain and the Basque National Liberation Movement, a group of social and political Basque organisations centred around the ETA. The conflict results in the deaths of more than 1,000 people

ETA announces a 'definitive cessation of its armed activity'

Iñigo Urkullu, a member of the Basque Nationalist Party becomes president of the regional government of the Basque Country


Basque nationalism and separatism have a long history and remain a point of controversy in Spain. Basque people are believed to be descendants of the original human inhabitants of the European continent. Their language, Euskara, spoken by some, but not all inhabitants, bears no relation to languages spoken elsewhere on the continent and is said to be one of the oldest languages in Western Europe.

   For many decades (going as far back as the late 19th century) the Basque Country maintained a strong independence movement. Following the death of Spain’s dictator, General Franco, in 1975, Basques were granted ‘home rule’, with an unprecedented degree of self-government. Despite this, decades of violence followed. The Basque separatist movement, ETA – prescribed a terrorist movement by various European governments – bombed several places in Spain between the 1960s and the early 2000s. ETA finally ended its armed campaign in 2011 and formally announced that it was disbanding in 2017.

   The Basque region now has more autonomy than any of Spain’s other 16 regions, with its own police force, education system, language and a special financial relationship with Madrid. But while support for outright Basque independence has fallen over the years and peace is the norm, calls for greater autonomy are still common.


The Basque Country is home to several natural parks and nature reserves, with ecosystems ranging from wetlands to high mountains to rolling pasture. Limestone mountains make it popular for hiking with the highest peak, Aitxuri (1,551m), reachable from within the 11,000-hectare Aizkorri-Aratz nature park where eagles, vultures and falcons frequent the peaks. Substantial erosion in the area has carved out a karst landscape – one defined by many sinkholes, channels, cliffs and ridges. Back at sea level, the Urdaiabi estuary in the province of Biscay, listed by UNESCO as a biosphere reserve in 1985, forms a series of wetlands where the River Oka runs out to sea.


Perched on Spain’s northern coast, close to the border with France, the Basque Country (officially the Basque Autonomous Community) is a distinct region within the borders of Spain – one with its own language, culinary traditions and culture. In fact, the wider region (also referred to as the Basque Country) is not restricted to Spain – as well as including the Navarre autonomous community to the east, a few areas spill over the border with France.

   French towns such as Biarritz and Hendaye share many Basque customs and traditions, along with the same choppy coastline, which runs for around 200km along northern Spain and the southwestern corner of France.

   Heading inland, the Basque Country covers around 7,000sq km and is home to three main cities, Bilbao, San Sebastián and the capital Vitoria-Gasteiz. The small town of Pasaia is located in a bay 4km from the city centre of San Sebastian. Just to the east of the town lies the Jaizkibel mountain range, with Mount Jaizkibel – considered by some to be the very first summit of the Pyrenees – standing 547m high.

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