If we think of whalers, it's easy for us to come to mind Pequod of the famous novel Moby dick of Herman Melville, that ship that crossed the ocean in an obsessive hunt for a white whale.
Selma Huxley has never pursued whales, but it has traced for years the history of other whaling ships, those from Basque ports that, since the 16th century, fished in the distant Newfoundland coasts.
From Great Britain to Onate
Selma Huxley was born in London in 1927 in a family of intellectuals and scientists. His father, Michael Huxley, was a cousin of the writer and philosopher Aldous Huxley, from the evolutionary biologist Julian Huxley and of the biophysicist (and Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1963) Andrew Huxley. All of them grandchildren of Thomas Henry Huxley, known as Darwin's bulldog for his defense of the theory of evolution.
Selma studied in Paris and London. In 1950, for family reasons he traveled to Canada, where he established and worked as a professor and librarian at McGill University (Montreal). In 1954 she married architect Brian Barkham and they moved to Ottawa, where her husband opened an architecture studio. Brian maintained a close relationship with the Basque Country: his thesis had taken him from Britain to Basque lands, where he studied the hamlets.
In 1956, during a marriage visit to the Basque Country, the priest Pío Montoya Arizmendi He told them about the old Basque presence on the Canadian coast.
That story – after Brian's early death in 1964 – would change Selma's life. Widowed and with four children to support, she began working for the Government of Canada studying and restoring sites of historical interest. He focused on the coasts and was interested in European visitors in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, with special attention to those of Basque origin.
In order to consult the historical archives of Spain and France, after a long trip he settled in Bilbao with his four children in 1972. Selma made a living teaching English in the morning while he spent his nights studying Spanish paleography at the University of Deusto – I had learned Spanish in Mexico. Thanks to the generosity of an anonymous Canadian donor, he was able to begin his research. After the first publication also came the first official help.
In 1973 he moved to Oñate, headquarters of the Historical Archive of Gipuzkoa Protocols, and continued consulting documents in different archives – parish, municipal or notarial, among others – in Tolosa, Bilbao, Burgos, Valladolid, Madrid, Seville or Lisbon. These records were home to thousands of manuscripts of a varied nature – insurance policies, lawsuits, letters, contracts, lists of equipment and supplies – from the 16th and 17th centuries linked to the Basque presence in Newfoundland.
Through the study of these documents, Selma Huxley discovered that arrantzales ("fishermen" in Euskera) had not only caught cod fish on the Canadian Atlantic coast, but also caught whales on an industrial scale in the 16th century.
The historian studied these Basque fisheries in detail: from her organization –financing, fishing seasons, routes– to aspects related to her protagonists, fishermen –life, work, diseases, food, clothing and relations with people from the countries they visited
Prices ratify the documentary part
After this purely documentary investigation, Selma Huxley sought archaeological evidence with which he intended to guarantee the presence of Basque whalers in Newfoundland. In 1977, together with the archaeologist James Tuck and with the support of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society He organized a first expedition south of Labrador and found remains confirming all the data discovered in the European archives.
In subsequent campaigns, Selma Huxley, James Tuck and underwater archaeologist Robert Grenier – along with their teams of specialists – found numerous remains of Basque whalers in Newfoundland.
On June 22, 2013 on Unesco World Heritage Committee declared the site of Red Bay (Labrador, Canada) World Heritage. Selma Huxley's work had proved that in the sixteenth century that fishing village was a Basque whaling station, one of the most important on that coast as it is a migratory route of whales.
A museum in Red bay It houses several wrecks found at the bottom of the bay, furnace remains to extract whale fat, various tools, human skeletons or whale beards, among other traces of these whalers coming from such remote lands. Some Basque galleons continue to rest on the seabed.
Among many other awards, Selma Huxley received the Lagun Onari award of the Basque Government in 2014 – for their work to bring to light "important pages of the history of Canada and Euskal Herria" – and the International Prize of the Spanish Geographical Society in 2018.
In 1987, the historian Iñaki Zumalde commented: "When it comes to the history of the Basque whalers in Canada, he will be obliged to say: before and after what is provided by Selma Huxley."
Since 2018 the Oñate City Council has called the so-called Selma Huxley Barkham research grant for the recovery of the historical memory of the women of Oñate. A beautiful tribute to this researcher who lived in this municipality of Gipuzkoa and dedicated so much time and eagerness to recover a part of Basque history hidden in the Canadian seas.
This article has had as main reference The case of Selma Huxley, written by Eduardo Angulo in the blog Women with Science of the Chair of Scientific Culture of the UPV / EHU.
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