The oldest North American Basque colony is located in the most unusual of places on this continent. To get there is almost as difficult for today’s modern traveller as it was for the Basque whalers and cod fishermen of the XVIth century.
Located fewer than twelve miles to the south of the Island of Newfoundland, in the frigid waters of the North Atlantic, Saint-Pierre et Miquelon is home to a unique mix of French citizens. The unofficial flag of the islands, which is often seen next to the tricolour, contains three symbols of French regionalism. Above the Norman standard, the Breton Gwan ha Du is the Ikurriña in all its splendour.
The first Basques to make Saint-Pierre and Miquelon their shelter were from Ciboure and Saint-Jean de Luz. In fact, it has been proven that the name of the island of Miquelon is of Basque origin. The first documented use of the name Miquelon is in Martin de Hoyarçabal’s famous nautical instruction book, dated 1578. Old XVIIth century maps of Saint-Pierre have a Lizardie harbour, named after Adam de Chibau’s captain, Jean de Lizardie. Furthermore in 1697, a captain from Donostia, Martin de Sapiain indicated during a trial that Basque fishermen were to be found in many places in Newfoundland, including San Pierre and Miquele Portu.
The XVIIIth century was a time of war between France and England. Saint-Pierre et Miquelon was attacked and the population deported three times (1713, 1778, 1793). It is only in 1816 that the islands were back under French rule. Basque migration to the islands soared until the late XIXth century. They came from Saint-Jean de Luz, Bidart, Urrugne, Hendaye and even as far as Sare, Ascain and Saint Etienne de Baïgorri.
Early in the XXth century, the American writer George England, passing through the islands left this description of his encounter with a Saint-Pierre Basque : “At a farm I observed an old man with huge trousers of meal sacking, engaged in sawing wood with a bucksaw which he held between his knees, rubbing the stick up and down on the teeth. The old man’s red sash told me he was a Basque. (…) His wrinkled face, bright eyes, and sweeping mustaches would have warmed a painter’s heart. He was a very voluble old fellow, and for half an hour he told me words and phrases in the mysterious and little-known Basque tongue. No foreigner, I believe, has ever learned to speak it well, and one must be born a Basque to fathom its complexities. Sailors claim the only outsider who has ever learned Basque is the Old Boy himself. After I chatted pleasantly with the man from the Pyrenees, I bade him good-by and returned to the heights overlooking drowsy St. Pierre.”
Unfortunately the language disappeared by the late 1950’s. Too late for any revival, but pride does not dissipate as easily! Today, many Saint-Pierre youth, with Basque ancestry or not, learn to play Pelota against the Zazpiak Bat, North America’s oldest Fronton.
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