Now located at the O’Reilly House Museum and Castle Hill National Historic Site of Canada, the Basque headstones enduringly signify how the Basque have been finely interwoven into the history of the Placentia area. Originally found in the cemetery surrounding St. Luke’s Anglican Church, they harbour a unique and distinct aspect of Placentia area history.
By the 1500s, the Basque were expertly navigating the waters of Placentia Bay. And on their travels, they invariably encountered a beach encircled by a covey of hills — a vista that bore a striking resemblance to a place they may have called home in the Basque Country. And so, it is possible that it was the Basque who initially graced Placentia with a name, one after their own Plentzia.
Without question, having ventured to this new place, the Basque also would have erected a church on the beach. There is sufficient indication that the voyages of the Basque to Newfoundland and Labrador may have included Priests. In one instance, news of the death of a Basque also notes how he was given Sacraments, something that would only have occurred had a Priest been in attendance (see The Spanish Province of Terranova).
As time progressed, by 1655, the French crown elected to locate a garrison in the place that, to the French, came to be known as Plaisance. Perhaps the name of the place visited by the Basque migrated in the minds of the French to a name that held more meaning for them. In 1662, after several false starts, the third Governor of Plaisance, Sieur de Perron was the first to take up residence in the new colony. However, it was an ill-fated appointment as Du Perron was killed in a mutiny a few months following his arrival.
The Basque continued to be a part of Plaisance, fishing and, at times, assisting in the defence of the colony. Although the headstones do not stem from the earliest period when the Basque initially encountered Placentia, they offer some indication of their presence. For instance, one of the earliest headstones dates to 1676 and when it was translated in the early 1900s, the memorial reads,
“Here lies dead (or having died)
(on) The first of May 1676
John De Sale Ce——ana
The son (or heir) of (the House)
of the Sweetest Odour”
Another headstone bears the name “Iones Sara,” a form of the name “John.” On the back of the stone is the Christian monogram of I.H.S. alongside the depiction of a cross, both further indications of the religion of the Basque buried in Placentia.
Somewhat later, during the Nine Years War/War of the League of Augsburg from 1689-1697, the Basque were central in some of the French attacks on the English. In one of these attacks, on the 10 September, 1694, a Basque ship captain was mortally wounded in Ferryland.
Ultimately, the French forces had to retreat and after sailing back to Plaisance, bruised and battered, the ship captain was given his final send-off. He was buried in the cemetery that would have been near their church. The name of the Basque captain was Svigaraicipi and centuries later, it is one of the headstones that Bishop M. Howley found and examined in the late 1800s.
The Basque headstones offer a hint of the people and events who helped to shape the unique history of the Placentia area. They provide proof, words inscribed in stone, that the Basque were deeply involved in the life and events in the latter 1600s and no doubt, earlier.