This is a photograph of Galeon La Pepa, a Basque ship that may resemble La María del Juncal (Source: Anonymous).
Domingo de Luca was a humble storekeeper aboard La María del Juncal, a Basque ship stationed in Plazençia, now Placentia, in 1563. It’s prime purpose was to harvest cod. There was nothing out of the ordinary.
However, de Luca was not favoured by fortune and became gravely ill. When he eventually passed away, the Will he left behind indicated the unquestioned presence the Basque have played in the history of the Placentia area.
Crossing the Ocean
The Basque followed in the footsteps of the seaworthy Vikings. In and around 1,000 CE, the Vikings had already done the honours of reaching what is now North America, no surprise for a sea-venturing culture. All the chronicles of the Vikings have been recorded in The Saga of the Greenlanders.
Norwegian Bokmål: Leiv Eirikson oppdager Amerika Leiv Eiriksson
discovers North America (Source: Wikipedia )
As expert shipbuilders, the Vikings had already reached Helluland, likely Baffin Island and the region around Nunavut. They’d journeyed further south near central Labrador to find Markland. Continuing, they travelled further south to Vinland, which was most likely the Gulf of St. Lawrence, L’Anse aux Meadows and perhaps as far south as New Brunswick. However, despite reaching North America, knowledge of their travels did not spread very far in Europe.
Only centuries later was this treasured knowledge able to circulate. It was in 1497 when John Cabot made the groundbreaking news that new lands lie west of Europe. News travelled fast.
As a result, it’s certainly no surprise the Basque were in Newfoundland by the sixteenth century.
Leaving a Will
By the 15th of May, Domingo de Luca had realised his illness was serious enough that he best dictate a short will to the ship’s notary, Joan de Blancaflor.
As part of his will, de Luca included the usual information regarding his debts and receipts. He also made certain to appoint the ship’s master and another individual to function as his executors.
Image of the Will belonging to Domingo de Luca (Source: Sabino Laucirica).
However, the most noteworthy inclusion in his will was one statement—his “body be buried in this port of Plazençia in the place where those who die here are usually buried.”
This clearly indicated several things about the Basque. They had been evidently present long enough for there to be a place of worship present in the region. Furthermore, others had already been laid to rest in Plazençia. Moreover, they had been visiting long enough for the Basque to feel comfortable being left Plazençia. And in all likelihood, that it was a place of worship ensured the Basque, it would be acceptable to be laid to rest in that location.
Evidence of the Basque
Prior to the writing of the will, we had known of the Basque presence based on headstones that had been left. The earliest was dated to 1677. This was found in the cemetery surrounding the late St. Luke’s Anglican Church, now St. Luke’s Cultural Heritage Centre.
Image of a Basque headstone found in the cemetery surrounding
St. Luke’s (Source: Christopher Newhook).
Although it became an Anglican church in 1714, when it was first founded in the 16th century, it was as a Roman Catholic church. After the British were given Newfoundland, following the Treaty of Utrecht which ended the War of the Spanish Succession, the denomination of St. Luke’s changed to Anglican.
Image of the Treaty of Utrecht
When Domingo de Luca died, Plazençia was merely a location valued for its resources. However, in 1662, Plazençia or Plaisance as it became known to the French, had drawn the attention of the French state for its function in their economy. In so doing, it played a role in expanding the control of the state, thus helping to establish what would become North America.
And it’s in this context, the will of Domingo de Luca must be regarded. It established that the Basque were indeed the first Europeans to lay claim to the vast resources of cod in Placentia Bay.
Barkham, Michael M. 2014 “The Oldest Original Civil Document Written in Canada:
The Last Will of Basque Sailor Domingo de Luça, Placentia (Newfoundland), 1563” Unpublished paper.