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Remembering Selma Huxley Barkham: historian and geographer specialising in Basque connections to Canada

  • Written by  Oriana and Serena Barkham
  • Published in People
Selma Huxley Barkham with her grandchildren and her son Thomas Selma Huxley Barkham with her grandchildren and her son Thomas
18 Jun
Selma Huxley Barkham (March 8, 1927 – May 3, 2020), was a historian and geographer of international standing in the fields of the maritime history of Canada and of the Basque Country

The yellow tent was up and straining on its guy ropes in the Labrador wind. The black flies were viciously biting. Rain poured down. They were cold and soaked to the bone. But Selma Huxley Barkham, with her two youngest children in tow, was ecstatically happy. She had found what she was looking for: eroded pieces of red roofing tiles scattered on the shores, in vegetable patches and in gardens.

The locals called the red tile ‘red rock’, and some, as children, had used it to write on school slates. But Selma knew that the tiles had been brought in ships across the Atlantic from the Basque Country in the sixteenth century. On the way over to Terranova, the New Found Land, the tiles were used as ballast. On the return journey, the ships hulls were filled with barrels of whale oil, and sometimes with dried or green salted cod. The tiles were left in Terranova where they were used to construct roofs over shelters, and the ovens where whalers boiled down whale oil.

Selma now knew her excursion to Labrador in the summer of 1977, funded by the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, to identify Basque whaling sites in the 1500s & 1600s, was a success. In each port she had so painstakingly identified as having been used by the Basques in the 16th and 17th centuries, she had found tiles. Years of interest, meticulous research, and gruelling hours in archives had brought her here.

Selma’s first awareness of the Basques was as a child in the 1930s, when she and her brother Thomas were given a cesta punta, a curved wicker-work basket worn on the hand, to play the world’s fastest game, Jai Alai. Rodney Gallop, a friend of her parents and author of a still seminal book on the Basques, had brought the cesta puntas to their home in Bosham Hoe, Sussex. Selma also knew her father Michael Huxley, founder of Geographical magazine, had studied Spanish in San Sebastian/ Donosti. And her family were aware of the Basque children brought over to Southampton, some ending up in Hayling Island near Selma’s family home, fleeing the violent Spanish Civil War in 1937.

As a young adult in the early 1950s, while working as the librarian of the Arctic Institute of North America at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, Selma fell in love with Brian Barkham. An architect from Bartlett’s, University College London, he was at McGill doing an MA in French Canadian rural architecture. His undergraduate thesis had been on rural architecture in the Basque Country. Brian took Selma to Euskadi/The Basque Country for a late honeymoon in 1956, introducing her to friends there. Among these was the priest Don Pio de Montoya who told her about the Basque fishermen who had been going to what is now Canada for centuries. When Brian died tragically at the age of 35, leaving Selma a widow with four children between the ages of two and nine, she started working for Historic Sites Canada. One of the projects she worked on was the French Fort in Cape Breton, Louisbourg. Some of the documents from the 18th century related to a French Basque merchant’s house, Lartigue.

Selma’s health suffered during Canada’s six-month-long winters. She developed recurring pneumonia. In 1969, the idea of searching for more on the Basque seafarers’ connections to Canada, led her to move to Mexico. It was cheap, warm, and there she, and her children, could learn Spanish, which was essential if she were to carry out research on documents in Spain. To survive, Selma found herself a job teaching English at The British Council School in Guadalajara. After three years in Mexico, she took her four children by boat across the Atlantic, on a half cargo, half passenger ship – the Covadonga – to Bilbao. There was a short stop in Miami to avoid the worst of a hurricane. Arriving in the Basque Country, Selma had no income, no job and four children, but she was determined to try and find out about these Basques who had been to Canada.

From Mexico, she had booked the family into a hostel in the older quarter of Bilbao, as it was around the corner from the Municipal Archives, where she had hoped to start her research immediately. Here she came across an archivist, who was, at first, rather unhelpful and disdainful of ‘this British woman’. He told her that if she hoped to do any research on early documents, she would have to study palaeography with him at the University of Deusto, where he taught History. Most native Spanish speakers could not, and cannot, read the very convoluted Spanish handwriting of the 16th century with all its abbreviations as well as difficult loops, let alone a female foreigner. While she took the course in 1972, she started working once again as an English teacher, to be able to scrape by, and at the same time she started her own research at the Archives.

Selma was told that most archives along the Spanish Basque coast had been burnt during the Napoleonic wars, but perhaps she should try the archives of the Consulado del Mar in Burgos? There, a kind, very helpful archivist, Floriano Ballesteros, introduced her to the 16th century insurance policies stored there. He also recommended she try looking at the copies of notarial documents from the coast that were held in the Oñati archives.

For 400 years, legajos (books of notarial documents) from towns across the province of Gipuzkoa, had lain in the attics of the 1543 University of Oñati. Don José María Aguirrebalzátegui, one of the village priests, had rescued many over the years, filling three huge university rooms with legajos.

When Selma arrived, Don José María showed her the three rooms of books of notarial documents. There was no index, but he gave her the key to the archives. In 1973, she moved, along with her four children, to Oñati, because she could see that there were years of work for her there. For hours on end, often till the early hours of the morning, Selma sat turning over each page in these thousands of ancient books. During their school holidays, she also sat her four children down around her. She taught them to recognise some of the formulae used in these 16th century documents, as well as the key word ‘Terra nova’. Most of the documents were to do with local problems, neighbours arguing over property boundaries, for example. But a few, mixed in amongst so many others, were to do with The New Found Land/‘Terra nova’.

Because of these ‘Terra nova’ documents, and a desperate need to have something to live on, she persuaded the Public Archives of Canada to give her contracts to collect and microfilm documents referring to Canada, found in archives throughout the Iberian Peninsula. Being extremely honest, she and her children only lived on a six-month contract every year, because she felt this gave her the freedom to devote the other six months to her own research.

Though based in Oñati, Selma spent months in Burgos, where Floriano let her and her four children, duly kitted out with white gloves, sift through the Consulado’s insurance policies, again looking for the word ‘Terra Nova’. She also often visited the archives in the Real Chancilleria de Valladolid, the Archives in Simancas, the General Archive of the Indies in Seville, the archives in Oviedo, Setubal, Lisbon, Aveiro & Oporto in Portugal, and parish archives in many other Basque towns.

The information she gathered from these different archives provided Selma with specific information on individuals, their families, their homes, their movements, their ships, their voyages, their towns all along the Spanish Basque coast in the 16th and early 17th centuries. In parish records, Selma found records of births, deaths, marriages and baptisms. Through insurance policies in Burgos, she found insurances of ships and their voyages. Through notarial archives, she found contracts, wills (some of which were written in ‘Terra nova’), powers of attorney, loans, donations, policies, proceedings, agreements. Through lengthy lawsuits in other archives, she learnt among other things of disagreements between crew members, claims made by widows of fishermen who had died in ‘Terra nova’, ships that had sunk on the other side of the Atlantic.

Over the years, Selma meticulously made notes and collated the information she so painstakingly compiled, including information about the ships themselves, where they were from, when they were built, who owned them, who kitted them out, who insured them. About the ships’ voyages: many were used not only for the ‘Terra nova’ run, but also for the ‘Carrera de las Indias’ i.e. Mexico & the Caribbean. And some of the ships ended their days in Newfoundland, in the Indies, off Iceland or our UK shores having been embargoed by the King of Spain – Felipe II for the Armada. Selma also pieced together the names of many of the sailors, whalers, ship-owners, their wives, their relationships, where they lived and where they died.

Fascinated, Selma visited Basque towns, caseríos (Basque farmhouses), churches, ports, shipyards, which she found mentioned in her documents. She met local clergy, townsfolk and dignitaries, learning more about these towns, some of which still had fishermen going to the Grand Banks off Newfoundland. She became involved in conservation, saving or trying to save, town centres and ancient caseríos from destruction. She was asked to give talks to locals interested in their history, to schools, and universities. She met archivists, linguists, anthropologists, historians, archaeologists, shipbuilders, cartographers, topographers, fishermen, whalers, academics, and other experts.

Selma had noticed that every now and then the scribes writing in the 1500s would insert a word in Basque in the Spanish text. She concluded that some of the scribes would be simultaneously translating what fishermen were telling them in Basque.

The 1970s was not an easy time to live in the Basque country. The Basques, their language, their culture, were being viciously repressed by General Franco’s regime. Children at school were physically punished if they spoke Basque. Selma and her family knew many people, from boys of 17 to mothers of 50, who, simply for speaking their language or putting up a Basque flag, were taken before dawn from their homes and families by violent civil guards with Alsatians, imprisoned, tortured, disappeared. The Barkhams sometimes stood in silence alongside their Basque friends in Oñati, who held pictures of the disappeared. They too celebrated with a bottle of Codorniú the end of the dictatorship in 1975.

Selma began to write articles on her discoveries. Given the breadth of her research, she wrote on various topics, women’s lives in the 16th century, merchants, trade routes, corsair activity, early Labrador ports, toponymy, etc. In this magazine, in 1973, she wrote ‘Mercantile community in inland Burgos.’ v. 42, no. 2, November, p. 106-113. In 1977, ‘First will and testament on the Labrador coast.’ v. 49, no. 9, June, p. 574-581.

Amongst the thousands of documents in different archives which Selma analysed, besides finding the word ‘Terra nova’, she also sometimes found names of specific ports, such as Samadet, Los Hornos, Chateo, Buttus.

If you look nowadays at a map of the Canadian Atlantic Coast, you will not find these place names anywhere. ‘Terra nova’ simply means the New Found Land, and could refer to anywhere at that time along that North Atlantic seaboard.

So, Selma went to libraries and archives in Spain, France, Portugal, the Vatican and England, to look for early 16th century maps & rutters (mariners’ handbooks of written sailing directions). Through this cartographic research, she managed to piece together such an accurate picture of where these Basque fishing and whaling ports in the New Found Land were, that she was able to pin point them on present day maps of Nova Scotia, Québec, Newfoundland and Labrador. She gave talks on her findings from this research on Basque topographical names in ‘Terra Nova’ at various international conferences.

Selma poured over UK admiralty charts, looking at the depths of ports, searching for prevailing winds. She located on maps the places she thought ships had foundered, two of which were in Red Bay. She then gave a talk in January 1977 to the underwater archaeological society in Ottawa, where she had maps with Xs marking where exactly she thought the shipwrecks she had found in documents had sunk. It was there that Parks Canada archaeologists got all excited and asked her not to let anyone else know lest the wrecks be located by ‘treasure divers’. Though the Public Archives of Canada, for whom Selma worked, had already passed on information about her finds in Spain and on the Atlantic seaboard of Canada to Parks Canada.

The year after Selma’s 1977 excursion to Labrador, Parks Canada sent a team of underwater archaeologists up to Labrador to look at the places Selma had told them several ships had sunk, in Chateau Bay, in Red Bay, among others. Her research was so exact that a diver found one of her wrecks the first day of diving in Red Bay. This one was not as deep as the Chateau Bay ones, and the town itself was accessible by road, which is probably why they focussed on Red Bay.

The discovery of the ship San Juan was announced to the press at the Public Archives of Canada in Ottawa for whom Selma worked, and not at Parks Canada for whom the divers worked, because it was Selma’s pioneering historical-geographical research which had found the wreck.

Selma’s extensive research also shed light on trade routes, fishermen turned corsairs in times of war, contact between the Malouins, Bristolmen, Irish, Icelanders, and with First Nations in Canada. She discovered what the Basque fishermen and whalers took aboard ship; that several generations of fishermen and often people from the same villages all went over together on the same ships; learnt about accidental overwinterings, the seasons they went over, the renting of their shallops which they often left in Labrador for the following year, hidden so they would be less likely to be borrowed by members of the First Nations. She was entranced and thrilled when she found sketches of ships in the documents, or a will that had been folded over so that when it arrived back at the notary’s office in Euskadi/The Basque Country, after several months at sea, the part on the outside was dark where it had rubbed against something on the long trip home. 500 years later, this will written in the New Found Land was found sewn into the legajo, with clear signs of being folded, the dark outer square obvious.

Selma’s research was groundbreaking in many ways. For it, she received the gold medal from the Royal Canadian Geographical Society (1980), the first woman to receive this medal. Then followed the Order of Canada (1981), the Lagun Onari (2014) from the Basque Government, the Order of Newfoundland and Labrador (2015), various honorary doctorates, and the International Prize of the Sociedad Geográfica Española (2018), amongst other honours, for her exceptional work, ‘a classic piece of historical-geographical research’.

Though the 16th & 17th centuries became alive for Selma because of her research, the present was also equally interesting to her. She started exchanges of Basques with Newfoundlanders, of Basques and Mi’kmaqs, groups of them visiting each other’s countries. She worked up and down the coast of Labrador and Newfoundland with locals talking about their villages’ links with the Basques, about 16th century wills written on their shores, about contact between Basques and Inuit and Montagnais, and other First Nations, about shipwrecks. She helped them put up historical plaques in their villages. She organised conferences for 11 years on the Northern Peninsula of Newfoundland, bringing in experts in different fields to talk about local history, ecology, geology and cartography. She got in touch with the James Cook society, as James Cook had charted the Straits of Belle Isle, and brought speakers over. She keenly felt her historical research could help the local economy. And it has. Historical tourism now brings many visitors to Newfoundland and Labrador because of her work. One of the sites Selma found all those years ago, which she first explored on that expedition in 1977, is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Selma Huxley Barkham’s work has been picked up and used by archivists, historians, cartographers, topographers, anthropologists, archaeologists, conservators, museographers, linguists, and more. Albaola is re-building a ship which she found by piecing together information from documents from three different archives, and by working in different countries on early maps to find where the port of Buttus was, and then by looking at depths and prevailing winds to find where it had sunk. Selma’s work, her 50 publications in Spanish, English, French and Portuguese, her many lectures, and her generous sharing of her research, has led to a wide variety of further work in her field. Unfortunately, she has not always been duly credited.

Selma’s work is seminal. As the citation for the gold medal of the Canadian Geographical Society states: ‘This medal is an occasional award intended to recognise a particular achievement in the field of geography, also to recognise a significant national or international event. In this case, the Society felt Barkham deserved this recognition on both counts. 

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