Selma Barkham, the historian and geographer who discovered intricately detailed evidence of the 16th-century Basque whaling industry in southern Labrador and Quebec, revising Canadian, Spanish and Basque history, died May 3 in Chichester, England, of natural causes. She was 93.
“She was game. Her whole life philosophy was, ‘Yes, I can do that,’” said Olaf Janzen, a retired history professor from Memorial University of Newfoundland’s Grenfell Campus, who started teaching Newfoundland history in the 1980s, and in that field “you could not help but collide with her work.”
Selma Huxley Barkham was born March 8, 1927, in London, England. Her father, Michael Huxley, was a diplomat and founder-editor of Geographical Magazine; the author and philosopher Aldous Huxley was his cousin. Her mother, the former Ottilie de Lotbinière Mills, was a granddaughter of Sir Henri-Gustave Joly de Lotbinière, a Canadian conservationist, Quebec premier and B.C. lieutenant-governor. Selma grew up in England and the United States, where her father was stationed at the British Embassy during the Second World War. In 1944, aged 17, she returned to England alone in a convoy to become a trainee nurse in London.
After the Second World War, she studied Russian at the universities of Paris and London, where she began to work at the Royal Institute of International Affairs and at the Royal Geographical Society.
In 1950 she visited relatives in Montreal and worked selling ads for the Yellow Pages, as a teacher, and then – partly because of her Russian studies – as the librarian of the Arctic Institute of North America at McGill University.
There in 1953 she met John Brian Barkham, a young English architect. In 1950 he had set off with a friend on a motorcycle trip to southern Spain, intending to study its rural architecture, but had an accident en route and ended up in the Basque country. Taken in by a priest, he instead focused on that region’s caserios (farmhouses) for his thesis.
She and Mr. Barkham married and in 1954 moved to Ottawa, where he set up an architectural practice. In 1956 they went to Basque country to meet his friends and the priest told them about an ancient but little-known connection with Terra Nova, as Atlantic Canada was once known. Thus her game-changing research came about almost literally because of an accident. Not right away, though.
After their four children were born, Ms. Barkham joined the Citizens’ Committee on Children and took part in an effort to get anglophone children in Ottawa speaking French. It was “something I’m rather proud of," she told enRoute magazine’s Dane Lanken in 1984. “Madame [Pauline] Vanier was honorary chairman. We ran a little nursery school in French in our house. My children went to it. They speak four or five languages now.”
In 1964, Mr. Barkham died of lymphatic cancer within three weeks of being diagnosed.
Now the family’s sole breadwinner, Ms. Barkham worked for the National Historic Sites as a historian. One of her jobs was the restoration of Louisbourg, on Cape Breton Island, where she became interested in early European fishing voyages to Terra Nova, especially from the Basque country.
“I probably would never have done any of this Basque stuff if my husband hadn’t died,” she told enRoute. “I had to earn a living. But I also wanted to do something interesting for the children and me.”
The records she wanted to access were written in Spanish, which she didn’t speak – yet. In 1969, with the children aged 7 to 14, she drove to Guadalajara, Mexico, worked as an English teacher and learned the language. Money was scarce. Gumption was not.
In 1972 she applied for a Canada Council grant and sailed by cargo ship to Bilbao. She disembarked to find the grant had been turned down, but she was not deterred. She taught English and received a $1,000 donation from an anonymous Canadian who thought she was on to something. In 1973 she negotiated a part-time contract with the Public Archives of Canada, and moved to the Basque town of Onati, to conduct research at the virtually unused Archivo Historico de Protocolos de Gipuzkoa; she lived in the town for 20 years.
She delved systematically into about 40 parish, municipal and judicial archives, often in small villages where papers had lain untouched for 400 years, discovering thousands of manuscripts from the 16th and 17th centuries relating to the Basque fisheries in Terra Nova, including insurance policies, shipbuilding contracts, lawsuits, wills, charter-parties (ship rental agreements), crew agreements, and lists of provisions and equipment. These confirmed the Basques, besides cod fishing, had undertaken significant bowhead and right whale fisheries in Atlantic Canada. From her analysis she could reconstruct their whaling sites, financing, types of ships, crew composition, routes and destinations, seasons, shipwrecks, markets, and day-to-day details of the sailors’ lives down to their food and clothing. She brought them alive when she wrote or spoke about them because they were alive to her.
“You get tremendously fond of them,” she told enRoute. “And then it’s just awful when something ghastly happens.”
The whalers went to 12 ports in an area of Terra Nova that the Basques called the Gran Baya. She concluded this was the waterway now known as the Strait of Belle Isle, and the ports were on the south coast of Labrador and part of Quebec’s coast. She was able to match the 16th-century ports to modern communities, including Buttes, the most important, which is now called Red Bay.
Ms. Barkham also found three 16th-century manuscripts that had been written on that coast: an unpaid debt relating to a sale of chalupas (whaleboats) in 1572, and two wills, from 1577 and 1584. These were the oldest existing civil documents written in Canada. (In recent years, her son, Dr. Michael Barkham, discovered an even older document, a Basque will from 1563.)
In 1977, Ms. Barkham organized an archeological survey to southern Labrador with a grant from the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. Two of her children were with her, along with Arctic archeologist Graham Rowley and his family. They discovered the remains of Basque whaling bases including 16th-century red clay roof tiles that locals had found in their gardens and mistakenly identified as much more recent British bricks. Later that summer she led Memorial University archeologist Jim Tuck to the sites, including at Red Bay.
The next year a team of underwater archeologists from Parks Canada, led by Robert Grenier, guided by the detailed information Ms. Barkham had provided, located shipwrecks in Chateau Bay and Red Bay. Subsequent digs have uncovered coins, pottery and a cemetery. These were the remains of the world’s first industrial-scale whale fishery, employing up to 2,000 Basques annually. Red Bay was declared a National Historic Site of Canada in 1979 and a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2013.
In 1982 she led another expedition, sailing from Cape Breton Island to southern Labrador and Quebec’s North Shore, identifying 17th-century Basque cod fishing locations and finding more evidence of the 16th-century Basque whalers.
Her Newfoundland toponymic analysis also enabled her to decode some place names as originating from Basque, not French or Portuguese: Port au Port from ophor portu, meaning port of rest; Barachois from barachoa, meaning small sand bar. Ms. Barkham published extensively, including the book The Basques in the North Atlantic in the 16th and 17th Centuries (1987).
In the 1990s she began organizing “low-key, informal yet remarkably well-informed conferences” on Newfoundland’s Northern Peninsula, at the Plum Point Motel (her summer residence for more than 10 years) and Bird Cove’s school-cum-museum, Dr. Janzen said. Her reputation attracted an international who’s who of historians, archeologists, librarians and cartographers, the rock stars of her field.
“Selma had a remarkable capacity to convince people to serve her needs. She would cajole, and beg, and sweet-talk,” Dr. Janzen said. And she seemed to know everybody. “She was one of those people who make a point of getting to know people. And she was also a person who cared very deeply for the people of the Northern Peninsula.” At the conferences she always reserved time for local people to talk about life in the 1940s and 1950s. She had respect for them and they had respect for her. They nicknamed her the Biscuit Queen because of her fondness for sweet biscuits.
“She was the grande dame,” Dr. Janzen said. “A tour de force.”
Among her many honours, she was awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society in 1980 (the first woman to receive this) and named a member of the Order of Canada in 1981, as well as receiving an honorary doctor of letters degree from Memorial University in 1993, the Basque Country’s Lagun Onari in 2014, and the Spanish Geographical Society’s 2018 International Prize, from King Felipe VI of Spain.
“If she did anything she did it well,” said Latonia Hartery, an anthropologist and documentary filmmaker who met Ms. Barkham when Ms. Hartery started fieldwork in Bird Cove and Plum Point in 1999. “She was fearless. If there was no door open she would find a way. She’d do it. And in the 1970s she did it as a woman with four small children in tow. She and her children did everything together.
“She was extremely intelligent. That probably goes without saying. Even in her 80s she remembered not just all her adventures but also the times and dates and names of anyone she had studied. She was always interested in something new. No fact was too small and nothing was too big.”
Ms. Barkham was not just a role model, but a friend, Ms. Hartery said. “I was 19, 20, and her support was endless, she would convince you that you could do anything, which was important for a young person to hear.”
Predeceased by her son Thomas and brother Henry, Ms. Barkham leaves her children Oriana, Michael and Serena; and brother Thomas.