Today, it is well accepted that the Basques were early visitors to the coast of what would be known as North America. They established sites along the coast of what is now Newfoundland to process the whales they hunted and return the final product to Europe. With the local Native Americans, they created pidgin trading languages that surprised later European visitors. However, much of this history would be unknown to us if it wasn’t for one extremely dedicated, tenacious, and remarkable woman, Selma Huxley Barkham.
- Selma was born in 1927 in London. She came from a distinguished family. Her great-grandfather, Sir Henri-Gustave Joly de Lotbinière, had been the premier of Quebec and lieutenant-governor of British Columbia. Aldous Huxley, of Brave New World fame, was a cousin of her father. She spent some of her formative years in the United States when her father was stationed at the British Embassy in DC.
- In 1953, she met John Barkham, who she eventually married and together they moved to Ottawa. John was an architect and had done his thesis on the caserios or baserri in the Basque Country (though, this had not been his intention; he was forced to stay in the Basque Country due to an accident). Sadly, John died in 1964 (lymphatic cancer) and Selma, with four young children in tow, needed income. She became a historian of Canada and became interested in the early fishing voyages to Terra Nova, a thread she had originally picked up during an earlier visit to the Basque Country.
- Selma moved to the Basque town of Oñati, where she lived with her children for 20 years, delving deep into archives that had been untouched for centuries. She discovered literally thousands of documents that laid out the Basque history in Newfoundland, revealing that the Basques had not only been fishing cod in the area, but also hunting whales. She also discovered what were, at the time, the oldest civil documents written in Canada.
- In 1977, she led an archeological survey of Labrador during which the team discovered the remains of Basque whaling sites. The next year, another team, inspired by Selma’s work, discovered multiple shipwrecks and a cemetery. Together, these discoveries led to Red Bay being named a National Historic Site of Canada and, ultimately, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
- For her work, Selma received many distinctions, including being the first woman to receive the Gold Medal of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. She received an honorary doctorate from Memorial University in 1993. In 2014, she was recognized as a Lagun Onari of the Basque Country and, in 2018, she was awarded the Spanish Geographical Society’s International Prize
- Selma died on May 3, 2020 at the age of 93. Her son, Michael Barkham, has followed in her steps and has discovered an even older Canadian civil document, a will from 1563.
Primary source: “Enterprising researcher Selma Barkham rewrote a chapter of 16th-century history” by Joan Sullivan, in The Globe and Mail, published May 22, 2020.