Whaling and why independence is closely tied to economic success

What the Basques and the US have in common

While traveling in the Basque country I cam across an interesting fact. It was the Basques who invented whaling. Now, that in itself is not surprising. They were close to the Atlantic and generally there was lots going on in that region in the middle ages.

The Basques took whaling from a recreational activity to an industry. That meant income and economic freedom. No surprise, even today the Basques are fiercely independent, proud and hard working.

It made me think that there is logical relationship between whaling and independence. It goes like this:

In the middle ages economic activity was determined by land. Those who had land were rich and those who didn’t were poor. Feudalism was the means of redistributing land from kings to aristocrats. In a world like that independence is hard if not impossible to achieve. You need to play by the rules, kiss ass to the clergy and higher ranked aristocrats to get up the social latter.

Enter whaling. Whaling was the first industry independent of land ownership. You could go out there and catch fish, exploit the whale oil and make money. Now, the kings and dukes obviously figured out a way to tax the whalers and get their share of profit. But there is one thing the whalers had which was not taxable, it was know-how. Whaling is something you learn. You give that knowledge to your kids and they give it to their kids, etc. It’s a form of independence that we consider normal today. But in those days it was unique. Whaling technology was a pass to economic, political and social freedom.

The Basque whalers became very famous among Spanish military men. Their navigational and naval skills helped the Armada win wars on sea. The Basques were somebody even without names and other aristocratic fanfare, just because they knew something that was in demand.

The US history is very closely tied to whaling and there are parallels with the Basques. It was the New England whalers in places like Nantucket, New London and even down in Sag Harbor, New York, that actually started the US revolution. It was not the populous regions of Virginia or Carolina. They delivered the manpower, but the spirit came from New England and it is my belief that whaling was the source of that spirit of independence.

The New England whalers took the skill developed in the Basque country to the next level. While the Basques were good at navigating the Bay of Biscay and even knew how to control waters as high up as Spitzbergen in Norway, the New England whalers controlled the hefty waters from New Foundland down to the East Coast of the US.

The US whalers were particularly good at navigating the Atlantic streams and helped the US detract the English from attacking during the revolutionary war.

But the contribution of the whalers went beyond military and naval advice. It was their spirit of independence and the ability to make a living out in the ocean which made them a driving force. If you have the know how to make an independent living you become independent. You don’t want others to tell you how to live and you absolutely don’t want others to interfere in your economics.

It think whaling is the fundamental reason for the fiercely independent Basques and it’s also the reason for the US drive for independence.

While the regions have developed differently in the past 250 the source of their drive for independence and self reliance has common roots.

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