Press Enter / Return to begin your search.

WH: The Mystery of L’Anse-au-Loup Labrador

Catherine Mathias

During the height of the Covid19 pandemic, while isolating in Oshawa, Ontario, I decided to go through a duffle bag full of old slides from my days working with Memorial University.

Currently, my research interests are with metalwork of the Middle East and Mosul Iraq specifically. That said I felt that a short break was in order and went head and toes into the duffle bag.

Red Bay is one of the sites of the 16th-century Basque Whaling expeditions in Canada. In the 1500s this small town hosted some 2,000 Basque Whalers. While the project was excavated with both Parks Canada and Memorial University doing the reconnaissance some 60 researchers would descend on the small town again and reveal its secrets of the past. Down the coast from Red Bay in L’Anse au Loup another story was surfacing. A burial was washing out of the banks and a rescue operation was conducted by Memorial University.

A midshipman’s pants from the 1800s
A midshipman’s pants from the 1800s

What drew me to this project specifically was in part the current unrest in our southern neighbour, the United States of America, and this burial, which clearly demonstrates a time when racial barriers were not always present. The man was identified as “WH” because of the initials on his knife which was tucked into his jacket pocket, a custom of great respect to the dead. This also reminded me of the 18th Century Black French population which settled on the West Coast of the Island of Newfoundland. This population had always been revered as unique, though few descendants remain today.

Another aspect of this project that was interesting, and I feel justified in bringing up after watching many episodes of CSI during the pandemic, was that both archaeological and forensic science was used to try to identify the origin of the burial. However it was only when the conservator working on the associated costume discovered that the pants were of a “front-fall” design, specific to the early 1800s, that the answers to questions began to be realized. An image of the pants is included above .

While finishing up the archaeological investigations of the 16th Century Basque in Red Bay, Labrador, in the late 1980s, the Memorial University crew members were called upon to excavate a burial washing out of an embankment in L’Anse-au-Loup Labrador. Once excavated the remains were taken to the field laboratory in Red Bay and initial documentation began.

The burial was determined, on-site, to be that of a male in his 20s. The clothing, or costume, was later to identify this person as a Midshipman. He had been carefully buried with his shoes placed on either side of his head and clothing laid on top of the body with a shroud covering the remains. The costume was fairly-well preserved with a jacket, pants, great coat and shoes being in the best condition. A pocketknife was placed in the side pocket of his jacket with the initials “WH.”

While the human remains were sent to Memorial University for further investigation by Dr. Sonja Jerkic, the costume was initially sent to the Canadian Conservation Institute. The costume was returned to Memorial as it was determined that their conservator Dr. Catherine Mathias would be better equipped to conduct this type of conservation/ research. Forensic work at Memorial determined, using hair samples found in the pants, to be that of a black male. The costume was dated to the 1814s, based on the front fall design of the pants. The shoes were well preserved with one having the initial “W” carved into the bottom. The human remains were in good condition and revealed that this person had suffered an injury resulting in the loss of a hand.

No trace of blood residue was found on the costume, though this could be due to the water saturation of the soil. It is, therefore, unclear how this person died but he clearly had an important position on the ship to have a burial of this type in the early 1800s. Archival research could reveal who this person was based on his initials “WH.” This sort of archaeological find shows the importance of a multi-skilled crew and a unique burial environment.