Commemorating a 451 year-old will in Placentia

Lee Everts
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On May 15, a Basque sailor by the name of Domingo de Luca dictated his "Last Will and Testament" aboard a ship anchored in the Placentia Harbour. That was 451 years ago.

Three students from Laval High — Nathan Hynes, Patrick Pearson and Jordan Pomeroy —performed a short skit entitled "The Last Wish" during a May 15 ceremony in Placentia to commemorate the 451st anniversary of the last will and testament of Domingo de Luca.

Recently, the Placentia Area Historical Society (PAHS) commemorated the anniversary of this will with what was a well-attended and successful event at the Placentia Bay Cultural Arts Centre.

For many years, the will remained housed in an archive in Spain (Archivo Histórico de Protocolos de Gipuzkoa – Gipuzkoako Protokoloen Artxibo Historikoa). Eventually, it was discovered by historian and researcher Dr. Michael Barkham, who recognized its significance to Placentia. Dr. Barkham is the son of Selma Barkham, whose work led to the discovery of the whaling station in Red Bay, Labrador.

After learning of the will, the PAHS was interested in translating it from old Spanish to English. Fortunately, Dr. Barkham was able to complete the translation, which can be viewed on the PAHS website (www.placentiahistory.ca). For the PAHS, this short document uncovered more of the history surrounding the annual journey of the Basque to Placentia. Moreover, it allowed members of the PAHS to learn who exactly was Domingo de Luca.

As they learned, he was a storekeeper on La María del Juncal, a ship that had left the Basque country to fish for cod in what was then known as Terra Nova. More specifically, they were en route to Plazençia, so-named apparently because of its physical resemblance to Plasencia de Butron, now Plentzia, a community nestled along the southern shores of the Bay of Biscay. This was a customary journey.

Although, for Domingo de Luca, there would be nothing customary about his visit. Upon arrival, he fell ill and suspecting that he would likely not be making the return trip home, he dictated his Last Will and Testament to the ship’s notary, Joan de Blancaflor from San Sebastián. Domingo made various requests in his will regarding his debts, donations, and receipts. However, he also made one other request — a last wish of sorts. He asked “that my body be buried in this port of Plazençia in the place where those who die here are usually buried.”

At the end of the 1563 fishing season, the will of Domingo de Luca was returned to Hondaribbia where, on Oct. 10, his widow, María Martín de Aguinaga, presented it to the mayor and notary for it to be authenticated and validated. It was then placed in the files of the notary which in time, were stored in the Archivo Histórico de Protocolos de Gipuzkoa in the Basque town of Oñati. There the will remained until it was discovered by Dr. Michael Barkham.

And so, it was on the anniversary of the writing of this Last Will and Testament that the PAHS hosted an event. The event began with a presentation by archaeologist and researcher Steve Mills, who has been involved in archaeology in Placentia for many years. He provided a very interesting and informative talk on the Basque in Newfoundland and Labrador.

As Mills explained, there has been confirmed evidence of the Basque in Newfoundland and Labrador since the 1520s. Legal documents from the time referred to Newfoundland and Labrador and more specifically, Placentia as a destination for cod fishing.

In Placentia, with a cobblestone beach that was ideal for drying fish, as well as a year-round ice-free bay and harbour, what could be better? There was more than enough reason for the Basque to make their annual journey to Placentia. This was the draw for fishing expeditions such as the one on which Domingo de Luca travelled in 1563.

When Mills completed his talk, the lights rose on the stage behind as three students from Laval High — Nathan Hynes, Patrick Pearson and Jordan Pomeroy — brought to life a brief and solemn conversation between the shipmates of Domingo de Luca in a short skit entitled "The Last Wish." Set aboard the ship, the students did an excellent job at portraying some of the final moments of Domingo de Luca.

Following the brief skit, a letter from Mayor Aitor Kerejeta of Hondarribia, Spain, was read. Hondarribia is the town from which Domingo de Luca had hailed. As it was centuries ago when the Basque would annually arrive in Placentia to fish, the words of the mayor of Hondarribia helped to bridge the ocean divide in an effort to honour a former resident.

While members of the PAHS worked together to prepare for this event, they could not do it alone. The success of the event relied on a committed and co-ordinated effort by all those who lent a hand to the PAHS. Words of gratitude must be given to groups such as the Town of Placentia, the Placentia Area Theatre d’Heritage (PATH), as well as Laval High.

To view a webcast of the event, follow the Youtube or Ustream links at www.placentiabay.ca.

— Lee Everts is a freelance writer. She can be reached by email at: lee.everts@nf.sympatico.ca

Organizations: Placentia Area Historical Society, Placentia Bay Cultural Arts Centre, Placentia Area Theatre

Geographic location: Placentia, Newfoundland and Labrador, Spain Red Bay Terra Nova Bay of Biscay San Sebastián Hondaribbia Oñati

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