Medieval and early modern whaling in Portugal

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Mainland Portugal is not renowned for having been a whaling nation of significance. However, preliminary studies have brought to light enough historical references to suggest that whaling occurred from at least the 13th century, and the present work identifies 38 historical sources documenting whale use or whaling on the Portuguese coast between 1201 and 1728. A peak of whale-related sources occurred during the 13th and 14th centuries, and almost all Portuguese accounts are contemporary to those found from the French and Spanish Basque countries, such that the beginning of the whaling activity seems to be coeval. No geographical cluster of whaling activities can be established-they seem to have been unevenly scattered along the entire coastline. Nor can a chronological north-south movement of coastal whaling activities be discerned. The geographical and chronological patterns give support to the assumption that whaling was not introduced to Portugal by the Basques, who are known to have spread westward from the French Labourd (11th century), via Golf of Biscay, to Asturias, and southward to Galicia (14th century). Rather, Portuguese whale use seems to have originated independently of Basque influence. Several of the sources specify "black whales" as the target species. This is consistent with modern knowledge about the distribution and migration patterns of North Atlantic right whales during Basque medieval and early modern whaling. The Portuguese sources are not clear as to numbers of whales taken, nor to the whaling technology used, but the activity was sufficiently well organized and developed to warrant the levying of tithes in the feudal system of 13th-century Portugal
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)287-300
Number of pages13
Volume24 (3)
Issue numberNA
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2011


  • Basque whaling
  • Historical sources
  • Portugal
  • Whale use
  • Whaling


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