We know that many European fishermen crossed the Atlantic in the 16th century, soon after Cabot made landfall in North America. English, French, Spanish, and Basque ships came to fish off the coast of what is now Nova Scotia where the waters teemed with cod. The only one of these men about whom we have any personal information is Captain Savalette, a Basque from St. Jean de Luz, who in 1607 was making his 42nd fishing expedition across the ocean.
Savalette had established a shore base on a harbour south west of Canso, at, or near, today’s Port Felix on Tor Bay. The captain of an 80-ton fishing vessel, he employed 16 men who set out in smaller boats known as chalupas to catch cod with hook and line. His ship probably resembled the Basque galleon found near Red Bay in Labrador. The crew gutted, salted, and dried the cod that were packed onto Savalette’s ship and taken back to his home port at the end of the season. The vessel could carry 100,000 dried fish, which he would sell for 1,000 livres.
In August 1607, a barque was headed along the coast for nearby Canso. The passengers were on their way back to France, after being forced to abandon the Habitation at Port Royal. Among them was a Parisian lawyer, Marc Lescarbot, who later wrote about his experiences. He told of meeting Captain Savalette, who made them welcome at his fishing station where they remained for four days waiting for a fair wind. Towards the end of the month, another French vessel was on its way to Canso, carrying the last of the Port Royal settlers, including Champlain. He, too, wrote of being welcomed by Savalette, whom he found fishing among the Sugar Islands in Tor Bay. Champlain, the mapmaker, named the harbour where Savalette had established his base Port Savalette in his honour. Sadly, the name did not survive.
While Savalette for the most part got along well with the indigenous inhabitants of the area, the travellers reported that Mi’kmaq liked to help themselves to fish from the Basque fishing boats, though they left the cod. Savalette seems to have tolerated this and did not arm his men. Instead, he deterred the Mi'kmaq with threats of reprisal from the French.
Both Lescarbot and Champlain spoke well of Savalette, and Lescarbot observed with displeasure that some of the French seamen who had come to transport them home were disrespectful to the captain, “using him as the soldier doth the poor peasant.”
Because of these accounts by Lescarbot and Champlain, we know the name and something about the activities of a successful Basque fisherman who had been making his living off the coast of Nova Scotia since the 1560s.
In the second half of the 18th century, a number of Acadian families came to settle around Tor Bay, where many of their descendants still live in the villages of Larrys River, Charlos Cove, and Port Felix. The Société des Acadiens de la Région de Tor Bay commemorates Savalette with the annual Festival Savalette held at Larrys River. There, a series of paintings by Moni Duersch shows scenes from the area’s history from the seventeenth century to the present. At Port Felix, the recently opened Place Savalette, a National Historic Site, commemorates the historic meeting between Savalette and Champlain.