Tri Martolod

When it comes to musical preferences I quite enjoy traditional, folk music. That is to say music which is traditional to a particular people and not the “folk” music of far-left and/or hippie types as most seem to think of when they hear the term. There is something real, I suppose you could say, about this type of music as opposed to the manufactured sounds of modern popular music (including so-called folk). There is a history behind traditional folk.

A great piece is Tri Martolod – three sailors – which is an old Breton song about Breton fishermen in Newfoundland. The most famed rendition is by the Breton singer Alan Stivell but here are a few others if you prefer: 1,2,3 (I must admit I’m not much of a Nolwenn Leroy fan – I suppose that is sacrilegious given her importance to modern Breton music).

The lyrics, in English, are as follows,

Three young sailors… la la la… Three young sailors went traveling

Went traveling! Went traveling

And the wind pushed them… la la la… The wind pushed them to Newfoundland

All the way to Newfoundland! All the way to Newfoundland

Next to the windmill stone… la la la… Next to the windmill stone, they dropped anchor

They dropped anchor! They dropped anchor

And in that windmill… la la la… And in that windmill was a servant girl

There was a servant girl! There was a servant girl

And she asked me… la la la… And she asked me where we met

Where have we met before? Where have we met before

In Nantes at the market… la la la… In Nantes at the market, we chose a ring

The style of music is quite old but this particular song only dates to the 18th century. The subject matter brings to my mind a little known fact concerning European expansion into the Americas: fishermen (and whalers) were visiting the coast of Newfoundland since at least the 15th century.

There is no exact date as to when it began but many believe that the Basques were fishing the Grand Banks prior to the arrival of Columbus (The Basques, Roger Collins. 235). The Portuguese and English are known to have used this area as well for maritime resources and they both may have been fishing the Grand Banks prior to Cabot’s journey.

Most sources sadly do not differentiate between French and Breton so it is hard to gauge their role in Newfoundland fishing. That said I’m sure a great number of French fishermen/whalers were Bretons. Fishing has traditionally been one of the most important economic activities in Brittany and this remains true to this day. Bretons have made their presence known in other maritime activities as well. For example, the famed explorer of Canada Jacques Cartier was Breton and historically a great many sailors in the French navy have been Breton (The Bretons, Patrick Galliou & Michael Jones. 285).

The last remaining outpost of French America, the islands of Saint Pierre and Miquelon, are located just off the coast of Newfoundland. The unofficial flag of the islands (and its coat of arms) feature Basque, Breton and Norman symbols in remembrance of the fact that the majority of inhabitants can trace their ancestry back to the Basque country, Brittany and Normandy. From the 17th century until the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, Newfoundland itself was heavily settled by France. Many of these settlers were, given settlement patterns of the neighbouring isles of Saint Pierre and Miquelon, undoubtedly Bretons.


Post Script

Regardless of the size of Breton, French, English and Portuguese roles in the fishing and whaling of the Grand Banks it was the Basques who began the trade and at least until the 17th century, it was the Basques who were most prominent. In 1578 there were 150 Basques fishing and 50 Basque whaling ships active off Newfoundland (Empire: How Spain Became a World Power, Henry Kamen. 171) making them the most dominant group. The town of Placentia was founded by Basque fishermen at the beginning of the 16th century as a base of operations in the area.


About Thomas Jones
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