Abandoned on the Shore

Basque women and the sea in the time of Juan Sebastián Elcano.

By Fundación Elkano

Miren Aintzane Eguiluz

Bilvao: Illustration from the Book Civitaes Orbis Terrarum (1575-1617) by Georg Braun Franz HogenbergFundación Elkano

When Magellan and Juan Sebastián Elcano set off on their voyage around the world, they left behind them a Basque Country that was awakening from its medieval slumber. Women remained in the home, caring for their children, while the men set off in search of new lands.

Wedding in Bilbao (Early 17th century) by Francisco de MendietaFundación Elkano

Abandoned and often left to fend for themselves for several years, these women had to fight for their own survival and that of their dependents. In an area such as the Basque Country, where the sea was one of the main sources of income, they did all they could to move close to its shores so that they could make a living from its riches.

Market Scene (1550) by Pieter AertsenFundación Elkano

Whether as hagglers, shipowners, bargewomen, oarswomen, merchants, fisherwomen, stevedores, or netmakers, these women looked to the sea as a source of income, on the coasts of both Biscay and Gipuzkoa. They did so despite the misgivings and restrictions placed on them by men.

They Recognized Him in the Breaking of the Bread (1608-1613) by Pieter AertsenOriginal Source: Rijkmuseum


It was common for the daughters and wives of fishermen to work "on dry land" in order to keep the family afloat. Over the centuries, they worked as netmakers or fishwives in the ports.

Fish Sellers (1579) by Vicenzo CampiOriginal Source: Musée de la Roche-sur-Yon

In the 16th century, these women could be seen unloading fish from types of wooden vessels known as pinnaces and chalupas, which they then distributed and sold on a small scale as hagglers, hawkers, or simple fishwives. As these trades were necessary, they were considered to be lesser evils that could be tolerated for the sake of the community.

The Fishwife (1631) by Juan Van der HamenFundación Elkano

The women were kept under close scrutiny: local bylaws pursued all breaches of the regulations and any woman who contravened them was declared to be "in contempt," punished and "brought to shame" for all to see the punishment inflicted on her.

Fishwives of Saint-Jean-de-Luz (1850) by Hélène FeilletOriginal Source: Museo Zumalakaregi


More marginalized and viewed with suspicion for working in an "exclusively male" preserve were the small numbers of women who earned a living fishing. They worked in the ports and bays, in places such as Orio and Pasaia, driven by dire need and in the face of undisguised censure.

They could be seen "entering the water, looking indecent and almost naked and improper in public, especially mixing as they do with the men who often work in the same trade."

Young Girl from Biscay (1530-1540) by Christoph WeiditzOriginal Source: The Germanisches Nationalmuseum


The best-known female stevedores were from Bilbao. In 16th-century Bilbao, grains such as wheat could not be taken out of the port in carts in case they were pilfered by mule drivers while being loaded, and sold on elsewhere.

It was for this reason that in 1500, a law was enacted which stated that these goods could only be transported on women's heads, many of whom were young girls with shaved heads.

Female Stevedores in Bilbao (1900)Original Source: Auñamendi Eusko Entziklopedia

These female stevedores had to carry the weight of large bales and even slabs of iron, taking the strain on their necks and spines. Despite this, their figures were idealized by travelers who arrived on the Basque coasts. Once such traveler was the 18th-century Irishman, William Bowles.

“The women do not yield to their husbands, nor sisters to their brothers; and well-watered and loaded up, they run freely and steadily, which is a pleasure to watch.”

The Boatwomen and the Tourist (1848) by Auguste TrichónFundación Elkano

“In the evening, when their work is done, they return to their rooms without the slightest sign of tiredness, often dancing through the streets to the drumming of the tabor […].”

Bowles' effusive remarks, full of admiration, are the incredulous reaction of a traveler unaccustomed to seeing women working in the male sphere.

Bayonnne, Grain Market (1850) by Hennebutte-FeilletOriginal Source: Diputación Foral de Gipuzkoa


Women also worked as bargewomen in the Basque ports. There is evidence of their work between the towns of Errenteria and Pasaia, where they made use of the tides, transporting materials such as iron, stone, or planks of wood by barge.

Until the 19th century, they worked either alone or assisting their husbands in their work. Some of them even owned the boats on which they worked, which carried several tons of cargo.

Boatwomen (Pasaje) (1897) by Darío de RegoyosOriginal Source: Museo Bellas artes de Bilbao

Boatwomen and Ferrywomen

From at least the 16th century onward, there is documentary evidence in the municipal records of the towns of Pasaia de San Juan and Errenteria of women transporting passengers and goods from one side of the bay to the other.

After 1615, the image of these women became widespread when they took part in the exchange of princesses on the nearby French border, and later in the wedding of the future Philip IV of Spain.

View of Pasajes and Fort Hay (1837-1840) by Richard Lyde HornbrookOriginal Source: Museo Zumalakarregi

These boatwomen were portrayed in Basque literature as extremely masculine. In the early 17th century, the cleric López Martínez de Isasti described the boatwomen of Pasaia as "manly women" when describing their piloting work, towing galleons in and out of port.

Boatwomen of Pasaia (1850) by Blanche Hennebutte-FeilletOriginal Source: Museo Zumalakarregi

However, most travelers, painters, and writers characterized them in their work in a far more romantic, feminine way.

The culmination of this feminization was La batelera de Pasajes (The boatwoman of Pasaia), a romantic comedy written by the playwright Bretón de los Herreros in 1842. The play presents an idealized image of the boatwomen, similar to their depictions in drawings and paintings of the period.

Boatwomen of Pasaia (1850) by Hélène FeilletOriginal Source: Museo Zumalakarregi

The boatwomen were not the only ferrywomen to work in the Basque ports. They were a feature of the entire coastline, working in a variety of different jobs. From the 16th century onward, their labor was strictly controlled.

In 1553, the town council warned the ferrywomen of Portugalete to keep the elements of their work "safe" and not pass them to any other person "without permission from the mayor or councilors or bailiffs."

Wealthy Biscayan Woman (1530-1540) by Christoph WeiditzOriginal Source: The Germanisches Nationalmuseum

Merchants and Shipowners

While poorer women had to contend with society's and the authorities' disapproval, those who were part of a higher social class were often recognized as the heads of their households in the absence of men. This absence might have been because the men were away at sea, or because the women's husbands, sons, or brothers had not returned home.

Sketch for Fishermen of Bermeo (1937-1940) by Aurelio Arteta y ErrastiOriginal Source: Coleccion BBVA

In the maritime environment of the 16th-century Basque Country, men were notable for their absence: they spent time away fishing, sailing around the newly discovered coasts of the Americas, and trading with perpetually in-demand European ports.

The result was a gap in the population that women were forced to fill, taking on masculine roles that society usually regarded as out of bounds to them.

Biscayan Woman (1530-1540) by Christoph WeiditzOriginal Source: The Germanisches Nationalmuseum

Faced with the collapse of their household finances, women occupied spheres that were previously the exclusive domain of men, because the men were simply not there.

It was for this reason that, in the 16th century, women frequently became galleon owners along with their husbands or sons. However, they were also sometimes the sole owners of ships that they had commissioned, or that they had bought for maritime trade.

Women of the Sea (1916) by Gustavo de MaeztuOriginal Source: Museo Bellas artes de Bilbao

Basque women of the 16th century had to take the place of the men who were away at sea. To do this, they looked toward that same sea and used it to find ways to survive from the shore.

In the absence of the men, this was tacitly accepted by society at the time. However, women were always closely watched and even harassed if they dared to step outside of the strictly defined lines. Despite the difficulties they faced, they persevered.

Credits: Story

Exhibition curator:

Miren Aintzane Eguíluz

Escuela de ingenieria de Bilbao (Bilbao School of Engineering).
Escuela Técnica superior de Náutica y Máquinas Navales de Portugalete, Bizkaia (Higher Technical School of Sailing and Naval Engineering, Portugalete, Biscay).

This exhibition is part of the First Voyage Around the World project.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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