Selma Huxley Barkham will be remembered most for her contributions to southern Labrador.
However, for the people who knew her, she will be remembered most for her courage.
Widowed at the age of 37, the famed historian who discovered who discovered what is now the Red Bay UNESCO world heritage site took her four children on a quest that led them to Mexico, Spain and Labrador for her research.
She married in the early 1950s to English architect Brian Barkham and moved to Ottawa. He died in 1964, just three weeks after being diagnosed with cancer.
“She picked up the pieces,” her son, Michael Barkham, told SaltWire Network from his home in Spain. “She often said the trouble was, she had four little mouths to feed and couldn’t just break down. I’m sure she went through hell, but she pushed forward and her courage shows through her life.”
Barkham died on May 3 in her home country of England. She was 93 years old.
She was raised in England and the United States by a family of intellectuals and scientists, and her father was the founder-editor of a geographical magazine. His cousins included famed author Aldous Huxley and biologist Sir Julian Huxley.
Selma Barkham discovered the connection between Red Bay and the 16th-century Basque cod and whale fishery, which led to the town being declared a UNESCO world heritage site.
She spent a significant period of her life studying the Basque fishery and its connection to Newfoundland and Labrador, and has been honoured many times for her contributions. She was inducted into the orders of Canada and Newfoundland and Labrador, was awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society - the first woman to receive this - and had two honourary doctorates, just to name a few of her accolades.
She worked for a time in Ottawa before moving her family to Mexico to learn Spanish. After a few years there, they moved to Spain where she wanted to do research in archives on the Basque cod and whale fisheries in Terra Nova (now Atlantic Canada) in the 16th and 17th centuries, a virtually unknown chapter of Canadian history.
Once they arrived in Spain, she found out her funding hadn’t been approved and she had to figure out once again how to make ends meet. An anonymous donation and a stint teaching English got them by while she studied thousands of documents on the Basque fishery and the connections to Newfoundland and Labrador.
Eventually she made world-class archival, historical and archaeological discoveries that sparked a wholesale revision of 16th-century Canadian history. She discovered the existence of a 16th-century Basque whaling industry - the world’s first - in southern Labrador and adjacent Quebec, their whaling ports (one of them Red Bay), archaeological remains of their bases, as well as the presence of Basque galleons sunk in those ports.
She didn’t get a lot of support for her research at first, her son said, but she continued her work.
“None of them really believed her in the ’70s when she started writing to people,” he said. “Before she did the trip to Labrador, she had been writing people telling them to go there and nobody really believed her. That’s why she decided to go there. She had to.”
Geoff Farmer, a retired geography professor at Memorial University, who collaborated with Barkham over the years, said she didn’t let the resistance she faced from the academic community deter her.
“I don’t know if they were jealous or they didn’t like this person coming along without a long list of degrees behind them who knew more about it than anybody else,” he said. “She came out of nowhere, really, and for a long time she fought or had to resist an attitude from the professionals because she was more than their equal.”
Farmer said she received criticism for her work and had trouble getting grants for her research, but she didn’t let it stop her. He said she was a remarkable woman who did a tremendous amount of legwork and earned the prominence she achieved.
John Mannion echoed Farmer's comments about Barkhams work ethic and drive. Mannion, also a retired geography professor, said he knew Barkham well when she was working with the university and even taught her for a bit when she tried her hand as a graduate student.
"She was a very interesting woman, no question," he said. "It was a different time, she didn't get the opportunity to go to university, she had to work. She was largely self-taught, came from a family of renowned academics, and did a impressive amount of archival work."
Michael said she was proud of the practical impact her work had made on the historical record and the small Labrador town of fewer than 300 people.
“She was very concerned with how many people were leaving the area and was glad there was a tangible job-making impact as part of a cultural tourism industry,” he said. “She was a very human person. She cared a lot about people.”
Evan Careen is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter covering Labrador for SaltWire Network.