Historically, the port of Pasaia has been of vital importance for the development of the naval and fishing industry as it is a natural port, has a strategic location and a good supply of raw materials for shipbuilding. Cradle of great sailors, like Blas de Lezo, and an objective for kings and emperors, like Carlos V or Napoleón, Pasaia has always been a leading strategic naval base in Europe. Not without reason it was the port chosen by the Marquis de Lafayette himself to begin his adventure in the American War of Independence.
One of the main sources of income for Basque fishermen during the 16th century was whaling, even on the other side of the Atlantic, especially in Red Bay, Canada, and on the shores of Labrador and Newfoundland. Notable in this regard is the recent twinning of Pasaia with Red Bay, a fact which highlights the relationship between the two towns. Pasaia was considered the best whaling port in Europe between the 16th and 18th centuries.
Despite almost non-existent historical documentation before the 16th century, historians are certain of the existence of commercial and cultural exchange between Pasaia and different points of the Cantabrian Sea and Europe, even a few thousand years before Christ. However, the first more evident archaeological remains of this marine activity to be found are from the Roman presence in our region, with the appearance, among other archaeological remains, of Roman coins in Pasaia and Errenteria, places from where the iron ore extracted from the mines at Arditurri was exported.
«Pasaia has been connected with different places of the Cantabrian Sea and Europe from a few thousand years before Christ»
In the Middle Ages, the place was known as el Pasaje (the Passage), and the small towns that grew up around this port activity began to create infrastructures to better carry out their work. Besides fishing, this work was focused on the iron ore of Bizkaia mixed with the ore from nearby in the ironworks of the Oiartzun Valley. It is not surprising, therefore, that this new economic strength attracted the interests of more powerful nearby populations. Due to the granting of the Charters by the King of Navarre (Sancho VI “the Wise”), Pasaia was divided between Donostia / San Sebastián in 1180 (Pasai San Pedro today) and Hondarribia in 1207 (Pasai Donibane).
Infrastructures were also created for the so-called route of Flanders, in which the port of Pasaia played an important role in providing connections for the wool surpluses from the northern sub-plateau and the Ebro valley with the manufacturing markets of Europe. Later, in the 16th century, interest in cod fishing began, so boats sailed to Iceland and Newfoundland. Along with whaling, it was the most productive industry up to the 18th century.
«Pasaia has been an important point in the Flanders route communicating the north lands and the Valley of the Ebro with Europe»
Pasaia was a very important port for shipbuilding. Many of the ships that later left for America were built here. The environment was crucial for shipbuilding since it provided raw materials for the port (wood, ironworks, etc.). In the 16th century there were few ports prepared for major voyages, with the exception of those of Pasaia, which specialised in construction, raw materials and sailors.
In the 18th and 19th centuries port activity revolved around the Real Cía. Gipuzkoana de Caracas and later, around the Real Cía. de Filipinas and the Real Cía. Asturiana de Minas.