The Basque History of the World

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Mark Kurlansky’s The Basque History of the World is a poignant and deeply personal study of the Basque people. Often misconstrued as a regressive, inward-looking society, Kurlansky argues that the Basque people are an international people whose influence spreads far beyond their small corner of Europe.

The first misconception which Kurlansky is addresses is geographical, explaining that the Basque country is not, contrary to popular thought, limited to Spain. Three of the seven Basque provinces – Lapurdi, Benafaroa and Zuberoa – are in France, although those in Spain – Nafaroa, Gipuzkoa, Bizkaia and Araba – are more well-known. Each Basque province speaks its own dialect of the Basque language – Euskera – and the Basque identity is closely linked to its native tongue. Indeed, the only word in Euskera for a Basque is ‘Euskaldun’ – a person who speaks Euskera. Similarly, the Basque country is known as Euskal Herria – the land of Euskera speakers.

The ‘Euskaldunak’ (Basque people) date back to at least the Roman era and probably far earlier. They first made their name as mercenaries during the golden age of the Roman Republic, fighting for Carthage during the Punic wars. Despite picking the losing side, they remained largely free from the Romans as their mountainous terrain discouraged invaders. Although they later fell under the suzerainty of the Roman Empire, they retained their own laws and customs.

Following the fall of Rome, the Basques fought off the Visigoths and the Franks, carving out their own slice of Europe. Such was their martial skill that when the Muslim ruler of Spain, Abd-al-Rahman, decided to invade France in 732, he chose to go round, as opposed to through, the Basques. Constant warfare prompted the Basques to centralise and Christianise their society, forming the Kingdom of Navarra in 818.

Yet even in the medieval period, the influence of the Basque people extended beyond Europe. Noted for their fishing, the Basques would regularly travel as far afield as Iceland, the Faroe Islands and the Hebrides to hunt down whales. In order to build ships capable of travelling such vast distances, the Basques became skilled shipbuilders, their shipyards stretching out along the Basque coast. The very first naval treaty affirming the freedom of the seas was actually signed by a Basque port – Bermeo – with King Edward III in 1351. During the age of discovery, the Basques sent ships to the New World, whaling in Brazil and the Southern Ocean and extending Spain’s globe-straddling Empire.

By the Spanish Golden Age, the Basque country had fallen under the authority of the Spanish throne. When the Catholic Monarchs – Isabella and Ferdinand – unified the country in 1492, only the Kingdom of Navarra (and Portugal) remained independent on the Iberian Peninsula. Ferdinand – unwilling to allow this – seized Navarra in 1512, promising that the Basques could retain their ancient customs. The French provinces – Lapurdi, Benafaroa and Zuberoa – became Basse Navarre – a splinter Kingdom which was absorbed by France.

In the tensions following the annexation of Navarra, one young Basque noble soldier – Iñigo Lopez – was injured. He would later become Saint Ignatius of Loyola, known today as the founder of the Society of Jesus or the Jesuits. That one of the oldest and most conservative catholic orders would originate here was unsurprising; the Basques, once they accepted Christianity, became fervent believers. Following their annexation into Catholic Spain, the Basques participated enthusiastically in the Inquisition, hunting down witches and infidels. This zealousness was replicated in the French Basqueland, where one witch hunter, Pierre De Lancre, reportedly burnt 600 witches in the early 17th Century.

While still disappointed by their loss of independence, the Basques entered a period of wild prosperity following the turmoil of the 16th Century. In 1728, a group of Basques, led by the Count of Peñaflorida, set up the Royal Guipúzcoan Company of Caracas which traded cocoa in Venezuela. Their operation was hugely successful, producing dividends of 20-25%. The Company exported goods from South America and sold Basque merchandise to the colonies. Whilst the Spanish Empire entered a period of decline, the Basques thrived with their mercantile capitalism.

However, this wealth was fleeting. The Basques always had a complicated relationship with the Spanish crown, a relationship complicated even further by the Napoleonic invasion of the Iberian Peninsula. The Basques had retained a degree of regional autonomy up to this point but, divided amongst themselves, they were ineffectual in stopping the French; the government in Madrid noticed. After the end of the Napoleonic wars, they decided that the state needed to be brought under central control to protect against the French threat. Such ideas were anathema to the Basques, who prided themselves on their individuality.

After the death of Ferdinand VII in 1833, the tensions between the government and the outlying regions could no longer be ignored. The Basques, amongst others, supported Carlos, the younger brother of Ferdinand, as his successor. Conversely, the liberals – those who wished to modernise and secularise Spain – backed Isabella and, as regent, her mother, Maria Cristina. The two opposed sides refused to compromise and war ensued.

The conflict was brutal and short, ending in 1839 with Isabella’s victory. The liberals were not in a conciliatory mood and ended the historic ‘fueros’ which had guaranteed the Basqueland her independence. A second Carlist war grew out of the grievances of the first, only ending in 1876. The terms of defeat were even harsher this time for the Basques. For the first time since 1512, the Basques had to pay taxes directly to the Madrid government and serve in the national military.

Having lost their prized autonomy in the 19th Century, the Basques sought to rekindle their cultural heritage, beginning with the publication of Basque Grammar in 1891. The most noted Basque intellectual of the time was Sabino Arana, who reformed Basque grammar, wrote the Basque anthem, designed the flag and wrote a declaration of independence, all before his death in 1903. Deeply xenophobic, Arana nonetheless retains a defining impact upon modern Basque events as the founder of the PNV – the party which still governs the region.

During the Spanish Civil War, the Basques supported the Republicans and suffered through the bombing of the Guernica. The Basques hoped that the Allies would liberate Spain after deposing Hitler and Mussolini, yet Franco, playing on American Cold War fears, succeeded in maintaining an uneasy alliance with the Western superpowers. Unchallenged by foreign powers, Franco was free to turn his attention inwards, banning the Basque language and the PNV. In response, the Basques formed ETA – an armed group committed to Basque independence.

ETA carried out kidnappings and assassinations, most notably Operación Ogro – the murder of Luis Carrero Blanco, an Admiral widely expected to succeed Franco after his death. The response of the Spanish government was, typically, brutal. Between 1952 and 1973 ETA claimed to have killed six people (although this may represent an overestimation). In response, Franco’s government arrested 4,356 Basques, executing 14. Despite this, ETA retained little support in the Basqueland, with perhaps only 600 members by the late 1960s.

Following Franco’s death, ETA did not cease its activity, killing 18 people in 1976 alone. The Basques, as a people, remained hostile to the Spanish government, failing to ratify the 1978 Spanish constitution. Paramilitary terrorism continued to affect the region, with ETA only dissolved in 2018.

Since the late 90s, the Basques have enjoyed greater security and prosperity than perhaps the pre-Napoleonic era. Whilst calls for independence continue to abound, the situation has not reached the same ferocity as in Catalonia. The Basque language, prohibited under Franco, has undergone a remarkable resurgence, although still less than a third of the Basques can speak it fluently.

Kurlansky’s narrative is, largely, compellingly written, with chapters covering Basque history as well as wider Basque culture. Whilst the book is not, strictly, chronological and is perhaps a little difficult to read without a firm prior grounding in Spanish history and geography, it is nonetheless a fastidiously researched and informative exploration of an all too neglected area of history. I would thoroughly recommend it to any curious reader.

Kurlansky, M., 2000. The Basque History of the World. Vintage.