History of the basque people

History of the Basque people
Prehistory and Antiquity
Basque Prehistory
Basque people in Antiquity
Middle Ages
Duchy of Cantabria
Duchy of Vasconia
County of Vasconia
Battle of Roncevaux Pass
Kingdom of Navarre
Banu Qasi
Basque party wars
Modern Age
The Basque Country in the Early Modern Age
Basque witch trials
The Basque Country in the Late Modern Age
Carlist Wars
Basque nationalism
Dukes of Vasconia and Gascony
Kings of Pamplona and Navarre
Lords of Biscay
Counts of Araba
Counts of Lapurdi
Viscounts of Zuberoa
Navarrese right
Basque navigation
Basque culture
Basque literature
Politics of the Basque Country
Timeline of Basque history
Basque portal

The Basque people (Basque: Euskaldunak) are a group of people inhabiting adjacent areas of Spain and France. Their history is therefore interconnected with Spanish and French history and also with the history of many other past and present countries, particularly in Europe and the Americas.


Main article: Origin of the Basques

First historical references

In the 1st century, Strabo wrote that the northern parts of what are now Navarre (Nafarroa in Basque) and Aragon were inhabited by the Vascones. Despite the evident etymological connection between Vascones and the modern denomination Basque, there is no proof that the Vascones were the modern Basques' ancestors or spoke the language that has evolved into modern Basque, although this is strongly suggested both by the historically consistent toponymy of the area and by a few personal names on tombstones dating from the Roman period.

Three different peoples inhabited the territory of the present Basque Autonomous Community: the Varduli, Caristii and Autrigones. Historical sources do not state whether these tribes were related to the Vascones and/or the Aquitani.

Fake archaeological finds at Aquitanian language should not be confused with Gascon, the Romance language that has been spoken in Aquitaine since the Middle Ages.)

During the Middle Ages, the name Vascones and its derivates (including Basque) were extended to cover the entire Basque-speaking population of the present-day Basque Country, bordering areas and farther east and north (the whole Pyrenean region and Gascony).

Prehistory: the mainstream view

Although little is known about the prehistory of the Basques before the period of Roman occupation owing to the difficulty in identifying evidence for specific cultural traits, the mainstream view today is that the Basque area shows signs of archaeological continuity since the Aurignacian period.

Many Basque archaeological sites, including cave dwellings such as Santimamiñe, provide evidence for continuity from Aurignacian times down to the Iron Age, shortly before Roman occupation. The possibility therefore cannot be ruled out of at least some of the same people having continued to inhabit the area for thirty millennia.

Some scholars have interpreted the Basque words aizto 'knife' and aizkora 'axe' as containing aitz 'stone', which they take as evidence that the Basque language dates back to the Stone Age.[1] However, stone was abandoned in the Chalcolithic, and aizkora (variants axkora, azkora) is usually considered to be loaned from Latin asciola; cf. Spanish azuela, Catalan aixol.[2]

Genetic evidence

A high concentration of Rh- (a typical European trait) among Basques, who have the highest level worldwide, had already been taken as suggestive of the antiquity and lack of admixture of the Basque genetic stock before the advent of modern genetics, which has confirmed this view. In the 1990s Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza published his findings according to which one of the main European autosomal components, PC 5, was shown to be a typically Basque trait believed to have receded owing to the migration of Eastern peoples during the Neolithic and Metal Ages.[3][4][5] and X chromosome microsatellites[6] also seem to point to Basques being the most direct descendants from prehistoric Western Europeans. Having the highest percent of "Western European genes" but found also at high levels among neighbor populations, as they are also direct descendants of the same People. However, Mitochondrial DNA have cast serious doubts over this theory[7][8]

Alternative theories

The following alternative theories about the prehistoric origins of the Basques have all had adherents at some time but are rejected by many scholars and do not represent the consensus view:

  • Basques as Neolithic settlers: According to this theory, a precursor of the Basque language might have arrived about 6,000 years ago with the advance of agriculture. The only archaeological evidence that could partly support this hypothesis would be that for the Ebro valley area. Genetics also lends little support.
  • Basques arrived together with the Indo-Europeans: Linked to an unproven linguistic hypothesis that includes Basque and some Caucasian languages in a single super-family. Even if such a Basque-Caucasian connection did exist, it would have to be at too great a time depth to be relevant to Indo-European migrations. Apart from a Celtic presence in the Ebro valley during the Urnfield culture, archaeology offers little support for this hypothesis. The Basque language shows few certain Celtic or other Indo-European loans, other than those transmitted via Latin or Romance in historic times.
  • Basques as an Iberian subgroup: Based on occasional use by early Basques of the Iberian alphabet and Julius Caesar's description of the Aquitanians as Iberians. Apparent similarities between the undeciphered Iberian language and Basque have also been cited, but this fails to account for the fact that attempts so far to decipher Iberian using Basque as a reference have failed.

The Basque Country in prehistorical times

Main article: Basque Prehistory


About 35,000 years ago, the lands that are now the Basque Country, together with neighbouring areas such as Aquitaine and the Pyrenees, were settled by Homo sapiens, who gradually displaced the region's earlier Neanderthal population. Arriving from Central Europe, the settlers brought the Aurignacian culture with them.

At this stage, the Basque Country formed part of the archaeological Franco-Cantabrian province which extended all the way from Asturias to Provence. Throughout this region, which underwent similar cultural developments with some local variation, Aurignacian culture was successively replaced by Gravettian, Solutrean and Magdalenian cultures. Except for the Aurignacian, these all seem to have originated in the Franco-Cantabrian region, which suggests no further waves of immigration into the area during the Paleolithic period.

Within the present-day Basque Country, settlement was limited almost exclusively to the Atlantic area, probably for climatic reasons. Important Basque sites include the following:

  • Santimamiñe (Biscay): Gravettian, Solutrean and Magdalenian remains, mural art
  • Bolinkoba (Biscay): Gravettian and Solutrean
  • Ermitia (Gipuzkoa): Solutrean and Magdalenian
  • Amalda (Gipuzkoa): Gravettian and Solutrean
  • Koskobilo (Gipuzkoa): Aurignacian and Solutrean
  • Aitzbitarte (Gipuzkoa): Aurignacian, Gravettian, Solutrean and Magdalenian
  • Isturitz (Lower Navarre): Gravettian, Solutrean and Magdalenian, mural art
  • Gatzarria (Soule): Aurignacian and Gravettian

Epipaleolithic and Neolithic

At the end of the Ice Age, Magdalenian culture gave way to Azilian culture. Hunters turned from large animals to smaller prey, and fishing and seafood gathering became important economic activities. The southern part of the Basque Country was first settled in this period.

Gradually, Neolithic technology started to filter through from the Mediterranean coasts, first in the form of isolated pottery items (Zatoia, Marizulo) and later with the introduction of sheepherding. As in most of Atlantic Europe, this transition progressed slowly.

In the Ebro valley, more fully Neolithic sites are found. Anthropometric classification of the remains suggests the possibility of some Mediterranean colonisation here. A comparable situation is found in Aquitaine, where settlers may have arrived via the Garonne.

In the second half of the 4th millennium BC, Megalithic culture appeared throughout the area. Burials become collective (possibly implying families or clans) and the dolmen predominates, while caves are also employed in some places. Unlike the dolmens of the Mediterranean basin which show a preference for corridors, in the Atlantic area they are invariably simple chambers.

Copper and Bronze Ages

Use of copper and gold, and then other metals, did not begin in the Basque Country until c. 2500. With the arrival of metal working, the first urban settlements made their appearance. One of the most notable towns on account of its size and continuity was La Hoya in southern Álava, which may have served as a link, and possibly a trading centre, between Portugal (Vila Nova de São Pedro culture) and Languedoc (Treilles group). Concurrently, caves and natural shelters remained in use, particularly in the Atlantic region.

Undecorated pottery continued from the Neolithic period up until the arrival of the Bell Beaker culture with its characteristic pottery style, which is mainly found around the Ebro Valley. Building of megalithic structures continued until the Late Bronze Age.

In Aquitaine, there was a notable presence of the Artenacian culture, a culture of bowmen that spread rapidly through Western France and Belgium from its homeland near the Garonne c. 2400.

In the Late Bronze Age, parts of the southern Basque Country came under the influence of the pastoralist Cogotas I culture of the Iberian plateau.

Iron Age

In the Iron Age, an Indo-European people, probably Celtic, settled on territories adjacent to the Basque region and began to exert influence. Bearers of the late Urnfield culture followed the Ebro upstream as far as the southern fringes of the Basque Country, leading to the incorporation of the Hallstatt culture.

In the Basque Country, settlements now appear mainly at points of difficult access, probably for defensive reasons, and had elaborate defense systems. During this phase, agriculture seemingly became more important than animal husbandry.

It may be during this period that new megalithic structures, the (stone circle) or cromlech and the megalith or menhir, made their appearance.

Roman rule

On arrival of the Romans to current south-west France, the Pyrenees and its threshold up to Cantabria, the territory was occupied by a number of tribes, most of them non Indo-European (the nature of others remains fuzzy, e.g. the Caristii). The Vascones show the closest identification with current Basques, but evidence points to Basque-like people extending around the Pyrenees and up to the Garonne, as evidenced by Caesar´s testimony on his book De Bello Gallico, Aquitanian inscriptions (person and god names), and several place-names.

Most of the Aquitanian tribes were subjugated by Crasus, lieutenant of Caesar, in 65 BC. However, prior to this conquest (celebrated apparently, on the Tower of Urkulu), the Romans had reached the upper Ebro region at the beginning of the 2nd century BC, on the fringes of the Basque territory (Calagurris, Graccurris). Under Pompey in the 1st century BC, the Romans stationed in and founded Pompaelo (modern Pamplona, Iruñea in Basque) but Roman rule was not consolidated until the time of the Emperor Augustus. Its laxness suited the Basques well, allowing them to retain their traditional laws and leadership. Romanisation was limited on the lands of the current Basque Country closer to the Atlantic, while it was more intense on the Mediterranean basin. The survival of the separate Basque language has often been attributed to the fact that the Basque Country, as a poor region, was little developed by the Romans.

There was a significant Roman presence in the garrison of Pompaelo, a city south of the Pyrenees founded by and named after Pompey. Conquest of the area further west followed a fierce Roman campaign against the Cantabri (see Cantabrian Wars). There are archaeological remains from this period of garrisons protecting commercial routes all along the Ebro river, and along a Roman road between Asturica and Burdigala.

Many Basques joined the Roman legions, and were often deployed far away to guard the Empire. A unit of Varduli was stationed on Hadrian's Wall in the north of Britain for many years, and earned the title fida (faithful) for some now-forgotten service to the emperor. Romans apparently entered into alliances (foedera, singular foedus) with many local tribes, allowing them almost total autonomy within the Empire.[9]

Livy mentions the natural division between the Ager and the Saltus Vasconum, i.e. between the fields of the Ebro basin and the mountains to the north. Historians agree that Romanization was significant in the fertile Ager but almost null in the Saltus, where Roman towns were scarce and generally small.[10]

The Bagaudae[11] seem to have produced a major impact on Basque history in the late Empire. In the late 4th century and throughout the 5th century, the Basque region from the Garonne to the Ebro escaped Roman control in the midst of revolts. Several Roman villas (Liédena, Ramalete) were burned to the ground. The proliferation of mints is interpreted as evidence for an inner limes around Vasconia, where coins were minted for the purpose of paying troops.[12] After the fall of the Empire, the struggle against Rome's Visigoth allies continued.

Middle Ages


The Christian doctrine's penetration in Basque inhabited regions was uneven and patchy, since rural and urban areas behaved differently towards the new religion. Towns and urban clusters on the banks of the lowlands of the Ebro, subject to intense Roman influence, accepted Christianity rather early in the late Roman period. The Christian poet Prudentius sings to the prominent Vasconic town of Calahorra in his work Peristephanon (I) written in the early 5th century, reminding to the town's "one-time pagan Vascones" of the martyrdom gone through in it formerly (305). Calahorra itself became episcopal see in the 4th century, with its bishop holding an authority over a territory that extended well into the lands of present-day central Rioja (Sierra de Cameros), Bizkaia, Álava, a big part of Gipuzkoa and Navarre. In the 5th century, Eauze (Elusa) is attested as episcopal see in the Novempopulania, but the actual influence of these centres on the different domains of the society is not well known.

The collapse of the Roman Empire seems to have turned the tide. Basques are not identified anymore with Roman civilisation and its declining urban life after the late 5th century, and they prevailed over Roman urban culture. Ethnic Basques, then, remained largely pagans at least up to the late 7th century after the failed mission by Saint Amandus to convert them.[13] However, less than a century later, no reference is made by Frankish chroniclers to Basque paganism in the Frankish assault on Basques and Aquitanians, despite its powerful propaganda value, Odo was even recognised as champion of Christianity by the Pope. Charlemagne started a policy of colonisation in Aquitaine and Vasconia after the submission of both territories in 768-769. Enlisting the Church on his side to strengthen his power in Vasconia, he restored Frankish authority on the high Pyrenees in 778, divided the land between bishops and abbots and began to baptize the pagan Basques of this region.[14]

Muslim accounts from the period of the Umayyad conquest of Hispania and beginning of 9th century identify the Basques as magi or 'pagan wizards', they were not considered 'people of the Book' (Christians).[15] Still in 816, Muslim chroniclers attest not far from Pamplona a so-called 'Saltan', "knight of the pagans", certainly a distorted name maybe referring to Zaldun, literally in Basque 'knight'. Later Muslim historians cite Navarrese leaders of the early 9th century (but not only them) as holding onto polytheist religious practices and criticize the Banu Qasi for allying with them.

Early Middle Ages

Further information: Duchy of Vasconia

In 409, Vandals, Alans, and Suevi forced their way into Hispania through the western Pyrenees, chased closely by the Visigoths in 416 as allies of Rome, while the consequences of their advances are not clear. In 418 Rome gave the provinces of Aquitania and Tarraconensis to the Visigoths, as foederati, probably with a view to defending Novempopulana from the raids of the Bagaudae. It has sometimes been argued that the Basque were underlying these roving armed hosts, but this claim is far from certain. The contemporary chronicler Hydatius was well aware of the existence of the Vasconias, but does not identify the Bagaudae rebels as Basque.

While the Visigoths seem to have claimed the Basque territory from an early date, the chronicles point to their failure to subdue it, punctuated only by sporadic military successes. The years between 435 and 450 saw a succession of confrontations between the Bagaudae and Romano-Gothic troops, the best documented of which were the battles of Toulouse, Araceli, and Turiasum.[11] Just about the same period, in 449-51, the Suevi under their king Rechiar ravaged the territories of the Vascones, probably looting their way through the region on their way back home from Toulouse. Settlements were clearly damaged after the raids and, while Calahorra and Pamplona survived, Iruña (Veleia) seems to have been abandoned as a result.

After 456, the Visigoths crossed the Pyrenees twice from Aquitaine, probably at Roncesvalles, in an effort to destroy the Suevic kingdom of Rechiar, but as the chronicle of Hydatius, the only Spanish source of the period, ends in 469, the actual events of the Visigothic confrontation with the Basques are obscure. Apart from the vanished previous tribal boundaries, the great development between the death of Hydatius and the events accounted for in the 580s is the appearance of the Basques as a "mountain roaming people", most of the times depicted as posing a threat to urban life.

The Franks displaced the Visigoths from Aquitaine in 507, placing the Basques between the two warring kingdoms. In 581 or thereabouts both Franks and Visigoths attacked Vasconia (Wasconia in Gregory of Tours), but neither with success. In 587 the Franks launched a second attack on the Basques, but they were defeated on the plains of Aquitaine, implying that Basque settlement or conquest had begun north of the Pyrenees. However, the theory of a Basque expansionism in the Early Middle Ages has often been dismissed and is not necessary to understand the historic evolution of this region.[16] Soon afterwards, the Franks and Goths created their respective marches in order to contain the Basques ̶ the Duchy of Cantabria in the south and the Duchy of Vasconia in the north (602).

In the south-western marches of the Frankish Duchy of Vasconia, extending at certain periods during the 6-8th centuries across the Pyrenees, Cantabria (maybe including Biscay and Álava) and Pamplona remained out of Visigothic rule, with the latter sticking to either self-rule or under Frankish suzerainty (Councils of Toledo unattended between 589 and 684).

After much fighting, the Duchy of Vasconia was consolidated as an independent polity between 660 and 678 ruled by the duke Felix, who by means of a personal union with the Duchy of Aquitaine established a de facto realm detached from the distant Merovingian rule. Synergies between ‘Roman’, non-Frankish urban elites and a rural militarised Vascon power base enabled a strong political entity in south-west Gaul.

The Basque-Aquitanian realm reached its zenith at the time of Odo the Great, but the Muslim invasion of 711, at which time the Visigoth Roderic was fighting the Basques in Pamplona, and the rise of the Carolingian dynasty posed new threats for this state, eventually spurring its downfall and breakup.

Vasconia's submission to the Franks after Odo’s death in 735 was interrupted by frequent outbreaks of resistance, led by the latter’s son Hunald (735-744) and grandson Waifer (+768). In 762, the hosts of Frankish king Pippin crossed the Loire, attacked Bourges and Clermont defended by the Basques and ransacked Aquitaine. After several military setbacks, the Basques pledged submission to Pippin on the river Garonne (Fronsac, c. 769). At this time (7-8th centuries), Vasconia is sometimes mentioned as stretching from the lands of Cantabria in the south-west all the way to the river Loire in the north pointing to a not preponderant but clearly significant Basque presence in Aquitaine (i.e. between Garonne and Loire).

Vasconia’s newly suppressed resistance cleared the way for the Frankish army to deal with Charlemagne’s interests in the Spanish marches (siege of Zaragoza). After pulling down the walls of Pamplona, Roland's rear guard headed north and were defeated in the first Battle of Roncevaux (778) by the treacherous Basques, as put by Frankish chroniclers, suggesting that the Basques overall and duke Lupus backed down on their 769 allegiance vow. After 781, tired of the Basque uprisings, Charlemagne appointed no more dukes, instead opting for a direct rule by creating the Kingdom of Aquitaine.

The Basque-Muslim state of the Banu Qasi (meaning "heirs of Cassius" in Arabic), founded c. 800 near Tudela (Tutera in Basque), acted as a buffer state between the Basques and the Cordovan Umayyads that helped consolidate the independent Kingdom of Pamplona after the second Battle of Roncevaux, when a Frankish expedition led by the counts Eblus and Aznar (sometimes identified as the local Frankish vassal toppled in Aragon some 10 years earlier) was defeated by the Pamplonese and maybe the Banu Qasi,[17] after crossing the Pyrenees, probably in the wake of Basque rebellions north of the Pyrenees. In the west fringes of Basque territory, Álava arose first in history attacked by Asturian and Muslim hosts[18] and comprising a blur territory previously held by the Duchy of Cantabria (current Cantabria, Biscay, Álava, La Rioja and Burgos).

After the battle, Enecco Arista (Basque Eneko Aritza, i.e. Eneko the Oak), re-asserted his power in Pamplona c. 824, the Basques managing thereafter to fend off Frankish rule to the south of the western Pyrenees. The line of the Aristas ruled Pamplona side by side with the Banu Qasi of Tudela up to the decline of both dynasties (early 10th century). When Sancho I Garces rose to prominence in 905, Pamplonese allegiances switched to their neighbour Christian realms, with the new royal lineage starting its expansion south to the territory of their former allies. In 905 the newly formed Basque kingdom included, as stated by the Cronica Albeldense, the territory of Nájera and possibly the province of Álava (referred to as Arba).[19]

In 844, the Vikings sailed up the Garonne to Bordeaux and Toulouse and raided the countryside on either bank of the river, killing the Duke of the Basques Sigwinum II (recorded as Sihiminum too, maybe Semeno) in Bordeaux. They took over Bayonne, and attacked Pamplona (859), even taking the king Garcia prisoner, only released in exchange for a hefty ransom. They were to be overcome only in 982 by the Basque duke William II Sanchez of Gascony, who made his way back from Pamplona to fight to the north of Bayonne and put a term to Viking incursions, so allowing monasteries to spring up all over Gascony thereafter, the first of which was the one of Saint-Sever, Caput Vasconiae.

William started a policy of rapprochement to Pamplona, by establishing dynastic ties with their rulers. Despite its newly found strength, by the 10th century the territory of Vasconia (to become Gascony and stripped by the 11-12th century of its original ethnic sense) fragmented into different feudal regions, for example, the viscountcies of Soule and Labourd out of former tribal systems and minor realms (County of Vasconia), while south of the Pyrenees the Kingdom of Castile, Kingdom of Pamplona and the Pyrenean counties of Aragon, Sobrarbe, Ribagorza (later merged into the Kingdom of Aragon) and Pallars arose as the main regional powers with Basque population in the 9th century.

High Middle Ages

Main article: Kingdom of Navarre

Under Sancho III the Great (1000–1035), Pamplona controlled the entire southern Basque Country. Actually, its power extended from Burgos and Santander to northern Aragon. Through marriage Sancho also became the acting Earl of Castile and held a protectorate over Gascony and León. However, in 1058, the former Vasconia turned into Gascony, merged by personal union with Aquitaine (William VIII). William VIII intervened on the dynastic struggles taking place in Aragón and other Peninsular kingdoms, but Gascony progressively moved away from the Basque political sphere, just as its own ethnic make-up: the Basque people increasingly turned into Gascon on the plains to the north of the central and west Pyrenees.

Following Sancho III's death, Castile and Aragon became separate kingdoms ruled by his sons, who were responsible for the first partitioning of Pamplona (1076). Pamplona, the main Basque kingdom (to be renamed Navarre), was absorbed and dwindled for the benefit of Aragón. The kingdom of Aragón itself expanded from its Pyrenean stronghold to the Ebro valley (Saragossa and Tudela conquered in 1118), so shifting its power base to the lowlands and urban areas, with the Basque language and culture receding at the pressure of the stronger urban population and Latin (and Arabic) civilization's prestige encountered at the Ebro valley. Basque ceased to be the main language of communication in many areas of the central Pyrenees, and Romance, Navarro-Aragonese, took over instead. The colonizers of the lands conquered to the Muslims brought the new language along, and not Basque.

The kingdom of Navarre was restored in 1157 under García Ramírez the Restorer, who fought Castile for control of the western half of the realm. A peace treaty signed in 1179 ceded La Rioja and the northeastern part of present-day Old Castile to the Castilian crown. In return, this pact acknowledged that Álava, Biscay and Gipuzkoa belonged to Navarre.

In 1199, while Navarre's King Sancho VI the Wise was away on an embassy to Tlemcen, Castile invaded and annexed the western Basque Country, leaving Navarre landlocked. Castile divided this territory into the three modern provinces, but permitted these to retain a large degree of self-government and their traditional Navarrese rights, encapsulated in special charters called fueros, which all Castilian (and later, Spanish) kings have since sworn to uphold on oath.

Basque sailors

Basques played an important role in early European ventures into the Atlantic Ocean. The earliest document to mention the use of whale oil or blubber by the Basques dates from 670. In 1059, whalers from Lapurdi are recorded to have presented the oil of the first whale they captured to the viscount. Apparently the Basques were averse to the taste of whale meat themselves, but did successful business selling it, and the blubber, to the French, Castilians and Flemings. Basque whalers used longboats or traineras which they rowed in the vicinity of the coast or from a larger ship.

Whaling and cod-fishing are probably responsible for early Basque contact with both the North Sea and Newfoundland. The Basques began cod-fishing and later whaling in Labrador and Newfoundland as early as the first half of the 16th century.

In Europe, the rudder seems to have been a Basque invention, to judge from three masted ships depicted in a 12th-century fresco in Estella (Navarre; Lizarra in Basque), and also seals preserved in Navarrese and Parisian historical archives which show similar vessels. The first mention of use of a rudder was referred to as steering "à la Navarraise" or "à la Bayonnaise".[20]

Magellan's exploration around the world was sailored by Basques, and when Magellan was killed in the Philippines, his Basque second-in-command, Juan Sebastián Elcano took the ship all the way back to Spain, making the Basques the first people to circumnavigate the globe.

Late Middle Ages

The Basque Country in the Late Middle Ages was ravaged by the War of the Bands, bitter partisan wars between local ruling families. In Navarre these conflicts became polarised in a violent struggle between the Agramont and Beaumont parties. In Biscay, the two major warring factions were named Oñaz and Gamboa (cf. the Guelphs and Ghibellines in Italy). High defensive structures called dorretxeak ("tower houses") built by local noble families, few of which survive today, were frequently razed by fire, sometimes by royal decree.

Modern Period

Self-government status and accommodation

As the Middle Ages drew to a close, the lands inhabited by the Basques were allotted to either France and Spain after the Spanish conquest of Iberian Navarre. Most of the Basque population ended up in Spain, or "the Spains", according to its polycentric political arrangement prevailing under the Habsburgs. The initial repression in Navarre on the local nobility and population was followed by a softer, compromising policy on the part of Ferdinand II of Aragonand Charles I of Spain. Many Basques found on the Castilian-Spanish Empire an opportunity to promote their social position and venture to America to make a living and sometimes amass a little fortune, e.g. the foundation of the baserris. Basques serving under the Spanish flag became renowned sailors. Many Basque sailors on Spanish ships were among the first Europeans to reach America, while others got renown as privateers for the French and Spanish kings alike.

Basques in the present-day Spanish and French provinces of the Basque Country managed to retain a large degree of self-government within their respective provinces, practically functioning initially as separate nation-states. The fueros recognised separate laws, taxation and courts in each province.

The Protestant Reformation made some inroads and was supported by Queen Jeanne d'Albret of Low Navarre. The printing of books in Basque, mostly on Christian themes, was introduced in the 16th century by the Basque-speaking bourgeoisie around Bayonne in the northern Basque Country. However, Protestants were persecuted by the Spanish Inquisition. In the northeast, the Protestant Navarrese king converted to Roman Catholicism and went on to become King Henry IV of France.

However, in 1620 the de jure separate Lower Navarre was absorbed by the Kingdom of France, and in 1659 the Treaty of the Pyrenees upheld the actual boundaries dividing Spain and France, so establishing customs that didn´t exist up to that point and restricting free cross-border access. The measures decided were implemented as of 1680. The region specific laws also underwent a gradual fading and devaluation, more in the French Basque Country than in the southern provinces. In 1661 centralization ("unitarianism") and the nobility's ambition to take over and privatize commons unleashed a popular rebellion in Soule led by Bernard Goihenetche "Matalaz", but it was quelled in blood.

The Basque coast—the "Biscayne" coast—and specially Gipuzkoa thrived on whale hunting, trade with America, and privateering carried out by the Biscaynes, i.e. Biscayans proper, Gipuzkoans and Lapurdians. The establishment of the Compañía Guipuzcoana de Caracas in 1728 added to the prosperity and the importation of new ideas. However, the decline of the above company after the end of its trade monopoly with America and its transfer to Madrid, heralded a major economic and political crisis. By the end of the 18th century the Basques were deprived of their customary trade with America and choked by the Spanish customs duties in the Ebro river.

Under the nation-states

Revolution and war

Self-government in the northern Basque Country came to an abrupt end when the French Revolution centralized government and abolished the region specific powers recognized by the ancien régime. While this development pushed some Basques to counter-revolutionary positions, others saw an option through. The Southern Basque Country was mired in constant disputes with the royal Spanish authority—breach of fueros—and talks came virtually to a dead end on accession of Godoy to office. The central government started to enforce its decisions without compromise, e.g. regional quotas in military mobilization, and the different Basque regional councils—Navarre, Gipuzkoa, Biscay,...—felt definitely disenfranchised. During the War of the Pyrenees and the Peninsular War, the impending threat to the self-government on the part of the Spanish royal authority was critical for war events and alliances—cf. Bon-Adrien Jeannot de Moncey's letters, and political developments in Gipuzkoa.

In 1808 the Bayonne Statute for Spain provided for a Basque principality whose representatives were answerable directly to France, a project designed with the input of the Basque revolutionary Garat. Two constituencies were created: Biscay (present-day Basque Autonomous Community) and Navarre. All Basque territories were nominally united under the French for a while. When the Napoleonic Army was allowed in Spain as an ally, at start it encountered little difficulty in keeping the southern Basque provinces loyal to the occupier. However, the tide started to turn when it became apparent that the French attitude was far from respectful. The southern Basque Country was the last part of Spain controlled by the French until the burning of San Sebastian on August 31, 1813.

In Spain, ironically, the fueros were upheld by the traditionalist, and nominally absolutist, Carlists all through the civil wars of the 19th century, in opposition to the victorious constitutional forces. The southern Basque provinces, including Navarre, were the backbone of revolts seeking to crown Carlos, the male heir to the Spanish throne who had promised to defend the Basque foral System, and his descendants after him.

1st Carlist War and the end of the fueros

Fearing that they would lose their self-government or fueros under a modern, liberal constitution, Basques in Spain rushed to join the traditionalist army, which was financed largely by the governments of the Basque provinces. The opposing Isabeline Army had the vital support of British, French (notably the Algerian legion) and Portuguese forces, and the backing of these governments. The Irish legion (Tercio) was virtually annihilated by the Basques in the Battle of Oriamendi.

As differences grew between the Apostolic (official) and Navarrese (Basque-based) parties within the Carlist camp in the course of the First Carlist War, the latter signed an armistice, the terms of which included a promise by the Spaniards to respect Basque self-government. Spain's failure to keep this promise led to the Second Carlist War, which concluded in a similar way. The final outcome was that the Basque provinces, including Navarre, lost most of their autonomy, while keeping control over taxation through the Ley Paccionada. The Basque regional powers prior to the 1876 Second Carlist War (charters, fueros) provided the grounds for the current statutes of Navarre and Basque Autonomous Community (Euskadi) and the so-called conciertos fiscales between the Basque provinces and the Spanish government in Madrid as of 1980.

Thus the wars that brought new freedoms to large parts of Spain resulted in the abolition of most (though not all) of Basques' traditional liberties. Although the Basque provinces of Spain today have greater autonomy than other mainland territories, they still have far less freedom than their ancestors under the present-day Spanish regime.

On the other hand, one consequence of the transfer of the Spanish customs border from the southern boundary of the Basque Country to the Spanish-French border was the inclusion of Spain's Basque provinces in a new Spanish market, the protectionism of which favoured the birth and growth of Basque industry.

Late Modern history

Late 19th century

The loss of the Charts in 1876 spawned political dissent and unrest, with two traditionalist movements arising to counter the Spanish centralist and comparatively liberal stance, the Carlists and the Basque nationalists. The former emphasized staunchly catholic and absolutist values, while the latter stressed Catholicism and the charters mingled with a Basque national awareness (Jaungoikoa eta Lege Zarra). Besides showing at the beginning slightly different positions, the Basque nationalists took hold in the industrialised Biscay and to a lesser extent Gipuzkoa, while the Carlist entrenched themselves especially in the rural Navarre and to a lesser extent in Álava.

With regards to the economic activity, high quality iron ore mainly from western Biscay, previously worked in small traditional forges around the western Basque Country, was now exported to Britain for industrial processing. Then, given the momentum of new market conditions, Biscay acquired its own modern blast furnaces, opening the doors to local industrialisation and even heavier mining. The large numbers of workers which both required were initially drawn from the Basque countryside and the peasantry of nearby Castile and Rioja, but increasingly immigration began to flow from the remoter impoverished regions of Galicia and Andalusia. The Basque Country, hitherto a source of emigrants to France, Spain and America, faced for the first time in recent history the prospect of a massive influx of foreigners possessing different languages and cultures as a side-effect of industrialisation. Most of these immigrants spoke Spanish; practically all were very poor.

In this period, Biscay reached one of the highest mortality rates in Europe. While the new proletariat's wretched working and living conditions were providing a natural breeding ground for the new socialist and anarchist ideologies and political movements characteristic of the late 19th century, the end of the 19th century also saw the birth of the above Basque nationalism, with the founding in 1895 of the Basque Nationalist Party. The PNV, pursuing the goal of independence or self-government for a Basque state (Euzkadi), represented an ideology which combined Christian-Democratic ideas with abhorrence towards Spanish immigrants whom they perceived as a threat to the ethnic, cultural and linguistic integrity of the Basque race while also serving as a channel for the importation of new-fangled, leftist (and "un-Basque") ideas.

Early 20th century

In 1931, at the outset of the Spanish 2nd Republic, echoing the recently granted self-government to Catalonia, an attempt was made to draw up a single statute for Navarre and the Basque western provinces (the "Provincias Vascongadas"), but after an initial overwhelming approval of the draft and a round of council mayor meetings, Navarre pulled out of the draft project amidst heated controversy over the validity of the votes (Pamplona, 1932). Tellingly, the Carlist council of Pamplona claimed that "it is unacceptable to call [the territory included in the draft Statute] País Vasco-Navarro in Spanish. It is fine Vasconia, and Euskalerría, but not Euzkadi".[21]

Undaunted, the Basque nationalists and leftist republican forces kept working on a statute, this time only for the Basque western provinces, Álava, Gipuzkoa and Biscay, eventually approved in 1936, with the Spanish Civil War already raging and an effective control just over Biscay. Basque nationalists in Biscay and Gipuzkoa sided with the Spanish republicans, but many in Navarre, a Carlist stronghold, supported General Francisco Franco's insurgent forces. (The latter were known in Spain as "Nacionales"—usually rendered in English as "Nationalists"—which can be highly misleading in the Basque context). One of the greatest atrocities of this war, immortalised by Picasso's emblematic mural, was the bombing of Gernika by German planes, a Biscayne town of great historical and symbolic importance, at Franco's bidding.

In 1937, the Eusko Gudarostea, the troops of the new government of the Basque Autonomous Community surrendered to Franco's fascist Italian allies in Santoña on condition that the life of the Basque soldiers was respected (Santoña Agreement).[22]

The Franco dictatorship

With the war over, the new dictator began his drive to turn Spain into an authoritarian nation state. Franco's regime passed harsh laws against all minorities in the Spanish state, including Basques, aimed at wiping out their cultures and languages. Calling Biscay and Gipuzkoa "traitor provinces", he abolished what remained of their self-empowerment. Navarre and Álava were allowed to hang onto a small local police force and limited tax prerogatives.

Two developments during the Franco dictatorship (1939–1975) deeply affected life in the Basque Country in this period and afterward. One was a new wave of immigration from the poorer parts of Spain to Biscay and Gipuzkoa during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s in response to the region's escalating industrialization aimed to supply the Spanish internal market as a result of a post-war self-sufficiency policy, favoured by the regime.

Secondly, the regime's persecution provoked a strong backlash in the Basque Country from the 1960s onwards, notably in the form of a new political movement, Basque Country And Freedom/Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, better known by its Basque initials ETA, who turned to the systematic use of arms as a form of protest in 1968. But ETA was only one component of a social, political and language movement rejecting Spanish domination but also sharply criticizing the inertia of the Basque Country's own conservative nationalists (organized in the PNV). To this day the dialectic between these two political trends, the Abertzale (patriotic or nationalist) Left and the PNV, dominate the nationalist part of the Basque political spectrum, the rest of which is occupied by non-nationalist parties.

The present

Franco's authoritarian regime continued until 1975, while the latest years running up to the dictator's death proved harsh in a Basque Country shaken by repression, turmoil and unrest. Two new stances arose in Basque politics, namely break or compromise. While ETA's different branches decided to keep confrontation to gain a new status for the Basque Country, PNV and the Spanish Communists and Socialists opted for negotiations with the Francoist regime. In 1978, a general pardon was decreed by the Spanish Government for all politics related offences, a decision affecting directly Basque nationalist activists, especially ETA militants. In the 1970s and early/mid-1980s, the Basque Country was gripped by intense violence practised by Basque nationalist and state-sponsored illegal groups and police forces.

Between 1979 and 1983, in the framework of the new Spanish Constitution, the central government granted wide self-governing powers ("autonomy") to Álava, Biscay and Gipuzkoa after a referendum, including its own elected parliament, police force, school system and control over taxation, while Navarre was left out of the new autonomous region after the Socialists backed down on their initial position, and it was made into a separate autonomous region. The Statute of Autonomy is a constitutional law but powers have been devolved gradually during decades according to re-negotiations between the Spanish and the consecutive Basque regional governments to reach an effective implementation, while the transfer of many powers are still due. The French Basque Country, meanwhile, lacks any political or administrative recognition whatsoever, while a large number of regional representatives have lobbied to create a Basque department, to no avail so far.

See also

Basque portal


  • Collins, Roger. "The Basques in Aquitaine and Navarre: Problems of Frontier Government." War and Society in the Middle Ages: Essays in Honour of J. O. Prestwich. edd. J. Gillingham and J. C. Holt. Cambridge: Boydell Press, 1984. Reprinted in Law, Culture and Regionalism in Early Medieval Spain. Variorum, 1992. ISBN 0-86078-308-1.
  • Braudel, Fernand, The Perspective of the World, 1984


External links

  • A Basque Encyclopedia and other cultural and historical funds (in Spanish, though it can be searched in English, Basque and French)
  • Center for Basque Studies, University of Nevada, Reno
  • Brief history of Basque whaling
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