The history of the world according to the Basques

Are you baffled by Europe's most intractable independence movement? Then you just don't appreciate the uniqueness of Euskadi, says Mark Kurlansky

February 2005

According to a popular Bilbao joke, a Bilbaino walks into a store and asks for "a world map of Bilbao" The shop owner unflinchingly answers, "left bank or right?'' This is The Basque History of the World because Basques at times think they are the world. They feel inexplicably secure about their place among nations. But more important, Basques, while they are protecting their unique and separate identity, always endeavour to be in the world.

No word less describes Basques than the term separatist, a term they refuse to use. If they are an island, it is an island where bridges are constantly being built to the mainland.

Considering how small a group the Basques are, they have made remarkable contributions to world history. In the Age of Exploration they were the explorers who connected Europe to North America, South America, Africa, and Asia. At the dawn of capitalism they were among the first capitalists, experimenting with tariff-free international trade and the use of competitive pricing to break monopolies. Early in the industrial revolution they became leading industrialists: shipbuilders, steelmakers, and manufacturers. Today, in the global age, even while clinging to their ancient tribal identity, they are ready for a borderless world.

We live in an age of vanishing cultures, perhaps even vanishing nations. To be a Frenchman, to be an American, is a limited notion. Educated people do not practise local customs or eat local food. Products are flown around the world. We are losing diversity but gaining harmony. Those who resist this will be left behind by history, we are told.

But the Basques are determined to lose nothing that is theirs, while still embracing the times, cyberspace included. They have never been a quaint people and have managed to be neither backward nor assimilated. Their food, that great window into cultures, shows this. With an acknowledged genius for cooking, they pioneered the use of products from other parts of the world. But they always adapted them, made them Basque.


A central concept in Basque identity is belonging, not only to the Basque people but to a house, known in the Basque language as etxea. Etxea or echea is one of the most common roots of Basque surnames. Etxaberria means "new house,'' etxazarra means "old house,'' etxaguren is "the far side of the house,'' etxarren means "stone house.'' There are dozens of these last names referring to ancestral rural houses. The name Javier comes from Xavier or Xabier, short for etxaberria.

A house stands for a clan. Though most societies at some stage had clans, the Basques have preserved this notion because the Basques preserve almost everything. Each house has a tomb for the members of the house and an etxekandere, a spiritual head, a woman who looks after blessings and prayers for all house members wherever they are, living or dead.

These houses, often facing east to greet the rising sun, with Basque symbols and the name of the house's founder carved over the doorway, always have names, because the Basques believe that naming something proves its existence. Izena duen guzia omen da (that which has a name exists).


The Basques seem to be a mythical people, almost an imagined people. Their ancient culture is filled with undated legends and customs. Their land itself, a world of red-roofed, whitewashed towns, tough green mountains, rocky crests, a cobalt sea that turns charcoal in stormy weather, a strange language, and big berets, exists on no maps except their own.

Basqueland begins at the Adour river with its mouth at Bayonne - the river that separates the Basques from the French swampland of Landes - and ends at the Ebro river, whose rich valley separates the dry red Spanish earth of Rioja from Basqueland. Basqueland looks too green to be Spain and too rugged to be France. The entire area is only 8,218 square miles, which is slightly smaller than New Hampshire.

Within this small space are seven Basque provinces. Four provinces are in Spain and have Basque and Spanish names: Nafaroa or Navarra, Gipuzkoa or Guipuzcoa, Bizkaia or Vizcaya, and Araba or Alava.

Three are in France and have Basque and French names: Lapurdi or Labourd, Benafaroa or Basse Navarre, and Zuberoa or Soule.

An old form of Basque nationalist graffiti is "4 + 3 = l.''

As with most things pertaining to Basques, the provinces are defined by language. There are seven dialects of the Basque language, though there are sub-dialects within some of the provinces. In the Basque language, which is called Euskera, there is now word for Basque. The only word to identify a member of their group is euskaldan - Euskera speaker. Their land is called Euskal Herria - the land of the Euskera speakers. It is language that defines a Basque.

The central mystery is: Who are the Basques? The early Basques left no written records, and the first accounts of them, two centuries after the Romans arrived in 218BC, give the impression that they were already an ancient - or at least not a new - people. Artefacts predating this time that have been found in the area - a few tools, drawings in caves, and the rudiments of ruins - are not proven to have been made by Basques, though it is supposed that at least some of them were.

Ample evidence exists that the Basques are a physically distinct group. There is a Basque type with a long straight nose, thick eyebrows, strong chin, and long earlobes. Even today, sitting in a bar in a mountainous river valley town like Tolosa, watching men play mus, a popular card game, one can see a similarity in the faces despite considerable intermarriage. Personalities carve very different visages, but over and over again, from behind a hand of cards, the same eyebrows, chin, and nose can be seen.

The identical dark navy wool berets a so many men wear seem to showcase the long Basque ears sticking out of the sides. In past eras, when Spaniards and French were typically fairly small people, Basque men were characteristically larger, thick-chested, broad-shouldered and burly. Because these were also characteristics of Cro-Magnons, Basques are often thought to he direct descendants of this man who lived 40,000 years ago.


When the Basques first began appearing on the stage of recorded history, even before there was a name for them, they were observed playing out the same roles that they have been playing ever since: defending their land and culture, making complex choices about the degree of independence that was needed to preserve their way of life, while looking to the rest of the world for commercial opportunities to ensure their prosperity.

Long before the Romans gave the Basques a name, a great many people attempted to invade the mountains of what is now Basqueland, and they all met with fierce resistance. The invaders were Indo-Europeans intending to move into the Iberian peninsula. It seems to have been acceptable to the indigenous people that these invaders pass through on their path to the conquest of Iberia. But if they tried to settle in these, northern mountains, they would encounter a ferocious enemy.


The most important word in Euskera is gure. It means "our'' - our people, our home, our village. Cookbooks talk of our soups, our sauces. "Reptiles are not typically included in our meals,'' wrote the great Guipuzcoan chef, Jose Maria Busca Isusi. That four-letter word, gure, is at the centre of Basqueness - the feeling of belonging inalienably to a group. It is what the Basques mean by a nation, why they have remained a nation without a country, even stripped of their laws.


Whatever the feelings in the rest of Spain, a united Europe is an idea that resonates with Basques. although they are not always happy with the way this new giant Europe is run.

To the left, it seems too friendly to corporations and not open to individuals and small business. The dichotomy between large and free, which [Victor] Hugo promised would not exist, sometimes seems a reality. But the idea of not having a border through their middle, of Europeans being borderless and tariffless partners, seems to many Basques to be what they call "a natural idea".

"If Europe works, our natural region will be reinforced," said the writer Daniel Landart. Ramon Labayen said: "The European Union represses artificial barriers." Asked what he meant by an artificial barrier, he said, "Cultures are not barriers. Borders are barriers."

The borders around Basqueland endure because they are cultural, not political.

[Basque leader] Arzalluz said, "The concept of a state is changing. They have given up their borders, are giving up their money. We are not fighting for a Basque state but to be a new European state.'' A 1998 poll in Spanish Basqueland showed that 88 percent wanted to circumvent Madrid and have direct relations with the European Union.

In the idealised new Europe, economies are merged, citizenship is merged. But those who support the idea deny that countries will be eliminated. There will simply be a new idea of a nation - a nation that maintains its own culture and identity while being economically linked and politically loyal to a larger state. Some 1,800 years ago, the Basques told the Roman Empire that this was what they wanted. Four centuries ago, they told it to Ferdinand of Aragon. They have told it to Francois Mitterrand and Felipe Gonzalez and King Juan Carlos.

They watch Europe unfolding and wonder what has happened to their old adversaries. Most of the political leaders endorse the new Europe whether their citizens do or not. The Basques watch the French and Spanish give up their borders and their currency and wonder why it is so easy for them.

Why didn't Mitterrand worry about the "fabric of the nation being torn''? Why does Madrid not worry about losing its sovereignty? And if they do not worry about these things, why do they feel threatened by the Basques? The Basques are not isolationists. They never wanted to leave Europe. They only wanted to be Basque. Perhaps it is the French and the Spanish, relative newcomers, who will disappear in another 1,000 years.

But the Basques will still be there, playing strange sports, speaking a language of ks and xs that no one else understands, naming their houses and facing them toward the eastern sunrise in a land of legends, on steep green mountains by a cobalt sea -- still surviving, enduring by the grace of what Juan San Martin called euskaldun bizi nahia, the will to live like a Basque.

Extract from 'The Basque History of the World', by Mark Kurlansky, published by Random House



(1476-1526), mariner, first to circumnavigate globe, showing the world was round. Sailed with Magellan of Portugal, but completed three-year voyage after he was killed.


(or basque ball), also known as jai alai, is the world's fiercest, noisiest, most claustrophobic ball game. It is played against a high enclosed wall (or fronton), and has been exported to North and South America.


(1864-1936) - scholar and poet, famously defied fascist general Millan Astray, saying: "Vencera pero no convencera" (You'll win but you won't convince); sacked as rector of Salamanca University and died months later, a broken man.


Basques claim to have pioneered Europe's first democratic assembly a thousand years ago when farmers and herdsmen demanded that kings of Spain recognise their rights beneath an old oak at Gernika (Guernica). The tree was felled last year after it died in August.


Founded Jesuits in 1534, canonised 1622. From ancient noble family. Lost leg when shot while defending Pamplona castle from French. Converted to Christianity after reading religious books; wrote a book on "spiritual exercises". Imprisoned by the Inquisition for "promoting dangerous doctrines".


Men clad in white who execute high-kicking dances of honour and welcome at big Basque events. And bertzolari, poets who improvise emotional sung poems to crowds about whatever is going on, and whose challenge is matched by others in the audience who sing back.


The flat black floppy hat beloved of free thinkers worldwide. Known as a txapela, essential protection against the siri-miri, the insistent leaden drizzle that hangs in the valleys and seeps into your clothes and your bones.


The French cross the Pyrenees to sample pastries and the traditional dish of sheep cheese with black cherry jam, left. Basque cooks are famed worldwide, their restaurants laden with Michelin stars. Specialities include salt cod or bacalao (whose invention is hotly contested by the Portuguese).


Stone-lifting, log-chopping and other bizarre rural competitions. Champions capable of lifting cubes of granite the size of a fridge, or reducing huge tree trunks to flying splinters in seconds, are hailed as local heroes.


The communist leader in the Spanish civil war who was renowned for his fiery speeches, swearing "we would rather die on our feet that live on our knees" and the slogan "No pasaran" - They shall not pass

Research by Elizabeth Nash