The Basques are an indigenous people who inhabit parts of both Spain and France. They are found predominantly in four provinces in Spain and three in France. This area is to be found around the western edge of the Pyrenees on the coast of the Bay of Biscay.
Besides Spanish or French, a minority of Basques speak their own language, Euskara, which is not only distinct from French and Spanish, but utterly different from every other language in Europe and the world. Most Europeans speak an Indo-European tongue, with some Finno-Ugric and Turkic (also known as Altaic) speakers in the east. The Basque language, however, belongs its own entire category and is utterly distinct from every other language in the world. Also, Spanish language was greatly influenced by Euskara, singularly in the vowel set.
The Basques are unique in Europe not only for their language. Investigations of Basque blood types has found that there are far more Basques with type O blood than in the general European population. Basques also have a comparatively lower chance of being either type A or type AB. Modern genetic techniques are also being applied to the Basques and it has been found that there is a great deal of difference between the Basques and their Spanish neighbours. There is less difference, however, with the population of neighbour Aquitania in France, perhaps a sign of past interbreeding. Even more intriguingly it could also be a sign that the ancient Aquitanian people and their now extinct language may have been closely related to the Basques.
There are also interesting social differences between the Basques and their neighbours. The Basque people have an unusually close attachment with their homes. A person’s home is their family in Basqueland. Even if one does not still live there and has not for generations a Basque family is still known by the house in which it once lived. Common Basque surnames could translate as “top of the hill”, or “by the river” all relating to the location of their ancestral home. This is interesting evidence for considering the Basques to be the only people who have always had a fixed and stable abode. Another interesting fact is that Basque society has traditionally been very matriarchal, with lines of succession being from mother to daughter. This is another interesting contrast with other European societies, which are uniformly patriarchal.
In spite of this, until the Industrial Age, poor Basques (usually the younger sons) have emigrated to the rest of Spain or France and the Americas. Saint Francis Xavier and Conquistadors like Lope de Aguirre were Basque.
This unique and isolated people has attracted the interest of a great many linguists and historians trying to discover how and when it came to be where it is. The other non-Indo-European languages in Europe, Finnish, Hungarian, Estonian, and Turkish, were all brought in by invaders from Asia during recorded history. The Indo-European languages were introduced in the same way a few millennia earlier. When could the Basques have arrived? This important question is still not known but it has been narrowed down. The first time we find Basque in writing is the late Middle Ages, not a help, for the Basques were already very well established by this point. Less direct evidence must thus be considered. The most important sources are the classical writers, especially Strabo, who confirms that at about the birth of Jesus Christ the western part of the Pyrenees were inhabited by a people known as the Vasconnes. This is quite identifiable as one of a number of variations on the word Basque. Further evidence for these people being Euskara speaking Basques is provided when lists of names and place names are encountered.
One theory of the origins for the Basques has them arriving along with the Indo-Europeans four thousand years ago. There have been antecedents to such an event. During the Germanic migrations that swept Europe after the fall of Rome, for instance, almost all the tribes were Indo-Europeans, except for the Alans (also known as the Sarmatians) who it now seems were probably Turkish speakers. Furthermore it is now believed the Indo-Europeans began their invasion of Europe from a position just north of the Caspian Sea. South of this region is the Caucasus, a small and mountainous region home to some thirty separate languages, from two separate language groups of which there are no other relatives. Similarities between Basque and the Caucasian language groups have been advocated on a number of occasions. Could a group of Caucasians have joined the invasion of Europe by the Indo-Europeans that was departing just north of them? It is not impossible but there is little to no evidence for this and much against it.
The relationship between Basque and the Caucasian languages is voceferously denied by authors such as R.L. Trask who see no evidence of a connection, and most modern scholars agree with this view. A second argument against the idea of the Basques arrving sometime around the arrival of the Indo-Europeans is archeological. There is no evidence of a new group of people arrving in Basqueland at this time. While the traditions changed, for instance the building of dolmens slowly faded out, these changes seem far more like a single evolving society than a replacement by new groups of people.
In fact the only evidence for an invasion of Basqueland dates from thousands upon thousands of years ago when Cro-Magnon people first arrived in Europe and superseded the Neanderthals. Could this have been when the Basques first arrrived in Europe? The archeological evidence is shaky and it is difficult to assume there was never an invasion just because evidence for one has not yet been found. But so far the evidence is fairly clear, and even if the arrival of the Basques is postponed it is now quite certain that they arrived before the Indo-Europeans and thus that they are the oldest surviving people in Europe.
It is now believed by most scholars that the Basques have been in the same location for thousands of years, unmoved by any of the calamities of war, plague, or famine that destroyed all the other ancient civilizations of Europe. How could one small group of people survive when so many others were overwhelmed by the waves of invaders that have swept Europe? These questions can be dangerous and lead to speculation about racial superiority, a trap that a number of Basque writers have fallen into. In reality, however the reason the Basques have survived is mostly luck, they happened to be at the right place in the right time over and over again.
The Basques either chose their easily defended home in the Pyrenees, or what is more likely were forced into it at some time in the past. It is quite common for mountainous regions to remain as bastions of an all but vanished group of people. When the Celts of Europe were overwhelemed by the Germanic hordes from Asia and the Roman Empire from the south the only areas left speaking Celtic were the isolated island of Ireland and a number of mountain bastions, most of which still retain Celtic speakers to the present day, These regions include Brittany in the northwest of France as well as Scotland and Wales in the British Isles. In these regions the Celtic language survived fifteen hundred years of isolation. The Basque homeland is quite well suited to survival. Its low mountains are combined with dense forests and heavy vegetation to make the region almost impassable to outsiders (this didn’t stop the Way of Saint James, connecting Santiago de Compostela and mainland Europe), but still temperate enough to support a large agricultural base. Despite this growth the soil is of much lower quality than the surrounding plains in Spain and France leaving the area a much less tempting target for invaders. For invaders bent on plunder the Basque areas have few reserves of precious metals, especially in comparison to the gold reserves to the west in Spain or to the wealth in Gascony just to the north of Basqueland. The Basques seem to have ended up the best locale for uninterrupted survival on the continent.
The first two known invasions the Basques survived were those of the Indo-Europeans and then the Celts. These two invasions occurred in prehistory and the secret of the Basque survival is only hinted at by limited archeological evidence. For the next invasion of the region, however, there is much written evidence. The Romans entered the Iberian peninsula after their defeat of Carthage in the Punic wars. Roman rule quickly spread from the Carthaginian settlements along the Mediterranean coast through the rest of the peninsula. The northwest, including the Basque regions, were conquered by Pompey, after whom the large Basqueland city of Pamplona is named, in the first century BC. The looseness of the Roman federation well suited the Basques who retained their traditional laws and leadership within the Roman Empire. The poor region was little developed by the Romans and there is not much evidence of Romanization; this certainly contributed to the survival of the separate Basque language. The lack of a large Roman presence was encouraged by the passivity of the Basques. Roman miltiary records show that there was never a need to fight insurrections in the Basque country. Basqueland never needed Roman garrisons to control the populace, unlike the surrounding Celtic areas.
On the contrary Basques were used by the Romans to guard their empire. There is a great deal of evidence for a Vasconne cohort. This cohort spent many years guarding Hadrians Wall in the north of Britain. Also at some time in its history it earned the title fida or faithful for some now forgotten service to the emperor. There is some evidence for other Basque units serving in the empire as well. Even today nationalist Basques look back on the Roman Empire as an ideal time when, even though there was no Basque independence, the Basques were still able to have almost total internal control. As well as their lack of exposure to Roman garrisons, the Basque survival was also aided by the fact that Basqueland was a poor region. It had no unused cropland that could be used to settle Roman colonists and it had few commodities that would interest the Romans. Only a small number of Roman traders would have come to Basqueland. This isolation is what allowed the Basque language to survive and not be overwhelmed by Latin as occurred in so many other regions of the Empire. If the Roman Empire had continued, however, there is a good chance the Basque language would have vanished. During the Roman period the territory where Basque was spoken slowly declined and by the end of the period it seems Basque had become limited to rural regions, while the major cities such as Pamplona were Romanized.
The history of Basqueland darkens, however, with the arrival of the Germanic peoples and the collapse of the Roman empire. Rather than being an isolated area in the centre of a large empire the Basques were placed at the border between the warring Visigothic and Frankish kingdoms. Basqueland became a very strategically important piece of territory desired by both sides. At the same time the Basques lost their lifestyle, which was dependent on trade with the Roman Empire. These two changes transformed the Basques from being one of the most docile people in Europe into a group of dedicated warriors bent on survival. There are scattered reports from this period of presumed Basque brigands (in Latin, bagaudae) in Aquitania and Spain stealing those things which they used to be able to trade for. Most of the confrontations with the Basques were, however, instigated by the outsiders. Both the Franks and Visigoths sent armies through Basqueland repeatedly during their long running war. While there are few records armies of the day rarely treated the inhabitants of the lands they were passing through well. The Basqueland was probably repeatedly plundered for foodstuffs and fodder to maintain the armies. The rugged Basque territory is ideal for banditry and it is not surprising that despite the oppresion by their neighbhours the Basques could still survive. Just as in every time of persecution in their history the Basques simply moved to the hills and held out there for many years.
The Basques also proved during this period that despite a lack of central authority they could protect their homeland when the need arises. After Charlemagne’s Franks invaded northern Spain they returned home and en route pillaged the Basqueland, stripping it of any wealth they could find. The Basques came together with the Pamplona Muslims, however, and intercepted the Frankish army while it made its way through a mountain pass. Despite poor weaponry and fewer fighters the Basques destroyed much of the Frankish force. The Battle of the Roncesvalles Pass was the only major defeat Charlemagne suffered in his long career. These events were immortalized in the Chanson de Roland, an important piece of medieval verse. Similar mobilizations by the Basques occurred just a few years later against the Islamic invaders who had seized all of Spain. The newly Christianized Basques put up stiff resistance and prevented Islamic penetration of their region for the entire period of the Caliphate.
The Basquelands were eventually divided between France and Spain after the Middle Ages, with most of the Basque population ending up in Spain, a situation which persists to this day. Until modern times the Basques lived peacefully in the separate nation states becoming renowned mariners. Basque sailors were some of the first Europeans to reach North America, and many early settlers in Canada and the United States were of Basque origin.
In 1937 the troops of the Autonomous Basque Government surrendered to the Italian allies of General Francisco Franco. Then one of the hardest periods of Basque history in Spain began. The Basques fought in the Spanish Civil War divided between the nationalist and leftist, siding with the Spanish Republic, and the Navarrese Carlist, siding with Franco forces. One of the greatest atrocities of this war was the bombing of Guernica, the traditional Biscayne capital, by German planes. Much of the city was destroyed and a great deal of Basque history was erased. Once Franco won the war he began a dedicated effort to turn Spain into a uniform nation state. Franco introduced severe laws against all Spanish minorities in an effort to suppress their culture and language.
The backlash to these actions created a violent Basque separatist movement that has resulted in the deaths of about 800 people over the past 30 years. The separatist group responsible for most of the violence is known as Euskadi Ta Askatasuna or ETA. The end of the Franco regime saw an end to the suppression and a creation of an autonomous Basque region in Spain. ETA continues its actions, however, fighting for full independence and communism.
The current autonomous Basque area, known as Euskadi or PaÃs Vasco by its inhabitants, is composed of three provinces or territories: Araba-Alava, Bizkaia-Vizcaya and Gipuzkoa-Guipuzcoa. There are 2,123,000 people living in the Basque Country: Araba – 279,000 inh., Bizkaia – 1,160,000 inh. and Gipuzkoa – 684,000 inh. The most important cities are: Bilbo-Bilbao (Bizkaia), Donostia-San Sebastian (Gipuzkoa) and Gasteiz-Vitoria (Araba). There are two official languages: Basque and Spanish. 27 per cent of the people speak the Basque Language, but this number is increasing for the first time in many centuries.
Despite ETA and the crisis of heavy industries, the Basques have been doing remarkably well in recent years, emerging from persecution during the Franco regime with a strong and vibrant language and culture. For the first time in centuries the Basque language is expanding geographically led by large increases in the major urban centres of Pamplona, Bilbao, and Bayonne where only a few decades ago the Basque language had all but disappeared. The opening of the new Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao is seen as a symbol of this revival.9