The Basque Provinces

Not all the two and one half million Basques live in Spain. Only one and a quarter million of them live in the Spanish provinces of Alava, Viscaya and Guipuzcoa. These are the official Basque provinces. Navarra, mostly Basque, is listed separately among the regions of Spain. The French Basques live immediately across the boundary in the north. There are many Basques in the Americas and many more Spanish Americans of Basque descent, particularly in Argentina, Uruguay and Chile. More than ten thousand Basques live in the states of Idaho, Oregon and Nevada.

The Basques have been located since early times in the moun tains fronting on the great international bight of the Atlantic, the Bay of Biscay. They have been in a position thus to control both the sea approaches to the Spanish-French border and the mountain passes between the two countries. They were in this place long before there was a Spain or a France, and before international boundaries had meaning. The Basque families, always distinct in language and culture from their neighbors, have expanded and contracted their territory throughout history. At one time in the Middle Ages they moved as far as Gascony. At various times they have been spread across considerably more ground, both north and south of their pres ent fixed location, which in addition to their Spanish provinces in cludes Labourd, Soule and Lower Navarre on the French side.

Taking full advantage of their strategic location, the Basques have always played a strong part in the frontier affairs of Spain and France. Taking similar advantage of their position on the sea, they have become a significant maritime and trading people. They are Spain’s greatest shipbuilders and marine merchants.

But location alone does not account for the continuity of the Basques as a people. The oldest surviving racial group in Europe, with the oldest language and the oldest society, they are neverthe less among the most advanced people in the world. It is this contradictory character, deeply conservative and highly enterprising, that has maintained the Basques intact and with a comparatively high living standard in generally poor Spain. The physical endur ance of the Basques is legendary. Both the national dance, la jota, and the national sport, jai alai, require it, but it is more fundamental than these expressions of traditional culture. Yet the Basque ca pacity for modern learning is equally high. Their business organiza tion and technical proficiency have helped give them industrial pre eminence in Spain.

The Basques occupy a unique political and cultural position in Spain. Because in pre-Roman times they occupied a much larger part of the north of Spain, it is likely that there are traces of the Basque temperament in the Asturians, Castilians and Aragonese. Whether or not this is true, the Basque has been called the soul of Spain. It is certain that the Basques, converted to Christianity by the Romans, have played an extraordinary part in the preserva tion of the religion in the peninsula. Also they have produced some of the church’s great leaders, including St. Francis Xavier and St. Ignatius Loyola. At the same time, they are the most insistent separatists within the Spanish political union, with the possible exception of the Catalans. In the recent Spanish civil war they were repelled by the anticlerical features of the republican regime while attracted by its promise of independence.

This kind of split personality has been characteristic of the Basque people throughout their long and uneasy association with other Spanish groups. Religion was almost the only gift Rome was able to make to them. In the times of the crusades they fought Christian Charlemagne and the Muslim emirs of Zaragoza with equal ferocity and success. Neither Roman, Visigoth, Frank nor Moor held any terrors for the Basque soldier. The Basques forced even the medieval Castilians to recognize their democratic rights. Since these were lost and their old capital at Pamplona taken from them in the final unification of the nation, the Basques have supported practically every political movement opposed to the central authority of Spain,

Of the limited territory left officially to the Spanish Basques, Guernica is the spiritual and Bilbao the metropolitan center. The city o Bilbao is neither old nor large, founded only in the four teenth century and claiming no more than a quarter of a million people. But it is the second Spanish seaport and the center of Spain’s heavy industry. Located in an area of rich raw materials near the mouth of the Nervion River, it is well suited to manufacturing and trade. Bilbao is the capital of Viscaya province.

The capital of tiny Guipuzcoa is San Sebastian, which is also the summer capital of the Spanish Government and of Madrid society. It is a clean, modern seaside city. Victoria is the inland metropolis of the Basque provinces and the capital of Alava. It has small, diver sified industries but is largely a farm and lumber center. Alava is mountainous and forested, almost Alpine in appearance. Its air is bright and clear, unlike the soft, diffused light of the Biscay coast.


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