The History of the Basque Country
The History of the Basque Country

The Basque Country, Euskal Herria, Vasconia, Navarre, etc. are some of the many names given to the Basque nation throughout its history. A nation, which, like Ireland, has endured a long struggle against aggression by its neighbours. A nation that has managed to survive to the present day, maintaining its own unique identity.

Some of the most significant characteristics of the Basque people have made them become known as “The mystery people of Europe”. The uncertainty of the origins of their race and language, Euskara, and their classification by acknowledged researchers such as J.M. Barandiaran or T. Aranzadi, as an ethnic group with paleolithic roots doted with specific and unique characteristics, makes the Basques one of the oldest races in Europe. To the eyes of visitors in the past, they were a race with a spirit and lust for independence that has remained with them and characterised them to this day.

On the arrival of the Romans in Iberia or “rabbit peninsula” in the year 218 B.C, the Basques were classified as a poor nation of sheep farmers divided into four defined tribes: Autrigones, Caristii, Varduli and Vascones. With the Romans however, an important process of cultural development began, especially on the mediterranean watershed. A network of roads was built, farming techniques and tools were imported, agricultural vocabulary was introduced into the language etc. After the fall of the Roman Empire, there was a period of self-sufficiency, followed by a series of wars between the different Basque tribes and the Franco-Carolingian Empire on the one hand and Muslim Dynasties on the other. At the end of the 7th century, the Kingdom of Pamplona was formed as a means to guarantee their survival against powerful military agressors. The Kingdom constituted what was understood to be the first Basque National Institution. However, it would not be until the reign of King Sancho III - 1004/1034, when, with the composition of the Kingdom of Navarre, that the Basque nation would be fully united.

The constant military offensives from the Kingdom of Castille, France and England gradually diminished the sovereignty of the Basque Kingdom. In 1199, Araba and Gipuzkoa were subjected to the yoke of the Kingdom of Castille. In 1379, Bizkaia followed suit and in 1512, the rest of the Kingdom of Navarre, (except the area known as Basse Navarre, which remained sovereign until it, was “incorporated” into the French crown under King Henry III). Previously, during the 13th century, the lands of Labourd and La Soule had been subjected to the Kingdom of England.

According to the historian from Navarre, J. Jimeno Jurio, despite this subjection to the most powerful empires of the time, the Basques were not taken over completely. Proof of this are the Juntas Generales or Regimen Foral (autonomous governments granted by charter), which existed in Bizkaia, Gipuzkoa, Araba and Navarre. From a political point of view, such institutions enjoyed a level of legislative, economic and, to a degree, military autonomy.

When King Philip V came to the throne, the political subjection of the last Basque Institutions increased and, during the 19th century, after two Carlist wars (1833-1876), the southernmost Basque Provinces lost their state of autonomy. In 1841, Navarre was obliged to sign the “ley foral”, and in 1876, the remaining three Provinces, Araba, Gipuzkoa and Bizkaia lost their fueros (charters). By that time, the French Revelution of 1789 and its motto Eegalite, Fraternite, Legalite, had put an end to the Basque Institutions of the northernmost Provinces, Labourd, Basse-Navarre and Soule, integating them into the “Departement Basse-Pyrenees”.

At the end of the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution and the ever increasingly popular ideas of Romanticism, gave way to a new, modern concept of Basque consciousness. The ideas of Arturo Campion in Navarre and Sabino Arana in Bizkaia were the seeds of a new awareness, which rapidly acquired a political body in the name of the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV). Subsequently, after several divisions, other different nationalist political parties began to emerge -- including Herri Batasuna, often compared to Sinn Féin in Ireland.

The victory of General Francisco Franco in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) plunged the Basque Country into even more turmoil. Any demonstration whatsoever of Basque culture, language, symbols, songs, ideas or behaviour, was brutally punished by beatings, torture, imprisonment and even the firing squad.

After the death of Franco, Spain began its long process towards democracy. The southernmost provinces of the Basque Country, still under a latent but strong military control, were divided: Araba, Bizkaia and Gipuzkoa on the one side and Navarre on the other. All of them were given a degree of local autonomy that was a far cry from the sovereignty they had enjoyed under the reign of King Sancho III.

Today, the suppression of the Basque Country by France and Spain has still not stopped. There are many examples of how the Basque Nation is denied, day after day, its legitimate right to express its cultural, social and political identity. After centuries of aggression, the Basque Country continues to survive and dream of recovering their own political entity that will guarantee their future survival: Basque National Sovereignty.

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