Category Archives: History

Basque Explorers in the Pacific Ocean by William A. Douglass

BEPO Cover MapBetter2.inddWilliam A. Douglass, one-time Coordinator of what is now the Center for Basque Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno and prolific author on Basque history, is out with a new book on the Basque explorers who navigated the Pacific Ocean, from Elkano (the Basque sailor who took over Magellan’s expedition when Magellan was killed in the Philippines) to later explorers.  Basque Explorers in the Pacific Ocean recounts the stories of these Basques and their role in Spanish and ultimately European activities in the Pacific. From the website:

The Pacific Ocean was for several centuries, from the discovery of the Strait of Magellan in 1520 until Cook’s voyages in the 1700s, considered to be the “Spanish Lake.” However, Spain was never a monolithic entity and this book then considers “Spanish” exploration in the Pacific from the perspective of the Basques, who have an important maritime tradition and were key figures in Pacific exploration. From Juan Sebastián Elkano’s taking over command of the Victoria after Ferdinand Magellan’s death and completing the first circumnavigation of the planet to Andrés de Urdaneta’s discovery of the north Pacific route from the Philippines to modern-day Acapulco, Mexico, Basque mariners and ships were pivotal in European incursion into this vast area. 

Basque Book Roundup

There has been a lot of news about Basque books…

51ERBzMF2ULIt’s Hammer Time! (am I dating myself?)

Begoña Echeverria’s book, The Hammer of Witches, was just chosen as Editor’s Choice for the month of May by the Historical Novel Society! If you haven’t heard about the novel, I mentioned it here. The story of a young girl in the grips of the witch hunts in a 1610 Basque town, The Hammer of Witches is “a gripping page-turner of horrific historical events” and is the first book [the editor] “ever read that made me feel what it must have been like to be a victim of unfounded suspicion, forced to rely on personal faith, or recant all one holds true.” High praise indeed! Zorionak Begoña!

TOBM_1024x1024Revisiting the transformation of Bilbao

Joseba Zulaika, once the head of the Center for Basque Studies at UNR, has just released his most recent book, That Old Bilbao Moon, which is more about the Basque generation of the 60s and how the Guggenheim Museum has come to symbolize, in some sense, not only a rebirth of the city of Bilbao, but maybe also a touchstone for that generation that had been defined as much by ETA and socialist politics of the 60s as anything. A deep introspective, the book connects the lives of that generation with the city of Bilbao. As Paddy Woodworth says, “Part tormented hymn, part searing personal memoir, all ruthless interrogation and self-interrogation, it is also a tribute to the Basque city of iron and titanium, Bilbao, an unblinking if at times uneven gaze from its gutters to its skylines.

61RUgbFhl-L._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_Basque mythology, for kids

Basque mythology is full of great characters, from the basajaun, the giants of the forrest, to the bedeviling lamiak and Mari, the Lady of the mountains, and herensuge, a giant serpent that has between one and seven heads. Olentzero, the Basque Santa Claus, was originally a giant, the only one to survive the news that Jesus was born. These are great stories, and now there is an illustrated version of these stories for children. At this time, it is only in Basque, Spanish and French,  but maybe it will be translated to English too! I’d sure love to share these stories with my daughter!

Basques finally free to visit Iceland without fear of death

10929559_342159199324028_2431577313259576547_nYou may have already heard about this story, as it has been published in quite a few different places. You see, Iceland — or at least one district within Iceland, West Fjords — has had a law since the 1600s allowing for Basques to be killed on sight. It was only on April 22 of this year that the law was revoked, finally freeing Basques to visit without fear.

In the 1500 and 1600s, the Basques had a thriving whaling industry in Terra Nova, Labrador, and Iceland was a frequent stop on the way. In 1615, a group of Basques was stranded in Iceland after their ships were dashed against some rocks. Maybe because of some of these Basques taking some dried fish from a house, the Icelanders attacked them, first killing a group of 14 Basques and then later another group of 18. The local sheriff decreed that all Basques were criminals and that any Basques that stepped foot in the West Fjords should be killed on sight. What came to be called Spánverjavígin, or the “Spanish Killings”, was the last documented massacre on Iceland soil.

In April, there was a conference commemorating the event and, as part of that conference, the law was officially repealed. Finally.

Of course, many Basques have visited Iceland since then and not been in any harm what-so-ever. Repealing of the law is more a formality and a nice exchange between the Icelanders and Basques.

That said, my PhD advisor is an Icelander. I’m glad that, if I ever visit him in his home country, I won’t have to fear for my life.

Catalina de Erauso, the Basque Lieutenant Nun

Catalina_de_ErausoBasque history is full of colorful figures, and Catalina de Erauso is no exception. Born in San Sebastian in 1592, Catalina was born into a world where the prospects for women were very limited. The convent was one of the few options, and she was enrolled in one at the age of 4, but by the age of 15, Catalina realized that a nun’s life wasn’t for her and she ran away, dressed as a man, called herself Francisco, and had a life full of adventures masquerading as a man. She was a sailor and soldier, traveling to South America. She was in several fights, killing more than one man, and even had a few romances, at least one of which nearly led to a wedding.

Her fame grew, and at one point the Pope gave her a special dispensation to continue dressing as a man.

Her memoirs have been translated into English. The Spanish version can be read online. She was also recently featured on Rejected Princesses, which is an amazing site in its own right, highlighting women from history and myth that don’t conform to the typical Disney mold. The owner of that site, Jason Porath, has done a great job of summarizing Catalina’s life and drawn this illustration to capture the essence of that life. See his site for this and many other intriguing women.

Photo from www.donostiakultura.com

Donostia’s La Tamborrada

Photo from www.donostiakultura.com

Photo from www.donostiakultura.com

Every year, the fine people of Donostia celebrate my birthday in the most magnificent way. Armies of people dressed as chefs and Napoleonic soldiers parade through the streets, pounding on drums and generally making merry. The fiesta begins on midnight of January 20 and ends precisely 24 hours later — literally an entire day dedicated to celebration. Of my birthday. Seriously! Well, ok, maybe not.

According to Wikipedia, that font of all knowledge on the internet, what would become La Tamborrada (Danborrada in Euskara) began in the 19th century, as a way for the citizens of the city to mock the invading soldiers that marched through their fair city. There is also a legend that a chef was trying to get water from a well and that the women nearby began banging on pots, which caused the well to keep flowing. Today, as the Basques have few reasons to celebrate normally, they evolved this fiesta into a 24-hour bash.

I was fortunate to attend once, in 1992, naturally on my birthday. My 21st birthday, to be exact. Which was fortunate, since I could then partake in the festivities and consume my share of libations. Fortunately, Facebook did not exist back then, so there is no shameful documentation of that evening. But, it was during that night when I learned about “Arriba, abajo, al centro, al dentro” and something about throwing things off the balconies of the apartments lining the streets of the Parte Vieja. I don’t recall now if it was for beads, or people themselves.

I didn’t last the entire 24 hours. I think I was in bed around 10am. Not too bad for a guiri.

Anyways, the latest edition of La Tamborrada has come and gone. This year, the city of Donostia had a photo contest, where people could send their best photos from the fiesta. The winner would get to watch next year’s opening of the fiesta, La Izada, from the city balconies in the Plaza de la Constitucion. Some of the photos are up on Twitter. There are some pretty cool images there that highlight the grandeur of the fiesta!

Unfortunately, I only learned about this after my birthday had come and passed. Maybe next year. If you are there next year, you might keep an eye out for this contest, if they repeat it, so you can have the best seat in the house. And invite me to sit next to you.

The Tree of Gernika to be replaced

The famous Tree of Gernika, Gernikako Arbola, has died, and will be replaced next month.

The tree is a symbol of Basque independence and freedom. Before the wars during which the Basque fueros, or old laws, were slowly eroded, kings came to the tree to swear their respect of Basque liberties. Today, the Lehendakari, or President of the Autonomous Basque Community, is sworn in under the tree.

The new tree will be the fourth such tree planted on the grounds of the council of Gernika. Previous trees have survived war, including the bombing of Gernika by Hitler’s air force, only to succumb to fungi and extreme summer heat. That seems to be what killed the last tree, which only lasted about a decade on the site. It will be kept on the grounds, with the trunks of the previous trees.

More details can be found here and here. For more in depth description about the tree and it’s significance, check out this Wikipedia page.