Basque Fact of the Week: Tomas Zumalakarregi, Carlist Leader and Inventor of Tortilla

When people one or two hundred years from now look back, what will they remember us for? Out of all of our achievements and accomplishments, which will stand out? Tomas Zumalakarregi is remembered for being a preeminent Carlist general. At the same time, he is thought to be the inventor of Spanish tortilla (though there are multiple stories about the origins of tortilla). While our knowledge about the Carlist wars might fade with time, we all still eat tortilla…

Portrait of Tomas Zumalakarregi, image from Wikipedia.
  • Zumalakarregi was born on December 29, 1788, in Ormaiztegi in the heart of Gipuzkoa, in the Arandi-Enea baserria. His parents were Francisco Antonio de Zumalacárregui Muxica and Maria Ana Imaz Altolaguirre. His father, a lawyer, died when Tomas was 4 years old. Tomas followed in his father’s footsteps, studying to be a notary in Idiazabal when he was 13 and later in Pamplona, under the tutelage of Javier Ollo, his future father-in-law.
  • In 1809, he became part of the guerrilla group led by Gaspar “Artzaia – the Shepherd” Jauregui who were fighting in the Peninsular War against the French. It was during this time that Zumalakarregi learned the guerrilla tactics that he would later use to great effect. After the war, he joined the army and in 1820 married Pancracia Ollo.
  • His time in the army was troubled as, while many of his comrades had liberal leanings, he was a staunch royalist. When Ferdinand VII died in 1833, Zumalakarregi found himself on the side of Don Carlos, the dead king’s brother and claimant to the throne. While it is difficult to define the Carlists in a few sentences, they tended to want to preserve the historical fueros that guaranteed certain historical rights, regional identity – essentially home rule, and strong religious views. However, Ferdinand had named his daughter his heir, setting up the conflict that would lead to the First Carlist War.
  • Zumalakarregi escaped to the mountainside and organized the rural Basque Country, then consisting of a few scattered and poorly armed guerrillas, into an effective army. The larger cities of the Basque Country supported the liberal side and, because they controlled trade, this made it hard for Zumalakarregi to supply his army. Because Zumalakarregi had expressed his intent to uphold the fueros, he was named commander in chief of Nafarroa. Bizkaia, Araba, and Gipuzkoa soon followed.
  • Using guerrilla tactics in the mountains, ironically sometimes against Artzaia who fought on the liberal side, Zumalakarregi and his army conquered all of Hegoaldea – everything north of the Ebro river – except the large cities which he didn’t have resources to besiege. His army had grown to 30,000. However, Carlos wanted international recognition and thought having a port under his control would help, so he ordered Zumalakarregi to attack Bilbo.
  • During the siege, Zumalakarregi was struck in the leg by a musket ball. While the wound was nothing particularly serious, his medical treatment was less than adequate (administered, in part, by a “quack” that Zumalakarregi had personally requested) and he succumbed to his wounds, dying in the town of Zegama on June 24, 1835.
  • Before he had died, the war had become increasingly brutal, with neither side keeping prisoners but summarily executing enemy soldiers. In one incident, Zumalakarregi himself had ordered the execution of 118 prisoners. However, Zumalakarregi signed the Lord Elliot Convention, negotiated by the British, which ended these executions.
  • There is a story that Zumalakarregi invented what is now known as Spanish tortilla. During the war, his troops were starving. He asked a local woman for food and all she had were potatoes, eggs, and onions. He supposedly mixed them up and created tortilla. Though there are other stories about the origins of this now-ubiquitous dish.

Primary sources: Estornés Zubizarreta, Idoia [et al.]. Zumalakarregi, Tomas (1788-1835). Auñamendi Encyclopedia. Available at:; Tomás de Zumalacárregui, Wikipedia

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