Category: Baiona (page 2 of 2)

April 14, 1808: Napoleon visits Basque Country

On April 14, 1808, the emperor of the French, Napoleon I or Napoleon Bonaparte, came to the Basque Country for the first time during his reign, taking up residence in Baiona, Lapurdi. The context of the visit was the outbreak of the Peninsular War in 1807, a conflict for control of the Iberian Peninsula.

In taking up a position so close to the unfolding events, Napoleon was attempting to provoke the abdication of Spain’s newly crowned King Ferdinand VII. Philippe Veyrin, in his classic study The Basques of Lapurdi, Zuberoa, and Lower Navarre: Their History and Their Traditions (pp. 242-43):

The emperor arrived on April 14, took a dislike to the Hôtel de la Division, and went off to Marracq where he set up in the little château built a century earlier for Maria Anna of Neubourg. By a strange quirk, it was against this background (since ruined by a fire) that the historic scenes of the spoliation of the Bourbons of Spain took place. Napoleon lingered on in Baiona until July 20; he visited part of the country, taking a particular interest in the port of Baiona, La Barre, and the maritime arsenals that had once been so flourishing and whose activities he attempted to rekindle. Soon, more troops than had ever been seen in this part of the world were marching across our region. Baiona was filled with a feverish hubbub of activity.


Seconde vue du port de Bayonne, prise de l’allée des Boufflers (1755) by Claude Joseph Vernet. View of the Port of Baiona in the mid-eighteenth century. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In 1808, Spain was in turmoil, beset by violent civil strife that had, in March, resulted in the abdication of King Charles IV in favor of his son Ferdinand VII. Indeed, by this time, Napoleon had already ordered the invasion of the peninsula to take advantage of Spain’s domestic woes. As Cameron Watson notes, in Modern Basque History (p. 74):

As the invasion took place, the French emperor sought the abdication of the Spanish monarch, in favor of a handpicked French candidate for the post: his brother, Joseph Bonaparte. During the summer of 1808, Napoleon called an assembly in Baiona (Bayonne), to which he invited several influential figures within the Spanish kingdom, including Basque representatives. His plan was to gain support for the creation of a new noble class supportive of the royal candidacy of his brother. At the meeting, the separate delegations of Araba, Bizkaia, Gipuzkoa, and Nafarroa coordinated their efforts in an attempt to convince the French that the centralizing tendencies of their state had little chance of success in a political culture long used to specific rights and liberties. Amazingly, considering the nature of the French empire, not to mention events just a few years previously in Iparralde, Napoleon agreed to their demands. The new Spanish constitution of 1808 thus guaranteed the foruak of Hegoalde while at the same time installing Joseph Bonaparte as king.

The Peninsular War, which dragged on to 1814, marks a moment in European history when the Basque Country assumed center stage. French occupation of the provinces making up Hegoalde in the Spanish Kingdom moved Basque Senator Dominique-Joseph Garat in Iparralde to implore Napoleon, on several occasions, to create a Basque federation (in effect, a united Basque Country), a protectorate that would serve as a buffer state between France and the Iberian Peninsula. Garat even proposed naming it La Nouvelle Phénicie (The New Phoenicia)!


Battle of the Pyrenees, 1813. Created by Djmaschek. this work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License.

But these efforts were to no avail. A rearguard action on the part of Spain and Portugal, together with their ally Britain, saw allied forces sweep back up through the Basque Country, on both sides of the border. At the key battle of Vitoria-Gasteiz, Araba, in June 1813, a combined allied army led by General Wellington broke the French army, and that same summer witnessed key battles in Navarre, including those at Maya-Amaiur and Roncesvalles-Orreaga (July 25) as well as Sorauren (July 28 and 30). Wellington’s forces finally took Donostia-San Sebastián (September) and Iruñea-Pamplona (October) from the French, and eventually swept into Iparralde that same fall, with fighting taking place there right through the Winter and into the Spring of 1814. In April that same year, beset by multiple wars on many fronts, Napoleon abdicated effectively heralding the end of the Peninsular War.

Interestingly, then, the Basque Country–both Iparralde and Hegoalde–was a key stage on which Napoleon came to demonstrate both the zenith and nadir of his own personal power and influence.

Basque chocolate (and a few thoughts on Basque culture)


A selection of Baiona chocolates, from the excellent Euskoguide overview of the city

I’ve always been fascinated (and often exasperated) by a certain tendency among Basques to not making a big song and dance of, well, anything really, with the possible exception of song and dance–and excepting anyone from Bilbao, of course, where making a fuss of anything to do with Bilbao is standard operating procedure (on this, see Joseba Zulaika’s discussion of Bilbao jokes in That Old Bilbao Moon).

But with the notable exception of the good folk of Bilbao, there is in my opinion something inherently Basque about not making a big deal of things, which may explain, for example, the contentious and so far unsubstantiated claim that Basques had already explored the coast of North America prior to 1492, but that this was never made to too public so as to avoid letting on where good fishing and whaling was to be found. So OK, this may be a myth but it’s quite revealing in its own way as an epithet for Basque culture. And this idea, that Basques have been perfectly happy to remain aloof about their own achievements, may also go some way to explaining the reasoning behind the title of the marvelous exhibit Hidden in Plain Sight: The Basques at the Basque Museum and Cultural Center in Boise – an exhibit, it should be noted, which seeks to redress this Basque reluctance to toot one’s own horn.

Which leads me in a roundabout kind of way to the important topic of chocolate. We all know that chocolate is a quintessentially “American” (as in Mesoamerican) product but if we think about European chocolate, what first springs to mind? Switzerland maybe? Yes, we’ve probably all seen Swiss chocolate adorning the retail outlets of airports across the world. Or perhaps Belgium, the inventor of the praline? That’s it. Anyone who’s ever been to Brussels or read one of  Agatha Christie’s Poirot mysteries will surely be familiar with this fine product.


The Chocolate Workshop, Baiona. Photo by Mirusdi, via Wikimedia Commons

But wait, did you know that the Baiona has a long and proud history of making chocolate? And that it is actually rather good? Indeed, for journalist Taras Grescoe, Baiona “is Europe’s unsung capital of cacao” (see the report “Dark Secret” here). The Baiona chocolate industry, which survives and thrives to this day, was founded by Sephardi Jews fleeing the Inquisition in the Iberian Peninsula. “As early as 1609,” continues Grescoe, “Jewish merchants would roast the cacao in a small oven, and, after cooling the beans in a canvas bag, crush them into a paste on a heated, concave stone platform mounted on a tripod. The platform had to be schlepped from house to house, with the chocolatiers kneeling in front of the platforms for up to an hour to coax the beans into a form that could be whipped into a proper cup of hot chocolate” — presumably the forerunner of what Ceil Miller-Bouchet describes as “the most luscious hot chocolate to ever cross my lips” (see “Drinking Chocolate in Bayonne” here).


A dark chocolate from Baiona flavored with Ezpeleta chili pepper. Image by Nicolasmer, via Wikimedia Commons

Today, Baiona chocolate can be enjoyed in all sorts of forms and flavors, my own favorite being anything infused with another import from the Americas, the famous chili peppers of Ezpeleta. There’s a guide to some of the chocolatiers of Baiona here, and you can even visit a chocolate workshop/museum in the city (see here for more information).

And if you’re interested in reading about, as well as eating, chocolate, check out these two short articles:  “France’s first chocolate-makers” and “Bayonne, France & Chocolate Making.” So let’s celebrate this fine product, and honor it with its rightful place in the wonderful world of chocolate. Baiona chocolate, go forth into the world!

Blow for Basque language as French Senate fails to ratify minority language charter

October 27: after five hours of debate, the French Senate voted on a motion that ratifying the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages would be inadmissible as any such ratification would be unconstitutional. The motion was passed by 180 votes to 155.


Bilingual road sign in Iparralde. Photo by Harrieta171, via Wikimedia Commons

The charter is a treaty established in 1992 by the Council of Europe (an intergovernmental body promoting human rights, democracy, and the rule of law among its member states, in effect practically all European countries) to protect and promote regional and minority languages in Europe as a means of encouraging linguistic diversity on the continent.

France signed the charter in 1999  but has not yet ratified it. In January 2014, the French National Assembly (the lower house) adopted a constitutional amendment permitting ratification, but approval by the Congress (the body formed by both houses of the French parliament, the National Assembly and the Senate), any amendment to the French Constitution, and the actual ratification of the charter are still pending. And with this latest vote, it would seem that any such ratification is still unlikely.

The charter has been ratified, however, by 25 of the 47 members of the Council of Europe, including both European Union members (such as the United Kingdom, Germany, Spain, Sweden, Poland, and Hungary) and non-members (such as Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Ukraine, and Armenia) alike.

For further information on the vote in Basque click here; in French click here and here; and in Spanish click here.

On Saturday, October 24, there were simultaneous and coordinated demonstrations throughout the French Republic–in Baiona (Bayonne) in favor of Basque; in Montpelhièr (Montpellier) in favor of Occitan; in Aiacciu (Ajaccio) in favor of Corsican; and in Karaez (Carhaix) in favor of Breton–to support ratification of the treaty as well as to demand greater protection and respect for minority languages and cultures.  See reports on the Baiona demonstration in Basque here and in French here and here.

On the importance of official measures to protect and promote minority languages see Language Rights and Cultural Diversity, edited by Xabier Irujo and Viola Miglio.


Amerikanuak: Basques in the New World 40 YEARS!

Amerikanuak (1975), by William A. Douglas and Jon Bilbao, is a cornerstone in studies of Basque emigration and diaspora. Although in the last four decades a lot of research has been carried out on this topic, this book is still essential today.

From October 14 and until December 9, different universities in the Basque Country are honoring this landmark work by holding inter-university seminars on topics related to the book titled “The Basque Country and the Americas: Atlantic Links and Relations.”

October 14: at the University of Navarre, Iruñea-Pamplona: “Navarre and the Americas.”

October 15-16: at the University of the Basque Country, Vitoria-Gasteiz: “Recovering the North: Companies, Capitals, and Atlantic Projects in the Imperial Hispanic Economy.”

October 23: the University of Pau, in conjunction with Eusko Ikaskuntza (the Basque Studies Society), at the Basque Museum of Baiona: “Research on Basque emigration.”

December 9 at Mondragon University, Arrasate: “The Image and Representation of Basques.”

William Douglass will be in the Basque Country collaborating in these inter-university seminars. For more information about these seminars (in Spanish) click here.

The Center for Basque Studies has more books written and edited by William A. Douglass that you may find interesting, such as: Basque Explorers in the Pacific Ocean, Death after Life: Tales of Nevada, (edited with Carmelo Urza, Linda White, and Joseba Zulaika) The Basque DiasporaGlobal Vasconia, Essays in Basque Social Anthropology and History, and (with Joseba Zulaika) Basque Culture: Anthropological Perspectives (free to download here).

There is even a candid and vivid biography by Miel A. Elustondo, William A. Douglass: Mr. Basque, which will be of interest to anyone who has followed Bill’s work over the years.


Cemeteries reveal important Jewish presence in Northern Basque Country

August 17: As part of an ongoing annual summer project, work began once more on restoring the Jewish cemetery of Baiona. Reputedly the largest of its kind in the French Republic, the cemetery is home to graves dating back some four hundred years.


Plaque dedicated to the Jewish cemetery of Baiona. Photo by D. Villafruela, via Wikimedia Commons

Although Jewish refugees from the Inquisition had already settled in Baiona in the late sixteenth century, it was not until a hundred years later that the Jewish community there established its own cemetery.


General view of the eighteenth-century section in the Jewish cemetery of Baiona. Photo by Daniel Villafruela, via Wikimedia Commons

Besides that of Baiona, two other important Jewish cemeteries in the Northern Basque Country, both in Lower Navarre and both home to about 60 graves, are those of Bastida Arberoa (La Bastide-Clairence), with tombstones dating from 1610 to 1785 (information here), and Bidaxune (Bidache), which was also restored in 2013. Among the oldest Jewish cemeteries in  the French Republic, these are both sites of major historical importance.

There is a brief report (in French) on the current restoration project for the Baiona cemetery here and a video report (in French) on the work undertaken there in 2014 here.

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