Category: Basque history (page 1 of 26)

March 10, 1784: Birth of Basque Enlightenment Figure Maria del Pilar Acedo Sarria

Maria del Pilar de Acedo y Sarria, Countess of Echauz, Countess of Vado, Marchioness of Montehermoso (1784-1869). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

On March 10, 1784, Maria del Pilar Acedo y Sarria was born in Tolosa, Gipuzkoa, to José María Manuel Acedo y Atodo, Count of Echauz and Luisa de Sarria y Villafañe, Countess of Vado. Her father was a member of the renowned Royal Basque Society of Friends of the Country, an important eighteenth-century Enlightenment institution that fostered scientific, cultural, and economic learning with the aim of contributing to the improvement of Basque society. Raised in an Enlightened aristocratic environment, she spent most of her early years being educated in Vitoria-Gasteiz. In 1800 she married a nobleman, Ortuño María de Aguirre y del Corral, Marquis of Montehermoso, the head of the Provincial Council of Araba and also a member of the Royal Basque Society. They settled in a family palace in Vitoria-Gasteiz and would go on to have one daughter, Maria Amalia, in 1801. Domestic life, as befitted an aristocratic family so connected to the Royal Basque Society, was one of education, learning, debate, and numerous social gatherings. Maria del Pilar Acedo was fluent in several languages, wrote poetry, and played the guitar as well as being an enthusiastic participant in these gatherings with similarly Enlightened company.

The Sixteenth-Century Montehermoso Palace, Vitoria-Gasteiz. Today, the Montehermoso Cultural Center. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In 1807, Vitoria-Gasteiz was occupied by French troops as part of the Peninsular War (1807-1814), Napoleon’s campaign to conquer the Iberian Peninsula. And in 1808, Napoleon named his older brother, Joseph Bonaparte, King of Spain. On a trip to Madrid that year, Acedo met the elder Bonaparte and he in turn visited Vitoria-Gasteiz, where he stayed at her palace.  The two became lovers and she accompanied him when he returned to Madrid, where she “officially” became his mistress. At the same time, her husband was also welcomed in the king’s trusted circle. But his rule was not a happy one. He was unpopular and had no influence in the ongoing Peninsular War. He ultimately abdicated and returned to France after the French defeat at the Battle of Vitoria-Gasteiz in 1813. He was accompanied once more, by Acedo, whose husband had died (while accompanying King Joseph on a trip to France) in 1811. However, shortly after arriving in France, their relationship ended.

Having inherited lands, wealth, and titles from both her parents, Acedo was free to live indepedently in France. She lived temporarily in several places there, including Donibane Lohizune (Saint-Jean-de-Luz) in Lapurdi. In 1816, she remarried a French noble military officer Jacques Amádée de Carabène, and they settled in Carresse Castle in Bearn, where she lived off the income from her estates in Spain and spent the rest of her life carrying out charitable works. She lived a long and full life and died there in 1869.

March 5, 1937: Battle of Cape Matxitxako

On March 5, 1937, the Battle of Cape Matxitxako took place off Bermeo, Bizkaia, during the Spanish Civil War. It was a naval battle between the Spanish heavy cruiser Canarias in the service of Franco’s military rebels and four pro-Republic Basque armed trawlers escorting a convoy. The trawlers were protecting the transport ship Galdames, which was sailing to Bilbao with 173 passengers. They were confronted by the rebel cruiser Canarias off Cape Matxitxako.

Cape Matxitxako off the coast of Bizkaia. Photo by Telle. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

On March 4, the four Basque trawlers–the BizcaiaGipuzkoaDonostia, and Nabarra–departed the port of Baiona in Lapurdi with the aim of escorting the Galdames, which besides passengers was also carrying mail, machinery, weapons, supplies, and funds. The first engagement between the two sides took place on March 5, some 20 miles north of Bilbao. The Canarias fired first, hitting the Gipuzkoa, which in turn retaliated. The other trawlers attempted to maneuver the Canarias closer to the shore, from where their ground support could more easily strike it. All the while, their aim was to keep the Canarias away from the Galdames by engaging directly with the rebel ship.  The Donostia withdrew after being hit, but the Nabarra continued to engage the Canarias directly. She was eventually hit and came to a halt; 20 men abandoned the sinking trawler, while another 29 were lost with the ship, including her captain, Enrique Moreno Plaza. Ultimately, the Galdames was hit by a salvo from Canarias, lost four passengers, and was captured by Franco’s cruiser. The 20 men who abandoned the ship were rescued and taken aboard the Canarias.

Monument to the fallen Basque sailors at the Battle of Cape Matxitxako. Photo by Telle. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In Modern Basque History: Eighteenth Century to the Present (pp. 262-63), Cameron Watson discusses how Anglo-Irish poet C. Day Lewis (father of actor Daniel Day-Lewis) immortalized the event in “The Nabara” (1938):

Day-Lewis never visited the Basque Country, but saw the struggle of many Basques against the military uprising of Francisco Franco as a universal theme. His epic prose poem “The Nabara,” published in 1938, pays homage to what he considered to be the indomitable spirit of the Basque people, suggested by an event that took place in 1937 during the Civil War, when five modestly armed Basque trawlers engaged in a hopeless naval battle with a Spanish rebel cruiser in the waters of Bilbo, in a bold attempt to break a Spanish blockade of the Basque city that was starving Bilbo’s inhabitants. The struggle of the ill-equipped fishing boats lasted longer than might have been expected, ending only when the last of their number, the Nabarra (Nafarroan), was finally sunk by superior forces, losing thirty-eight members of its original fifty-two-man crew. Day Lewis wrote: “Freedom is more than just a word, more than the base coinage of Statesmen, the tyrant’s dishonoured cheque, or the dreamer’s inflated currency. She is mortal, we know, and made in the image of simple men who have no taste for carnage but sooner kill and are killed than see that image betrayed … a pacific people, slow to feel ambition, loving their laws and their independence–men of the Basque Country.”

You can download Modern Basque History for free here.



February 25, 1119: Conquest of Tutera by Alfonso the Battler

On February 25, 1119, Tutera (Tudela) in Navarre, an important center of Muslim political power and culture in the Iberian peninsula, fell to the forces of Alfonso I, “the Battler ,” King of Aragon. So ended an important era in the history of the city, one in which it was even for a while the capital of an independent taifa (a Muslim-ruled principality).

Bust of Musa ibn Musa in Tutera. Photo by Arenillas. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Founded as a Roman villa by the name of Tutela, and following a period of Visigothic rule, the town came under Muslim control during the initial eighth-century conquest of Hispania by the Umayyad Caliphate. In 802 the town was fortified and renamed Al-Tutili by Amrus ibn Yusuf,  a native of Huesca (probably of Visigothic origin) and governor of Zaragoza.  It then became the Emirate of Al-Hakam and the permanent residence of Musa ibn Musa, “the Great,” leader of the Banu Qasi clan, rulers of the Upper Ebro Valley in the ninth and early tenth centuries.  The Banu Qasi family were of Hspano-Roman or Visigothic ancestry and had intermarried with local Basque nobles: Musa ibn Musa was the maternal half-brother of Iñigo Arista, the King of Pamplona-Iruñea, and he even married Arista’s daughter. He is also presumed to have supported the Basques against the Franks in the Second Battle of Orreaga (Ronceveaux) in 824, a battle generally credited as giving birth to the Kingdom of Pamplona-Iruñea. Indeed, Musa’s power was such–ultimately extending to control of Zaragoza, Huesca, and Toledo, as well as Tutera–that  he was even referred to as the “Third King of Spain” alongside Abd ar-Rahman II  of the Emirate of Córdoba and Ordoño I of the Kingdom of Asturias.

Excavation of the Great Mosque of Tutera. Photo by Arenillas. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Tutera flourished under Musa’s rule, becoming an important economic and cultural as well as political center. There was religious tolerance, a thriving economy, and a vibrant cultural life. The multicultural reality in Tutera was made up of Muslim, Mozarab (Iberian Christian), and Jewish communities. That multicultural spirit lived on, initially to some extent at least, after its fall to Alfonso I and was perhaps best reflected by the Jewish traveler and scholar Benjamin of Tudela (1130-1173), author of The Travels of Benjamin, an important medieval text chronicling both Jewish communities in particular and broader cultures and societies throughout large parts of Europe, Africa, and Western Asia.



February 19, 1999: Inauguration of Euskalduna Conference Centre

Photo by Jean-Pierre Dalbera.

On February 19, 1999, the newly completed Euskalduna Conference Centre was inaugurated in Bilbao. Designed by architects Federico Soriano and Dolores Palacios to resemble a ship under construction, because it stands on the site formerly occupied by the Euskalduna shipyard, the building won the Enric Miralles award for architecture at the 6th Spanish Architecture Biennial in 2001 and in 2003 the International Congress Palace Association declared it to be the world’s best congress center. It is without doubt one of the key emblematic sites–historical, cultural, and architectural–of Bilbao and a “must see” building for any visitor to the capital of Bizkaia.

Photo by Tim Tregenza.

The Euskalduna was a shipyard located in the heart of Bilbao that also came to specialize in the construction of rail and road vehicles. It operated between 1900 and 1988, when it closed in controversial circumstances due to downsizing. The famous “Carola” Crane, a symbol of the shipyard in its heyday, still stands and now forms part of the Ria de Bilbao Maritime Museum, which is located alongside the Euskalduna Conference Centre.

Photo by Tim Tregenza.

The Euskalduna is today home to both the city’s opera season and the Bilbao Symphony Orchestra, as well as serving as a multipurpose conference and event center with a 2000-seat auditorium, a 600-seat theater, conference rooms, meeting rooms, a press room, restaurants, an exhibition hall, an a commercial gallery.

Photo by Asier Sarasua Aranberri.

Check out the Euskalduna website here.

The Center has published several books on the transformation of Bilbao (and the Basque Country in general), a story in which the Euskalduna is prominent. See, for example, Joseba Zulaika’s award-winning That Old Bilbao Moon: The Passion and Resurrection of  a City as well as Transforming Cities: Opportunities and Challenges of Urban Regeneration in the Basque Country, edited by Arantxa Rodríguez and Joseba Juaristi and Building the Basque City: The Political Economy of Nation Building, by Nagore Calvo Mendizabal.

Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.



Gramera Berria

Euskal Erria publishing house in Montevideo, Uruguay, will soon release a new critical edition of Gramera Berria, edited by Alberto Angulo, Jon Ander Ramos, and Óscar Álvarez from the University of the Basque Country, along with Miren Itziar Enecoiz from the University of Sherbrooke, Canada. This book was originally published in 1860 to help Basque migrants in Río de la Plata (Argentina and Uruguay) learn Spanish.

Gramera Berria, which had two editions, has some peculiar characteristics that make it extremely interesting. On the one hand, its publication is directly linked to emigration, since it was published in Buenos Aires; but above all – although the second point – because it is a manual for learning languages, but as opposed to the present, so that Basque speakers would learn Spanish, not vice versa! The subtitle—Gramera Berria ikasteko eskualdunec mintzatzen espanoles—that is, New grammar to teach the Basques to speak Spanish, makes its aim clear.

It was intended for emigrants, especially from Iparralde, who came to Argentina or Uruguay and needed to learn the Castilian language. The book is basically what we would call today a “conversation guide,” where you can find lists of words – grouped by subject – and useful phrases, such as: I am hungry, how much does this cost, etc … The edition, as far as we know, was paid for by one of the agencies in charge of taking Basque emigrants to Buenos Aires.

February 10, 1925: Collapse of emblematic Basque bank Crédito de la Unión Minera

On February 10, 1925, one of the most well-known Basque banks, Crédito de la Unión Minera (Mining Union Credit)–an early Bilbao banking institution founded in the spring of 1901–suspended all payments as a prelude its collapse as a result of the financial downturn in the 1920s. Curiously, the full liquidation of its assets would drag on a further seventy-five years, culminating at the dawn of the new millennium.

Crédito de la Unión Minera was established in 1901 on the back of both significant growth in Bilbao itself (as a consequence of the strong mining export market) and the inflow of capital from former colonies following the fall of the Spanish empire. As its name indicated, this particular bank was associated closely to the mining sector on Bizkaia. Thereafter, the “Crédito” managed to retain its independence, in the wake of a series of fusions among other Bilbao banking interests, thanks to a successful aggressive commercial policy that saw its share price soar on the Bilbao stock market. This initial success was bolstered during World War I (1914-1918) with Spanish neutrality in the conflict benefiting the important Basque banking sector.

With the end of the war, however, and the economic downturn in the 1920s, those banks that had been especially speculative or adventurous were suddenly in trouble.  Specifically, as a result of over speculation, the Crédito was suffering from a lack of cash flow and on February 10, 1925, it suspended all payments prior to its official collapse.

Interestingly, it was still possible to cash in on the remaining assets of the bank right up until late 2001!

For more on this fascinating story, check out a great article by Eduardo J. Alonso Olea, “El Crédito de la Unión Minera: 1901-2002,” in Historia Contemporánea 24 (2002): 323-53. Available here.

February 3, 1910: Bishop José Cadena y Eleta bans use of Basque names in christenings

On February 3, 1910, José Cadena y Eleta, Bishop of the Diocese of Vitoria-Gasteiz (comprising Araba, Bizkaia, and Gipuzkoa), issued a pastoral exhortation demanding that both priests and parishioners decease from baptizing children with Basque first names. He argued that the official language of the Church was Latin, and that Spanish was also used in parish documents and records within Spain. He then went on to warn all priests in his diocese to observe Church norms in this regard, especially those younger members who, he suggested, were treading on dangerous ground by sanctioning the use of such names; a move, he contended, that only brought disunion and discord among Basques.

José Cadena y Eleta (1855-1918)

Cadena’s initiative was then submitted for Vatican approval, which responded that baptisms should ideally be carried out in Latin and transcribed in Spanish.  However, the Vatican ruling also acknowledged that, in the final instance, if the parents insisted on giving their children Basque names, these wishes should be respected, stating the name in both Basque and Latin during the service, and transcribing it in Basque and Spanish for the parish records. On receiving the Vatican instructions, Cadena informed the clergy in his diocese and instructed them to do everything in their power to avoid arriving at that final instance.

This ruling lasted until 1938, when, still during the Spanish Civil War (but with the Basque Country having fallen to the military rebels), the nascent Franco regime banned the use of Basque names outright.

January 27, 1806: Birth of composer Juan Crisóstomo Arriaga

On January 27, 1806 Juan Crisóstomo Jacobo Antonio de Arriaga y Balzola was born in Bilbao. A child musical prodigy and accomplished composer who died young, he was christened “the Spanish Mozart” after his death.

Juan Crisóstomo Arriagha (1806-1826). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Born in Bilbao into a musical family–his father Juan Simón had been the church organist in Berriatua, Bizkaia, although he later earned a living as a merchant in Bilbao–the young Arriaga showed a great aptitude for music at an early age.  Juan Crisóstomo was duly sent to study music in Paris at age fifteen, where he made an immediate impact. Indeed, his progress was such that he soon became a teaching assistant at the Paris Conservatory, where he was especially renowned for  a natural talent for musically sophisticated harmonies, counterpoint, and related techniques. Within four years he composed numerous works and was a well-known figure in the cultural world of Paris, the musical capital of the world at that time.  However, this intense activity would also take its toll on the young Basque, and he ten days short of his twentieth birthday he died, possibly due to a lung ailment like tuberculosis, or possibly even from sheer exhaustion.

“Perhaps,” argues Barbara Rosen (Arriaga, p. 33) , “Arriaga’s predilection for dramatic, austere, and somber laments for voice and orchestra (Medea, Agar, Erminia) can be traced to this characteristic of the songs originating in the Basque areas of northern Spain.”

Today, Bilbao’s principal theater, the Arriaga Theater, is named in his honor.

Check out Barbara Rosen, Arriaga, The Forgotten Genius: The Short Life Of A Basque Composer (Reno: Basque Studies Program,  University of Nevada, Reno, 1988).

And listen to one of his compositions, Quartet No. 2 in A major: III. Menuetto, below:


January 23, 1921: Birth of influential chemist Josefa Molero

On January 23, 1921 Maria Josefa Molero Mayo was born in Izaba, Navarre. She would go on to be an important figure in chemical kinetics and analytical techniques in gas chromatography as well as an important influence on scientific research in Spain.

Born in the picturesque village of Izaba, high in the Erronkari (Roncal) Valley of Navarre, Molero faced a number of hurdles early on in her career. As well as the inherent prejudice against women in professional positions that was a feature of the Franco dictatorship in Spain at that time, she was also from a family that had opposed Franco’s rebels during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) and had to live with that stigma and discrimination in the aftermath of the war. Despite all this, she graduated from the Central University of Madrid with excellent grades in 1942. When it came to starting her doctorate, after initially being rejected from joining a research institute in Madrid on the grounds that she was a woman, she was later offered a place at another research center in the city, obtaining her doctorate cum laude in 1948, earning a special award for her work on applications of mercury electrodes in the process.

She then secured a position at the prestigious Rocasolano Institute in Madrid, and from there managed to secure an important grants to go to Oxford, where she worked in the laboratory of Sir Cyril Norman Hinshelwood, who a few years later would go on to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1956 for his research into the mechanism of chemical reactions. On her return, she used that experience to create the first gas chromatograph in Spain as well as a whole new field of research at Spain’s Institute of Physical Chemistry: Pyrolysis and oxidation gas-phase reactions in organic compounds at low temperatures.  She also set up a department of Chemical Kinetics, which she headed until her retirement in 1986. In 1959 she was a visiting scholar at the University of Sheffield in England, where she worked with George Porter (who would go on to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1967) on light chemical reactions. On her return, she put a lot of this experience into practice, pioneering the study of chemical reactions produced by  chromatography in liquid gasses at the Spanish state level.

She won numerous awards throughout her life and was an important figure in establishing important research in key fields of Chemistry in Spain. She died at age 90 in Madrid in 2011.  In May 2013, the city of Pamplona-Iruña designated a Josefa Molera Mayo Street.

P.S. It is interesting to note that the village of Izaba was also the birthplace of renowned Basque physicist Pedro Miguel Etxenike (b. 1950).

Information taken from Uxune Martinez, “Josefa Molero Mayo (1921-2011): Izabatik kimikaren historiara,” Zientzia Kaiera.

Flashback Friday: December 13, 1491: Birth of canonist, theologian, and pioneering economist Martin de Azpilicueta, “Doctor Navarrus”

By Katu:


Martin de Azpilicueta Jauregizar was born in Barasoain, Navarre, on December 13, 1491 into an influential Navarrese family. He began studying for a degree in theology at the University of Alcalá de Henares in Castile. However, when the Kingdom of Castile invaded and conquered the Kingdom of Navarre in 1510 he fled, together with his family (which was loyal to the ruling royal house of Navarre), to Toulouse in the Kingdom of France.

Family home

In 1518 he obtained a doctorate in canon law from the University of Toulouse. He was ordained a priest, likewise, in Toulouse, and in 1523 returned to Navarre, spending time at the Augustinian monastery in Orreaga (Roncesvalles-Roncevaux). Between 1524 and 1538, Azpilicueta served in several canon law chairs at the University of Salamanca. Thereafter, he taught at Coimbra University in Portugal for a further sixteen years before retiring. He then returned to Navarre, where he took on the responsibility of raising three of his orphaned nieces. A decade later, in 1568, he went to Rome to help defend Bartolomé Carranza, the Archbishop of Toledo, in a protracted trial before the Inquisition. While there, Azpilicueta also served as an advisor to Pope Gregory XIII and Pope Sixtus V, and he eventually died in Rome in 1586 at the age of ninety-three. 

Manuale de’confessori

Also known by the epithet Doctor Navarrus (The Navarrese Doctor), Azpilicueta became enormously influential in the field of canon law and ethics, earning a reputation as a humble, prudent, and erudite scholar. Throughout his life he turned down several opportunities to occupy high-ranking church positions, preferring instead to dedicate his time to scholarly inquiry and offering legal advice. His Manual de confesores y penitents (Manual of confessors and penitents, 1553) was especially significant, marking an important milestone in the emergence of moral theology as a discipline in its own right. Therein, Azpilicueta also addressed issues such as exchange, supply, and demand, as well as the phenomenon of money, leading some observers to regard the text as a pioneering work of early economics.  

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