Category: Basque maritime history (page 1 of 2)

The Basque Country in the 19th Century painted by the Feillet sisters

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Hélène Feillet (1812-1889), as painted by her sister Blanche. Image by TRAILERS MUSEUM, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Hélène (1812-1889) and Blanche (1815-1886) Feillet were artists and lithographers of some renown in the mid-19th century. Although born in Paris, they had strong connections to Iparralde, where they lived (in Biarritz) from 1834 on. And they are best known for their many portrayals of the Basque people and landscape in the form of lithographs, watercolors, oil paintings, drawings, and sketches. Their principal focus of interest was the Basque coastline, from Baiona in Lapurdi to Bermeo in Bizkaia, by way of the many fishing towns and villages along the way.

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“Pêcheuses de St-Jean-de-Luz” (Fisherwomen of Donibane Lohizune), by Hélène Feillet. Part of the Fonds Ancely of the City library of Toulouse. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

They were the daughters of a famous lithographer, Pierre Jacques Feillet (1794-1855), who was also head of the School of Drawing and Painting in Baiona from 1844 until his death – on which Blanche took over the same position. Continuing with their father’s specialty, they gained particular fame as lithographers in their representations of the Basque Country, embracing the romanticist tendencies of the age in their lithographs and prints.

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“Costumes basques” (Basque dress) by Hélène Feillet. Part of the Fonds Ancely of the City library of Toulouse. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In 1844 Blanche married Charles-Henri Hennebutte, who ran a printing company in Baiona. His company would later publish well-known guides to the Basque Country, such as Guide du voyageur de Bayonne à St Sébastien and Description des environs de Bayonne et de Saint-Sébastien (France et Espagne: Album des deux frontières), beautifully illustrated by the Feillet sisters. Hélène also exhibited her work in both Paris and London.

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“Entrée du duc de Bayonne en 1839” (Entrance of the Duke of Baiona in 1839) by Hélène Feillet. A work commissioned by the French Ministry of the Interior. Image by Léna, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Their art stands as a remarkable testament of the time and place in which they lived and worked, and serves as an invaluable resource for capturing the Basque Country on the cusp of major social change in the mid- and late-19th century.

Basques in their own words: The superstitions of fishermen

Given the importance of the oral tradition in Basque culture, we thought it would be a great idea to examine Basque history through the words of ordinary people whose lives and experiences make up that history.

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The port of Donibane Lohizune, Lapurdi. Photo by Haukingham, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Today we share a cautionary tale of witches, devils, the evil eye, and seafaring superstitions in general, as recounted by Xan Alzate in his marvelous Paroles de pêcheur: Mémoires d’un mousse dans les années 1940 (A fisherman’s words: Memoirs of a cabin boy in the 1940s, 2008). Xan was born in Donibane Lohizune (Saint-Jean-de-Luz), Lapurdi, in 1928. His father, Pantxoa Alzate, was a mechanic at a local fish-canning factory and a sailor while his mother, Maria Chauvel, was a Breton from Morbihan who had come to the town at age sixteen to work in a fish canning factory there.

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Fishermen in Donibane Lohizune, c. late-19th-early-20th century. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In his own words, when he first  to sea (p.26),

I was thirteen and one-half years old, I weighed no more than ninety pounds on rainy days, and if I made it to five feet tall it would have been a big deal. Nevertheless, I did have some assets: indefatigable, a hard worker, sturdy despite my tiny frame, my father had taught me to work hard, [and] I didn’t want to disappoint him.

On meeting his future boss for the first time, the skipper told him he’d be known as Aña, like all cabin boys until they turned twenty (he wouldn’t be called Xan again until after he completed his military service).  And once at sea, he began to learn something about this strange other world, the world of fishermen. According to Xan (pp. 165-66):

They were superstitious. The first or second day—I don’t remember exactly—of my time at sea, I was happily whistling, when someone took my by the ear, shook it slightly, and whispered into it that the wind was big enough to whistle at sea, that it didn’t need any help from me. Don’t whistle anything that may bring on a storm.

I also learned about a few things that brought bad luck, which were forbidden. No rabbit in the billycan. The word “rabbit” was banned on board, replaced by “big ears.” Aña, do you keep any “big ears”? But “rabbit” banned.

Also banned, chestnuts, walnuts. With such nuts on board, we were sure to come back empty-handed, tear the fishing net, or encounter all manner of trouble. It would never occur to them to set sail for the first time on a Friday. Beginning the fishing season on such a day, we could expect the worst kinds of disasters.

I listened, I believed, I trusted them, I respected the traditions. When no fishing was done, when a day unfolded full of incident, they looked at me in strange way, saying loudly: “There’s someone here who sleeps with his mother!” Of course, they said that to have a good laugh.

They loved stories about witches, mysterious tales, they loved anything whimsical. My favorite osaba [uncle] used to tell me dozens of stories; he kept me in suspense right till the end. To finish up, he used to say: “These are true stories, it isn’t fiction, it’s from real life in the old times, people don’t remember any more, my great-amatxi [grandmother] saw all this, it was she who told me.” I wasn’t going to question the word of his great-amatxi.

Those sailors used to see the devil everywhere, they mistrusted the evil eye. Yet they weren’t afraid of anything, they faced up to the elements with a flawless courage, they laughed at life’s ups and downs, they got really angry about any kind of injustice; they forgave, but they didn’t forget.

Basque Culture: Anthropological Perspectives, by William Douglass and Joseba Zulaika, is a great introduction for anyone seeking to understand this world. Chapters 13 and 15 deal with Basque fishing while chapters 18 and 19 deal with folklore and mythology, on the one hand, and witchcraft, on the other. This book available free to download here.

This work points out just how important “chance” is to fishermen and how this shapes their worldview. As they observe (pp. 237-38):

there is no cause-and-effect relationship between willingness to work and outcome. Fishermen also believe that there is a gap between the human and the natural orders that cannot be bridged by sheer effort alone. Rather, much depends on chance, a probability that is categorized as luck—“good” or “bad.” Thus, there is a sense that it is the fisherman who, by means of his luck, rather than his dedication, mediates between the two otherwise unbridgeable orders.

In short, they conclude, in the event of the worst eventuality of all, “no luck,” then “superstitious beliefs and practices are the antidotes to the absence of luck. There is an imperative to search out the hidden causes of this void.”

Note: Here the words of one of the great twentieth-century travel writers, Patrick Leigh Fermor, in his classic Roumeli: Travels in Northern Greece (1966), spring to mind. He is speaking about Greek fishermen, but I think the description is equally applicable to fishermen the world over (pp.118-19):

Humorous, sardonic, self-reliant men live there, lean from their war with the elements, ready to share their wine with any stranger . . . Their life is rigorous to the point of austerity and sometimes of hardship; but there are a hundred things to make it worth wile. There is no trace of depression or wage-slavery in the brine-cured and weather-beaten faces under those threadbare caps. The expression is wary, energetic amused and friendly and their demenour is a marine compound of masculinity, independence and easy-going dignity.

 

Book Review: Basque Explorers in the Pacific Ocean, by William A. Douglass

We’d like to share a recent review of William A. Douglass’s new book Basque Explorers in the Pacific Ocean. Published in CritCom: A forum on research and commentary on Europe, Raphael Tsavkko Garcia, a PhD candidate in Human Rights at the University of Deusto,  outlines the structure and content of the book, pointing out interesting aspects of Douglass’s new research endeavors.

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Here’s just a sample of the review:

“Basque Explorers in the Pacific Ocean, by William Douglass introduces the reader to how Basques from a tiny territory once pivotal for the whole Iberian Peninsula (comprising the Kingdom of Navarra, later absorbed by Spain, as well as Bizkaia, Guipuzkoa and Araba regions) became an important part of the Spanish colonial empire as administrators and merchants, as well as ship-builders, ship captains, and sailors.

Basque explorers took an active part in Spanish expeditions and explorations on the Pacific region (and elsewhere in the world). From the early Spanish expeditions overseas, Basques were among those who helped establish and sustain the Spanish Empire. They played integral roles, whether as ship captains and crew members, or the leaders of successful trade companies and rulers as Spanish proxies in colonial administrations.

Douglass’s Basque Explorers in the Pacific Ocean is an interesting and detailed lesson of the period’s history, despite some moments of digression over royal intrigues, which condense into a single book the dispersed knowledge on the role of the Basques in the Pacific, serving as a good guide for future discussions.

Going further from the general choosing of describing an explorer’s life, or an expedition’s fate and accomplishments, Douglass seeks to insert different explorers and explorations in a unique context, relating at least two centuries of Spanish naval explorations (and Portuguese) with the formation of the Spanish Empire and its subsequent decline.

The book, one can conclude, broadens the knowledge of the participation of Basques in the making of the Spanish maritime empire that would last for centuries.”

We encourage you to read the entire piece at the following website: http://councilforeuropeanstudies.org/critcom/basque-explorers-in-the-pacific-ocean-2/

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To learn more about Raphael Tsavkko Garcia, visit his Academia page, which includes links to some of his research papers: https://deusto.academia.edu/RaphaelTsavkkoGarcia

Last but not least, check out Basque Explorers in the Pacific Ocean:

Basque Explorers in the Pacific Ocean

 

September 26, 1565: Basque-run ship completes historic voyage

On September 26, 1565, a Basque-run ship, the San Pedro, docked in the vicinity of California’s Cape Mendocino after having sailed 11,160 miles cross the Pacific Ocean without a landfall—the longest continuous oceanic voyage to that date in the age of European exploration. This remarkable crossing is yet another in a long line of significant Basque maritime exploits – all described in fascinating detail by Bill Douglass in Basque Explorers in the Pacific Ocean (pp. 118-22).

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Andrés de Urdaneta (1498-1568). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

As part of an initial plan to bring the Philippines within Spain’s orbit on the orders of King Philip II, a Basque-dominated expedition, led by two Gipuzkoans, Andrés de Urdaneta from Ordizia and  Miguel López de Legazpi from Zumarraga, reached Samar in February 1565. Thereafter, a permanent settlement was established in Cebu, which in the words of Douglass, was “the initial outpost of Spanish hegemony in the islands and one that would endure for more than three and a half centuries.”

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Miguel López de Legazpi (c. 1502-1572). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

As well as establishing an imperial outpost there, however, Legazpi was also charged with finding the elusive easterly return route from the Philippines to Nueva España (present-day Mexico). The Portuguese held the monopoly over the westward sea lane between Asia and Europe, making it impossible to establish trade with the Philippines, let alone a settled Spanish colonial presence there, without violating the Treaty of Zaragoza; hence the importance of discovering this easterly route. Douglass continues:

Urdaneta’s previous experience in the Moluccas had sensitized him to the seasonal shift in the region’s prevailing winds. Furthermore, his relationship with Gerónimo de Sanesteban in Mexico City doubtless gave Urdaneta detailed knowledge of the Villalobos expedition’s two failed attempts to return to Nueva España from the Moluccas via a southern route. On June 1, 1565, Urdaneta left the Philippines in the San Pedro, which was under the command of Legazpi’s young (sixteen-year-old) grandson, Felipe de Salcedo. It seems likely that Urdaneta was the actual commander. Other Basques on the vessel included Friar Andrés de Aguirre; the boatswain, Francisco de Astigarribia; the ship’s mate, Martín de Ibarra (all Bizkaians); and the scribe, Asensio de Aguirre. About one-third of the crew were Gipuzkoans.

Once in the northern latitudes, the San Pedro picked up the summer months’ prevailing northeasterlies and reached the American mainland on September 26 that same year.

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“Urdaneta’s Route” across the Pacific. Image by Jrockley, United States Army. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Basques have a reasonable claim, then, to yet another significant maritime historical record, besides being in charge of both the first (Elkano) and second (Urdaneta) global circumnavigations.

 

Lafayette, Hero of the American War of Independence, and the Basque Connection

As I’m sure you all know, Lafayette–or to give him his full name, Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette (1757-1834)–was the famed French aristocrat who fought in the American War of Independence and was a close friend of George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and Thomas Jefferson.  During the war he served with distinction at the Battle of Brandywine (1777), the Battle of Rhode Island (1778), and, later during a second journey, played a significant role in the Siege of Yorktown (1781). Today, cities, streets,  and squares–even a mountain–across the US are named in his honor. But did you know there is a Basque connection to Lafayette’s exploits?

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Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

A firm believer in the cause of American independence, he volunteered to cross the Atlantic to fight for the revolutionaries there while still a young man. Lacking official support, though, he himself raised the necessary funds to acquire a sailing ship, the Victoire, to transport him and his men across the ocean. This initial trip was complicated due to the delicate diplomatic position of France during the war and Lafayette carried out much of the preparations clandestinely. While the Victoire was fitted out and prepared for the journey in Bordeaux, official opposition to Lafayette’s expedition meant that he himself could not depart with the ship when it left Bordeaux and would have to seek another port of departure. Traveling overland, disguised as a courier, he reunited with the ship and his men in the Basque  Port of Pasaia, Gipuzkoa, from where he set sail for America on April 26, 1777, six days after it had left the Port of Pauillac, Bordeaux. It is even rumored that several Basque corsairs were among the crew accompanying him on the voyage.

An additional note of interest: As Douglass and Bilbao observe in Amerikanuak (p. 59n), the last of the great Basque corsairs, Étienne Pellot (1765-1856), a legendary figure we discussed in a previous post, “received his first taste of combat as a cabin-boy on the Marquise de Lafayette, a ship of four hundred tons and thirty cannons, which was outfitted in Bayonne by the ‘ladies of the Court’ to fight against England during the American Revolution.”

September 3, 1902: Euskalduna company launches first ship

On September 3, 1902, the Euskalduna company launched its first ship, the “Portu,” a barge for use by the important Altos Hornos de Vizcaya foundry. Euskalduna, a marine engineering company whose full name was Euskalduna de Construcción y Reparación de Buques de Bilbao, would go on to become one of the most renowned features of the Basque industrial landscape with its headquarters in the heart of Bilbao. It opened for business in 1900 and finally closed in 1988 after a four-year period of severe confrontations  between workers and police over the decision to close the shipyard.

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Aerial view of Bilbao in the 1950s during a new era of expansion for Euskalduna, shown here top left in the picture beside the bridge. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

During that time, the company enjoyed mixed fortunes: a boom in the World War I era and beyond that tailed off by the 1930s; growth again in the 1950s and 1960s, with Euskalduna contributing 50% of the capital to a new statewide conglomerate, Astilleros Españoles, which by the late 1960s would be one of the largest shipbuilding companies in Europe; and, ultimately, decline again in the 1970s following the 1973 oil crisis and increasing competition from East Asia. When the decision was taken to close the shipyard in 1984, the workers there engaged in direct confrontation in an effort to maintain their jobs. These confrontations, as well as many negotiations including labor unions, management, and the public administration, went on for four years and this intense period came to define much of Bilbao’s social history in the 1980s.

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Central Bilbao today, with the Euskalduna Conference Centre, the reddish building, to the far right of the picture and the Bilbao maritime Museum behind that. Picture by Ben Bore (Rhys), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Following the closure of the shipyard, the emblematic site that had been so important in the industrial history and legacy of Bilbao was converted into a leisure area: today it houses both the Euskalduna Conference Centre and the Bilbao Maritime Museum. The site itself, then, continues to form a central part of the Bilbao economy, although now in a postindustrial and leisure-oriented framework.

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The “Carola” crane, installed in 1957 in the Euskalduna shipyard, it was and still is an important part of the cityscape. Today, though,  it forms part of the Bilbao Maritime Museum. Photo by Txo, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In That Old Bilbao Moon: The Passion and Resurrection of a City, Joseba Zulika shares a very personal view of Bilbao and its historical transformations. And for more on Bilbao and the urban changes associated with the city through time, check out Transforming Cities: Opportunities and Challenges of Urban Regeneration in the Basque Country, edited by Arantxa Rodríguez and Joseba Juaristi.

 

 

August 4, 1526: Death of Juan Sebastian Elkano and the “Basque connection” right to the end

We know you’re all smart people out there and we don’t need to tell you that Juan Sebastain Elkano, from Getaria, Gipuzkoa, was, in reality, the person who led home the first successful circumnavigation of the world in 1522 after taking over command of the Victoria from Ferdinand Magellan, who was killed en route in 1521.

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Statue of Juan Sebastian Elkano in Getaria, Gipuzkoa. Photo by Marije Manterola Iribar, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

But did you know that Elkano himself also died on a later expedition? It was 1526 and this time Elkano was second in command to García Jofre de Loaísa, leader of the expedition. For Bill Douglass, in Basque Explorers in the Pacific Oceanand fittingly perhaps, this particular voyage was “the most ‘Basque’ of any of Spain’s Pacific explorations” due to the nature of both the crews and ships involved. Indeed, these crews included two of Elkano’s brothers, his brother-in-law Santiago de Guevara, as well as a young seventeen-year-old, Andrés de Urdaneta, who would be Elkano’s page and protégé on the trip; and who would later go on to lead the second ever successful global circumnavigation.

In mid-Pacific, however, the expedition ran into trouble. Loaísa died of scurvy on July 20, 1526, and was succeeded by Elkano. But he also fell prey to the disease and died on August 4. According to Douglass:

Eleven days before his death, Elkano made out his last will and testament, witnessed by seven persons. All were Basques, including his young protégé. Urdaneta was named coequal heir of Elkano’s share in the benefits of the expedition, along with the deceased’s brother-in-law, Guevara, and his nephew Esteban.

Of the seven ships that set out on the expedition in July 1525, just one sailed into the Spice Islands on New Year’s Day in 1527.

Cutting-edge Basque technology to harness wave energy premiered

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World Wave Energy Resource Map. By Ingvald Straume. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In a recent post we mentioned the fifth anniversary of the groundbreaking Mutriku Wave Energy Plant in Gipuzkoa and it would seem that the Basque Country is indeed at the forefront when it comes to harnessing the sustainable energy of the ocean.

Just today, the Basque company Navacel announced that it will produce a wave energy sensor device, sponsored by the Basque Country Energy Agency and designed by Oceantec Energy, which will be tested this Fall in the marine testing platform Bimep, located in Armintza-Lemoiz (Bizkaia).

The sensor will be made up of three steel plates in the shape of a buoy, with internal mechanical and electrical equipment capable of generating energy out of wave movement. The device will be 42 meters in length, 5 meters in diameter, and weigh some 80 tons. Two turbines located in the upper part of the device will generate the energy.

See a report on this new device (in Spanish) in the Basque daily Deia here.

Mutriku Wave Energy Plant celebrates fifth anniversary

Yesterday, July 18, the Mutriku Wave Energy Plant in Gipuzkoa, the world’s first breakwater wave power plant with a multiple turbine arrangement, run by the Basque Country Energy Agency, celebrated its fifth anniversary. The relatively scarce development of oceanic wave energy makes the Mutriku site a pioneer project at the global level.

The Mutriku Wave Energy Plant has just produced its first gigawatt of electricity from the breakwaters of the Mutriku harbor, enough to supply a hundred homes. But the plant is also also an experimental site, used to test out turbines and auxiliary equipment.

As regards the technical specifications, the plant itself is a hollow, trapezoidal structure with a submerged front opening and an opening at the top. The front opening is 3.20m high and four meters wide. Each of the 16 air chambers in the hollow structure houses a turbine weighing 1,200kg. The turbines are 2.83m high and four meters wide, and work with air. They do not, however, contain a gearbox, hydraulics, or pitching blades.The 16 turbines are connected to an 18.5kW turbo generator. A butterfly valve at the bottom of the generator enables isolation of the generator from the turbines whenever required. Any salts or impurities blocking the blades are removed by injecting fresh water. The plant is also installed with control and power conditioning equipment. The voltage of the current is stepped up using a transformer near the plant. Generated power is transferred through a transmission line.

For further and more detailed information on the project, see “Mutriku Wave Power Plant: From The Thinking Out to The Reality.”

If you’re interested in this topic, check out the Center publication Sustainable Development, Ecological Complexity, and Environmental Values, edited by Ignacio Ayestarán and Miren Onaindia. This is a fascinating study of how global issues such as sustainability are addressed at the local scale, in this case in the Basque Country.

April 4, 1804: The Greatest Battle of the Last Great Basque Corsair

Étienne (or sometimes Ixtebe) Pellot “Montvieux,” aka le Renard Basque (the Basque fox) was the last in a long line of legendary Basque corsairs, privateers, or buccaneers (to put it another way, pirates who had been officially authorized to attack and raid their paymaster countries’ enemy ships). These legendary figures included the fourteenth-century figure Pedro Larraondo from Bizkaia, Antton Garai from Gorliz, Bizkaia (? – 1509), the seventeenth-century Joanes Suhigaraitxipi from Baiona, aka Le Coursic (the little corsair), and Jean Dalbarade (or d’Albarade) from Biarritz, Lapurdi (1743-1819).

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“To Our Basque Corsairs, Sailors, and Fishermen.” Plaque in Donibane Lohizune (Saint-Jean-de-Luz), Lapurdi, bearing the names of many noted seafarers, with Pellot at the end. Photo by Salvatore Poier. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Born in Hendaia (Lapurdi), he was especially renowned for his skill and bravery and some of his ships, like the Deux-Amis and the Général Augereau, have gone down in corsair legend. Indeed it was on-board the latter that he enjoyed his most spectacular victory, capturing two English ships in the process. Philippe Veyrin, in his classic The Basques of Lapurdi, Zuberoa, and Lower Navarre  (p. 242) tells the story of the last great Basque corsair:

…at sea, the Basque corsairs, given a new lease of life during the Revolution under the leadership of one of their number, Dalbarade, continued to fight the English. But privateering was tending to decrease, especially in terms of the tonnage of the ships that were involved. Their range was now limited to (successful) actions just off the coastal areas, sometimes within sight of localities on the Basque coast. The last of the corsairs, Etienne Pellot-Montvieux, from Hendaia (Hendaye; 1766–1856), owed his legendary popularity to his remarkable feats and the picturesque sallies of his very individual character, as well as to his extremely long life. Captured on several occasions, he managed to make the most daring escapes, right from under the noses of his British jailors. In his still sprightly old age, he considered his finest exploit to be his victorious battle on April 4, 1804, on board the Général Augereau against two powerful English ships, one of which, armed with twenty-two big cannons, was boarded and captured. In 1830, Pellot had a painting done of this episode and offered it to the Institute of Hydrography of Donibane Lohizune, founded in the eighteenth century by another well-known Basque, the abbot Garra de Salagoïty, from Heleta (Hélette; 1736–1808). This school of navigation is no longer in existence, but the painting offered by the old corsair is still, as far as we know, in the Maritime Registry of Baiona. Pellot died at the age of ninety-one years; only in 1843 had he been awarded the Legion of Honor.

Every January, on the occasion of Hendaia’s patron saint’s festival (Saint Vicent, or Bizente in Basque), children dress up as corsairs and parade the streets of the town to celebrate the safe return of Étienne Pellot, the last Basque corsair. Peillot is even celebrated in song by the great Ruper Ordorika, who, in “Hargiñenean” (on the album Hurrengo goizean) sings the lines “Biba Pellot, biba festa!” (Long live Pellot, long live the party!”). Listen to this great tune here (track 3 in the four-song playlist).

There are plenty of corsair stories in the latest publication by Bill Douglass, Basque Explorers of the Pacific Ocean. Interestingly, though, here the corsairs tend to be English and adversaries of Basque explorers in the service of the Spanish Crown.

 

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