Category: Basques in the French Revolution

July 22, 1795: Basque territory included in Peace of Basel

The Peace of Basel, signed on July 22, 1795 between Revolutionary France and the Kingdom of Spain, ended the War of the Pyrenees (1793-1795). During that war, French troops had occupied much of Hegoalde and there was even support among certain groups in Gipuzkoa for the province being fully annexed by France.

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War of the Pyrenees, 1793-1795. Created by Djmaschek, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License.

In the negotiations leading up to the signing of the Peace of Basel in 1795 the French enjoyed the upper hand and seriously considered holding on to Gipuzkoa, but ultimately the wider global context–and especially the offer of economically appealing terrain in the Caribbean–meant that Gipuzkoa would be returned to the Kingdom of Spain.

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Map of Hispaniola by Nicolas de Fer. Original in The John Carter Brown Library, Brown University. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

A century earlier, by the Treaty of Ryswick (1697), the western part of the Spanish-controlled island of Hispaniola had been ceded to the French, who were eager to expand their own power and influence in the Caribbean. Indeed, this was a feature of both pre- and post-revolutionary France. During the negotiations over the 1795 peace treaty, Spain was desperate to recover its lost “national” territory (and punish those people in in Gipuzkoa who had sided with the French), so much so that it offered France complete control of Hispaniola in exchange for the return of the occupied Basque lands (and other territory in Catalonia).

Additionally, there was an annex to the treaty by which any Basques in Hegoalde (and specifically Gipuzkoa) who had shown sympathies for the occupying French were given guarantees of receiving no reprisals from Spanish authorities. Yet the immediate effects of the treaty for Gipuzkoa, and Donostia-San Sebastián in particular, were severe: many of the political and military leaders who had attempted to broker a deal with the French invaders were arrested, along with ordinary citizens, and sentenced to jail sentences, exile, and even in one case–that of José Javier Urbiztondo–death by hanging.

Across the Atlantic, France found it increasingly difficult to hold the island and its forces were withdrawn in 1803. Following a successful slave revolt, the independent Republic of Haiti (in the western part of the island marking the original territory of French settlement) was proclaimed in 1804. In the eastern part of the island, meanwhile, a more tortuous path eventually resulted in a lasting independence (following previous attempts in 1821 and 1844) for the Dominican Republic in 1865.

July 6, 1808: The Baiona Statute and the brief rule of Joseph I

On July 6, 1808, Baiona (Bayonne) in Lapurdi assumed center-stage once more in the dramatic events unfolding in Napoleonic Europe when the Baiona Statute was officially approved, paving the way for Joseph Bonaparte, brother of Napoleon, to become Joseph I of Spain.

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Joseph Bonarparte, the brief Joseph I of Spain (1808-1813). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

This agreement formed part of a wider strategy on the part of Napoleon to control Spain as yet another part of his satellite outposts in his enduring (and almost successful) quest to rule Europe as a whole. For the background context to these events, and the later consequences of Napoleon’s Iberian adventures, see an earlier post we did here.

In 1808 the Spanish Kingdom was officially in an alliance with the French Empire, but following the abdication of Charles IV of Spain and the brief rule of his son Ferdinand VII, Napoleon sought to install his brother on the Spanish throne as the best means of controlling the country.

In order to demonstrate that this was fully compliant with a due legal process, however, Napoleon convened a meeting of Spanish notables in Baiona to draft and approve the constitutional basis for the new regime. The resultant so-called Baiona Statute was duly approved on July 6 and promulgated on July 8. In effect, though, Joseph was a puppet ruler, with most decisions regarding Spain being taken by Napoleon and his military staff.

Joseph I of Spain abdicated after the French loss at the Battle of Vitoria-Gasteiz in 1813. As Philippe Veyrin notes in The Basques of Lapurdi, Zuberoa, and Lower Navarre: Their History and Their Traditions,

in June 1813, the loss of the battle of Vitoria-Gasteiz obliged the French armies to fall back on our frontier. King Joseph was responsible for the defeat. He took refuge in a house in Senpere—Suhastia in the Elbarron (Helbarron) district—where, on July 11, he received the Emperor’s emissary bringing him notification that he had been stripped of his command, which was handed over to Marshal Soult, who turned up the very next day and took over straightaway.

 

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.

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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)!

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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.

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.

 

March 18, 1795: French Revolutionary proclamation in Basque

On March 18, 1795 (28 Ventôse, year III in the Republican calendar), the French Revolutionary “people’s representative” or envoy to the High and Low Pyrenees, (Jean-François) Auguste Izoard (1765-1840), issued a declaration. Tellingly, the declaration was published jointly in French and Basque.

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Freedom, Equality. In the Name of the French Republic: The people’s representative sent to the two départements in the mountains of the High and Low Pyrenees

This proclamation is particularly interesting because it indicates a backtracking of sorts, on the part of the Revolutionary authorities, when it comes to Basques who had fled from Iparralde to Hegoalde (on this, and particularly the internment and deportation of thousands of Basques, see our March 3 post here). Previously, under the infamous “Reign of Terror,” many Basques had suffered persecution, for their religious beliefs, for speaking their language, and for refusing to fight in France’s Revolutionary Wars.

By the spring of 1795, however, Izoard’s declaration would indicate a relaxing of attitudes (to some extent at least). The text refers to numerous inhabitants of Uztaritze (Lapurdi) who had fled to Hegoalde in the wake of the Terror and internment. It suggests that they may not be aware of a new amnesty-like law that would allow them to return unpunished. In Izoard’s words:

The inhabitants, all Basques, driven into the interior of Spain, deprived of all relations with their relatives and friends, all speaking a particular language, unaware of either the French language or the Spanish language, cannot, or only with great difficulty, manage to understand the beneficent decrees of the National Convention

The proclamation goes on to extend the amnesty period, and underscores the fact that:

The present decree shall be translated into the Basque language, read, and published wherever it should be necessary.

Quite apart from the general importance of the document as regards the history of the Basque Country during the French Revolution–for example, to see how the language attitudes expressed here contradict, to some extent, previous Revolutionary notions, see our previous post in this respect here–the fact that the declaration was published in Basque would appear to reveal that, not only was it widely spoken at the time, but that it was also a literary language for a literate people. The French Revolutionary authorities had to publish in Basque, a language they were not especially interested in and even hostile toward, to get their message across.

On the Basque experience during the French Revolution, check out The Transformation of National Identity in the Basque Country of France, 1789-2006, by Igor Ahedo Gurrutxaga. See, also, Hills of Conflict: Basque Nationalism in France, by James E. Jacob.

March 3, 1794: The Lapurdi “communes of infamy” deportation

March 3, 1794, marks the anniversary of the beginning of one of the murkier tales from the French Revolution: on that day, an order was decreed for the internment and deportation (and ultimately death for many) of thousands of Basques in Iparralde by Revolutionary forces, suspicious of their connections with Basques on the other side of the border during the war with Spain at the time.

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“The Last Cart” of the Reign of Terror before the Thermidorian Reaction. Drawing by Denis Auguste Marie-Raffet, French illustrator and lithographer. From Hector Fleischmann, La guillotine en 1793 (Paris: Librairie des Publications Modernes, 1908), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Philippe Veyrin describes the events surrounding the deportation in The Basques of Lapurdi, Zuberoa, and Lower Navarre: Their History and their Traditions (p. 239):

In spring 1794, following the desertion of forty-seven young men of Itsasu, all inhabitants, men, women, and children, of the villages near the frontier—Sara, Azkaine, Itsasu, Ezpeleta (Espelette), Ainhoa, and Zuraide, decreed to be “communes of infamy”—were arrested en bloc and deported to Landes and Gers. Several other localities in Lapurdi were also subjected to a partial raid. All in all, several thousand of these unfortunate people were crammed haphazardly into disused churches, badly fed, deprived of all hygiene, and forced to endure sufferings that were often fatal—barely half of them escaped with their lives. When, on September 30, the survivors were allowed to return home, they found that their property had been pillaged or auctioned off; they were able to regain very little of it, and never received compensation. This internment of Basques remains the darkest episode of the Revolution in the southwest of France.

For Igor Ahedo Gurrutxaga, in The Transformation of National identity in the Basque Country of France, 1789-2006 (p. 64):

Ultimately, this would be an easy decision for the revolutionary authorities to make, because it served as a good excuse to explain the military failure of the campaign against Spain, punishing the inhabitants of the borderland by accusing them of collaborating with the enemy under the influence of a recalcitrant clergy. Consequently, in simplistic and Manichean fashion, the inhabitants of these communes were accused of being “aristocrats” and counterrevolutionaries.

Moreover, as Cameron Watson observes in Modern Basque History: Eighteenth Century to the Present (p.p. 57-58), free to download here:

Iparralde was viewed by Paris as a weak point in its state-building aspirations, especially given the potential of the rural clergy to foment dissent among the Basque population. The deportees were eventually allowed to return that same fall, but fewer than half those deported survived the involuntary exile. Those who did survive returned to find their property in the hands of French “patriots” (a factor contributing to later emigration from the region).

As Watson goes on to note, a revenge of sorts was carried out two years later: On the night of March 16-17, 1796, Jean-Baptiste Munduteguy, a native of one of the villages involved (Ainhoa) and an architect of the deportation, as well as being involved first-hand more generally in implementing many elements of the Revolutionary Terror in Lapurdi such as execution by guillotine, was murdered in his home in Uztaritze. According to subsequent accounts, “numerous” people appear to have taken part in the murder.

January 27, 1794: The French Revolution and the Basque Language

On January 27, 1794, during the initial period of Revolutionary fervor in France, the French politician Bertrand Barère de Vieuzac presented a report by the Committee of Public Safety (the de facto executive authority in France during this early stage of the Revolution) on the different languages spoken in France. The report famously states that, “Federalism and superstition speak Breton; emigration and hatred for the Revolution speak German; the counter revolution speaks Italian, and fanaticism speaks Basque. let us cast out the instruments of shame and terror” (emphasis added).

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Portrait of  by Bertrand Barère de Vieuzac byJean-Louis Laneuville. Image uploaded by Alberia torkenluvin, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

When it comes to studies on Basque history, this is a much quoted text, with many observers seeing it as the starting point for a systematic attempt by the new French Republic to eliminate Basque from public life in Iparralde. It has also been commented on by various Center publications.

Juan Madariaga Orbea’s Anthology of Apologists and Detractors of the Basque Language dedicates a whole section to Barère de Vieuzac (pp. 451-58) in which a substantial part of the report (translated into English) is reproduced.  In Madariaga Orbea’s own words, earlier in the work (p. 148):

From a theoretical and symbolic standpoint French was presented as the instrument that could attain universal values, the “general will,” and express philosophical and scientific concepts; it was to be a tool of unity and progress. All other languages spoken in the land were the legacy of diversity, of “individual will,” of confusion, discord, and the inability to speak in a civilized fashion. Otherwise, as these other languages were presented in profoundly inferior terms, they were rarely, if ever, called languages, rather, in the best of cases, they were referred to as “speech” and most commonly “cant,” “dialects,” or “manners of speech.” It should not be forgotten that among those patois were tongues that in other countries were considered national languages, such as Italian and German. Be that as it may, as the Revolution advanced, the language = unity equation (as opposed to patois = diversity) became deeply entrenched. From a political standpoint, the French language was the expression of all things national and revolutionary, whereas the patois were vehicles for servility, feudalistic thinking, fanaticism, superstition, slavery, barbarity, etc. French was “the language of liberty,” whereas mention was made of “servile” or “slave” tongues. In simple terms, the political message of the French Revolution was “one nation, one language.”

For Joseba Agirreazkenuaga, in The Making of the Basque Question, the report implied that “people who spoke other languages apart from the French language became ‘enemies’ of France and the use of languages began to become a political issue” (p. 134).

Igor Ahedo Gurrutxaga, however, in The Transformation of National Identity in the Basque Country of France, 1789-2006, points out that, “as the Barère Report also demonstrated, there was a high degree of republican public spirit in Iparralde, even if it was accompanied by an equally high degree of ideological activism by the clergy against the Republic. Thus, once again initially, at least, there was an attempt to instrumentalize Euskara to disseminate republican values through the translation of legal and revolutionary texts into the Basque language” (p. 35), even if this policy was soon dropped by the Revolutionary authorities.

See also, more generally on the issue of minority languages and nation-states, Language Rights and Cultural Diversity, edited by Xabier Irujo and Viola Miglio. This work also discusses Barère de Vieuzac’s report and (p. 16) contends that:

Barère does not argue for any intrinsic superiority of French—its superiority comes from its status as the national language, as a unifying principle for the newly minted post-Revolutionary state. Barère does comment on the supposed inferiority of the other languages present on the French territory (jargons barbares, idiomes grossiers, see below), claiming that they must be sacrificed in the name of national unity and internal coherence, that is, cultural standardization.