June 10, 1835 marks the start date of the famous siege of Bilbao by Carlist forces during the First Carlist War (1833-1839). The nineteenth-century Carlist Wars (with later conflicts taking place in the 1840s and 1870s) are somewhat under the radar of most general European history narratives but they were crucial in defining the political and administrative direction that modern Spain took. Interestingly for the purposes of this blog they also played a major role in shaping the fortunes of the Basque Country, which served as a principal theater of war in the 1830s and 1870s. In short, the outcome of these two civil wars established not just the Basque Country’s modern legal relationship with Spain but also played a big part in the decision of many Basques to leave their homeland in search of a better life on the other side of the Atlantic.
Although ostensibly the result of a dynastic struggle between different pretenders to the Spanish throne, the Carlist Wars were more complex civil confrontations that reflected different visions of how Spain should be organized politically. Most Basques were on the Carlist side (supporters of the pretender Don Carlos), among other reasons because they believed it guaranteed them the continuation of a political system that safeguarded Basque rights when it came to decision-making authority. On the other side, the Liberals (supporters of the regent María Cristina on behalf of the infant princess María Isabel) sought to modernize Spain, centralizing decision-making authority and removing or lessening where possible those specific Basque rights.
Carlist plans of the city for the siege of Bilbao in 1835. By Antonio de Goycoechea. In the Zumalakarregi Museum. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
During the First Carlist War, while most of the rural Basque Country supported the Carlist cause, larger urban enclaves tended to favor the modernizing ambitions of the Liberal side. The Carlist forces there were led by a brilliant and charismatic Basque general, Tomas Zumalacarregui (also spelled Zumalakarregi), who argued for a strike on Madrid from the Carlist bastion in Navarre, via Vitoria-Gasteiz, in sweeping fashion down from the Basque Country. He was overruled, however, by Don Carlos and was instead ordered to capture the Liberal bastion of Bilbao as an emblematic prize for the Carlist cause. Carlist forces thus laid siege to the city on June 10, but during the siege Zumalacarregui was shot and wounded, and subsequently died from his wounds. The siege formally ended on July 1, with the Carlists unsuccessful in their attempts to take the city.
Tomas Zumalacarregui, the charismatic Carlist leader. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Thereafter, the Carlists, bereft of their charismatic leader, plagued by internal divisions and grave tactical errors, and confronted with a following increasingly tired of battle, slid toward defeat. In 1839, the Carlist leader Rafael Maroto signed the Treaty of Bergara with his Liberal adversary Baldomero Espartero. This ended the war and set Spain on a path toward an administrative reshaping that gradually eroded Basque political rights.
The Zumalakarregi Museum in Ormaiztegi, Gipuzkoa (his birthplace) is a great source of information for this period in Basque history in general.
For a general introduction to the Carlist Wars and their impact on the fortunes of the Basque Country, see Cameron Watson’s Modern Basque History, available free to download here.
The political and administrative implications of the Carlist Wars for the Basque Country are discussed in detail by Joseba Agirreazkuenaga in The Making of the Basque Question: Experiencing Self-Government, 1793-1877.
And for a riveting first-hand account of the Carlist offensive in the Basque Country during the first war, including an account of the siege of Bilbao, check out The Most Striking Events of a Twelvemonth’s Campaign with Zumalacarregui in Navarre and the Basque Provinces by C.F. Henningsen.