Category: Carlist Wars

May 17, 1837: The Battle of Irun

On May 14, 1837, around 20,000 Liberal troops under the command of General Sir George de Lacy Evans, head of the British Legion that was assisting the forces of Isabella II during the First Carlist War, rendezvoused in Donostia-San Sebastián before setting out with the aim of taking the corridor of towns toward the French border. Taking Hernani swiftly, their Carlist opponents retreated to the border town of Irun, the ultimate goal for the Liberals. Around 12,000 of the original 20,000 took part in the assault on Irun (including 5,000 soldiers of the British Legion). The Carlists, meanwhile, were hopelessly outnumbered, with many of their number having been committed elsewhere to the so-called Royal Expedition, an attempt to attack Madrid directly and try and wrest control of the throne away from Isabella II. On May 16, the British forces began bombarding Irun and the following day, May 17, they attacked the city. The Carlist forces there, though as mentioned much less in number, defended their position stoically. Following this desperate resistance by the Carlists, though, the Liberals triumphed, pillaging Irun and carrying out widespread reprisals against their enemy. Despite efforts by de Lacy Evans to precvent such reprisals, British troops, too, took part in the pots-battle retaliations, probably due to having been humiliated by Carlist forces at the Battle of Oriamendi on March 16 that same year.  The following day Hondarribia, too, fell to the Liberal forces, who were ultimately successful in their attempt to seal the corridor to the French border.

*Image: Attack on the Behobia Gate, Irun, by the British Auxiliary Legion, during the Battle of Irun. From Twelve Views in the Basque Provinces illustrating several of the actions in which the British Legion was engaged with Carlist Troops, by Thomas Lyde Hornbrook. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

August 31, 1839: The Convention of Bergara

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Text of the Convention of Bergara (1839). Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

August 31, 1839, marks the symbolic date–the Convention of Bergara–by which the First Carlist War came to an end. A peace agreement had actually already been signed between the opposing sides, the Liberals and the Carlists, on August 29;  but two days later a public event was held in Bergara, Gipuzkoa, “the Bergara embrace” between Baldomero Espartero and Rafael Maroto, to proclaim peace. This remains a key date in Basque history because from this moment on the distinct administrative rights and liberties (the foruak or fueros) of the different Basque provinces would be called into question in increasingly centralizing efforts to make these provinces conform to a new state framework unfolding in Spain throughout the nineteenth century.

For Joseba Agirreazkuenaga, in The Making of the Basque Question (p. 174):

Article 1 of the convention made reference to the foral question—the political issue of inserting the Basque Provinces into the liberal constitutional framework established in the Spanish state between 1833 and 1837. The remaining points dealt with questions concerning the combatants, particularly those of the Carlist side. Not all of the Carlists accepted the terms of the convention but it was enough that it should receive the support of some battalions for the military fronts to collapse, forcing the remainder to flee into exile. The war did not, however, end automatically, but without the support of the Basques the Carlist dynastic option no longer appeared to have any possibility of success.

If you’d like to learn more about the First Carlist War, check out The Most Striking Events of a Twelvemonth’s Campaign with Zumalacarregui in Navarre and the Basque Provinces, by C.F. Henningsen, the recollections of an English adventurer who fought in the Carlist ranks. Besides being a robust and lively account of the course of the war itself, with no attention to detail spared, what makes the book equally interesting is Henningsen’s thoughts on the Basque Country (including detailed descriptions of a preindustrial Basque landscape) and on Basque culture in general.

June 13, 1854: Famed bard Iparragirre performs in front of 6,000 people

On June 13, 1854, the renowned itinerant Basque bard and troubadour Jose Maria Iparraguirre performed before an extraordinary figure of six thousand people in the hallowed environment of the Urkiola Sanctuary, located in a mountainous area of Bizkaia. His performance was imbued with political comment regarding Basque decision-making powers, and this got him into yet more trouble with the Spanish authorities.

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Jose Maria Iparragirre (1820-1881). Image from the Zumalakarregi Museum, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In the words of Joseba Agirreazkuenaga, in The Making of the Basque Question:

Jose María Iparraguirre (1820–1881) was a Carlist soldier who was exiled in different European countries. In 1853, he was able to return to the Basque Country and there he composed the song “Gernikako Arbola” (The Tree of Guernica), which became the Basque hymn at all cultural demonstrations. He achieved popular success performing traditional verses but set to more modern music. However, because of his ability to mobilize people, the Spanish government banished him from the Basque Country in 1855. He went to Galicia, Portugal, and then immigrated to Uruguay. In 1879, he took part in the Basque language festivals of Elizondo, Navarre, and became a living icon.

For Juan Madariaga Orbea, in Anthology of Apologists and Detractors of the Basque Language,  Iparragirre’s entire life was:

a model of vagabondage and painful survival, always on the verge of economic ruin, incarceration, and exile, either for political reasons or as a social outcast: an individual, like all those of his class, who was intensely embarrassing to the authorities and to power of any kind.

Perhaps this explains why so many people turned up to see him that June day in 1854.

 

June 10, 1835: Beginning of the Siege of Bilbao during First Carlist War

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  Mar’ía Cristina on behalf of the infant princess Mar’ía Isabel) sought to modernize Spain, centralizing decision-making authority and removing or lessening where possible those specific Basque rights.

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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, Toma‡s 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.

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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.