Women’s march on Versailles, October 5-6, 1789. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

On March 1, 1750, a group of women in Urruña (Urrugne), Lapurdi, rose up in protest at proposed measures to increase taxes on tobacco. Peasant revolts, often in response to price or tax rises on key goods or commodities by monarchs and governments, were quite a common feature of early modern European life and the Basque Country was certainly no exception to this phenomenon.

Urruña Town Hall today. Picture by Harrieta171, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In Iparralde, the Northern Basque Country, women were especially prominent in several impromptu revolts of this kind in the eighteenth century. In 1750, too, for example, a group of women in Baiona (Bayonne) attacked French troops guarding tax collectors. Later, in 1782, women were front and center in Heleta (Hélette). Lower Navarre, in a violent protest against the French authorities for increasing customs duties, while still more plans to increase taxes resulted in a women’s revolt in 1784 in Hazparne (Hasparren). And as late as 1784, in protest at commercial advantages being granted to some areas over others, as Philippe Veyrin comments (p. 230) in The Basques of Lapurdi, Zuberoa, and Lower Navarre, “a tumultuous demonstration of women . . . spread rapidly into the neighboring parishes. To forestall the outbreak of any more violence, it was found necessary to send several regiments in to occupy the region and confiscate over five thousand rifles.”

Tobacco was first cultivated commercially in Europe in France, around the early seventeenth century, and thereafter became a staple crop and commodity in the French Kingdom. Veyrin (pp. 229-30) describes the context in Iparralde:

Lapurdi in particular cultivated tobacco in Nicot, and was happy to indulge in large-scale smuggling of it with neighboring areas. On one occasion the Farmers General enforced the uprooting of the plantations, and its officials distinguished themselves by their excess of zeal, searches, forcible entry, and so on, which provoked a quite legitimate hostility.

These uprisings, which official language treated euphemistically as “emotions,” were a characteristic of the Basque Country in the eighteenth century. What is unusual is that these were almost always started by women who, obsessed by the fear of new taxes and especially the salt tax, were very prone to often untimely demonstrations. There is a long list of those explosions of popular discontent, from those in Donazaharre (Saint-Jean-le-Vieux) in 1685, Mugerre (Mouguerre) and Hiriburu in 1696, Ainhoa in 1724, almost the whole of Lapurdi in 1726 (in connection with the tax on the fiftieth), Baiona in 1748, and Donibane Garazi the same year.

When plans were introduced to hike the price of tobacco, a group of women in Urruña rose up in protest. In response, the French authorities sent a detachment of the royal army to suppress the uprising. On arriving, they opened fire on the women, killing Gratianne de Suhibar, the lady of the house of Candirubaita, Marie Dithurbide, and Agustina de Irigoity. Jean Lapis, the master of the house of Bixitala, also appeared among the dead. It was later claimed, in order to insult his honor, that he had been dressed as a woman at the time of his death.

Memorial plaque on San Anton Church in Bilbao to those who took part in the Salt Tax Revolt. Photo by Zarateman, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Such protests in the Basque Country were commonly known as matxinadak (from “Matxin,” a colloquial Basque way of referring to Saint Martin, the patron saint of iron workers and blacksmiths, most likely one of the original groups to rise up in these types of protest). These matxinadak included the famous Salt Tax Revolt (1631-1634) in Bizkaia; the peasant rising led by the rebel priest “Matalas” (Bernard Goihenetxe) in Zuberoa in 1661 against the increased and repressive taxation policies of Louis XIV–an uprising that ultimately resulted in the priest being executed and beheaded; the Customs Revolt of 1718, in which a widespread revolt at new fiscal measures introduced by Philip V abolishing the free-trade status of the Basque Country broke out in Bizkaia and then spread to Gipuzkoa; the Meat Revolt of 1755 in Gipuzkoa; and the Cereal Revolt of 1766 also in Gipuzkoa. By the nineteenth century, these protests, although largely spontaneous like their forebears, took on a more decidedly political dimension and were closely related to defending and maintaining the Basque foral system–the consuetudinary legal system by which the Basque provinces remained largely outside the common governmental structures of both the Spanish and French Kingdoms. Nineteenth-century protests of this kind included the so-called Zamacolada in 1804 in Bizkaia, the Gamazada in Navarre in 1893-1894, and the Sanrokada in Bizkaia in 1893.

Information sourced from Iñaki Egaña, Mil noticias insólitas del país de los vascos (Tafalla: Txalaparta, 2001), p.142 and the Auñamendi Eusko Entziklopedia.