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.