Tag: Basque maritime history

March 5, 1937: Battle of Cape Matxitxako

On March 5, 1937, the Battle of Cape Matxitxako took place off Bermeo, Bizkaia, during the Spanish Civil War. It was a naval battle between the Spanish heavy cruiser Canarias in the service of Franco’s military rebels and four pro-Republic Basque armed trawlers escorting a convoy. The trawlers were protecting the transport ship Galdames, which was sailing to Bilbao with 173 passengers. They were confronted by the rebel cruiser Canarias off Cape Matxitxako.

Cape Matxitxako off the coast of Bizkaia. Photo by Telle. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

On March 4, the four Basque trawlers–the BizcaiaGipuzkoaDonostia, and Nabarra–departed the port of Baiona in Lapurdi with the aim of escorting the Galdames, which besides passengers was also carrying mail, machinery, weapons, supplies, and funds. The first engagement between the two sides took place on March 5, some 20 miles north of Bilbao. The Canarias fired first, hitting the Gipuzkoa, which in turn retaliated. The other trawlers attempted to maneuver the Canarias closer to the shore, from where their ground support could more easily strike it. All the while, their aim was to keep the Canarias away from the Galdames by engaging directly with the rebel ship.  The Donostia withdrew after being hit, but the Nabarra continued to engage the Canarias directly. She was eventually hit and came to a halt; 20 men abandoned the sinking trawler, while another 29 were lost with the ship, including her captain, Enrique Moreno Plaza. Ultimately, the Galdames was hit by a salvo from Canarias, lost four passengers, and was captured by Franco’s cruiser. The 20 men who abandoned the ship were rescued and taken aboard the Canarias.

Monument to the fallen Basque sailors at the Battle of Cape Matxitxako. Photo by Telle. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In Modern Basque History: Eighteenth Century to the Present (pp. 262-63), Cameron Watson discusses how Anglo-Irish poet C. Day Lewis (father of actor Daniel Day-Lewis) immortalized the event in “The Nabara” (1938):

Day-Lewis never visited the Basque Country, but saw the struggle of many Basques against the military uprising of Francisco Franco as a universal theme. His epic prose poem “The Nabara,” published in 1938, pays homage to what he considered to be the indomitable spirit of the Basque people, suggested by an event that took place in 1937 during the Civil War, when five modestly armed Basque trawlers engaged in a hopeless naval battle with a Spanish rebel cruiser in the waters of Bilbo, in a bold attempt to break a Spanish blockade of the Basque city that was starving Bilbo’s inhabitants. The struggle of the ill-equipped fishing boats lasted longer than might have been expected, ending only when the last of their number, the Nabarra (Nafarroan), was finally sunk by superior forces, losing thirty-eight members of its original fifty-two-man crew. Day Lewis wrote: “Freedom is more than just a word, more than the base coinage of Statesmen, the tyrant’s dishonoured cheque, or the dreamer’s inflated currency. She is mortal, we know, and made in the image of simple men who have no taste for carnage but sooner kill and are killed than see that image betrayed … a pacific people, slow to feel ambition, loving their laws and their independence–men of the Basque Country.”

You can download Modern Basque History for free here.

 

 

September 22, 1588: Miguel de Oquendo’s ship catches fire and kills many in failed Armada expedition

In the late summer of 1588 one of the most important naval confrontations in European history took place.  On the orders of Philip II a fleet of 130 ships sailed from Spain, in principle to escort armed forces from the Spanish Netherlands that had been amassed with the purpose of invading England and overthrowing the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I. Significant parts of the Armada were led by two prominent Basque admirals: Juan Martínez de Recalde Larrinaga from Bilbao and Miguel de Oquendo y Segura from Donostia-San Sebastián. However, the fleet delayed attacking the English, then became unstuck in unfavorable weather conditions. Harried by the counter-attacking English fleet, the ships of the Armada were forced away from the southern English coast.

Miguel de Oquendo y Segura (1534-1588)

One of the tactics used by the English and their Dutch allies was to set empty ships alight and send them into the anchored counterparts of the Armada, and in doing so numerous ships caught fire. One of those was the Capitana, Oquendo’s own ship, which fell victim to the attack, killing many of the crew. While it was claimed at the time that Oquendo managed to return to the port of Pasaia, Gipuzkoa, in another ship on September 24, it seems more likely that he died at sea on September 22. Recalde suffered a similar fate, although he did manage to return the port of A Coruña in Galicia, where he dies from wounds sustained at sea.

Basque involvement in global maritime history is discussed in some detail by William A. Douglass in his Basque Explorers in the Pacific Ocean.

 

September 6, 1522: Elkano arrives back in Europe to complete first circumnavigation of world

September 6, 1522 marks the historic date on which Basque seafarer, Juan Sebastian Elkano (also spelled Elcano) set foot once more on European soil after successfully leading the first expedition to sail round the world (following the death of original expedition leader Ferdinand Magellan in the Philippines in 1521).

The final voyage of the Victoria, the ship skippered by Elkano, was by no means without incident. William A. Douglass picks up the story in his Basque Explorers in the Pacific Ocean (p. 85), from the time the expedition left the Moluccas (or Maluku Islands, in present day Indonesia):

The Victoria set sail on December 21, 1521, with a contingent of sixty, including thirteen islanders from Tidore. They were negotiating hostile Portuguese waters as they skirted India and the Cape of Good Hope, never daring to land and therefore subject to great privations. By the time they arrived in the Cape Verde islands, on July 9, 1522, an additional twenty-eight men had perished. The Portuguese authorities managed to capture and imprison thirteen of the crew, including two Basques who had gone ashore in search of food and water. After it became evident that the governor would not release the captives, Elkano set sail, and on September 6, 1522, the Victoria reached the Spanish port of Sanlúcar de Barrameda with eighteen Europeans (three Basques, including himself) and four islanders on board, as well as a modest cargo of spices that was impounded immediately by Cristóbal de Haro to satisfy the expedition’s financial obligations.

In Selected Basque Writings (p. 53), the renowned philosopher and linguist Wilhelm von Humboldt also makes mention of this feat, noting that Elkano “was thus the first to have really circumnavigated the world and Charles V gave him a coat of arms of a globe with the known engraving: ‘You are the first to have circled m’ (Primus me circumdedisti). The Victoria was kept as a holy remnant of this voyage until it fully disintegrated of age.”

In previous posts, we have discussed Elkano’s death on yet another expedition (see here) and new online documents that shed more light on his personality (see here).

August 12-13, 1912: 112 Basque fishermen die in sudden storm

On the evening of August 12, 1912, as they were accustomed to doing every day, the fishermen of several ports along the Bizkaian coast set out in small 40-50 feet boats to fish in the waters close to their homes. This was a form of coastal rather than deep-sea fishing, a typical Basque practice and one intimately linked to the traditional culture of Basque fishing communities as a whole. It had been a mild day with a warming southerly wind, but all of a sudden, as the evening drifted into night, there was a dramatic change, and a cold northerly wind came in from an area of low pressure in the far North Atlantic, around Iceland: an unprecedented phenomenon for that time of year.  The air temperature fell dramatically, and the sea became increasingly more squally.

At the time a number of these boats were approximately 45-50 miles off of the Bizkaian coast. This would have been just about the moment they were thinking of returning to port with their evening catch, but instead they got caught up in the storm, which carried on ferociously all night and into the morning of August 13. The boats could not cope with such appalling conditions and many sank.

On shore, people realized that their loved ones and neighbors were in danger, and an appeal was made to send out rescue launches, but between the terrible conditions at sea and the time it was taking to alert the authorities in Bilbao, help was not immediately forthcoming.

In total, there were 143 recorded deaths, most of them fishermen from Bermeo, but including others from Lekeitio, Elantxobe, and Ondarroa. A memorial service was held for all the dead on August 23 in Bermeo, to which King Alfonso XIII also came.

The tragedy marked a watershed moment in fishing practices and techniques in the Bay of Biscay.

Check out the following two-part video about the tragedy, recreating life in fishing communities at the time (in Basque):

September 26, 1565: Basque-run ship completes historic voyage

On September 26, 1565, a Basque-run ship, the San Pedro, docked in the vicinity of California’s Cape Mendocino after having sailed 11,160 miles cross the Pacific Ocean without a landfall—the longest continuous oceanic voyage to that date in the age of European exploration. This remarkable crossing is yet another in a long line of significant Basque maritime exploits – all described in fascinating detail by Bill Douglass in Basque Explorers in the Pacific Ocean (pp. 118-22).

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Andrés de Urdaneta (1498-1568). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

As part of an initial plan to bring the Philippines within Spain’s orbit on the orders of King Philip II, a Basque-dominated expedition, led by two Gipuzkoans, Andrés de Urdaneta from Ordizia and  Miguel López de Legazpi from Zumarraga, reached Samar in February 1565. Thereafter, a permanent settlement was established in Cebu, which in the words of Douglass, was “the initial outpost of Spanish hegemony in the islands and one that would endure for more than three and a half centuries.”

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Miguel López de Legazpi (c. 1502-1572). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

As well as establishing an imperial outpost there, however, Legazpi was also charged with finding the elusive easterly return route from the Philippines to Nueva España (present-day Mexico). The Portuguese held the monopoly over the westward sea lane between Asia and Europe, making it impossible to establish trade with the Philippines, let alone a settled Spanish colonial presence there, without violating the Treaty of Zaragoza; hence the importance of discovering this easterly route. Douglass continues:

Urdaneta’s previous experience in the Moluccas had sensitized him to the seasonal shift in the region’s prevailing winds. Furthermore, his relationship with Gerónimo de Sanesteban in Mexico City doubtless gave Urdaneta detailed knowledge of the Villalobos expedition’s two failed attempts to return to Nueva España from the Moluccas via a southern route. On June 1, 1565, Urdaneta left the Philippines in the San Pedro, which was under the command of Legazpi’s young (sixteen-year-old) grandson, Felipe de Salcedo. It seems likely that Urdaneta was the actual commander. Other Basques on the vessel included Friar Andrés de Aguirre; the boatswain, Francisco de Astigarribia; the ship’s mate, Martín de Ibarra (all Bizkaians); and the scribe, Asensio de Aguirre. About one-third of the crew were Gipuzkoans.

Once in the northern latitudes, the San Pedro picked up the summer months’ prevailing northeasterlies and reached the American mainland on September 26 that same year.

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“Urdaneta’s Route” across the Pacific. Image by Jrockley, United States Army. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Basques have a reasonable claim, then, to yet another significant maritime historical record, besides being in charge of both the first (Elkano) and second (Urdaneta) global circumnavigations.

 

Historical links between the Basque Country and Wales in the news

An exchange of gifts was held recently between the Welsh charity Friends of the Newport Ship and the Basque foundation Albaola: The Sea Factory of Basques. This included the Friends of the Newport Ship receiving an ikurriña or Basque flag, which will fly alongside the flag of Wales in the group’s maritime center.

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The Newport ship in the foundations of the Riverfront Arts Centre, Newport, Wales, September 8, 2002. Photo by Owain at Wikimedia Commons.

The Newport Ship is the most complete surviving example of a fifteenth-century ship, discovered in Newport (Casnewydd in Welsh), Wales. According to the Welsh charity website, “the Ship was built from local timber in the Basque Country, probably around 1449 -1451,”  and was probably one of the larger ships of the era. Later, it was “left to partly sink into the riverbed [of the River Usk or Afon Wysg in Welsh] before being covered by accumulated sediment. This preserved the vessel for around 532 years before its discovery in 2002.”

According to a report on the exchange for the South Wales Argus: Chairman of Friends of Newport Ship, Phil Cox, described the flag as a “symbol of friendship and collaboration.” He said: “The Basque flag will fly proudly in our ship centre as a symbol of our shared maritime history, alongside our own Welsh dragon. “We look forward to visiting the Basque country, visiting Albaola and seeing their amazing projects as they create full scale replicas of medieval vessels.” Local Basques were also in attendance. Read the report in full here.

If you’re interested in this topic, check out the recent Center publication Basques in the Pacific Ocean by William A. Douglass explores Basque maritime prowess through the centuries.