Tag: History of the Basque Country (page 1 of 16)

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.



February 19, 1999: Inauguration of Euskalduna Conference Centre

Photo by Jean-Pierre Dalbera.

On February 19, 1999, the newly completed Euskalduna Conference Centre was inaugurated in Bilbao. Designed by architects Federico Soriano and Dolores Palacios to resemble a ship under construction, because it stands on the site formerly occupied by the Euskalduna shipyard, the building won the Enric Miralles award for architecture at the 6th Spanish Architecture Biennial in 2001 and in 2003 the International Congress Palace Association declared it to be the world’s best congress center. It is without doubt one of the key emblematic sites–historical, cultural, and architectural–of Bilbao and a “must see” building for any visitor to the capital of Bizkaia.

Photo by Tim Tregenza.

The Euskalduna was a shipyard located in the heart of Bilbao that also came to specialize in the construction of rail and road vehicles. It operated between 1900 and 1988, when it closed in controversial circumstances due to downsizing. The famous “Carola” Crane, a symbol of the shipyard in its heyday, still stands and now forms part of the Ria de Bilbao Maritime Museum, which is located alongside the Euskalduna Conference Centre.

Photo by Tim Tregenza.

The Euskalduna is today home to both the city’s opera season and the Bilbao Symphony Orchestra, as well as serving as a multipurpose conference and event center with a 2000-seat auditorium, a 600-seat theater, conference rooms, meeting rooms, a press room, restaurants, an exhibition hall, an a commercial gallery.

Photo by Asier Sarasua Aranberri.

Check out the Euskalduna website here.

The Center has published several books on the transformation of Bilbao (and the Basque Country in general), a story in which the Euskalduna is prominent. See, for example, Joseba Zulaika’s award-winning That Old Bilbao Moon: The Passion and Resurrection of  a City as well as Transforming Cities: Opportunities and Challenges of Urban Regeneration in the Basque Country, edited by Arantxa Rodríguez and Joseba Juaristi and Building the Basque City: The Political Economy of Nation Building, by Nagore Calvo Mendizabal.

Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.



February 10, 1925: Collapse of emblematic Basque bank Crédito de la Unión Minera

On February 10, 1925, one of the most well-known Basque banks, Crédito de la Unión Minera (Mining Union Credit)–an early Bilbao banking institution founded in the spring of 1901–suspended all payments as a prelude its collapse as a result of the financial downturn in the 1920s. Curiously, the full liquidation of its assets would drag on a further seventy-five years, culminating at the dawn of the new millennium.

Crédito de la Unión Minera was established in 1901 on the back of both significant growth in Bilbao itself (as a consequence of the strong mining export market) and the inflow of capital from former colonies following the fall of the Spanish empire. As its name indicated, this particular bank was associated closely to the mining sector on Bizkaia. Thereafter, the “Crédito” managed to retain its independence, in the wake of a series of fusions among other Bilbao banking interests, thanks to a successful aggressive commercial policy that saw its share price soar on the Bilbao stock market. This initial success was bolstered during World War I (1914-1918) with Spanish neutrality in the conflict benefiting the important Basque banking sector.

With the end of the war, however, and the economic downturn in the 1920s, those banks that had been especially speculative or adventurous were suddenly in trouble.  Specifically, as a result of over speculation, the Crédito was suffering from a lack of cash flow and on February 10, 1925, it suspended all payments prior to its official collapse.

Interestingly, it was still possible to cash in on the remaining assets of the bank right up until late 2001!

For more on this fascinating story, check out a great article by Eduardo J. Alonso Olea, “El Crédito de la Unión Minera: 1901-2002,” in Historia Contemporánea 24 (2002): 323-53. Available here.

February 3, 1910: Bishop José Cadena y Eleta bans use of Basque names in christenings

On February 3, 1910, José Cadena y Eleta, Bishop of the Diocese of Vitoria-Gasteiz (comprising Araba, Bizkaia, and Gipuzkoa), issued a pastoral exhortation demanding that both priests and parishioners decease from baptizing children with Basque first names. He argued that the official language of the Church was Latin, and that Spanish was also used in parish documents and records within Spain. He then went on to warn all priests in his diocese to observe Church norms in this regard, especially those younger members who, he suggested, were treading on dangerous ground by sanctioning the use of such names; a move, he contended, that only brought disunion and discord among Basques.

José Cadena y Eleta (1855-1918)

Cadena’s initiative was then submitted for Vatican approval, which responded that baptisms should ideally be carried out in Latin and transcribed in Spanish.  However, the Vatican ruling also acknowledged that, in the final instance, if the parents insisted on giving their children Basque names, these wishes should be respected, stating the name in both Basque and Latin during the service, and transcribing it in Basque and Spanish for the parish records. On receiving the Vatican instructions, Cadena informed the clergy in his diocese and instructed them to do everything in their power to avoid arriving at that final instance.

This ruling lasted until 1938, when, still during the Spanish Civil War (but with the Basque Country having fallen to the military rebels), the nascent Franco regime banned the use of Basque names outright.

January 27, 1806: Birth of composer Juan Crisóstomo Arriaga

On January 27, 1806 Juan Crisóstomo Jacobo Antonio de Arriaga y Balzola was born in Bilbao. A child musical prodigy and accomplished composer who died young, he was christened “the Spanish Mozart” after his death.

Juan Crisóstomo Arriagha (1806-1826). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Born in Bilbao into a musical family–his father Juan Simón had been the church organist in Berriatua, Bizkaia, although he later earned a living as a merchant in Bilbao–the young Arriaga showed a great aptitude for music at an early age.  Juan Crisóstomo was duly sent to study music in Paris at age fifteen, where he made an immediate impact. Indeed, his progress was such that he soon became a teaching assistant at the Paris Conservatory, where he was especially renowned for  a natural talent for musically sophisticated harmonies, counterpoint, and related techniques. Within four years he composed numerous works and was a well-known figure in the cultural world of Paris, the musical capital of the world at that time.  However, this intense activity would also take its toll on the young Basque, and he ten days short of his twentieth birthday he died, possibly due to a lung ailment like tuberculosis, or possibly even from sheer exhaustion.

“Perhaps,” argues Barbara Rosen (Arriaga, p. 33) , “Arriaga’s predilection for dramatic, austere, and somber laments for voice and orchestra (Medea, Agar, Erminia) can be traced to this characteristic of the songs originating in the Basque areas of northern Spain.”

Today, Bilbao’s principal theater, the Arriaga Theater, is named in his honor.

Check out Barbara Rosen, Arriaga, The Forgotten Genius: The Short Life Of A Basque Composer (Reno: Basque Studies Program,  University of Nevada, Reno, 1988).

And listen to one of his compositions, Quartet No. 2 in A major: III. Menuetto, below:


The Impact of Catalonia Crisis on Basque’s Bid for an Independence


The Basque region situated in the northern Iberian Peninsula possesses its unique language, culture and long history of self-determination. In 19th century the Spanish King took an oath under the Guernica tree that the Spanish Kingdom would honor the autonomy of Basque region. Nevertheless, the Basque right to autonomy was scraped in 1876 and had remained so until the brief period of the Spanish Civil War. For many Basques, autonomy was not genuine enough, which perpetuated militant group ETA which aimed at achieving full independence for Basque motherland. ETA, however, formally gave up its violence approach last year when the separatist group handed over weapons to French authorities. It is no surprise that many Basques naturally sympathize the with Catalan independence bid. Tens of thousands of Basques rallied in Bilbao the day before the Catalan referendum to show support for Catalan nationalists.  Nevertheless, the Catalan crisis has markedly increased Basque cautious approach to its own independence bid.

Following the aftermath of the Catalan independence referendum in October 2017, the opinion poll indicated that 63 percent of Basques were not interested in pursuing Catalan’s path to independence and only 22 percent were in favor. In addition, 44 percent of the participants demanded larger autonomy, and just 23 percent were interested in full independence. A Basque author who produces literature in Euskara (the Basque language), Kirmen Uribe argued that Basque citizens were exhausted after 40 years of separatist violence, thus, many plea for a timeout. Uribe added that there is fear that aggressive efforts to gain independence would split the Basque community again, further exacerbating the Basque approach to independence. While it does not end the dream that one day Basque will be an independent country, there is no need to rush the process, according to Andoni Ortuzar, the leader of the Basque Nationalist Party PNV..

For further reading please visit the following website:



January 23, 1921: Birth of influential chemist Josefa Molero

On January 23, 1921 Maria Josefa Molero Mayo was born in Izaba, Navarre. She would go on to be an important figure in chemical kinetics and analytical techniques in gas chromatography as well as an important influence on scientific research in Spain.

Born in the picturesque village of Izaba, high in the Erronkari (Roncal) Valley of Navarre, Molero faced a number of hurdles early on in her career. As well as the inherent prejudice against women in professional positions that was a feature of the Franco dictatorship in Spain at that time, she was also from a family that had opposed Franco’s rebels during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) and had to live with that stigma and discrimination in the aftermath of the war. Despite all this, she graduated from the Central University of Madrid with excellent grades in 1942. When it came to starting her doctorate, after initially being rejected from joining a research institute in Madrid on the grounds that she was a woman, she was later offered a place at another research center in the city, obtaining her doctorate cum laude in 1948, earning a special award for her work on applications of mercury electrodes in the process.

She then secured a position at the prestigious Rocasolano Institute in Madrid, and from there managed to secure an important grants to go to Oxford, where she worked in the laboratory of Sir Cyril Norman Hinshelwood, who a few years later would go on to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1956 for his research into the mechanism of chemical reactions. On her return, she used that experience to create the first gas chromatograph in Spain as well as a whole new field of research at Spain’s Institute of Physical Chemistry: Pyrolysis and oxidation gas-phase reactions in organic compounds at low temperatures.  She also set up a department of Chemical Kinetics, which she headed until her retirement in 1986. In 1959 she was a visiting scholar at the University of Sheffield in England, where she worked with George Porter (who would go on to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1967) on light chemical reactions. On her return, she put a lot of this experience into practice, pioneering the study of chemical reactions produced by  chromatography in liquid gasses at the Spanish state level.

She won numerous awards throughout her life and was an important figure in establishing important research in key fields of Chemistry in Spain. She died at age 90 in Madrid in 2011.  In May 2013, the city of Pamplona-Iruña designated a Josefa Molera Mayo Street.

P.S. It is interesting to note that the village of Izaba was also the birthplace of renowned Basque physicist Pedro Miguel Etxenike (b. 1950).

Information taken from Uxune Martinez, “Josefa Molero Mayo (1921-2011): Izabatik kimikaren historiara,” Zientzia Kaiera.

Dr. Xabier Irujo presents at the 52. Durangoko Azoka

While wrapping up my fieldwork after spending a year here in the Basque Country, I took a day to travel from Bilbao to Durango to see the famous Durango Book Fair. Aside from getting to travel with a friend to this happening scene, with numerous publishers, book stores, and new media, I was able to see a familiar face. Professor Xabier Irujo was presenting his book titled “The Verdad Alternativa“, which discusses the lies and propaganda regarding the catastrophic effects of the bombing of Gernika.  The session was well attended with standing room only, with several from the audience providing follow-up questions.

Congratulations Professor Irujo!  Look forward to seeing you and everyone else at the Center for Basque Studies in January!


October 14, 1933: Birth of poet Gabriel Aresti

Gabriel Aresti, arguably the most important poet in the Basque language still to this day, was born in Bilbao on October 14, 1933. Although his father was a Basque speaker, the family did not transmit this language to the young Aresti and he learned it on his own as a young man. After studying business at university, he went on to become an accountant in his home city, but it was in the field of Basque culture in general, and more specifically poetry, that he really made his name.

Gabriel Aresti (1933-1975)

In general terms, he was in the 1960s and 1970s, along with several other writers and artists, one of the leading champions and exponents of modernizing Basque culture and the Basque language. As regards the former, he promoted the idea of poetry as a vehicle for social awareness, as a means of exposing social problems and a medium in which regular, everyday speech could be incorporated; all this at a time of growing social ferment during the latter years of the Franco dictatorship. In terms of the latter, he was one of the most prominent defenders of creating a standardized Basque–known as Euskara Batua or Unified Basque–amid the heated debates over the topic in the 1960s.

In the words of Joseba Zulaika (in his preface to Downhill and Rock & Core):

Gabriel Aresti was the essential poet for my Basque generation of the 1960s. “If you want to write me/You know where I am,” he wrote, “In this most slippery hell/In the mouth of the devil.” It was the hell of Franco’s repressive regime, the endless darkness of his city, Bilbao, turned into an industrial and cultural wasteland. Aresti was the crucified Bilbao writer howling for justice and truth, the vulnerable man of eternal downfall who created a new poetics and a new subjectivity.

Gabriel Aresti died in June 1975.

Aresti’s poetry was published for the first time in English this year by the Center. Downhill and Rock & Core, translated by Amaia Gabantxo and with an introduction by Jon Kortazar, brings together two of Aresti’s key works: Maldan behera (1959) and Harri eta herri (1964). The poems appear in both Basque and English.

Check out, too, Pello Salaburu’s fascinating study of how standard Basque was created in Writing Words. Here, Salaburu talks at length about Aresti’s involvement in establishing this new language.


October 7, 1936: First Basque Government Formed

The first Basque Government was created on October 7, 1936, shortly after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. The government was led by Jose Antonio Agirre and was based in Bilbao’s emblematic Hotel Carlton.

Agirre and other government members address crowd from balcony of Hotel Carlton

Given that holding elections was impossible on account of the outbreak of the civil war in July 1936, a transitional decree was approved whereby the councilmen of municipalities in territory not occupied by the military rebels would elect the first lehendakari or Basque president. They duly elected Jose Antonio Agirre unanimously at a meeting in the historic assembly hall in Gernika. Agirre subsequently formed the first Basque government from among his own Basque Nationalist Party as well as the other parties that formed part of the Popular Front, the democratically elected coalition governing the Second Spanish Republic that Franco’s military uprising was seeking to overthrow.

The importance of Agirre and the first Basque government were explored at a major international conference whose results were published in The International Legacy of the Lehendakari Jose A. Agirre’s Government, edited by Xabier Irujo and Mari Jose Olaziregi.


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