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The Basques

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When and Where

The Basques traditionally live in the hills of the Western Pyrenees Mountains and around the Bay of Biscay in both France and Spain. They pre-date the Roman invasion of the region and have carried on to the present day, frequently earning them the label of one if the oldest peoples in Europe.

Early History of the Basques

The early history of the Basques is still up for debate, but the Romans record a tribe called the Vascones in the same region, and our word ‘Basque’ derives from this, albeit from a long route. These people fought back against various groups which came to rule neighbouring regions like the Visigoths - who fought a campaign against them in 581 and founded a new town to try and force some to settle and stop raiding - as well as the Franks and Moors. They were integrated into the kingdom of Navarre in the tenth century. Part of the region was then incorporated into the kingdom of Aragon and Castile and the rest found themselves in France as that kingdom expanded. In both kingdoms the Basques retained many rights and privileges, partly thanks to their own code of law, the fueros, or fors. The Basques converted to Catholicism in the tenth century.

Modern History of the Basques

The Basques were notable sailors and played parts in the European discovery and settlement of the Americas. They retained their rights for much of the early modern era, but reacted to pressures from the state, which tried to reduce their autonomy, by supporting a conservative pretender to the throne in the 1830s called Don Carlos, and the Carlist rebellion of the 1870s, both of which failed. Consequently the Spanish state scrapped the fueros.

Civil War and After

The Basques retained some local rights, but became divided in 1931 with the creation of the Spanish Republic, as some regions sought autonomy within the Republic, while others supported the nationalist side. During the Spanish Civil War Bilbao became a centre of both Republican government and Basque nationalist aspirations. General Franco won the war and abolished all Basque privileges, prompting many Basques to go into exile.

After the death of Franco and a return to democracy in Spain pressure built again for the return of Basque privileges, and some concessions were made in 1978 and 79 when Álava, Guipúzcoa, and Vizcaya provinces became an autonomous community with their own parliament, police force and taxes. However, these didn’t satisfy everyone and many still campaign for more, including the terrorist group ETA who are after independence. The post-Franco era has also seen an increase in the use of the Basque language, which was banned under the Franco government.

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