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Basque History of the World

Cover of Basque History of the World

Basque History of the World

"They are a mythical people, almost an imagined people," writes Mark Kurlansky. Settled in a corner of France and Spain in a land marked on no maps except their own, the Basques are a nation without a country, whose ancient and dramatic story illuminates Europe's own saga.

Where did they come from? Signs of their civilization exist well before the arrival of the Romans in 218 B.C., and their culture appears to predate all others in Europe. Their mysterious and forbidden tongue, Euskera, is related to no other language on Earth. The Basques have stubbornly defended their unique culture against the Celts, the Romans, the Visigoths and Moors, the kings of Spain and France, Napoleon, Franco, the modern Spanish state, and the European Union.

Yet as much as their origins are obscure, the Basques' contributions to world history have been clear and remarkable. Early explorers, they made fortunes whaling before the year 1000 and became the premier cod fishermen in Europe after discovering Canada's Grand Banks. Juan Sebastian de Elcano, a Basque, was the first man to circumnavigate the globe in 1522. Their influence has also been felt in religion as founders of the Jesuits in 1534, and in business, as leaders of the Industrial Revolution in southern Europe.

Mark Kurlanky's passion for the Basque people, and his exuberant eye for detail, shine throughout this fascinating history. Like his acclaimed Cod, it blends human, economic, political, literary and culinary history into a rich and heroic tale.

From the Hardcover edition.

"They are a mythical people, almost an imagined people," writes Mark Kurlansky. Settled in a corner of France and Spain in a land marked on no maps except their own, the Basques are a nation without a country, whose ancient and dramatic story illuminates Europe's own saga.

Where did they come from? Signs of their civilization exist well before the arrival of the Romans in 218 B.C., and their culture appears to predate all others in Europe. Their mysterious and forbidden tongue, Euskera, is related to no other language on Earth. The Basques have stubbornly defended their unique culture against the Celts, the Romans, the Visigoths and Moors, the kings of Spain and France, Napoleon, Franco, the modern Spanish state, and the European Union.

Yet as much as their origins are obscure, the Basques' contributions to world history have been clear and remarkable. Early explorers, they made fortunes whaling before the year 1000 and became the premier cod fishermen in Europe after discovering Canada's Grand Banks. Juan Sebastian de Elcano, a Basque, was the first man to circumnavigate the globe in 1522. Their influence has also been felt in religion as founders of the Jesuits in 1534, and in business, as leaders of the Industrial Revolution in southern Europe.

Mark Kurlanky's passion for the Basque people, and his exuberant eye for detail, shine throughout this fascinating history. Like his acclaimed Cod, it blends human, economic, political, literary and culinary history into a rich and heroic tale.

From the Hardcover edition.

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  • Chapter One

    1.The Basque Myth

    The Basques share with the Celts the privilege of indulging in unrivaled extravagance on the subject of themselves. --Miguel de Unamuno quoting Ampère, HISTORY OF FRENCH LITERATURE BEFORE THE TWELFTH CENTURY, 1884

    The Basques seem to be a mythical people, almost an imagined people. Their ancient culture is filled with undated legends and customs. Their land itself, a world of red-roofed, whitewashed towns, tough green mountains, rocky crests, a cobalt sea that turns charcoal in stormy weather, a strange language, and big berets, exists on no maps except their own.

    Basqueland begins at the Adour River with its mouth at Bayonne-the river that separates the Basques from the French pine forest swampland of Landes-and ends at the Ebro River, whose rich valley separates the dry red Spanish earth of Rioja from Basqueland. Basqueland looks too green to be Spain and too rugged to be France. The entire area is only 8,218 square miles, which is slightly smaller than New Hampshire.

    Within this small space are seven Basque provinces. Four provinces are in Spain and have Basque and Spanish names: Nafaroa or Navarra, Gipuzkoa or Guipúzcoa, Bizkaia or Vizcaya, and Araba or Alava. Three are in France and have Basque and French names: Lapurdi or Labourd, Benafaroa or Basse Navarre, and Zuberoa or Soule. An old form of Basque nationalist graffiti is "4 + 3 = 1."

    As with most everything pertaining to Basques, the provinces are defined by language. There are seven dialects of the Basque language, though there are sub-dialects within some of the provinces.

    In the Basque language, which is called Euskera, there is no word for Basque. The only word to identify a member of their group is Eushaldun-Euskera speaker. Their land is called Euskal Herria-the land of Euskera speakers. It is language that defines a Basque.

    The Central Mystery Is: Who are the Basques? The early Basques left no written records, and the first accounts of them, two centuries after the Romans arrived in 218 B.C., give the impression that they were already an ancient-or at least not a new-people. Artifacts predating this time that have been found in the area-a few tools, drawings in caves, and the rudiments of ruins-cannot be proved to have been made by Basques, though it is supposed that at least some of them were.

    Ample evidence exists that the Basques are a physically distinct group. There is a Basque type with a long straight nose, thick eyebrows, strong chin, and long earlobes. Even today, sitting in a bar in a mountainous river valley town like Tolosa, watching men play mus, the popular card game, one can see a similarity in the faces, despite considerable intermarriage. Personalities, of course, carve very different visages, but over and over again, from behind a hand of cards, the same eyebrows, chin, and nose can be seen. The identical dark navy wool berets so many men wear-each in a slightly different manner-seem to showcase the long Basque ears sticking out on the sides. In past eras, when Spaniards and French were typically fairly small people, Basque men were characteristically larger, thick chested, broad shouldered, and burly. Because these were also characteristics of Cro-Magnons, Basques are often thought to be direct descendants of this man who lived 40,000 years ago.

    Less subjective physical evidence of an ancient and distinct group has also surfaced. In the beginning of the twentieth century, it was discovered that all blood was one of three types: A, B, or O. Basques have the highest concentration of type O in the world-more than 50 percent of the population-with an even higher percentage in remote areas where the...

About the Author-
  • Mark Kurlansky is the author of Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World, a Canadian and international bestseller. He is also the author of A Continent of Islands: Searching for the Caribbean Destiny, and A Chosen Few: The Resurrection of European Jewry. He lives in New York City.

Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    Starred review from October 4, 1999
    Straddling the border of southern France and northern Spain, the land of the Basques has long been home to a people who had no country of their own but have always viewed themselves as a nation. In this marvelous work of cultural history and appreciation, Kurlansky traces Basque history from pre-Roman times, when Basques worked as the mercenaries of Carthage, to the region's recent renaissance in language and arts. Along the way, he explains how the Basques came to be among Europe's first whalers, capitalists, explorers, industrialists and international traders. As he did in Cod, Kurlansky fuses political and economic history with delightful digressions into cultural and culinary traditions (several delicious recipes are included). The book is as politically loaded with opinion as it is culturally informative: Kurlansky expresses sympathy for the cause of Basque independence, arguing that many of Spain's current policies toward its Basque minority are holdovers from the repressive Franco regime. He also tends to accept the claim that the Basques "are the original Europeans," largely on the ground that Euskera, the Basque language, appears to have no linguistic relative and is likely the oldest European language still spoken. For all the ground it covers, this wildly informative work is a marvel of clarity, glittering with unusual facts and marked by penetrating insights into a people always "making complex choices about the degree of independence that was needed to preserve their way of life, while looking to the rest of the world for commercial opportunities to ensure their prosperity." 56 illustrations, 6 maps, 10 recipes. Agent, Charlotte Sheedy Agency. 5-city author tour. (Oct.) FYI: Cod received the James Beard Award for Excellence in Food Writing and was a New York Public Library Best Book of 1997.

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