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Last Updated: Monday, 6 December, 1999, 13:16 GMT
Analysis: Basque pride

By Daniel Schweimler

The Basques have been fighting to protect their language and culture for thousands of years. They are fiercely proud of their history.

They have been occupying their corner of Europe with its lush, green valleys and rugged coastline, since well before Roman times.

Basque graffiti
The Basques assert their unique cultural identity
No one knows where they came from. Their language, known as Euskera, has no clear links with any other known language and was spoken long before all of the Indo-European languages in the rest of Europe.

The protection and promotion of Euskera has always been at the heart of the Basque struggle.

Since the return of democracy in Spain following General Franco's death in 1975, Euskera has been thriving.

About 30% of the 2.5 million Basque people speak it and more than 90% of Basque children are now enrolled in Euskera schools.

Radio and television stations broadcast in the language. There are Basque newspapers and a growing number of internationally renowned writers, such as Bernardo Atxaga, whose works have been translated into Castillian Spanish, English, German and French.

Throughout history, Basques have developed a reputation as fierce defenders of their territory - against Romans, Vikings, Visigoths, Muslims and others.

Many invaders have chosen to by-pass the region. When they have managed to put down roots, the Basques have negotiated and learned from them, but have never mixed too much or risked becoming integrated.

From the Middle Ages onwards, they developed a reputation as formidable fishermen and have built boats which have taken them great distances in search of whales and cod.

Sailed with Columbus

There is some evidence that Basques landed in North America hundreds of years before Christopher Columbus.

It was Basque sailors who made up the bulk of Columbus's crew.

Basque men wear their large berets with pride. It is a hat which was first worn in the Basque region and then exported to France and beyond.

They are are also recognised as the best cooks in Spain for their simple fish dishes and interesting cakes.

In the heart of the Basque country, there are 75 gastronomic societies in the city of San Sebastian alone.

They hold feasts and sometimes march through the streets. These occasions are so important that the mayor is expected to eat at all of them at least once a year.

There is also a rich vein of Basque music and storytelling. Public storytelling sessions are still held in many rural towns and villages.

Loyola - a famous Basque

Basques have always been known as a fiercely religious people. So it is no surprise that one of the most radical and disciplined religious orders, the Jesuits, was founded by a Basque, Ignatius Loyola, in 1534.

Originally a solider, while recovering from a serious war wound he began reflecting on his life and reading about the saints.

He studied in Paris where he founded the Society of Jesus, or Jesuits.

It had originally been intended as a missionary order. Instead, it went on to spearhead the Counter-Reformation, inspiring respect for its missionary work but fear for its often ruthless defence of its disciplined beliefs.

Fought against Franco

The Basques had been some of the fiercest opponents of Franco's Nationalist troops during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s.

One of Franco's most hated opponents, Dolores Ibárruri - known as La Pasionaria or the Passionate One for her inspiring speeches - came from a working-class family in Bilbao.

Picasso immortalised the bombing of the Basque town, Guernika, by Franco's German allies. The painting now hangs in a museum in Madrid.

During Franco's 40-year rule, he punished the region for its opposition. He declared two provinces "traitor provinces."

Franco believed in one, unified Spain and opposed any kind of regional diversification.

He banned the speaking of Euskera in public and ensured that there was little economic investment in the region.

ETA is born

Franco, like many before him, had found it difficult to suppress this proud nation and the movement for an independent Basque homeland began in the late 1950s.

The separatist group, ETA, began its violent campaign 10 years later.

While support for an independent homeland remains strong, it is by no means overwhelming. Many Basques are happy with the large degree of autonomy they have been granted by the central government in Madrid.

While still a long way from reaching any kind of long term political solution and establishing a permanent peace, it is clear that the Basque language and culture are enjoying a resurgence and that the Basque nation is as strong and vibrant now as it has ever been.

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