THE Basque provinces (Vascungadas) and the ancient kingdom of Navarra, though scarcely a thirtieth part of Spain, constitute a separate region, not only on account of geographical position, but also because they are inhabited for the most part by a distinct race, having its on language, manners, and political institutions.
Looked at from a commanding position, the bills connecting the Pyrenees with the Castilian plateau resemble a sea lashed by contrary winds, for there are no prominent mountain ranges. Even the Pyrenees have sunk down to a mean ‘height of 3,000 feet, and the Lohibulz (3,973 feet), where they cease to form the frontier, scarcely deserves to be called a mountain. They extend thence to the Pass of Azpiroz (1,860 feet), where they terminate. The vague range beyond is known as Sierra de Aralar (4,330 feet), and still farther west by a variety of local names. These mountains are traversed by several low passes, facilitating communication with the valley of the Ebro, the most important of which is the Pass of Orduna (2,134 feet), which is crossed by the railway from Bilbao to Miranda, and dominated 13y the Pena Gorbea (5,042 feet) and the Sierra Salvada (4,120 feet).
The spurs which descend from these mountains towards the Bay of Biscay are likewise very irregular in their features. Most of them are connected by transversal chains, through which the rivers have only with difficulty forced for them-selves an outlet towards the sea. The Bidassoa, for instance, sweeps far to the south, through the valley of Bastan, before it takes its course to the northward, in the direction of its estuary at Fuenterrabia. Within its huge bend it encloses a detached portion of the Pyrenees, the principal summit of which is the famous Mont La Rhune (2,954 feet), on the French frontier. Equally iselated is the Jaizquibel (1,912 feet), which rises from the plains of Irun, close to the mouth of the Bidassoa, and from whose summit there is a view of incomparable beauty. It terminates in Cape Higuer, or Figuer, the northernmost point of Cantabria.
The maritime slope of the Basque countries presents a great variety of geological formations, including Jurassic limestones and chalk, granites and porphyries. The mineral resources are immense ; copper and lead abound, but the great wealth consists in iron. The mines of Mondragon, in Guiptiscoa, have long been famous, but the most productive mining district is somorrostro, to the west of Bilbao.
The sierras of Aragon running parallel with the Pyrenees extend also into Navarra and the Vaseongadas, and are frequently connected with the main range by lateral branches. To the west of Pamplona they spread out into a rugged plateau, surmounted by the Sierra de Andla (4,769 feet), the labyrinthine ramifications of which occupy the district of Amezeuas, a region offering great advantages to partisan warfare. The southern chain, not so well defined, bounds the Carrascal, or ” country of evergreen oaks, in the south. This region, too, has frequently been the scene of civil war. Farther west the famous defile of Pancorbo leads through the Montes Obarenes (4,1.50 feet) to the plateau of Castile. The saddle of Alsasua (1,9.13 feet), over which passes the railway from Vitoria (1,644 feet) to Pamplona (1,378 feet), connects the Pyrenees with the Sierra de Andia, whilst as to the mountains of the province of Logrono, they are spurs of the mountain masses forming the northern edge of that plateau, viz. the Sierra de la Demanda in the west, and the Sierra de Cebollera in the east, the latter giving birth to the Sierras de Camcro.
Several of the mountain districts are quite Castilian in their asperity and nakedness, for the forests have been cut dew n to feed the iron furnaces. In Southern Navarra we meet with veritable deserts. But in the Basque countries and Western Navarra, where it rains copiously, the hills are clad with forests, the valleys with turf, and rivulets wind amongst groves of elder-trees. Naked precipices of sand or limestone contrast well with this verdure, from which peep out the small white houses of villages embosomed in orchards, and scattered in the valleys and hillsides.
Moist northwesterly winds are frequent in the Bay of Biscay, and account for the equable temperature of the country. It rains abundantly, and in all seasons. The climate resembles that of Ireland, and, though damp, it is healthy and most conducive to the grow th of vegetation. The country is rich in corn, wine, oil, and cattle ; the northern slopes are covered with fruit trees of every kind, and zagardaa, or cider, is a favourite drink ; and in the more remote valleys of the Pyrenees we meet with some of the most magnificent forests in Sp tin. That of Val Carlos (valley of Charlemagne), near the famous Pass of Roncevaux, or Roncesvalles, though noue of the largest, is reputed for its beauty and legendary associations.
Who are the Basques, whose bravery is traditional ? What is their origin ? What their relationship to the other peoples of Europe ? All these questions it is impossible to answer. The Basques are a mysterious race, and can claim kinship with no other nation. It is not even certain whether all those who pass by that name are of the sanie race. There is no typical Basque. No doubt most of the inhabitants of the country are distinguished by finely chiselled features, bright and firiu eyes, and well-poised bodies, but the differences iii stature, form of skull, and features are very considerable. Between Basque and Basque the differences are as great as between Spaniards, Frenchmen, and Italians. There are tall men and short, brown and fair, long skulls and broad, and almost every district has its distinct type. The solution of this problem is daily becoming more difficult, for, owing to a continual intermixture with their neighbours, the original type, if there really existed one, is gradually being obliterated. It is possible that at some remote time the remnants of various races occupied this country, and adopted the language of the most civilised among them. Instances of this kind abound in ever. people.
Leaving out of sight the differences existing between the Basques of Spain and those of French Navarra, the Basques may be described as having broad foreheads, straight noses, finely shaped mouths and chins, and well-proportioned figures. Their features are exceedingly mobile, and every sentiment is reflected upon them by a lighting up of the eyes, a movement of the eyebrows, or a trembling of the lips. The women especially are distinguished by the purity of their features; their large eyes, smiling lips, and small waists are universally admired. Even in the towns, where the race is least pure, most of them are strikingly beautiful and full of grace. There are districts where obesity is a veritable phenomenon. Men and women carry themselves nobly ; they are polite to strangers, but always dignified.
The Basques call themselves Euskaldunac, or Euskarians, and their language Euskara, or Eskuara. The exact meaning of these ternis is not known, but in all probability it is “speech.” This speech of the Basques differs in its words and structure from every other language of the world ; but many words have been borrowed from neighbouring languages. Everything with which they became acquainted through foreigners, all ideas imported since prehistoric times, are designated by words not forming part of the original stock of the language. Even the names of domestic animals and metals are of foreign origin. The language may, perhaps, be classed with the p ilysynthetic languages of the American Indians, or with the agglutinant idioms of the Altai, and belongs, consequently, to the most remote period of human history. As to the Basques themselves, they declare their speech to be superior to every other, and according to some it was in Euskara that man first saluted the sun.
For the present we are compelled to look upon the Basques as the last remnant of an ancient race. There are not wanting proofs that the Euskaldunac formerly occupied a farm wider territory. No monuments, no inscriptions, nor even legends give a clue to this; but we find it, after thousands of years, in the names of mountains, rivers, and towns. Euskarian names abound in the Pyrenean valleys of Aran, Bastau, Andorra, and Querol, and in the plain to the north of them.
Most writers on Spain identify these Euskarians with the Iberians of the ancients, and they have been credited with being the authors of various inscriptions upon coins written in unknown characters which have been discovered in Spain and Southern France, and which M. Boudard has shown to be really in I?uskarian. They must thus have occupied the whole of the peninsula and Southern France, and even in Africa traces of their presence have been discovered.
The extent of territory occupied by Basque-speaking populations in the time of the Romans is not known, but probably it was not any greater than it is now, for the Euskarians have ever since maintained their independence, and nothing compelled them to adopt the language of their despised neighbours. Bilbao has almost become Spanish, as have also the towns in the plain of Alava. Pampeluna, the Irun of the Iberians, is Euskarian merely by historical tradition, whilst farther east Basque is only spoken in the upper valleys of Roncevaux, Orbaiceta, Oehagavia, and Roncal. The Peak of Anie marks the extreme limit of Basque on both slopes of the Pyrenees. Out of four Euskarian provinces there is only oneviz. Guipuzcoawhere Basque predominates; but even in that province the inhabitants of the cities of St. Sebastian and Irun speak Castilian. In the south of Navarra and of the so-called Basque provinces the inhabitants have spoken a Latin dialect from time immemorial. Spanish and French are slowly but surely superseding the Basque, and the time when it will be a thing of the past is not very distant.
Strabo speaks of the Cantabrians, the direct ancestors of the Basques, with an admiration akin to horror. Their bravery, love of freedom, and contempt of life he looked upon as superhuman qualities. In their wars against the Romans they killed each other to escape captivity, mothers strangled their children to spare them the indignities of slavery, and prisoners nailed to the cross burst into a chant of victory. The Basques have never been wanting in courage. History shows that. they were superior to the surrounding nations in uprightness, generosity, love of independence, and respect for personal liberty. The serfs of the neighbouring provinces looked upon them as nobles, for in their abject condition they fancied that personal liberty was a privilege of nobility. This equality, however, existed only in Guipuzcoa and Biscay, whilst in Alava and Navarra, where the Moors gained a footing, and Castilian influences made themselves felt later on, there originated a feudal nobility, with its usual train of vassals and serfs. However, all the provinces have jealously watched over their local privileges. At a period when European history was one continual series of wars, the Basques lived in peace. Their small commonwealths were united into a fraternal confederation, and enabled to resist invaders. They were bound to sacrifice life and property in the defence of their common fatherland, and their standards were emblazoned with three hands joined, and the motto, Irurak bat, i.e. ” The three (provinces) are but one.”
Nothing exhibits more strikingly the comparative civilisation of these Euskarians than their respect for personal liberty. The house of a Basque was inviolable, and he could not be deprived of his horse or his arms. At their national meetings all voted, and in some of the valleys even the women were permitted to t take part in the discussions. It was not, however, customary for the women to sit down at the same table with the etcheco-jauna, or master of the house, and his sons ; they took their meals separately by the side of the hearth. This old custom is still observed in country districts ; and so strong is the force of tradition, that the wife would almost consider it a disgrace to be seen sitting by the side of her husband on any other occasion than her wedding-day. U n fête-days the women keep apart ; they dance amongst themselves, allowing the men to engage in ruder sports. If a nation may be judged from its pastimes, the Basques deserve to rank high in our estimation. They are fond of athletic sports, and mysteries and pastoral pieces are still performed in the open air.
But the Basques have their faults. Anxious to retain their ancient privileges, or fueros, they have become the champions of despotism. These fueros date from 1332, when deputies from the provinces went to Burgos, and offered the title of Lord to Alfonso the Judge, King of Castile. In accordance with the treaty then concluded, the sovereign is prohibited from possessing any fortress, village, or even house within the territory of the Euskarians. The Basques are exempt from the conscription, and their militiamen, or miqueletes, remain within the provinces except in time of war. The taxes can only be levied with the consent of the provincial juntas, and must be expended within the provinces, except what may be granted as a ” gift.” Commerce is not subjected to the sane restrictions as in the rest of Spain, and there are no monopolies. The municipalities enjoy absolute self-government, carried on by an alcalde, an ayuntamiento, or town council, and parientes mayores, or elders. In appearance this organization is quite democratic, but in reality there exist many feudal usages. In some places the town councils are self-elected ; in others they are elected by persons paying a specified amount in taxes, or by nobles of a certain category; in others, again, they are appointed by the lord of the manor. The provincial juntas are elected in most diverse ways. The franchise, far from being universal, is a privilege, and its exercise is attended with puerile formalities. The laws of precedence are rigidly adhered to.
It is quite clear that the exceptional position of the Basque provinces cannot be maintained. Navarra as assimilated with the rest of Spain in 1 S:19, and this process is progressing irresistibly in the other provinces. If the descendants of the Euskarians decline to share free institutions with the rest of Spain, they can never maintain them on their own behalf. Twice already have they been defeated on an appeal to arms; but more powerful than war is the influence exercised by industry, commerce, and increased facilites for intercommunication. This fusion is being hastened by emigration and migration, for the Basques not only seek work during winter in the more hospitable lowland districts, but they also emigrate in thousands. They are very clannish, and at Madrid and elsewhere have founded “Patriotic Societies,” but in spite of these they soon become merged with the rest of the population. The few towns are principally inhabited by strangers, for the Basques prefer a country life. Their homesteads are scattered over hill-slopes and through the valleys, and beneath the oaks in front of them the inmates meet after the day’s labour to pass their time in music and dancing.
Bilbao, the largest town of the Basque provinces, has at all times proved a rival of Valencia, S Santander, and Cadiz. Its exports consist principally of iron ores from neighbouring mines. Most of its inhabitants are Spaniards, and (luring the Carlist wars the environs of the town were frequently stained with blood. It was under its walls that Zumalacarreguy, the Carlist leader, received his deadly wound. The river Nervion connects Bilbao with its harbour at Portugalete.
St. Sebastian, the largest city of Guipdzcoa, is likewise Spanish. A seaport and fortress defended by a- Castilian garrison, it resembles in aspect and language the towns of the interior of the peninsula. Monte Orgullo (475 feet), crowned by the Castle de la Mott, and bristling with fortifications ; the beautiful Bay of La Concha, to the west of the town, with its fine beach ; the river Urumea, which flows to the east of the citadel, and struggles at its mouth with the foam of the sea; shady walks and an amphitheatre of verdant hills dotted with villages, render St. Sebastian a delightful spot, the favourite resort of worn-out and idle cosmopolitans. The town itself is devoid of interest, for since its destruction by the English in 1813 it has been rebuilt with monotonous regularity. Its harbour, though frequented by coasting vessels, is shallow and insecure. The magnificent Bay of Pasages. to the east of the town, might have been converted into a splendid harbour, but its great advantages have never been appreciated, and its mouth is now closed by a bar of alluvium brought down by the Oyarzun.
Delightful Fuenterrabia (Fontarabie), with its escutcheoned houses, is likewise shut off from the sea by a bar, and is indebted for such importance as it possesses to its sea baths and the vicinity of France, which is visible from its battered walls. Irun, the terminal station of the Spanish railways, close to the French frontier, is an important strategical position ; and Tolosa, with its factories, is the capital of Guipuzcoa. Zarauz, Guctaria (on the neck of a peninsula), and Lequeitio are seaside resorts. Zumaya, at the mouth of the Urola valley, has quarries of gypsum, which furnish excellent cement. Near Vergara are ferruginous springs, and a famous college founded in 1776 by the Basque Society. The convention which put a stop to the first Carlist war in 1839 was signed here. Durango, like-wise, has frequently been mentioned in connection with the civil wars carried on in the north of Spain. Guernica, in Biscay, boasts of a palace of justice and an old oak beneath which the legislature is in the habit of meeting; but, like all other Basque towns, it is hardly more than a village.
The centres of population are not more numerous on the southern slope of the Pyrenees. Vitoria, the capital of Alawa, on the railway connecting Madrid with Paris, is a commercial and manufacturing town. Pamplona, or Pampeluna, recalls the name of Pompey, who rebuilt it. It is a fortress, often besieged and captured. Its cathedral is one of the finest in Spain. Tafalla, la flor de Navarra, the ancient capital of the kingdom, has the ruins of a palace, which Carlos the Noble, who built it, desired to unite by means of a covered gallery with the palace of Olite, three miles lower down in the same valley. Puente la Reina is celebrated for its wines. Estella, one of the most charming towns of Navarra, commands several roads leading to Castile and Aragon, and its strategical importance is consequently considerable. The Carlists, during the late war, transformed it into a formidable fortress.
Tudela, abounding in wines, Calahorra, and Logrono, all in the adjoining province of Logrono, are likewise of some value from a military point of view, for they command the passages over the Ebro. Calahorra, with its proud motto, “I have prevailed over Carthage and Rome,” was the great bulwark of defence when Sertorius fought Pompey, but was made to pay dearly for its heroism. Besieged by the Romans, its defenders, constrained by hunger, fed upon their women and children, and most of them perished. Though situated in the fertile district of Rioja, beyond the frontiers of the Euskarian language, the history of Calahorra is intimately connected with that of the Basque provinces, for upon its ancient laws were modelled the fueros of Alava.