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November 9, 2008

The Basque History of the World

Mark Kurlansky – ISBN 9780140298512

It is altogether probable that the Basques were the first modern humans on the continent of Europe, descendants of Cro-Magnon man who arrived perhaps 40,000 years ago, from who knows where and in the same general area which Basques still inhabit. Their language has no identifiable root, is altogether different than any other. Their ancient culture had little in common with any neighbor. Their speech was incomprehensible, which has kept them apart, and is probably the reason they remain united these millennia later. While from the time of the Romans they have acceded to “occupation” by others, it has always been with the understanding that they would rule themselves within their own domain, obey their own laws and follow their own customs.

Until about 175 years ago they succeeded, but more recent Spanish rulers have overturned this long tradition, explaining why there are now “Basque Terrorists” in Spain. They still want their limited independence! Not unlike the Kurds of the middle-east--who occupy portions of three countries--Basques occupy a small portion of two: southwestern France and the juxtaposed northwestern portion of Spain.

They were the first commercial whale hunters (in the 7th or 8th century), the most effective commercial fishermen not long after that, (as mentioned in Cod, also reviewed on this site) having discovered the Grand Banks nearly a thousand years ago, and at least 400 years before any other Europeans. They were probably the first to actually see “the New World,” though there is no record of it. Their salting process preserved fish better than Vikings, which permitted them to travel farther at a time when it was necessary to bring along all of your own food—or starve.

As a result of their seafaring ways—at least of the coastal populations—they were also responsible for the development of some of the finest ships of the time, and were amongst the most skilled and prolific ship builders on the continent. Further, with the development of iron and steel--because of their immense inland deposits of ore--they became the foremost makers of these products on the European continent. They mistakenly taught the English to make steel, sold them their fine ore, and were routed from that particular business.

They were also the inventors of beach resorts which, to their chagrin, have now taken over much of their coastal area, most notably within France. This is beginning to separate the French and the Spanish Basques, with the French Basque population assimilating and/or being overrun, and becoming lost, so to speak.

Not bad for a small population of industrious people! Kurlansky first became interested in them during a project some 30 years ago, and has returned to Basqueland annually ever since. One surmises he knows this rather small area of the world quite well, and while he doesn’t say so, one presumes that he probably speaks enough of their language (Euskera) to get along.

As is always the case with Kurlansky, he writes eloquently and comprehensively . . . being a little too comprehensive for my taste in this small book. Granted it is “the history” of the Basques, but he includes a little more than I really wanted to know. Nonetheless it is done well. He includes, as he always does, many Basque recipes, not a few of which appear to be quite delicate and appealing.

He pursues what there is available of their ancient history, but from the time of the Romans his coverage is increasingly wide-ranging; especially so from the Napoleonic and later industrial eras, thru the Spanish civil war and WW II to the present.

By far the most recognizable person of Basque ancestry is Inigo de Loyola, a renowned military commander who, having found Christ, became the man who established the Jesuit order of priests, later becoming St. Ignatius. The most important apparel item is the Beret, uniquely Basque until introduced to the world.

I think you will find this book interesting. Certainly the Basques are fascinating. You might want to skim thru some of the parts, but for those whose interest is piqued by this commentary, you’ll find it time well spent.

Posted by respeto at November 9, 2008 11:05 AM