Élisée Reclus was a French geographer and an anarchist member of the First International. A tireless traveler, he is the creator of Social Geography, and during his long and eventful public life, he also created a large number of works about human and economic geography that are true examplars, even today.
He lived during a time of great importance for Western society, in many respects: scientific, political, cultural, and social. He lived during that time and was the protagonist of many historical events. His biography, which we recommend reading, is a clear reflection of what can be defined as a passionate and committed life.
And we’re mentioning him today for one very specific reason. In March 1867, the magazine Revue des Deux Mondes published an article of his on the Basques. This French monthly was founded in 1826 and still exists today.
The long article was titled “Les Basques. Un peuple qui s’en va (The Basques: A Disappearing People)” which Gipuzkoan journalist and author Ramón Berraondo (signing with the pseudonym “Martin de Anoguiozar”) translated into Spanish with some very interesting footnotes.
Reading this document is quite interesting, as it allows us to understand the view people had on the Basques at that time. For example, today, the definition of “Iberian” applied to the Basques seems strange, as the idea that the Basques were Iberian has long ago fallen out of favor.
But what really got our attention was that an anarchist, indefatigable traveler, geography expert, and politician would write such a long article about a small people he believes are “condemned to disappear due to how historical events are playing out”.
It’s also interesting to read in order to understand how the creators of our modern era believed that a people such as the Basques and their language were condemned to disappear even when, in 1867, it was still alive thanks to the ignorance the natives still lived under.
What’s currently most efficiently protecting the Basques from the invasions of French and Spanish is the ignorance the populations still live under. (p. 72)
This is a situation “modernity” would end up changing, which would mean the disappearance of Basque nationality and language
Happily, knowledge cannot take long in spreading in these peoples of such vibrant and expansive nature. In this century of prodigious activity, in which the “battle of life” (13) condemns to ruin all those who are left behind, the Basque will also learn to march at an ever faster pace, but that will be at the expense of their nationality and their tongue. Of their magnificent language, classified among the things of the past, there will be nothing more than glossaries, grammar books, a few tales, poor modern tragedies, and songs of disputable age.
This disappearance was inevitable, depsite the values the Basque people had maintained throughout the centuries
Certainly, on seeing that last group that still remained from the old Iberian world lost amid the surrounding populations, it’s impossible not to feel sadness, because among human races, the Basques were truly one of the most noble, and even in many aspects of their social statues were superior to our own. This is in no way a paradox: Pyrenean history and laws testify highly to the preeminence that Basque societies had regarding their rectitude, generosity, zealous love of independence, and their respect for the individual. (p. 76)
…and the Basques were truly noble, even more so than the earls of the French and Spanish courts, as their rights did not depend on a master…(p. 77)
What shows above all how superior Basque society was, despite its small numerical size relative to its neighbors, due to its civilized elements, was its respect for the human person. Every Basque person is absolutely inviolable in his dwelling, and in that castle-fortress, protected by the respect of all, he was safer than the Middle Ages Frenchman at the foot of the altar, or the modern-day Englishman with his ‘habeas corpus’ privileges (p. 77)
The official numbers highly attest to the Basque aversion towards military regiment, because of all the Frenchmen to submit, only the department of the Lower Pyrenees sometimes had only two fifths or half. The young leave France to avoid servitude, and with their example, they encourage fellow young people to imitate them. Among the number of reasons that cause emigration, we must also county the loss of political and municipal autonomy, which the confederated villages in the high mountains still maintained until recently. Such is perhaps the reason why voluntary exile is so much more frequent among the French Basques than on the other side of the Pyrenees. The inhabitants in the Basque regions of Spain, who still maintain their ‘fueros’, have not ceased being a state within a state; they have a shadow of national existence and, therefore, there is still more love in their hearts for the land than in that of their brethren in Labourd and Soule (p. 73)
This was a path they believe would take them inextricably to their disappearance, and their integration into societies with more modern and superior cultures.
Customs are lost at the same time as language, and the Basques are becoming Spanish or French depending on which country they belong to politically. With all that, one mustn’t see misfortune in that union in the making; despite the sadness that must be caused by the loss of what nobility there had been in the old national customs, one cannot deplore the gradual fusion being carried out between the descendants of the Iberians and of the Gauls, Romans, Visigoths, given that it is that thanks to the ambition of the mixture of men that progress can be made among peoples and all of humanity. The races, like chemical bodies, must dissolve to form combinations and acquire new properties. Upon entering modern society, outside of which they used to live, the Basques will have to sacrifice the purity of their type, their beautiful language, the memories of their glorious past, and perhaps even their name; many of them will therefore run the risk of losing all national originality and, not having more than plagiarized habits and thoughts, will align themselves with that vulgar flock of men who renounce all initiative; but in our half-barbaric society in which instruction is no more than a sketch and where the most important social phenomena still happen by chance, this capital fact of the absorption of a race by neighboring nations could not happen without causing numerous temporary problems for the populations. In revenge, the Basques, belonging from then on to the modern world, will also start working for the common good of all, and that’s how they will enter into a far superior civilization than that which was special to them. Now, they no longer have to find more freedom only for themselves (17); not as the holders of noble titles, recognized as such by the ‘fueros’ (4) and treaties, as they have the right to the respect of their person, but as free and equal men (18). Their ideal will no longer be locked up in the narrow band of their mountain horizons, because it is not right under the Oak of Guernica where justice should be done, but also in all the points of the earth where there is a group of human beings (p. 80)
He writes of a destiny he saw as inevitable, and which in his reasoning he reminds us of a view that the liberals who created the Spanish nation-state at the beginning of the 19th century had, those same people who, even as they profusely praised the freedoms the Basques enjoyed, decided to eliminate them in order to equalize them with the remaining citizens of this new political reality, designed behind closed doors by an “enlightened” minority which, with the excuse of freedom, created the conditions to increase their power and wealth.
Fortunately, Élisée Reclus‘ premonitions did not come true, because that modernity that he saw as a historical steamroller that would inevitably end up pushing the Basques to become part of that “vulgar flock of men who renounce all initiative” is the same modernity that the Romans, Visigoths, Arabs, Carolingians, and all other powers that passed through the Land of the Basques believed they had for themselves: a weapon to eliminate other different realities to accommodate those who wanted the world to be their way. They wanted made-to-measure people who served the invaders’ interests (military, intellectual, or economic) and not their own people’s.
The problem they ran into was, and still is, the will to survive that this small people has always shown, determined to continue being “a free people of free people.”
It’s a principle that is clearly showing in the story of another French traveler, Baron Ch. Davillier, who, in his 1862 tale “Journey through Spain“, when discussing his trip through the Basque Provinces, mystified, narrates a custom of the Basques he found unique:
One highly unusual thing I found and that, in my opinion, has never been found in any other country, is that the children I found are noble, and enjoy the title of ‘hidalgo’ and all the accompanying privileges of nobility; but for that, it is necessary to show that they have been fed and raised in the hospital where that kind of children are placed).
As we said, “A free people of free people“.