This article was translated by John R. Bopp
We just wrote an entry about the naming of Father Luis Ugalde SJ as a “Numbered Individua of the Venezuelan National History Academy”.
During the event, the Basque priest, a native of Bergara, gave a speech titled “The Myth, Illusions, and Misery of El Dorado”.
In it, Father Ugalde made a specific reference to one of the things that for centuries made the Basque Country known around the world: iron. For centuries, it was our ironworkers who turned Basque iron ore into tools and weapons distributed worldwide. William Shakespeare referenced items made with this iron in his plays. But the shine began to wear off at the end of the 18th century with the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution.
However, it didn’t take long, the middle of the 19th century, for an invention to come along to offer high-quality steel at affordable prices and get Basque iron, specifically that from the Mining Area of Biscay, back on top.
And that invention was the one presented by Henry Bessemer in 1856, which offered a system to convert Iron into steel without having to use fuel. The Bessemer converter, as it was called, revolutionized industry, and, due to the technical needs, made the iron ore from Biscayne mines, alongside that from northern Sweden, into a key part of the Industrial Revolution.
In the Mining Area of Biscay, there was an incredible amount of easily-extracted ore, which, thanks to its low phosphorus level, turned it, almost overnight, into an incredibly valuable mineral, upon which a sizeable chunk of the economic growth of Bilbao, Biscay, and the whole of the Basque Country, was based for over a century. The Basque Association of Industrial and Public Works Heritage has an informative explanation on their website.
The quality and the fame of this iron was such that in less than forty years after the introduction of the Bessemer Converter, we found what Father Ugalde talks about in his speech and which we copy here:
In 1893, at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, held to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the “Discovery of America”, Orinoco Delta Territory was present: the Governor of the Territory (in modern Delta Amacuro State) showed a hut of the indigenous Guaraúno people and some of the natural wealth of the region; among those was a sample or iron. George Turnbull showed liquid asphalt and petroleum from Pedernal, and the quality and location of the iron ore that, according to him, “was more advantageous than the mines in Bilbao in Spain and those in Sweden,” also stating that “the iron from Imataca could only be beat by the finest ore from Sweden.”
That is to say that the quality of that iron was such that it had become the world standard.
It was also the beginning of a profound transformation in the social, economic, and cultural reality of our country, which coincided with the last Carlist War; the end of the freedoms of this part of the Basque nation; a massive wave of immigration; the creation of great wealth that would mark the course of our country and of Spain; a time of repression and exploitation of a new economic class: the proletariat; the appearance of a workers’ rights movement in our country; and the birth of the Basque nationalism movement.
Without a doubt ,the Bessemer converter not only transformed the world with the possibilty of cheap, abundant steel, it was also a key element in the process of change of Basque society, which had a profound effect on our history for over 150 years, and which we still feel today.
A talk given by Father Luis Ugalde in the ceremony naming him a “Numbered Individual of the National History Academy” in Venezuela