We’ve often spoken here on the blog about the role the Basques played in colonial Latin America. In the more than three centuries separating the arrival of Christopher Columbus on the western shores of the Atlantic to the time when the young republics achieved their independence in the first third of the 19th century, the small Basque colony in those lands was dominant, just as it was in the independence movements as well as in the later evolution of those young nations.
The Basques who arrived in the New World came from a poor country. The Land of the Basques did not offer many opportunities to its sons, who for generations found a land of opportunities in the New World, and on many occasions, especially after the first third of the 19th century, refuge.
From the period between the beginning of the 16th century to the end of the 18th, the Basques who reached the New World colonies arrived with two advantages. On the one hand, in many cases they had the fundamental defense of having a title of nobility, of hidalgos. The concept of “universal nobility” which had spread throughout the southern Basque Country (Alava, Biscay, Gipuzkoa, and Navarre) was a feat that offered fruits far beyond what those who had originally achieved that status could have imagined. We’ve discussed the advantages, and rights, this situation offered, but, to use the modern terminology, the concept could be glossed today by the term “civil rights”.
These Basque nobles, these hidalgos, who reached the Americas enjoyed these rights, and, unlike most of the nobility from the “Kingdoms of the Spains“, they were used to manual labor. They were both nobles and farmers, or sailors, or merchants, or breeders. Really, they were nobles who worked, hard, and who were used to it.
Only that can explain how such a proportionally small population was able to have the influence the Basque colony had, allowing it to reach the heights of political power, prestige, and position, far beyond what their small numbers should have allowed for.
The Basques in the Americas were the first ones who were aware that they were part of a common, and distinct, reality. That alone explains the creation of a whole pleiad of fraternities and guilds throughout the Americas into which these Basques gathered, all under the patronage of Our Lady of Aranzazu. We could say that it was at that time in the Americas when the Basque national conscience was born.
These brotherhoods and guilds, created to gather together the members of the “Basque nation”, served as meeting points where alliances and common strategies were woven. What’s more, these groups also became a network throughout the colonies that worked to help and support all its members.
Here on the blog, we’ve dedicated articles to the guild organized in Potosí, whose members got to experience firsthand the importance of that alliance between Basques in the Basque-Vicuña war. We’ve also talked about the guild the Basques in Mexico City organized, which gave rise to such an important and prestigious institution as the “Colegio de las Vizcaínas“.
But most of all, we’ve written about the Brotherhood of Our Lady of Aranzazu of Lima, a group of the members of the “Basque nation” that was founded in 1612 and which is still around today. Thanks to the fact that this grouping is a brotherhood rather than a guild, it is free from the control of the civil or ecclesiastical authorities.
Lima is one of the best examples of the reach and scope of the Basque community that we’re referring to, both commercially and administratively. The list of Basques who’ve reached a high social position is long, especially when considering the small number of actual Basque people.
To get an idea of this extraordinary story, we have the good fortune of being able to read the texts of two of the greatest historians of Peru, specialized in the colonial period, Guillermo Lohmann Villena and Teodoro Hampe Martinez, which were offered to the Brotherhood of Our Lady of Aranzazu of Lima to commemorate the fourth century of its founding.
The Lohmann article gives us a detailed overview of the, as we say, notable presence of the Basques in the different areas of commercial, maritime, and mining activity in the Viceroyalty of Peru. In it, we find descriptions of the “activity of the Basque element in Peru, operating as a homogeneous core”. In this work, not only is the economic success of these people analyzed, but also the close relationships of their cooperation, their commitment to their local community, and the intense link they maintained with their homeland.
Regarding this last part, we have to admit that we were impressed by the reference about us by Martín de Zelayeta y Aldecoa, originally from Zorrotza, who started a pious work in the 18th century that is still active thanks to the charitable patronage created with a large initial deposit.
All these Basques in Peru organized and work together within the Brotherhood of Our Lady of Aranzazu, through which they also carried out important social work in the community.
The Hampe article is more specific, discussing Navarrese Martín de Osamblea and his descendants. The protagonist of this story was born in Huici, in Navarre, in the middle of the 18th century. After emigrating to Peru, he was able to amass a huge fortune, estimated at half a million pesos. He was united with the other members of the “Basque nation” in Lima thanks to his membership in the Brotherhood of Our Lade of Aranzazu.
As we said at the beginning, these Basques, who had to emigrate from their homeland, were the protagonists of the history of these New World colonies, but they were also leaders on these countries’ roads to independence and in their later development. This is also true of Peru, which will celebrate its 200th anniversary as an independent country in 2021. The struggle for independence started in 1821, and finished in the Battle of Ayacucho in 1824, where the Basque community played a leading role.
Remembering these Basques as a renown representation of all the compatriots of the “Basque nation” who participated in this process that began in the 16th century and which was culminated in the birth of the Republic of Peru is a basic objective of this article and the reason why these works are being shared by the Brotherhood of Our Lady of Aranzazu of Lima and the Limako Arantzazu Euzko Etxea-Lima Basque Center. They’re also a foretaste of the events that will be carried out throughout 2021 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of this republic, which was born with the help of of two great Liberators, San Martín and Bolívar.
All that’s left is to hope that someday, we can also include a book promoted by Basque businessman Juan Celaya, whose larger-than-life memory must always remain alive in our society. This Basque made it possible for another Peruvian historian, José Antonio del Busto Duthurburu, to set in motion a hugely important piece of research: The Dictionary of Basque Surnames in Peru. This project was cut short when first Celaya and then Busto passed away, and we hope that someday it might be published and signed by its author.
Los comerciantes vascos en el Virreinato peruano – Guillermo Lohmann Villena
Martín de Osambela – Teodoro Hampe Martínez
Last Updated on Apr 28, 2023 by About Basque Country