Robert P. Clark is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, USA. He received his Ph. D. in International Relations from the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He has written eleven books, including three about Basque nationalism and politics. He and his wife, Marie (Mirentxu) Amezaga Clark, live in Burke, Virginia.
In this latest entry in the series we’re publishing on the bicentennial of the independence of the republics of the Americas, we leave behind South America and the 19th century to move north and focus on the last third of the 18th century.
And we do so to analyze the participation of the Basques in the independence of the United States of America. As we stated in our article introducing this series, we do so because of the enormous influence this country’s independence process had on the rest of the Americas, and for its very important role in the creation of Cuba and the Philippines.
In other articles on this blog, we’d already skimmed over the role played by Basque merchant José de Gardoqui and his import-export company in supplying essential products to the Continental Army. This was back when we spoke about John Adams’ trip through Bilbao before he became a Founding Father of the US and one of the authors of its Constitution, and second president. But what we’ve never covered is the leading role of the arms factories at Soraluze and Eibar, and the Royal Guipuzcoan Company of Caracas. And Dr. Robert P. Clark tells us all in this article.
Because all of this history of our compatriots in the 18th century is not widely known by Basques today. The same goes for a great deal of our history. Yes, the story of Lafayette and his participation in the conflict is widely shared in schools, at least it was when we were students, in great detail. In fact, after setting sail from Bordeaux aboard the Victoire, Lafayette made an unexplained monthlong layover in Pasaia: perhaps the reason was to buy weapons, the same weapons being manufactured, as Robert P. Clark tells us, in Soraluze and Eibar.
But now, thanks to this amazing article from Dr. Robert P. Clark, we can delve deeper into everything that was done in the Land of the Basques to help those patriots turn British colonies on the eastern coast of North America into a sovereign nation.
We have before us an article full of information that is easy to dive into. We’re sure our readers will enjoy it just as much as we did.
Basques and the War for American Independence
Robert P. ClarkIt was December 1777. General George Washington, commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, needed a miracle, and he needed it right away. For a year and a half, the thirteen colonies of England in North America had been fighting a war against the finest army and navy in the world to obtain their independence, and they were losing badly. Through the autumn campaign of 1777, in a series of battles fought near the southern and western outskirts of Philadelphia, then America’s capital city, Washington’s forces had been decisively defeated by British regulars. To add insult to injury, the British then occupied Philadelphia, forcing the Continental Congress to flee west to York, Pennsylvania. Added to the loss of New York City to the British the year before, these reversals brought the colonies to the edge of defeat
The army of 11,000 troops who entered Washington’s winter encampment at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, was defeated and demoralized. Their months at Valley Forge would subject them to brutally cold weather, lacking everything everything they needed for survival, including food, shoes, shelter, and clothing. A quarter of Washington’s force died under these conditions, and the survival of his army was a testament to his remarkable leadership ability and fortitude.
As it turned out, Washington got his miracle, and it came from Europe. Timely declarations of war against Britain by first France and then Spain brought two strong and valuable partners into the battle. Part of Spain’s participation in the war came from the Basque Country, a subject discussed in this essay. Basques contributed significant war supplies, shipping resources, financial contributions, and other assistance. While it was not as well known as the contribution of the French or Spanish governments, what the Basques provided made a difference in certain strategic ways, and certainly merits for them recognition by historians.
We begin with the larger context. Whatever Basques did during the course of the war was strongly conditioned by the policies and actions of the Spanish government, which, in turn, depended in large part on the actions undertaken by its stronger neighbor, France. On March 20, 1778, after months of negotiations by the American diplomats, led by Benjamin Franklin, the French Foreign Ministry officially received the American delegation and transmitted the documents, including recognition of the United States, which would bring France into the war. Six weeks passed before the copies reached American leaders and the alliance became official. Historians agree that France’s entry into the war was a major turning point in the war, even though five more years of bloody fighting lay ahead before Britain withdrew and United States sovereignty was assured.
Spain’s entry into the war was delayed by more than a year, until June 1779, when Spain implemented the Treaty of Aranjuez and joined its ally, France, against Britain. The resulting Anglo-Spanish War lasted from 1779 to 1783, and ended with what could only be considered a victory for Spain. From the outbreak of the war in July 1776, however, Spanish forces and institutions were involved, heavily although unofficially, in aiding the Americans. Such efforts only became officially recognized after June 1779.
Before Spain officially entered the war, their government’s statements indicated a vague interest in promoting the success of the American independence effort. In March 1777, the Spanish Prime Minister, the Count of Floridablanca, wrote “the fate of the colonies interests us very much, and we shall do for them everything that circumstances permit.” The “circumstances” to which the Minister referred was the Spanish-Portuguese War of 1776-1777. By winning this war, Spain won the region known today as Uruguay, and secured the border between Spanish and Portuguese America. The end of the war also opened the way for Spain to join in the war against Great Britain.
Let us be clear about where Spain’s interests lay in supporting the Americans. Like his fellow Bourbon monarch in France, Spain’s King Charles III was a strong defender of royal absolutism, and had no desire to strengthen the forces of republican constitutionalism that American independence threatened to unleash. In fact, the Spanish must have been somewhat fearful that an American success would stimulate similar revolts of pro-independence among their own colonies in the Americas. (As it turned out, of course, that is exactly what happened, much to the dismay of the Spanish.)
However, the prizes awaiting Spain for joining in the war against Britain were rich and enticing. Spain had already acquired from France the entire Mississippi Valley, known as “Louisiana,” which they governed from New Orleans. By winning the territory between New Orleans and their holdings in Florida, known as “West Florida,” Spain would have control over the Gulf of Mexico and the entire southern coast of North America. Added to Louisiana and to Cuba and other Caribbean islands, these possessions would make Spain a formidable threat to British and American control of all of North America. Had they succeeded, the map of North America would have looked far different.
In the meantime, between 1776 and 1779, Spain’s actions in the American war consisted largely of informal trade and financial measures intended to help the colonies without committing Spain to any overt involvement in the actual fighting. We say “informal trade’ measures, but of course what we really mean is smuggling. And in this trade activity, Basque individuals and institutions were directly and heavily involved.
Spanish assistance to the colonies flowed through several main routes: directly from French ports; through the port of New Orleans and up the Mississippi River; from Cuba to various American ports; and from the Basque port city of Bilbao.
The port of New Orleans was at the time controlled by the Spanish Governor of Louisiana, a Basque named Luis de Unzaga y Amezaga. Even though Unzaga y Amezaga was worried about antagonizing the British, he authorized the shipment and receipt of critically needed gunpowder to help the rebels. By March 1777, Benjamin Franklin informed the Continental Congress that three thousand barrels of gunpowder were waiting in warehouses in New Orleans, and that merchants in Bilbao “had orders to ship for us such necessaries as we might want.”
The “Bilbao merchants” to whom Franklin referred in this letter was the important Basque trading firm, Jose de Gardoqui e Hijos, known informally as the House of Gardoqui. The Gardoqui and Unzaga families were linked by common ancestry, specifically Unzaga’s grandfather, Thomas de Unzaga Gardoqui. They had all been members of the important economic and political elite of the city of Bilbao for generations. Bilbao at the time was the most important port city on Spain’s north coast, and its trade relations with the New World were one of the engines of Spain’s economy.
The ties of Bilbao’s trading families to the English colonies’ important port cities like Boston was due to an unusual feature of the status of the Basque provinces within Spain. Ever since the Middle Ages, relations between the Basque Provinces and Madrid were conducted under the provisions of the fueros, or foral laws, that provided for, and secured, the ancient freedoms enjoyed by the Basques. One of the special privileges enjoyed by the Basques was the freedom from having to collect and pay Spanish import duties. Accordingly, Spanish customs houses were placed on the south side of the Ebro River, the boundary between the Basque Provinces and the rest of Spain. An absence of customs collection stations meant no oversight or scrutiny of the activities of the ports like Bilbao. Whereas merchants in Boston were required to export all of their goods through English ports, goods sent to Bilbao escaped such regulations. A thriving commercial exchange grew up between Bilbao and the colonial cities: dried and salted cod was sent to Bilbao; iron goods and wool returned to Boston, Salem, or Philadelphia. And the principal conduit for this commerce in Bilbao was the House of Gardoqui.
So, when tensions grew between the English colonies and the Mother Country, and war threatened, Spain’s King Charles III commissioned the important Basque commercial leader, Diego Gardoqui, to act as the liaison between the colonists and Spain. The appointment would turn out to be supremely important for both Gardoqui and the colonists.
Gardoqui and the Americans had an historic opportunity to strengthen personal ties in late 1779 when John Adams, the important political figure from Boston, and his son, John Quincy Adams, were dispatched by the American Continental Congress to France on a diplomatic mission. Their ship, the French frigate Sensible, suffered significant damage on the crossing, and they had to put in at the port of El Ferrol, in Spain, for lengthy repairs. Rather than wait months, Adams and his son set out over land to complete the trip to Paris. Their route took them through Bilbao, where they were cordially received at the House of Gardoqui. During their passage across Bizkaia, Adams was able to learn more about the his foral laws, and the experience influenced his actions years later during the drafting and ratification of the 1789 constitution of the United States.
Diego María de Gardoqui y Arriquibar was born in Bilbao in 1735. As a young boy of only 14, he began training to assume leadership of his father’s company, training that included five years in London as an apprentice to George Hayley, a director of the East India Company, where he learned English and made numerous personal contacts with Britain’s commercial leaders. Following the father’s death in 1765, his sons continued to expand the company. It became Spain’s leading importer of salted cod from Newfoundland and New England. Through these business ties, Gardoqui met colonial leaders such as Elbridge Gerry and Jeremiah Lee, who would become leading figures in the Revolutionary War. As war drew nearer, the Colony of Massachusetts organized the forces that would eventually become George Washington’s Continental Army. From the start, they realized that they would have to obtain the bulk of the military supplies, including rifles, pistols, and uniforms, from abroad. And they thought, naturally, of Gardoqui as the best person to obtain these goods and ship them to the colonies
Between 1771 and 1773, to counter the effects of the limits placed by Great Britain on colonial trade, John Cabot, a leading trader of Salem, Massachusetts, and Diego Gardoqui created a smuggling network to exchange milled wheat from Philadelphia and silk fabrics from Spain. In 1774, when Britain closed the port of Boston, the first committee of resistance was formed in Massachusetts, and began to arm itself. In November of that year, Jeremiah Lee asked Gardoqui to send arms and gunpowder to the colonial forces. Gardoqui responded in February 1775 with a shipment of 300 muskets with their bayonets, and 600 pairs of pistols, and in this way the arms shipments began. Gardoqui’s shipments were the first foreign aid received by the American colonists during the revolution.
After Spain declared war against Britain in 1779, the supply network that Gardoqui had created continued to function. Eventually, Gardoqui would send to the colonies 215 bronze cannons, 30,000 muskets, 30,000 bayonets, 512 thousand musket balls, 300 thousand pounds of powder, 12,868 grenades, 30,000 uniforms, and 4,000 field tents. All of this had to be paid for, of course; and Gardoqui was also the principal intermediary in the transfer of loans from Spain to colonial banks.
But from where was all this war material to come? The answer lay in a small village nestled in the mountainous valley of the Deva River in the western half of the Basque province of Gipuzkoa. In the Basque language, the town had been known historically as Soraluze, which means a “long field,” “long garden,” or “long orchard”; when the town was formally founded in 1343 it was given a name common to other medieval towns: Placencia. In the sixteenth century, the government invested heavily in an arms factory in the town, leading people to refer to it as Placencia de las Armas. Today, it is known officially by both names: Soraluze-Placencia de las Armas.
In the pre-industrial age, such manufacturing as there was took place in numerous small-scale factories that were widely dispersed because of the difficulties and costs of local transportation. In the Deva River Valley, iron ore deposits were found near the surface and in locations near the river, leading to the establishing of a number of small, family-run foundries and forges in the vicinity of Soraluze. By the fifteenth century, these small metal-working shops had sparked the rise in weapons manufacturing, and in the early sixteenth century, the Spanish crown established the Real Fábrica de Armas (Royal Arms Factory) on which it depended for its military supplies.
So it was that when the American Revolution broke out in the 1770s, the arms industries of this small Basque town were available to answer the call for assistance. Following a meeting with Spanish leaders, Diego Gardoqui contacted the factories in Soraluze to begin the supply of muskets, pistols, and the entire range of war supplies the continental Army needed. Some of the production was carried on in the neighboring Basque town of Eibar, also in the Deva Valley, but without the factories of Placencia de las Armas, George Washington’s army would have gone into combat against the British at a decided disadvantage.
Once the arms and other war materiel had been manufactured in Soraluze, they had to be transported to the waiting Continental Army in America. Two obstacles to this trade loomed large. First, the Government of Spain stationed its inspectors in the factories in Soraluze to monitor their production of weapons, and their stamp of approval was necessary to be able to export the equipment. Although Spain informally favored the American colonists, the government wanted to maintain monopoly control over arms manufacture. Until Spain’s declaration of war in 1779, such approval was difficult to obtain. Second, British spies were working to intercept these shipments; and their passage across the Atlantic had to be kept completely secret. The solution was to leave the arms unassembled while they were still in Spain, and to ship them in pieces, hidden among other cargo. But then, the pieces had to be re-assembled to deliver the finished weapons to the Americans. This re-assembly was accomplished on the Caribbean island of Margarita off the coast of Venezuela, and then trans-shipped to New Orleans. This last piece of the network was supplied by another Basque entity, the Real Compañía Guipuzcoana de Caracas (the Royal Guipuzcoan Company of Caracas).
The Real Compañía (here referred to as the Company) was founded by a group of wealthy Basques from Gipuzkoa, chartered by royal decree in 1728, and intended to gain Spanish control over the rich trade that was emerging with the Spanish province of Venezuela. That trade had come to be monopolized by Dutch, English, and French traders, whom the Spanish Creole class in Venezuela preferred as trading partners. Spain lost valuable revenue from this unlicensed trading, and the Company was chartered to establish Spanish control and regain this source of revenue.
Once chartered, the Company grew to become a dominant actor in the economies of Venezuela and Gipuzkoa. Despite strong resistance, and even rebellion, from the wealthy Creole landowners in Venezuela, the Company broke the Dutch monopoly of the cacao trade, and constructed a monopoly of their own over the totality of commerce between Venezuela and Europe. By shipping their goods through Basque ports, the Company avoided paying Spanish import duties, and could sell Venezuelan products freely throughout Europe.
The Company became a powerful economic entity in Gipuzkoa, and began to spread its control into other sectors of the province’s economy, including ship building. Significantly for our story, the Company now came to control the Royal Arms Factory in Soraluze. The Company also expanded into a paramilitary naval power in its own right, acquiring vessels with war-fighting capabilities to better defend its own cargo ships against pirates and English privateers. In short, the Company became almost a de facto mini government in its own right.
On the island of Margarita off the coast of Venezuela, for example, the Company established the work shops needed to re-assemble the arms their ships had brought from Soraluze factories. They also brought workers from the Soraluce factories, including a master armorer, to direct the work of this factory. They then supplied the vessels to ship the assembled weapons to New Orleans.
The Company also assembled its own fleet of war ships, the largest of which was built in a shipyard in the Guipuzcoan port of Pasajes in 1778. The ship’s official name was Nuestra Señora de la Asuncion, but was called unofficially the Guipuzcoano. It displaced more than a thousand tons and carried 64 cannons. In January 1780, the bulk of the Company’s fleet departed Venezuela in a convoy to transport supplies to the Spanish port of Cadiz. They encountered a British fleet en route to re-supply the besieged garrison at Gibraltar, and the British captured the bulk of the fleet, imprisoning some 1,600 Guipuzcoan sailors, who remained prisoners of the British until the end of the war.
After the war was over, Diego Gardoqui became Spain’s first ambassador to the United States, arriving in New York City (then the capital) in 1785. He remained at the post until October 1789 when he returned to Bilbao. While resident in New York City, Gardoqui’s home became the meeting place for Catholic dignitaries representing their countries; and Mass was celebrated there for these and other Catholics until a permanent church had been constructed in the city.
The construction of St. Peter’s Catholic Church fulfilled that need, the first permanent Catholic church erected in the State of New York. Gardoqui laid the cornerstone for the church in October 1785; the church opened in November 1786. Upon his return to Spain, Gardoqui held several important government posts, including that of Finance Minister. He died in 1798 in Turin, Italy, where he was serving in a diplomatic mission for Spain. He was sixty-three years of age. The other three brothers, Jose Gardoqui’s sons, followed similar paths, toward the priesthood or toward politics, and away from the business that brought their family so much wealth and fame. By 1799, the House of Gardoqui terminated its business activities.
The arms factories of Placencia de las Armas were a significant source of weapons for Spain’s military as well as for the armed forces of other European countries for several centuries following the American Revolution. After the Second Carlist War in 1876, there was a wave of foreign investment and modernization in the Soraluce factories, and they began to produce weapons of international fame, including Remington and Maxim. But the pressures of competition, modernization and globalization were too much for them, and in the 1960s, the firms began to close down and move to towns with better infrastructure and labor markets. The last such firm, Sociedad Anonima Placencia de las Armas (Placencia Arms, Inc.), closed its doors in 2005.
The Real Compañía Guipuzcoana was no longer needed after the American War for Independence was over. The economy of Venezuela was now so tightly connected to that of the Spanish homeland that the Company had no need to exercise its monopoly control. The Spanish crown terminated the Company’s charter in 1784, and the owners of the firm turned their attention to trade with the Philippines from that time on.
Today, almost nothing remains of the Basque institutions that supported the young American Revolution nearly 250 years ago. The Gardoqui trade empire is gone, as are the Royal Arms factory in Soraluce, and the Royal Guipuzcoan Company of Caracas. But in their day, these institutions and the individuals who led them made a profound contribution to an endeavor that changed the world. In October 1781 when the last British detachment surrendered to a combined American and French force at Yorktown, Virginia, effectively ending the land war, it is likely that at least some of the Americans carried arms that came from a small Basque town in the Guipuzcoan mountains thousands of miles away, across the Atlantic Ocean.
 Spain suffered one significant failure during the war: they failed to win the fortress at Gibraltar from English possession although they did subject the fortress to a lengthy siege.
 Today the population of Soraluze is slightly less than four thousand. In the eighteenth century, it was probably closer to two thousand.
Last Updated on Jun 30, 2022 by About Basque Country