Basque Country

The Basque Country

The French Basque region officially named Pays Basque, encompasses three provinces, Labourd, Lower Navarre and Soule, within the southwestern département of Pyrénées Atlantiques. The communities of Upper Navarre and the Basque Autonomous Community in neighbouring Spain complete Euskal Herria, as the wider Basque region is locally known.

The Basque language, known as Euskera. was outlawed as a means of communication during the Franco years, meaning everyone didn’t speak it in public, reducing the spread of the dialect through the population. An estimated 25 to 30 per cent of the current population does speak Euskera in some form today, with as many as 40 per cent of school children in the region now reported to be able to speak it – rising to an astonishing 90 per cent on the Spanish side of the border.

Euskera contains linguistic elements unlike anything in neighbouring France, Spain, or elsewhere in Western Europe. Basque sounds so alien. it finds striking similarities with dialects from much further afield, finding common linguistic traits with Arabic, Slavic, and even Japanese languages. How exactly Euskera evolved is still very much up for debate. Nevertheless, it neatly underlines how Basque culture has operated on the world stage for hundreds of years, producing individuals – such as 16th century explorers Juan Sebastián del Cano and Andrés de Urdaneta, respectively the first and second circumnavigators of the Earth – who left to take on the world.

The Basques, Biarritz and whaling
People have been whaling for thousands of years. Norwegians were among the first to hunt whales, as early as 4,000 years ago. The Japanese may have been doing so even earlier.

Traditions as varied as the Inuit (who hunted in the Arctic Ocean), Basques from Biarritz (who hunted in the Atlantic), and Japanese (who hunted in the Pacific) relied on whales to provide material goods, as well as part of their cultural identity

Whaling as an industry began around the 11th Century when the Basques from Biarritz started hunting and trading the products from the northern right whale (now one of the most endangered of the great whales). They were followed first by the Dutch and the British, and later by the Americans, Norwegians and many other nations.

Humpback and sperm whales were the next targets of commercial whaling, with oil for lighting and other uses as the most important product. In the late nineteenth century the whaling industry was transformed by the development of steam powered ships, enabling the hunting of faster blue and fin whales, and of the explosive harpoon, enabling further reach and increased accuracy.

Basque whaling peaked in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, but was in decline by the late 17th and early 18th centuries. By the 19th century, it was moribund as the right whale was nearly extinct and the bowhead whale was decimated. The Basques, from the Pyrenees region between modern France and Spain, had been hunting whales in their own waters since at least the 11th century.

By the early 16th century they were venturing across the Atlantic to visit the Gulf of St Lawrence and adjacent areas, at least 20 years before the “official” voyages of discovery. Whale meat and fat were indeed highly prized and the blubber was used to make oil for lamps. In 1534, Jacques Cartier encountered many Basque whalers on his first expedition to North America, mainly in the Strait of Belle-Isle, which separates the island of Newfoundland from Quebec and Labrador.


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