13 NOVEMBER 1999, Page 57

The seven provinces of a secret people

Simon Courtauld THE BASQUE HISTORY OF THE WORLD by Mark Kurlansky Cape, f15.99, pp. 387 This book has a rather grandiose title. True, Basque fishermen were among the first from Europe to go after cod and whales off the Newfoundland coast, possi- bly as early as the 14th century. And a Basque, Juan Sebastian de Elcano, is claimed as the first man to circumnavigate the globe. But for the past four centuries Basques have mostly confined their activi- ties to the seven Pyrenean provinces (four in Spain, three in France) which make up what they call 'our nation'.

The origins of the Basque people are unclear, and likely to remain so. Turkish, Magyar or Berber descent has been sug- gested, and their language (Euskera) has supposedly been traced back to Babel. According to legend, it survived the Flood because Noah spoke it. More credibly, and more interestingly, the Basques may be the oldest indigenous race in Europe, and though the significance of this escapes me — they have the highest incidence of rhesus negative blood of any people in the world.

For centuries the region south of the Pyrenees was recognised as una Sierra apartada: it was self-governing, subject to an absolute monarchy, and had its own code of laws and rights (fueros). It was not until 1876 that the Basque country was assimilated into the rest of Spain. The jeal- ously guarded fueros were taken away, ostensibly to punish those Basques who had supported Carlism, and before the end of the century a nationalist party had been founded.

The father of Basque nationalism, Sabi- no Arana, described by Mark Kurlansky as an 'unpleasant zealot', insisted that to be Basque a person's four grandparents must all have been born in the Basque country and have Euskera names — a qualification which would be much modified when the terrorist organisation ETA admitted to its membership people whose families came from elsewhere in Spain. Both Arana's party and ETA were officially founded on the saint's day, 31 July, of the Basques' most famous son, Ignatius Loyola. (The first Basque underground movement in the 1950s, formed by a handful of Guipuz- coans, initially called itself by the acronym ATA, unaware that in the dialect of the neighbouring province, Viscaya, ata means 'duck') Kurlansky's historical narrative bounds along, readably and informatively, but it keeps getting interrupted by the author's passion for food. (He has written a 'biogra- phy' of cod, has worked as a chef in the United States and writes for a food maga- zine.) Certainly Basque cooking deserves a chapter to itself — no other part of Spain takes gastronomy more seriously, or has more Michelin-starred restaurants — but a recipe for stuffed spider crab is not ideally placed at the end of a chapter on recent French government policy towards ETA and what will follow the ceasefire declared last autumn, nor is a recipe for a pudding made from sheep's milk which appears in the middle of a chapter headed 'Surviving Democracy'. (For all his references to Basque dishes, Kurlansky strangely omits to mention the delicious kokotxas — hake cheeks.) There are plenty of insights into Basque history, however, to make this book intel- lectually appetising as well. I was intrigued to learn that Napoleon considered estab- lishing a Basque state, to be called Nueva Fenicia, though surprised that Kurlansky makes no reference to the appalling plun- der and devastation of San Sebastian by Wellington's army at the end of the Penin- sular war. Kurlansky makes the point, often overlooked because of Guernica, that by no means all Basques supported the Republic in the civil war, but he wrongly compares the Carlist requetes to the Falange. The Carlists, mostly from Navarre, were tradi- tionalists — monarchist and devoutly Catholic — whose houses all contained some weapon handed down from a fore- bear who had marched for the Carlist cause in the previous century. They were contemptuous of the fighting qualities of the fascist Falange. During the second world war Basques successfully operated la ligne, helping Allied pilots to safety from St Jean-de-Luz over the Pyrenees to San Sebastian. And in 1945 soldiers of the Guemica Battalion, fighting the last battles of the war in France, got their revenge against German forces along the Atlantic coast.

For the past three decades it is scarcely an exaggeration to say that ETA has been the only aspect of life in the Basque coun- try to be mentioned beyond its borders. With an apparent end to the violence, however, it is conceivable that some future status for these 'original Europeans' may be agreed, within the European Union, now that the border between France and Spain is practically non-existent. But the Basques are less than united in their ambi- tions: French Basques regard their identity as little more than a tourist attraction, many Spanish Basques are quite happy with the autonomy which they already enjoy, and Navarre has no wish to be asso- ciated with the other three provinces any- way. ETA's demand for independence will never be met, but the people may get their fueros back — or at least the principles behind them. In the meantime they have rejoined the wider world with a brilliant promotional international coup: the build- ing of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, headquarters of the Basque Nationalist party and the centre of Basqueland.