“The whale fishery was first brought into notice of the southern nations of Europe, in the fifteenth century, by the same Biscayans and Basques, who led the way to the fishery of Newfoundland.”
– Thomas Jefferson
In medieval times, whales were used to create a wide range of products: candles, soap, cosmetics, perfumes, furniture, or to fuel lamps. The Basques started hunting whales as early as the 11th century, but they followed the cetaceans up to North America in the 16th century. From that moment on, Basque whalers spent between six and nine months per year fishing cod and hunting whales near the coasts of Canada and Iceland. They acquired an intrepid reputation throughout Europe, and their mastery of the sea made them the perfect candidates to become privateers.
“And in particular to show that the situation of the place is partly the cause that there are so many Wizards, it should be known that it is a mountainous country, at the edge of three Kingdoms: France, Navarre, Spain. The mixture of three languages, French, Basque and Spanish [...] all these diversities make it wonderfully convenient for Satan to hold Sabbaths in this place”
– Pierre de Lancre, the judge who conducted the 1609 Basque witch-hunt.
While the men were away at sea for most of the year, Basque women had to earn a living, raise their children, and take care of their home and community. In 1609, a judge from Bordeaux, Pierre de Lancre, conducted a witch-hunt in the French Basque Country. One of the reasons he gave for doing so was that Basque women were too independent. Over the course of four months, he interrogated (and probably tortured) over 400 locals, was responsible for the execution of between 60 and 80 people. The following year, another witch-hunt took place in the Spanish Basque Country, this time in the village of Zugarramurdi. Out of 40 defendants, 12 of them were condemned to burn at the stake by the Inquisition. Others died in jail.
“The Argentine gauchos were brutes… they didn’t know how to read or write, and even less who they were fighting for. If we still remember them, it’s because educated people, who were nothing like them, wrote about them.”
– Jorge Luis Borges
The poor quality of the land and the tradition of the first-born child inheriting the family house forced many Basques to emigrate to America. Between the mid-19th century and early 20th century, some Basques chose to work as shepherds in the United States (particularly in Idaho, Nevada or California), but the great majority preferred South America. They either worked in the hotel trade in cities like Buenos Aires, or as gauchos in the pampas. Today, 10 % of Argentinians, 14% of Uruguayans, and 21% of Chileans have Basque ancestors. The Basque emigration produced a few famous descendants, including Che Guevara!
The stories behind Whalers, Witches and Gauchos
As a history and myth-lover, I have always been fascinated by the fact that the Basques were often involved in “obscure”, risky, or even violent activities such as whaling, witchcraft, or being a gaucho (I should add to the list privateers, smugglers, and kaskarots, who will probably appear in another book!).
Emigration is also inherent to Basque history. From Canada to Argentina, from the USA to Uruguay, the Basques have constantly moved to the other side of the world to take on thankless jobs and improve the lives of their family. All my Basque grandparents have a parent, (grand) uncle or (grand) aunt who emigrated to Argentina at some stage, or settled down there definitely.
There are certainly whalers, witches and gauchos in my pamphlet, but it expands on the theme of modern migration as well. I wanted to blend my ancestors’ experience with my own of being a foreigner in Britain, Ireland and Italy. Actually, the majority of my Basque poems were written abroad, and vice versa!
Many poems from the “Whalers” section are family-related, from my own father to his grandparents’ emigration to Argentina before returning to a continent at war.
I organised the “Witches” section to accommodate my interest in witchcraft, the history of the 1600s Basque witch-hunt, and my passion for languages. After all, what are hexes and spells if not a way of using language to make things come true? Pierre de Lancre found Basque women suspicious because they could speak two or three languages. I wanted to include some elements of Basque mythology with the figure of the Basajaun, and a few poems emerged from visits to the grottos of Zugarramurdi where local witches were supposed to meet for sabbaths.
Finally, the “Gaucho” subpart deals with various forms of violence, either physical (war) or psychological (bullying), with devastating effects in the short-term (dementia) or long-term (childhood trauma).
Whalers, Witches and Gauchos describes insidious forms of rejection, from emigration to persecution, being considered as an outcast by a group of people or being a foreigner who does not feel at home anywhere. I hope you’re going to enjoy reading these poems of belonging and not-belonging as much as I enjoyed writing them!