The Untzi Museoa is a modest naval museum in San Sebastian, an important Basque community on the eastern verge of Spain’s northern coast.
San Sabastian’s relationship with the sea goes back to the early 1200s, when its prominent Mount Urgull was first fortified to ward off French attacks on its diverse community of traders, merchant companies and manufacturers.
The goal of the Untzi Museoa is maintaining and building awareness of local maritime contributions to Basque commerce, and the extraordinary role that the Basque country played in contributing to American independence.
Immediately upon entering the museum and paying a modest €3 fee, the visitor is handed a 64-page booklet entitled The Pursuit of Happiness: The Basque Contribution to Independence of the USA. I thumbed through it quickly and found a quote from Thucydides on the last page: “The secret to happiness is freedom … and the secret to freedom is courage.”
It was an invitation to read the text, which I did as I strolled about the main gallery. It’s dedicated to the interpretation of Basque nautical skills, map-making and explorations west, across the Atlantic Ocean to what became New England, New France and New Spain.
My historical education is full of the lore of New France and New England, but oddly bereft of the details of New Spain. So I began focusing on the museum text panels that described thousands of Europeans, “fleeing from the misery of Europe and the abuses of the nobility in the 17th and 18th centuries. The British colonists who settled the 13 original colonies in New England sought to establish a new political order where humans could attain unfettered happiness and the freedom to develop their own opportunities in life.”
This sought-for freedom broadly paralleled that which already existed within Basque culture.
The museum text went on to explain that the independent-minded Basques are part of an indigenous population who share a language, common culture and ancestry that’s unrelated to the Indo-European cultures of Europe. Their arrival on the Bay of Biscay predates the arrival of agriculture in the Iberian peninsula, some 7,000 years ago.
Anthropologically, the Basques are a remnant of the early inhabitants of western Europe. Spanish historians acknowledge that they broadly practised self-government until the 1700s, when the Spanish Inquisition and the French Revolution began to complicate Basque lives in Spain and France. The church and state were increasingly threatened by an independent Basque political environment characterized by matriarchy, where women traditionally held roles as judges, inheritors and arbitrators.
The Basque connection to the American dream was forged in the collaboration of traders, sailors and soldiers who had begun making trips to North America in the 16th century to net cod and hunt whales. The Basques explored what they called Terranova, ranging from the current Labrador to Florida.
By the 18th century, San Sebastian and neighbouring Bilbao had become the European market entry points for the dried cod of the Terranova fishery, increasingly owned and operated by fishers from the Thirteen Colonies. They had learned how to fish and navigate across the Atlantic from the Basques.
Over time, these commercial relationships would also solidify into strong political bonds.
The fact that there were no customs houses on the Basque country coastline in northern Spain added to their independence – and enabled a broad practice of smuggling arms, ammunition and military technical aid to the rebel colonists when they began their revolution against Great Britain.
The unfettered trade in the cause of freedom for the Thirteen Colonies also included trade in ideas. John Quincy Adams, one of the drafters of the American constitution, made a trip to Europe to analyze constitutions of free states. He made a detailed study of the Basque country charters of local government. As it turned out, they were ideal models for the nascent institutions being formed in America.
Unfortunately, the American War of Independence led to a Spanish liberalization of trade policies for other ports, and the Basque advantage of no customs duties on the north coast evaporated.
Absent their trade monopoly, a period of struggle began. With the fall of the Ancien Regime in France in 1790 came major repercussions for Basque independence as various detractors opposed the Basque regional regime.
Many of its benefits were now transferred to the United States, where they uniquely anchored the constitution.
Troy Media columnist Mike Robinson has been CEO of three Canadian NGOs: the Arctic Institute of North America, the Glenbow Museum and the Bill Reid Gallery.
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