Books: The undying land of blood and beret

Basque History of the World by Mark Kurlansky Cape pounds 15.99

The word Basque means one of two things to most people: a mountainous area on the Franco-Spanish border populated by men in berets, speaking a strange language; or terrorism. According to a recent study, 85 per cent of articles on Basques in the US press mentioned terrorism, while only last year the American government included the separatist organisation ETA on a list of organisations to which it is illegal to provide funds - an honour not accorded the IRA.

It is true that ETA's activities in the past have had spectacular results, such as the assassination in 1973 of Franco's prime minister, Admiral Luis Carrero Blanco. The killing of the dictator's closest ally, in the judgement of Mark Kurlansky, "was widely seen as the end of Francoism". But the Basques have paid a heavy price for ETA. Successive Spanish governments blamed it for 800 murders. Then, in September last year, its leaders suddenly renounced violence. In the same period, says Kurlansky, hundreds of Basques have been killed by the Guardia Civil or died in suspicious circumstances while in custody.

The ambivalence felt towards them by non-Basques is summarised by the experience of Enkarni Martinez, a Basque woman who was arrested and tortured by the police in 1994. When she was released, Martinez had 30 bruises on her body and had to be rushed to hospital for treatment to save a kidney. She approached a Spanish judge, Baltazar Garzon, who would later become famous for his attempts to extradite the former Chilean dictator, Augusto Pinochet, to face trial in Madrid. "Do you want me to show you the marks?" she asked. She says that Garzon declined.

This incident is related towards the end of Kurlansky's book, a dazzling, wide-ranging narrative which more than justifies his curious title. The Basque people not only defy notions of national sovereignty - the majority live in four provinces in Spain, with the remaining nine per cent across the border in France - but they have had a disproportionate influence abroad as shipbuilders, fishermen and traders. As well as having a whale named after them, they developed their own type of salt cod which lasted longer than the one used by the Vikings, enabling them to sail as far as Iceland, Norway and the Hebrides. Kurlansky, an expert on fishing who previously wrote a much-praised book about cod, even speculates that the Basques might have reached North America before Columbus.

A merchant from the Basque town of St-Jean-de-Luz recorded in 1710 that French colonisers in Nouvelle France encountered indigenous tribes whose vocabulary appeared to include words in Euskera, the Basque language. Later linguists have claimed that members of the Huron tribe had names which could have been Basque in origin. There is no solid evidence that the Basques arrived in North America first, but Kurlansky keeps his options open by pointing out that fishing communities are naturally secretive, especially about the origin of their best catches. He also offers a recipe, one of many in this delightful and unconventional book, for a traditional fish stew called ttoro.

Euskera is an oddity among European languages, without linguistic relatives - an "orphan language", according to Kurlansky. Along with Finnish, Estonian and Hungarian, it is not even Indo-European, and its origins have never been satisfactorily explained. Its structure suggests it is very ancient, perhaps dating back to the Stone Age. Wherever it came from, its survival and links with Basque nationalism so infuriated Franco that he banned it, instructing inhabitants of the four provinces to "speak Christian".

This is hugely ironic, given that the Basques were known not just for their fierce independence but their devout Catholicism. Ignatius Loyola, founder in 1534 of the Jesuits, came from the Basque province of Guipuzcoa where his family had been successful mercenaries. A disenchanted contemporary wrote in the 16th century that "the Loyolas were one of the most disastrous families our country had to endure, one of those Basque families with a coat of arms over the door, in order to justify the misdeeds that were the tissue and pattern of their lives". But Loyola is revered by many of his fellow-countrymen as "the Basque saint", and it is a measure of Franco's paranoid vision that he regarded his Basque co-religionists as heretics.

More than that, the would-be dictator chose a Basque town - Gernika, better known as Guernica - to try out the modern machines of warfare which his Nazi allies offered him when he rebelled against the elected government of Spain. Waves of German and Italian bombers, including the brand new Heinkel 111, battered the town at just before five in the afternoon on a market day in 1937, when it was crowded with peasants, shoppers, refugees and farm animals. Franco's troops occupied Gernika three days after the bombing and eventually admitted to 200 casualties. But the real figure was far higher.

A profoundly conservative people, who traditionally supported the Carlist cause in Spain, had been turned into implacable opponents of a right-wing dictatorship. Basque nationalists claim that, in the years of supposed neutrality which followed the Spanish Civil War, 21,780 of their compatriots were executed. It is this background which is essential to understand the formation of ETA and demands not just for local autonomy - the traditional cause of Spanish Basques - but independence.

Kurlanksy handles this turbulent history with wit and a light touch. His book is far from being a dry history, including chapters on the Basque beret, billy-goat and cake. He also tells an old joke, popular in Bilbao, which conveys both the Basque sense of humour and a sense of being at the heart of things. A man goes into a shop in the town and asks for "a world map of Bilbao". "Left bank or right?" is the immediate response. It is evidently an assumption which Kurlansky, who lives in New York, has come to share.

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Why the cost of parenting has become so expensive

    Why the cost of parenting has become so expensive

    Today's pre-school child costs £35,000, according to Aviva. And that's but the tip of an iceberg, says DJ Taylor
    Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

    The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

    How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
    Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

    Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

    'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

    How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

    Art attack

    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
    Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

    Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

    Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
    Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

    'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

    Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
    10 best wedding gift ideas

    It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

    Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
    Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

    Paul Scholes column

    With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
    Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

    Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

    Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
    Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

    Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

    The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US