ETA Disarms to Return Basque Nationalism to Civil War Resilience

The militant Basque separatists ETA have finally called time on their four-decade campaign of violence to secure an independent homeland in the north of Spain. At least 829 people have lost their lives since the bloodshed began in 1961, ranging from innocent children to the Spanish Prime Minister.

Police seize a declared ETA weapons cache in southern France

This violent strain of Basque nationalism emerged from the ashes of the brutal Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), with the victorious Franco regime denying the Basque people the little autonomy they previously possessed.

Nationalism and dreams of independence were not a new idea for the northerners inhabiting the French-Spanish border and the Basque Army fought ferociously to deny the advance of Franco’s Nationalists in 1937.

19th Battalion of the Basque Army, 1937

Particularly intriguing is the notable effort made by the Basque people during the Civil War to prevent the indiscriminate acts of violent retribution that plagued both sides and came to characterise the conflict.

‘The moderate Socialists and the Basque nationalists were in the forefront of efforts to put a stop to rearguard outrages…strenuous efforts to put a stop to arbitrary arrests and executions were made by Jesus Galindez of the Basque delegation in Madrid and by Manuel Irujo Olla, the piously Catholic Basque’. (Preston, pp. 291-292)

Additionally, the Basque country was the only region within the Republican sphere that did not see widespread looting and destruction of Church property, the clerical establishment having become inextricably linked with Franco’s forces.

Does this failed attempt at an honourable, bloodless resistance during the Spanish Civil War partly explain ETA’s violent course after its foundation in 1959? Undoubtedly many Basque people never associated themselves with what became a terrorist organisation, regardless of whether they shared some of the group’s ambitions.

The bombing of Guernica – a Basque town of no strategic importance – by Nazi & Italian aircraft in league with Franco, stunned the world

Perhaps it is telling that ETA evolved out of a student movement unhappy at the moderate stance of the Basque Nationalist Party. Young men who had not witnessed the ravages of war first hand were maybe unappreciative of what taking up arms really meant.

For millions of others in Spain, the legacy of civil war and the Franco dictatorship has ingrained pacifism. This has denied ETA the widespread support of the people it claims to represent and ultimately meant its bloody struggle – like that of the IRA – would end in defeat at the hands of a militarily strong and resilient democratic government.

Support for Basque nationalism remains strong but it will continue without the backdrop of ETA violence


Preston, P. The Spanish Holocaust: Inquisition and Extermination in Twentieth-Century Spain (2012)

War Over Gibraltar? Spanish Threats and Britain’s Post-Brexit Weakness

Between June 1779 and February 1783 British forces in Gibraltar survived an almost unrelenting Franco-Spanish siege, fighting one of the most remarkable defensive actions in early modern history. Given this heroic feat it is perhaps unsurprising that, more than 200 years later, the British government is not willing to give up its Iberian exclave without a fight.

The Great Siege of Gibraltar

Whether it is wise to threaten the claimant Spaniards with war should they attempt to use Gibraltar as a bargaining chip in negotiations over a post-Brexit EU trade deal is somewhat debatable. What is certain, though, is that London is acutely aware of the symbolic importance of their Mediterranean outpost, even if its strategic significance at the gateway to Europe is becoming increasingly irrelevant.

Captured from the Kingdom of Castile during the War of the Spanish Succession in 1704, Gibraltar was formerly ceded to Britain by the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. Attempts by the Spaniards to recapture the territory in 1727 and then during the siege of 1779-1783 failed, leaving Gibraltar as an important base for the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean.

Spain has never relinquished its claim to Gibraltar, a somewhat hypocritical stance mindful to overlook Madrid’s remaining colonial possessions on the North African coastline at Ceuta and Melilla. Periodic diplomatic spats have led to border closures and delays, often carefully orchestrated by Spanish crossing guards.

Border delays following a diplomatic row in 2013

Just as Ceuta and Melilla have a centuries-long affinity with their Spanish motherland, Gibraltar remains unapologetically British. Despite their overwhelming preference to remain within the EU, Gibraltarians have no desire to become part of Spain.

There are of course parallels here with the Falkand Islands, over which Britain went to war against Argentina in 1982. That Spain would attempt a brazen assault on Gibraltar comparable to that launched by the Argentinians against the Falklands is unthinkable, their democratic rulers far more encumbered in their actions than the brutal junta in Buenos Aires ever was.

A classic British telephone box at the Gibraltar walls

What George Augustus Eliott, commander of the Gibraltar garrison during the siege of 1779-1783, would think of the petty squabbles of today one can only guess at. Probably he would be gratified by continuing British sovereignty over the outpost his men fought so hard to maintain, no doubt more than eager to throw himself back into the fiery cauldron of battle.

Fortunately, despite the crass comments of some naive politicians, such a scenario is more than unlikely. However, the Spanish decision to publicise this potential stumbling block for Britain’s future economic relations with Europe points to the dissatisfaction on the continent surrounding the Brexit verdict.

Britain has often been seen as an outsider in Europe, an aloof power whose imperialistic history has not endeared it to many of the nations that remain tightly ensconced in the grip of Brussels.

Undoubtedly further tribulations await Theresa May and her Conservative government. Britain’s European neighbours are likely to resurrect these historical enmities in a vindictive attempt to punish one whose dismantling of the long fought for European federalist project is most unwelcome.

Elliot and his officers in discussion during the Great Siege of Gibraltar, 1782

As the British and the Spanish have long recognised, the power of a rock cannot be measured by conventional indicators. History, nationalism and symbolism combine to make the most toxic of concoctions.

World Watches on as Africa Starves: the perpetually misunderstood continent

The UN has declared or warned of the impending potential for famine in several African countries, once more refocusing – if only temporarily – the attention of the international community on its most impoverished continent.

In most of the countries at risk of starvation, civil war and communal unrest are exacerbating the dire situation. In Somalia, South Sudan, the Central African Republic and parts of Nigeria, brutal violence and associated population displacement are decimating society and destroying the means of production. This in turn is having a spillover affect in neighbouring countries, forced as they are to cope with a massive influx of desperate refugees.

South Sudan is not a fertile country; the Juba government has been accused of fomenting famine

As has so often been the case, the international alarm bells have been rung far too late to allow an effective response to the famines. Instead of prevention, the best that can now be hoped for is an alleviation of the worst ailments. Sadly global political capital to help appears limited at best in this new nationalistic era, as the Trump administration’s stance on international aid epitomises.

At the heart of the conflicts rupturing many African states are tribal and ethnic quarrels that have existed since the days of colonialism. This relates not just to external hostilities – the hatred of the ‘other’ – but also to intra-ethnic/tribal conflict.

Power-sharing agreements between the political affiliations of different ‘tribes’ and ‘ethnic groups’ is a laudable idea, yet is seldom practicable in Africa. The disintegration of the world’s newest state, South Sudan, despite an attempt at dual governance between members of the rival Dinka and Nuer tribes, is testament to this sorry state of affairs.

The Central African Republic’s Civil War has involved a multitude of ethnic groups and regional bodies, all possessing their own armies

Untouched by the outside world for centuries, these communal complexities were deeply embedded in African culture and society by the time of the European arrival, whose colonial administrators either could not or would not acknowledge them.

The European imperialists amalgamated masses of disparate groups together within fabricated borders. With other groups they implemented divide-and-rule, whereby rival tribes were played off against one another, weakening any unified challenge to European predominance.

Nowhere are the complexities of the longstanding African power systems more evident than in the writings of the Victorian explorers of the mid-19th century, those whose travels predated the colonial era.

The European arrival irreversibly altered the power dynamics of African society

For the dozens of intrepid adventurers who lost their lives in the African interior – whether because of illness, starvation or an untimely meeting with an unwelcoming chieftain – there were a handful of more skillful (perhaps luckier) navigators whose names live long in history.

All of them commented on the intricacies of African society; of the rival clans and chiefdoms, of the similar yet distinct languages, of the curiosity and hostility towards the ‘bwana’. Bartering their passage into the ‘heart of darkness’ with the help of local guides and porters, not to mention Arab slave traders, they stumbled forth in search of scientific and geographical wonders.

Jack Speke – who had already failed to make headway in Somaliland due to a hostile reception on Richard Burton’s exploratory mission of 1854-55 – rendered with the utmost clarity the impossibilities for Europeans to understand the African political system of the time.

Speke reached both Lake Tanganyika and Lake Victoria

Working his way towards the Victoria Nyanza (Lake Victoria) at the head of his own mission in the early 1860s, Speke recorded in his journal not only the harsh climatic challenges of African travel, but the myriad complexities of understanding, and winning passivity, from local polities.

Every district through which he passed was seemingly home to innumerable tribes, each with its own loyalties to other, more powerful kingdoms further inland. Far from being the primitive subsistence, hunter-gatherers of contemporary literature, many of these African societies were inherently complex, stable, rich and, importantly, culturally and ethnically distinct from their neighbours.

Having painstakingly reached the formidable Kingdom of Buganda, during which time he had been delayed and outwitted on numerous occasions by opportunistic chieftains, Speke’s luck began to change. Winning favour with the King’s mother, Speke was ‘given’ two Wahuma girls for his possession:

Speke believed that the paler-skinned and straighter-nosed Wahuma (Hima) originally came from Ethiopia, and that many centuries before his arrival at the Nyanza, they had risen to power over the darker Bantu already settled in Buganda, Karagwe and Rwanda. Although it was true that the Hima had come from the north, they were members of a Luwo clan originally from southern Sudan, rather than from Ethiopia. But after moving south, they had indeed formed ruling dynasties around the Nyanza in the centuries after AD 1200. Thereafter, they adopted Bantu speech and were culturally absorbed by them. (Jeal, P. 156)

The road to Buganda

Despite his experience of the African interior, and his sympathy towards African people and their customs, Speke was still somewhat unaware of the nature of the societies through he which he trod and in which spent so much time.

Speke and his explorer brethren would of course be followed by the more rapacious imperialists whose thoughts seldom strayed beyond commercial endeavour and native subjugation.

As such, tribal enmities were contained within fixed, fabricated borders as the violence and hatred bred by colonial institutions served to destroy the heart of Africa.

This sad reality has been perpetuated into the post-colonial period, with Africa and the Africans still largely viewed as unmanageable and unknowable, a lost cause to be overlooked and brushed aside.

Misunderstood, mistrusted and mistreated; we seem to have little idea about the extent of the miseries in the African interior today, lives dissipating and extinguishing before our averted eyes.

Do we really care?


Jeal, T. Explorers of the Nile: The Triumph and Tragedy of a Great Victorian Adventure (2011)