August 15, 2011

Basque People: kicking imperialist ass since at least 1233 years ago

Monumento batalla de Roncesvalles
Battle of Roncevaux monument
Like every year I like to commemorate August the 15th, the day our ancestors defeated the largest army in their time, being the only major defeat suffered by Emperor Charles of the Franks, known to history as Charlemagne.

The conflict happened after the Carolingians had converged with the Ummayads in order to destroy which was surely the most important Basque state ever: the Duchy of Vasconia. After capturing the Visigothic kingdom, the Muslim armies managed to take Pamplona and cross the Pyrenees northwards, eventually cornering the Vasco-Aquitanian forces, who had to ask for help to the conspirator Steward of the Frankish Kingdom, Charles Martel. The joint forces of both realms defeated the Ummayad forces at Tours or Poitiers but this was then used by Charles to weaken the Vasco-Aquitanian Duchy and force it again to submission and eventually dismembering.

Medieval Pyrenean warrior (almogavar)
Martel's son, Charlemagne, never before defeated in battle, was offered the city of Zaragoza by a traitor governor. In order to consolidate its capture, Charles marched south with all the Frankish army, crossing Basque territory, but found that the plot had been discovered and the governor deposed. While retreating, Charles committed his lifetime's error: he destroyed the walls of Pamplona, maybe fearing that they could serve as a core for Basque rebellion or who knows. That was the stroke that broke the camel's back and when the army went through the mountains somewhere near Roncevaux (probably further East, near Urkuilu mountain, where there is an ideal pass for an ambush that the old "Roman" road crossed), the rearguard of that huge army, made up by some of the most important noblemen of the Franks, notably Charles' brother in law and Marquis of Brittany, Roland, were ambushed and exterminated.

The victors were surely lightly armed militiamen, much as Roman era irregulars or later almogavars (from Arabic al-mughawwar: brawler or raider), who would plunder Constantinople and other cities signaling, together with Welsh logbowmen, the end of the medieval heavy knight. Per the descriptions we have of the fighting methods of the almogavars, these were usually mounted infantry with high mobility but who fought against knights by first killing their horses, forcing them to fight on foot, where the heavy armor was only a burden. They were so feared that, later in Greece, full armies run away when they showed up.

Basque forests: warm refuge for friends, eerie trap for foes
Probably these same tactics were used at Roncevaux. Speculating: volley of arrows or other projectile is followed by direct attack, not against the knights but their horses; then the knights were slaughtered, the baggage plundered and the attackers vanished in the nearby forests. When Charlemagne went back he could only pick up corpses.

It'd be just a historical anecdote but considering that the struggle against the post-Roman invaders continues even today, it is actually a reminder of a long ongoing fight for freedom. It should be our national day.


  1. Maju...I'm wondering why you designated Charlemayne's invasions as "imperialist"? I thought that imperialism was the final stage of capitalism, not feudalism.

  2. As I see it, "imperialism" comes from "empire" (lat. "imperium"), which is for us a mega-state that goes well beyond ethnic borders: imperialism is hence the ideology of establishing any such empire. Lenin was talking of colonial empires probably but still colonial empires existed before Capitalism (and were an engine in its formation), so a bit unsure of why he said that,

    Anyhow, Lenin was smarter than Engels in the issue of ethnic nations, where Engels only accepted "historical nations" (i.e. Hungary yes, Croatia no, etc.) as political units, Lenin accepted all real nations and that is why the political geography of the former USSR became so complex. He was also surely correct in that Capitalism (initially rather anti-imperialism because of the costs associated) became clearly imperialist (for resources and markets).

    But that doesn't mean that imperialism did not exist before: otherwise there would have been no empires. However it may well be said that the motivations for such empires were different than under capitalism, having to do more with conquering lands and serfs/slaves for the elites of the imperial realm than with establishing complex hierarchical economical relations.

  3. Maju...thanks much for your explanation. So would you say then that modern day imperialism of the American variety is qualitatively and quantitively different than ancient imperialism? Qualitively, because of its motivations...and quantitively because no aspect of life is untouched and is changed. Hope this isn't too far off topic...


  4. "Lenin was talking of colonial empires probably but still colonial empires existed before Capitalism (and were an engine in its formation)"

    I'm sure most would see Rome's expansion as 'imperialism'. And probably Alexander's. And ancient Near Eastern citys'.

    "However it may well be said that the motivations for such empires were different than under capitalism, having to do more with conquering lands and serfs/slaves for the elites of the imperial realm than with establishing complex hierarchical economical relations".

    Only subtly different. Even in ancient times still for economic exploitation by the imperialist power.

  5. @CB:

    I would say that Capitalist imperialism and Feudal imperialism have somewhat different goals: the latter did not have industries to feed nor were markets part of their political strategies (even if they did exist in embryonic forms at least at times). Feudal imperialism responded more to the needs of the nobility, which wanted more lands and more peasants, while Capitalist imperialism responds to industrial and speculative type of demands by the bourgeoisie and is even sometimes rejected by this class because of being sometimes expensive and unproductive (something the warrior class of nobility would surely never say).

    However the differences are not radical (except that capitalist imperialism can be much more impacting and long reaching than feudal one thanks to technology and superior organization) and the emphasis is probably on the fact of capitalist becoming imperialist and not on imperialism being an exclusive late capitalism phenomenon.

  6. Also there are some indefinite or transitional cases, which are maybe some of the states that have been known to history as empires. For instance Rome was not originally feudal but a mercantilist republic of sorts, and as such it expanded as Empire, only later degenerating (quite consciously and willingly) into feudalism. But cannot be considered capitalism either, notably as all the large industries, (which did exist for military purposes) were state property and otherwise there were none nor they had an impact in the economy. In Rome land mattered the most; also trade but certainly not industry.

    A comparable case to some extent are the Early Modern Iberian empires of Portugal and Castile, the first colonial empires worth that name. Again there was no meaningful industry nor bourgeoisie (except in crown realms which did not take part in the imperial adventure, notably Flanders, Milan, Catalonia, and maybe small rural industry in the Basque Country, which did take part but not really benefited until the 18th century). in these cases the imperial (and mercantilist) adventure was largely pushed ahead by the same forces as in feudalism (warrior and religious castes) but both the technology (oceanic sailing, gunpowder weapons) and motivations (big expected profits, modern centralized states) are clearly transitional towards later Capitalism.

  7. Maju...good and clear discussion. Thanks.



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