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The Basque Phase of Spain's First Carlist War
By John F. Coverdale
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 1984 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
Economic, Social, and Political Background
Compared to other European countries, one of the striking features of Spain in the early 19th century was the sparsity of its population. It had only slightly more than 20 inhabitants per square kilometer, even though the population had grown steadily throughout the 18th century. From a modern low of 7.5 million in 1717, the Spanish population rose to 9.3 million in 1768, and reached 10.5 million at the end of the century. Despite international and civil wars and epidemics, growth continued during the first third of the 19th century. At the eve of the First Carlist War in 1833 the population was approximately 12.3 million.
The vast majority of the population earned its living from agriculture. Agriculture accounted for 85 percent of the country's gross product. Industry accounted for 10 percent and commerce for 5 percent. The natural resource base on which Spanish agriculture rested was poor. In many parts of the country the soil was thin and badly eroded. Rainfall was generally sparse and irregular. In addition, agricultural resources were poorly exploited. Much of the land was concentrated in the hands of wealthy nobles or of churchmen who had little incentive to increase its productivity. Vast tracts lay totally uncultivated, while a multitude of hungry day-laborers owned no land and often could find no work. As one liberal reformer lamented, there were "in the villages men without land and in the countryside land without men."
Of the 37 million hectares that made up Spain, almost two thirds were pasture or common lands, including woods and mountains. Less than one fourth was under cultivation. Only a third of the cultivated 8.5 million hectares was used for cereals. Another third lay fallow, and the final third bore olives, tobacco, linen, grapes, and other minor crops. Much of the land produced very little because of poor techniques, lack of capital, and the accumulated effects of decades or centuries of defective cultivation. The net result of all these factors was the poverty of most of the population. Except in a few privileged areas (including the Basque Country, to which we will turn shortly), the majority of the population was made up of landless workers who eeked out a miserable existence.
Eighteenth- and 19th-century liberal reformers believed the main obstacles to increasing agricultural production and raising the standard of living consisted in the many barriers to the free sale of land. The lands of the crown, of the Church, and of the towns could not be sold. They were, in the graphic Spanish phrase, in "dead hands" that never loosened their grip on them. Similarly, the estates of the nobles and of many ambitious bourgeois were entailed in order to keep intact the economic base of the family name. Custom and legal prohibitions prevented the sale of these properties, no matter how great the demand for land nor how high the prices.
The Church's lands had been accumulated during the course of centuries and varied widely in extent from one region to the next. According to a government survey, in the mid 1700's one seventh of the land in Castile and Leon belonged to religious institutions, including monasteries, convents, cathedral chapters, and various ecclesiastical endowments. These holdings included so much of the most fertile, productive land that they accounted for one fourth of the rent collected in those regions.
The towns and villages of Spain owned even more extensive holdings than the Church. City councils were the largest owners of entailed land at the end of the 18th century. A large part of their holdings consisted in woodlands and pastures which were used in common by all local landowners, to gather firewood and pasture their animals. Arrable lands belonging to the towns were either rented to individual cultivators of farmed collectively. These holdings were an important source of municipal income.
From the late Middle Ages onward, Spanish nobles had entailed their land. After 1505, commoners were also permitted to create mayorazgos. Entailed family estates varied from the enormous latifundia of the great nobles in Andalusia to modest holdings of commoners in Old Castile. Their total extension rivaled that of the lands of the town councils.
Taken together, the various categories of land that could not be sold probably accounted for more than half of Spain's farmlands By removing land permanently from the market, the various prohibitions on its sale drove up the price of the remaining land and made it almost impossible for small cultivators to acquire farms of their own. According to the census of 1787, roughly 1.7 million Spaniards tilled the soil. Of these, 800,000 were day laborers. Another 500,000 held land on lease but owned no property of their own. Only 360,000 were landowners. Many of those who did own some land had only a small parcel and had to rent additional land or work part-time for large landowners.
Spain's economic problems were aggravated in the early 19th century by both natural disasters and man-made problems. The year 1803-1804 witnessed an extremely severe agricultural crisis that lasted until the relatively abundant harvest of 1805. Starvation took many lives, especially in Andalusia, as Spain faced the most serious shortages of food in a century and a half. Six years of war against Napoleon (1808-1814) impoverished Spanish agriculture and further strained an already overburdened financial system. Interruptions of trade with America destroyed Spanish commerce and deprived the treasury of essential flows of precious metals. The small industrial sector suffered severely from lack of cash, the insecurity of the times, and the invasion of its markets by foreign products.
In the years following the War of Independence (1808-1814), agricultural prices fell sharply. From their peak level of 100 in 1812, they declined to 63 in 1814, 49 in 1820, 45 in 1826, and to a low of 33 in 1830. This precipitous decline in prices hurt peasants whose leases required payment of a fixed sum in cash and made it more difficult to find the cash necessary to pay taxes and carry out other indispensable cash transactions. On the other hand, it mitigated the difficulties of the large number of Spanish peasants who were net purchasers of food.
Despite declining prices, Spanish agricultural production grew significantly during the years following the war. In the late 18th century Spain was a net importer of foodstuffs. By the late 1820's, on the contrary, despite a 10-15 percent increase in population, the country had become a net exporter of food. The increased levels of production came almost exclusively from expanding the area under cultivation, partly as a result of the disentailment of land that took place sporadically from 1798 through 1823. To the extent that the new land brought under the plow was poorer than what had been cultivated before, the growth of the cultivated area may have made the lot of Spanish peasants even harder than it had been in the late 18th century.
Spain's efforts to rebuild her shattered economy after 1814 were hindered by the adverse international economic situation of the post-Napoleonic depression, and even more severely by the loss of American colonies. At a period when Spain desperately needed the resources of her empire, the empire was dying as a political and economic unit.
Table I demonstrates the depth of the crisis that Spain's trade experienced in the early 19th century, although it should be kept in mind that declining prices are responsible for a large part of the decrease in value of trade.
The most striking change in the thirty-five years after 1792 was the almost total drying up of the flow of money from America. Almost equally dramatic was the drop in Spanish exports to America to less than 10 percent of their former levels. Much of the decline in Spain's foreign trade was due to the loss of her position as middleman for the American market.
As a result of the post-Napoleonic European depression and the decline of trade, the average annual income of the Spanish state in the period 1814-1819 was less than half of what it had been in the decade before the War of Independence. From 1824 t o 1833 it remained at barely more than 50 percent of its pre-war levels. With these reduced revenues, the crown had to try to regain control of its rebellious American provinces as well as to service an enormous debt built up during the reign of Charles IV and during the War of Independence.
By 1814 the crown's credit was so overburdened that it was no longer possible to raise money by issuing new debt. From 1793 to 1806, 30 percent of the crown's income had come from deficit financing, slightly more than 10 percent from the mines of America, and another 10 percent from customs duties. Internal taxes had accounted for only 50 percent of total income. During the Restoration, borrowing proved almost impossible. Gold and silver arrived from America in much reduced quantities, and returns from customs duties declined. Consequently, from 1814 to 1819, the state was forced to rely on internal taxes for 75 percent of its income.
The Basque Country: Economic and Social Life
Travelers entering northern Spain from the south were invariably struck by a sharp contrast with the rest of the country. Most immediately evident was the green of northern fields and pastures in contrast to the burnt brown of Castile. The land was not fertile, but abundant rain, brought in by winds from the Atlantic, gave the area a lush appearance that suggested well-being.
There are few high mountains in the Basque country, but most of the terrain lies more than 1,200 feet above sea level. The only exceptions are the narrow coastal strip along the gulf of Vizcaya, a number of small river valleys, and the Navarrese portion of the Ebro river valley. The average elevation is no higher than that of the central Meseta, but the terrain is more rugged. The horizon is usually hemmed in by low mountains, and travel is difficult.
At the end of the 18th century, the three Basque provinces and Navarra had a population of 505,000, about 5 percent of the Spanish total. The coastal provinces of Guipúzcoa and Vizcaya were the most densely populated areas of Spain. With some 50 inhabitants per square kilometer, their population was two and a half times as dense as the Spanish average. The population density of Alava and Navarra was close to the Spanish average of 21 persons per square kilometer.
The war against the French Convention and the War of Independence both took a heavy toll in the north. As a result, population growth there dropped well below the national Spanish rate in the early 19th century. Between 1797 and 1833 the population of Navarra and the Basque provinces increased by only some 20,000 persons, or a total of 4 percent in 35 years. Spain as a whole exhibited a growth rate three times as large.
As in all parts of ancien régime Spain, the majority of the population engaged in agriculture. The poverty of the natural resource base, the density of population, and the absence of advance agricultural techniques meant that the impression of wealth which struck all travelers was deceptive. Per-capita income was not significantly higher than in other parts of Spain, but income was better distributed than elsewhere. Most holdings were small and were worked by families. Small proprietors constituted a substantial sector of the population, and most other peasants held land on long term lease. Landless day laborers were few. The north was not a paradise peopled entirely by small proprietors, as some Basque apologists made it out to be, but the land was much better distributed than in most regions of Spain.
Extremes of wealth and poverty were rare. The wealthiest of the Basque nobles could not begin to compare with the great landowners of southern Spain, but is was rare to find in the north the abject poverty so common in the south. Most of the population earned a reasonable living. Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century travelers are unanimous in observing that most people in the Basque country were better fed, clothed, and housed than their southern peers.
In sharp contrast to sub-Cantabrian Spain, where the population lived in relatively large towns, the peasants of the north were disseminated in hamlets, small villages, or isolated farmsteads. On the northern slopes of the Cantabrian mountains, the basic unit of agricultural exploitation was the caserío, a self-contained isolated farmstead consisting of a single building that served as both home and stable, surrounded by arable fields, pastures, and orchards.
Local law and custom required that the caseríos be left to a single heir, not divided among the children. This prevented the ownership of land from becoming fragmented. Under the pressure of increasing population during the 18th century, however, many caseríos had been cut up into two or more farms, supporting different families even though the ownership remained undivided. During the same period the total area under cultivation increased, but probably the average size of an individual farm decreased.
The typical caserío was a small unit, usually about six to ten hectares. Owners and lessees of the caseríos supplemented their meager holdings by pasturing animals, collecting wood, and gathering leaves and moss for fertilizer in the extensive village commons.
The caserío was a labor intensive form of agricultural exploitation, using family labor. In many cases peasants worked the land with short-handled forks (layas) rather than plows so as to be able to cultivate fields which were too small, irregular, rocky, or sharply sloped to be plowed. Little commercial agriculture could be found in the north. The majority of the population engaged in subsistence farming, providing most of its own needs. The principal products of a typical caserío in the 19th century were corn and wheat, plus apples for cider, chestnuts, linen, and a wide variety of garden vegetables. Animals were kept both for meat and milk, and for draft. Goats accounted for a large percentage of the livestock.
Despite geographic dissemination, the Basque area and Navarra exhibited a tight-knit community structure. More than in any other part of Spain, neighbors had extensive obligations to each other, which they were expected to fulfill irrespective of personal likes or dislikes. A family that needed help with labor-intensive chores, or that found itself in special need of fertilizer, for instance, could call on its neighbors for help that they were not free to refuse.
Although a clear majority of the population was engaged in agriculture, other activities were also important in Vizcaya and Guipúzcoa. Men living along the coast fished either as a full-time profession or as a supplement to their agricultural activities. The existence of iron ore deposits had given rise to a sizeable iron industry. Vizcaya and Guipúzcoa both produced iron and transformed it into guns, hardware, and other products. This industry provided much needed employment not only to those directly engaged in fabricating iron but also to miners, wood-cutters, charcoal burners, sailors, and muleteers, most of whom were peasants who filled in the slack seasons of the agricultural year with other employment. Toward the end of the 18th century there were more than 200 ironworks producing an annual average of about 20 tons of iron apiece. The industry was in decline because of low productivity and high prices, loss of American markets, increasing foreign competition both abroad and within Spain, and the general economic difficulties of Spain. The iron interests of the Basque provinces began to demand protection for their products in the Spanish market, but this was impossible as long as the customs houses remained on the Ebro river.
A small but influential sector of the population engaged in commerce. Bilbao and San Sebastián were major ports with a locally important group of merchants. The loss of American markets during the first third of the 19th century hurt all Spanish commerce, including that of the Basque provinces. In addition Madrid's increasingly strenuous efforts to prevent the Basques and Navarrese from taking unfair advantage of their position outside the regular Spanish customs system tended to curtail their commerce. By the early 19th century the merchants of Bilbao and especially those of San Sebastían had decided that their hope for the future lay in entering the regular Spanish customs system, even if that meant sacrificing all or a large part of the fueros. A large majority of people in the Basque country, however, preferred to retain the customs barriers at the Ebro. They were consumers who benefited from their ability to buy foreign goods without paying high Spanish tariffs. A flourishing contraband trade also created powerful interests in maintaining the status quo. Despite their wealth, the merchants of San Sebastián and Bilbao were far too weak politically to overcome this opposition, and their commerce languished.
Excerpted from The Basque Phase of Spain's First Carlist War by John F. Coverdale. Copyright © 1984 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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