Framework -- By Elfren Sicangco Cruz

Basques in the Philippines

Posted on September 13, 2011

Filipinos of Basque descent have played leading roles in Philippines, and today Basque descendants like members of the Ayala, Aboitiz, Elizalde, Ynchausti, Araneta, Garchitorena, Uriarte, Bilbao, Yulo, Zubiri, and Zuluaga families continue to occupy critical positions in contemporary Philippine society.

Although considered by most people as one of Spain’s most distinct ethnic minorities, the Basques refer to themselves as “euskaldunak,” which means “speakers of Euskara,” the Basque language which is very different from the Spanish language. They call their homeland Euswkal Herria even if they have never had their own nation state. However, today there is still a Basque independence movement and an underground organization, the ETA, associated with this movement.

The Basque homeland is composed of four Spanish territories -- Araba, Gipuzkoa, Bizkaia, Navarre -- and three French territories -- Befe Nafarroa, Lapurdi, and Zuberoa. This region lies between France and Spain bounded by the Bay of Biscay in the northwest, the mountains of the Pyrenees in the northeast, and the plains of Castille in the south.

Euskara, the Basque language, has been famed for its difficulty and has survived without being influenced by neighboring languages such as Spanish, French, and Latin.

There were 18 survivors of the Magellan expedition that arrived back in Spain in 1522,. Among them were four Basques including Juan Sebastian Elcano who was in command of the Victoria, the lone surviving ship. The Spanish hegemony over the Philippines was consolidated under the command of two Basques -- Miguel Lopez de Legaspi and Andresw de Urdaneta.

The book Basques in the Philippines by Marciano R. de Borja, University of Nevada 2005, is a fascinating historical narrative. Economics was the overriding consideration of emigrants leaving the Basque country because the standard of living was very low and the soil not fertile. Another key factor was the rule of inheritance in which the practice was to select a single heir for the family patrimony.

However, in the 19th century several events led to the increase of the number of Spanish, including Basque, immigrants to the Philippines. By 1825, nearly all the colonies in the Americas had achieved autonomy thereby reducing Spanish emigration to the New World. For Basques who were heavily involved in trading activities, commerce between Spain and its former colonies was reduced to a trickle. The Philippines became an attractive destination for Basque entrepreneurs and those seeking jobs in the government.

Also during the 19th century, two civil wars broke out in Spain. It was initially a succession issue between Carlos, the brother of Ferdinand IV, and Isabel II, the young niece. However, the conflict also became a clash between the conservatives and the liberals.

The Basques were supporters of Carlos, but the so-called Carlist forces eventually lost the war. Many Basque liberals and Carlist supporters decided to leave home to emigrate to the Philippines. This was the reason for certain Basques like Jose de Azcarraga, Jose Oyanguaren, and Eusebio Ruiz de Luzurriaga.

Soon, the Basques became actively involved in the four main exports of the Philippines at that time, namely, sugar, abaca, tobacco, and coffee.

The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 brought a new wave of Basque settlers to the Philippines. In the 1870s, the Basque trading firm Olano, Larrinaga and Company was also the most important shipping firm in the country and for many years the only link between the Philippines and Europe.

In his book, Marciano de Borja narrates the story of several prominent Basque families whose patriarchs came to the Philippines during the 19th century.

Antonio de Ayala, the patriarch of the Ayala clan, was born in Araba in 1804. He sailed to Manila when his uncle, Monsignor Jose Segui, was the archbishop. He eventually got a job with the commercial house of Domingo Roxas and became a trusted employee. In 1834, at the age of 29, he entered into partnership with Domingo Roxas to form the Casa Roxas, which invested its assets in a crude but efficient distillery service.

In 1843, a mutiny in the military garrison in Fort Santiago broke out. Domingo Roxas and Antonio de Ayala were arrested on suspicion of rebellion. Roxas died in prison. Upon his release, Antonio Ayala married Margarita, the daughter of Roxas.

On April 7, 1851, Antonio bought a vast tract of land in San Pedro de Makati for 52,000 pesos. He also diversified into finance and insurance. The Ayala distillery became the largest in Asia and was sold to the Palanca family in 1924.

Maria Trinidad, daughter of Antonio de Ayala and Margarita Roxas, married Jacobo Zobel in 1876. She inherited Ayala y Compania until her death in 1917. Their marriage produced five children Fernando, Antonio, the twins Enrique and Alfonso, Margarita, and Gloria.

The patriarch of the Aboitiz family, Paulino Aboitiz, was a Basque mariner who came to the Philippines in the 1870s. He was the second, and by custom the eldest son inherited the land while the second took to the sea. In the Philippines he worked piloting a sailboat for a Leyte shipowner named Gregorio Yrastorza. Paulino eventually married Gregorio’s daughter Emilia. They settled in Ormoc, Leyte.

They had nine children: Guillermo, Ana, Antonia, Ramon, Carmen, Dolores, Vidal, Paulino Jr., Luis. During the Philippine revolution of 1898, the Aboitiz family resettled in Cebu and then went back to Basque country. But in 1901, they decided to go back to the Philippines.

Ramon was sent to study in Lekeitio, in the Basque country, and then to England to learn English. In 1903, he returned to the Philippines and in 1912 he married Dolores Sidebottom. In the same year he assumed his father’s role in the business after Paulino passed away. He founded Aboitiz y Compania in 1920 and renamed it Aboitiz and Company in 1935 which continues to exist to this day.

The founder of the Elizalde clan in the Philippines is Joaquin Marcelino Elizalde who was born in Navarre in 1833. He arrived here at the age of 13, and became a minority partner in Ynchausti y Cia.

Jose Joaquin, the son, took over the business and had six children: Joaquin, Miguel, Juan, Angel, Manuel or Manolo, Federico, and Carmenchu. In 1933, the Elizaldes acquired assets of Ynchausti including La Carlota and Pilar sugar mills and founded the first radio station in the Philippines.

Basques in the Philippines is the saga of the struggles and successes of a brave, proud, and industrious people from the Basque country that began with the arrival of the first Basques in the archipelago in 1521 to their present descendants who have made significant contributions to Philippine nationhood.

Elfren S. Cruz, DBA is a professor of Strategic Management at the MBA Program, Ramon V. Del Rosario College of Business, De La Salle University. Please send comments or questions to elfrencruz@gmail.com