“During all this terrible day, the ‘Leopoldina Rosa’ had been able to resist, but around five in the afternoon a dull roar was heard [sic] that froze the wretched castaways with fright. The stern was opened and was invaded by the sea. “These are the words that describe the shipwreck of the frigate ‘Leopoldina Rosa’, published in the newspaper ‘El Espectador’ on October 4, 1842, three months after the ship ran aground in Punta Castles, on the coast of Uruguay, loaded with 303 Basques (men, women and children) who emigrated to Latin America under the promise of a more prosperous life. From 1830 until the last quarter of the 19th century, Río de la Plata, Between Buenos Aires (Argentina) and Montevideo (Uruguay), it became one of the main enclaves in the process of migration of the Basques. Until then, the favorite destinations had been Cuba and Puerto Rico, still Spanish colonies, compared to the rest of the countries in the southern cone of America, then immersed in independence processes Between 1837 and 1840, approximately 40,000 Basques entered Latin America through Montevideo, just as those who traveled in the ‘Leopoldina Rosa’ dreamed.
A pastor and double agent, a fugitive novice and other traces the Basques left in America
The Maritime Museum – Itsasmuseum de Bilbao rescues this summer the history of the frigate with the exhibition ‘Leopoldina Rosa. A history of today ‘, which serves as a starting point to reflect on current migratory processes and their challenges, and the similarities with the journeys of the Basques in the 19th century. A double look, like a mirror, produced by the Zumalakarregi Museum and curated by Mikel Alberdi, responsible for the museum’s collection and documentation. “When you discover a shipwreck like this, because it was not the usual thing, what happens today comes to mind. We wanted to reflect that many of the issues analyzed in relation to the Basques in that period occur today exactly the same with immigrants who they come here to live, “says Alberdi.
One of these similarities is the figure of the ‘enganchador’ or emigration agent, a person in charge of promoting the mass and group recruitment of emigrants, especially young people, from different parts of the peninsula, in the case of the Basques from Iparralde. “He is a very representative figure of the companies that are organized from 1830 to promote Basque emigration, turned into a business. They were dedicated to convincing young people to travel to America and each company had its own”, explains the commissioner. That year, Uruguay just emancipated itself from the Spanish metropolis and had become the Oriental Republic of Uruguay. Although Spain still did not recognize the new republic, it did sign agreements with it to encourage emigration. It was thanks to one of these agreements that the ‘Leopoldina Rosa’ left for Río de la Plata in 1842. Specifically, the ‘enganchador’ was Alfredo Bellemare, who represented in Baiona the company Lafone & Wilson, owned by banker Samuel Fisher Lafone, one of the most Basque emigrants transported to the Río de la Plata area and owner of the frigate that stars in this story.
“He was a businessman. He made quite important steps, such as the agreement in 1836, in the middle of the Carlist War, with the regent María Cristina de Borbón to promote emigration to Uruguay in Spain,” Alberdi added. Companies like Lafone’s, he explains, received money from the Uruguayan government and also from the Spanish crown. “They (the Uruguayans) were very interested in the Europeans going there. At the same time, here, the regent was interested in the Basques, instead of continuing to fight against their government, go to America.” In the contract that Lafone signed with the Government of Uruguay, for example, it is stated the following: “In the city of San Felipe and Santiago de Montevideo, on the twenty-sixth day of the month of June, one thousand eight hundred and thirty-seven; before me the undersigned Notary Public and witnesses named at the end; the Supreme Executive Power of the Eastern Republic of Uruguay, composed of His Excellency Vice-president of her Don Carlos Anaya; and His Excellency the Minister Secretary of State in the Department of Doing Don Francisco Joaquín Muñoz, said: What about the thirteenth of the aforementioned June Don Samuel Lafone proposed that he would for five years come to his coast of Europe and the Canary Islands to this Republic is industrious and agricultural people who promote the arts and farming provided that for the passage of each of the fourteen years upwards, the same Government paid seventy patacones and forty for the minors of said fourteen “. Seventy patacones (old silver coin) for adults and forty for minors, those were the terms for Lafone to transfer Europeans to Montevideo.
One of the claims to leave Euskadi and travel for two months crammed into a stuffy ship was wealth. “The idea that there were many possibilities for land, livestock and having a better life. In most cases it was easy to convince, because if a crisis or war was being experienced here, it is easy to think that you are going to go somewhere else. be better, “says Alberdi and points out that this can also be extrapolated to the current situation. “Many times that promise was not real. Of course there is the figure of the famous Indian who returns to Spain enriched, but most did not do it,” he adds. However, in the 19th century the people who chose to emigrate were not the poorest or those with the fewest resources. This was due to the high cost of the ticket to travel or, in case of not having money, to the obligation to have a guarantor in the country of origin. “Determining how much a ticket cost is difficult. There were different prices, first and second, depending on what food they gave them or in what conditions they wanted to travel on the ship, but it cost a lot. Those who left a guarantor, when they got there and started they had to return the money to work or, if they did not succeed, the person who had endorsed them had to pay for them. ”
When deciding to travel, chain or ‘linkage’ emigration was also a key factor: the fact that a relative or friend had emigrated previously and acted as a contact there for the rest of the relatives. In the case of the ‘Leopoldina Rosa’, 303 Basques (according to the chronicle of ‘El Espectador’) chose to leave the Basque Country behind and ride the frigate. Alberdi explains that “that number of people per ship was common” and that “there are even references to the problems that ships had in terms of provisions.” It was no wonder that with so many people on board they had to ration their food. The ‘Leopoldina’ began to be loaded in Baiona and ended in Pasaia (Gipuzkoa), which responds to the interest of the shipowners in wanting to put “the more people the better”, says the commissioner. “The French authorities were more rigid in the number of passengers and did not allow the ships to load so much. The Spanish authorities should not be so much,” he completes.
Uruguay and Argentina continued as the main destinations for Basque emigration, along with other places such as Cuba, Mexico or Peru during the rest of the 19th century. “In the last quarter, it is curious that as a result of the abolition of the fueros there was an increase in emigration with the aim of escaping military service. Until 1876 the Basques did not do it but with the abolition they did. The times were long and in many cases there were armed conflicts. The service was almost like saying goodbye to life, “explains Alberdi. At the same time, there was a “paradox” in the Basque Country, especially in Bizkaia: “With industrialization, a strong process of migration took place from other Spanish territories due to the mines and the Biscayan steel industry”.
“The pen refuses to paint this scene that in the space of a few moments contains everything that human suffering has the most horrible and most regrettable”, could be read in the chronicle ‘El Espectador’, before the list of victims ( 231) and survivors (72) of the shipwreck of the ‘Leopoldina Rosa’, which left Pasaia bound for Río de la Plata almost 180 years ago and is so reminiscent of those who set sail from different parts of the world to other destinations.