Two Underrated Peoples

In looking over the history of the past 500 years, four nations stand out for having completely and massively altered world civilization in a way that no others have, before or after: England, Spain, France, and Portugal.    

No other empires even come close.  The Muslim conquests were landbound except for island hopping. Chinese and Mongolian conquests were landbound. Even in ancient times, Greek, Roman, and Persian conquests were essentially land operations, except for river fording. Yes, they all had navies, but were not defined by them.

What separates the English, French, Portuguese, and Spanish was that these nations had vast transoceanic empires. They defined themselves by their navies, especially the English.

Portugal sent off its explorers to discover the Eastern oceanic routs to Asia -- the land routes having been closed by the Muslims. The Spanish circumnavigated the globe. The British empire was completely a naval operation; and the French, contrary to our American prejudices, were no slouches and actually a major player: Remember it was Rochambeau's fleet that prevented British reinforcement of Cornwallis at Yorktown.

Only the Japanese came close, and only for a very brief time during World War II. It remains to be seen if the Chinese will measure up. Their early maritime efforts, which reached as far as Africa, were curtailed by internal imperial demands.

Not the Vikings, whose North American settlements fell. Not even the Dutch. They had a few punctuated colonies -- Indonesia, South Africa, etc. but it would be England, France, Spain, and Portugal whose empires would color large sections of the globe to impose language, religion, and culture over vast areas. What colonies other nations might have, were either captured or sold or relatively insignificant.

Surely their Atlantic coasts impelled a part of their success. But Scandinavia had an Atlantic coast -- why no vast Scandinavian Empire, except for a 11th century conquest of England, Normandy, and the settlement of Iceland?  Danish is not a world language. French, English, Spanish, and Portuguese are. German fleets ruled the Baltic with their Hanseatic trade. Why didn't Germany's Übermenschen build a stable world empire, rather than the flash in the pan briefly held by the Kaisers? Germany had an Atlantic outlet. Why couldn't Italy strike out beyond the Mediterranean? Why didn't the Moors strike out from Morocco?

On the surface, these four nations have little in common except for Atlantic coasts and a Christian European background. However, to an amateur historian like me, something pops off the page that is not immediately evident on the surface. What these nations -- all historic rivals -- share in common is a substratum of two ethnic groups, almost lost to history, considered "has-beens."

These people are the Celts and the Basques, conquered and almost bereft of their native tongues. The Celts and Basques now speak the language of others. Is this coincidental?

France's Empire stormed out of Brittany. Who where the Bretons? They were displaced Celtic Britons who fled the Anglo-Saxon invasions to take over France's Northwest peninsula, which undercuts England. They speak a Brythonic Celtic tongue related to Welsh. It is from these Atlantic stocks that the French Navy populated its fleets. The Quebecois of Canada are heavily Breton.

Yes, France's root stock is Celtic. Until recently French history books would open with "Our Ancestors the Gauls," the Gauls being another Celtic group, but it would be the Bretons who would contribute far and above the rest of France.

Yet, the Gaullish language is dead, while Breton is on life support. The Celts who built the French empire speak the modified Latin tongue of Romans. Their country is named after Germanic Franks.

Spain is even more astounding. Its navy was populated by Basques. Magellan died in the Philippines. It would be the Basque Juan Sebastian Elcano, the second in command, who completed the circumnavigation. To get a full sense of how Basque the Spanish Empire was, merely note that the liberator of South America, Simon Bolivar, was Basque. Bernardo O'Higgins had a Basque mother, not to mention that his surname indicates a Celtic Irish background as well -- this would be no accident. Augustin Iturbide, another Basque, would drive the Spanish out of Mexico. Columbus used Basque navigation maps.

"There are at least two things that clearly can be attributed to the Basques: the Society of Jesus and the Republic of Chile." -- Miguel de Unamno

That was an understatement. Chile may be one-quarter Basque. The Basque Juan de Garay founded Buenos Aires, after a previous attempted settlement was destroyed. The Basques are elites all over Latin America.

For sheer amazement, nothing approximates the one-armed, one-legged, one-eyed Blas de Lezo who, though outnumbered 8 to 1, was responsible for the destruction of the British fleet at the Battle of Cartagena in 1741. It was the Spanish Armada in reverse. De Lezo was a Basque.

Then as if to add to the mix, the Northwest section of Spain is Galicia, a legendary Celtic outpost. Though now mixed with the Latins, it was not always so. According to Mileasian Irish/Scottic legend, the Irish/Scots Highlanders - in a purer Celtic day -- sailed out of Galicia to Ireland. Those who remained behind would fight the Moors and eventually Latinize, though they keep the Celtic music

It would be these Galicians who would populate Argentina and Uruguay. The Spanish-Argentines are heavily Galician when they are not Basque. The rest of Spain tended to stay home. 70% of Buenos Aires' Spanish immigrant population is Galician. Do you begin to see a pattern?

Spain's Empire was not a Latin endeavor, but a Celtic-Basque migration. France's Empire was Brythonic Celtic, and, yes, some Basques joined in as well. Canada has Cape Breton and Port aux Basques.

Portugal?! Well, Portugal's most famous explorer was Vasco da Gama. Vasco means Basque. Portugal had its share of Celts: the Lusitani. We tend to think of Portugal as Latin, but its substrate is Celtic. The Portuguese language actually originated in Galicia, Spain, which speaks its own dialect apart from Castilian; and as noted, those Galicians were originally Celtic.

Then comes Britain. Before the Anglo-Saxons (actually more Scandinavian than Germanic) hit Britain, Britain was Celtic. There is a debate how much of that Celtic survives in England. Some claim the Germanic invasions were just an overlay, others hold to a quasi-genocidal erasure of Celtic men from England.

What is clear is that the Irish, Scots and Welsh -- the Celtic ones who lost their languages -- ended up populating the British Empire and America out of all proportion to the English when adjusted for percentage.

This is what the Scandinavians lacked: A Celtic base. It was the Celts, and Basques, the pre-Roman oceanic seafarers who may be responsible for much of the imperial success of West European civilization.

Amazingly, these Celts and Basques may be genetically related. They both share extremely high rates of the R1b halpotype. Look at where the concentration of R1b reaches 80% and there you will find the populations which built empire. While the Celts and Basque have different subclades of R1b, this may only indicate an earlier cognate origin.

Modern Western Civilization may be a Celtic-Basque invention. The overlay of German and Latin languages on these people, by invaders, may be misleading. What distinguished the Basque was an amazing love of liberty and the will to fight for it. The Celts were libertarian to the point of anarchy, which is why they often fell. But it may be this substratum of liberty loving, related peoples responsible for Western Civilization's love of liberty.

Though their languages are all but extinct; and where still spoken, on life support, it would seem that the Celts and Basque -- who seem to be related -- may be major anchor pins in world history, yet either ignored or underrated. A lot of people who identify as Spanish, French, Portuguese or English, may be in reality, either part Celtic or Basque, peoples who have a mysterious origin, but may be more important that most realize.

Mike Konrad is the pen name of an American who is not Jewish, Latin, nor Arab. He runs a website,, where he discusses the subculture of Arabs in Latin America. He wishes his Spanish were better.