1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Biscay

BISCAY (Vizcaya), a maritime province of northern Spain; bounded on the N. by the Bay of Biscay, E. by Guipúzcoa, S. by Álava and W. by Burgos and Santander. Pop. (1900) 311,361; area, 836 sq. m. A small strip of isolated territory within the borders of Biscay, on the west, is officially included in the province of Santander. Biscay is one of the Basque Provinces, and its name is occasionally employed as geographically equivalent to Basque, in that case including the three provinces of Biscay proper, Guipúzcoa and Álava. The coast-line, which extends from Ondarroa to a short distance east of Castro Urdiales, is bold and rugged, and in some places is deeply indented. The surface of the country is for the most part very mountainous, being traversed towards the south by the great Cantabrian chain; but at the same time it is diversified with numerous narrow valleys and small plains. Some of the mountains are almost entirely composed of naked calcareous rock, but most of them were formerly covered to their summits with forests of oaks, chestnuts or pine trees, now destroyed to provide fuel. Holly and arbutus are common, and furze and heath abound in the poorer parts. The only river of any size is the Nervion, Ansa or Ibaizabal, on which Bilbao is situated; the others, which are numerous, are merely large mountain streams. The climate is rather inclement and variable; but the thermometer seldom drops below freezing-point, nor does snow fall frequently in winter except on the highest summits. The rainfall is on an average greater than in any province except those of the extreme north-west. The soil, though not very fertile, except in some of the valleys and sheltered hillsides, produces wheat, maize, barley, rye, flax, grapes, peaches, apples and other fruits. The mountainous slopes of Biscay are studded with the traditional Basque caserio, or farm-house, in which the peasantry live on the métayer system, dividing the profits of the soil with absentee landlords. The farms are generally small, and are for the most part tilled by manual labour. The fisheries are actively prosecuted along the coast by a hardy race of fishers, who were the first of their craft in Europe to pursue the whale, formerly abundant in the Bay of Biscay. Cod, bream, tunny and anchovy are the principal fish taken. The fishing fleet consists of several hundred boats, manned by nearly 5000 men and boys. Biscay is very rich in minerals. Iron of the finest quality is found in almost every part, and forms a main article of export. At the beginning of the 20th century an average of about 5,000,000 tons was produced every year, and many large foundries were at work. Lead and zinc are mined in much smaller quantities, alum and sulphur are also present, and marble, lime and sandstone are abundant. Another very important industry is the manufacture of dynamite and other explosives at Baracaldo, closely connected with the mining interests. There are also potteries, paper, soap and shoe factories, flour mills and breweries, and the many mineral springs and spas are frequented by people from all parts of Spain. The mining and industrial interests of Biscay were very materially assisted by the quick and important development of means of communication of every kind. The provincial and parish roads, kept up by the local government, are excellent. No province in Spain had at the beginning of the 20th century such a complete network of railways, all built since 1870.

Bilbao (pop. 83,306), the capital and principal port, and Baracaldo (15,013), an important industrial town, are described in separate articles. Sestao (10,833) is the only other town of more than 10,000 inhabitants; the port of Bermeo (9061) is the chief fishing station; Durango (4319), on the river of the same name, was founded by the early kings of Navarre in the 10th century, obtained the rank of a countship in 1153, and contains one of the oldest churches in the Basque Provinces, San Pedro de Tavira; Guernica (3250), a picturesque village on the river Mondaca, was until 1876 the meeting-place of the provincial parliament. The deputies assembled under an old oak-tree, celebrated by the Basque poet, José Maria Iparraguirre, in a song which is regarded by the Spanish Basques almost as a national anthem. For the history of the Basques, see Basque Provinces; for their origin, language and customs, see Basques. The inhabitants of Biscay are intelligent, enterprising and well-educated; and, owing to the uniformly high birth-rate, low death-rate, and very slight loss by emigration, their numbers increased rapidly during the latter part of the 19th century, until in 1900 the density of population (372.4 per sq. m.) was greater than in any other Spanish province.