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buber.net > Basque > History > The Oldest Letter in Basque (1537)
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The Oldest Letter in Basque (1537)

by Joxe Mallea Olaetxe

Joan Zumarraga Laritz of Durango, Bizkaia, is the first best-known Basque historical figure. The reason is that he was long in deeds and words, an anomaly among Basques, who are supposed to be long in deeds, but short in words.

Zumarraga was born in 1476 and took the habit of Saint Francis in Arantzazu (probably). He died in Mexico City in 1548. OK, I will admit that every time one starts telling the story of another fifteenth-century friar, today many readers are immediately turned off. Well, how wrong can you be?

He emigrated to Castile, where in 1527 he met the emperor Charles V of Hapsburg, who appointed him as the first bishop of Mexico. By all accounts he was one of the most influential figures in the Spanish colonies. He not only laid the foundations of the Christian Church in Mexico, but connected with the very Mexican soul through his intervention and sanction of the cult of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Today one can find dozens of Internet sites on Zumarraga, all of them related to his part in the devotion to the Virgin of Guadalupe. Regardless of the historicity of the 1531 apparition, the records show that his mayordomo Matxin Aranguren was the first person to leave a donation for the Church of Guadalupe in Mexico.

As a bishop, Zumarraga wrote hundreds of letters to kings, high officials, Basque friends, and relatives. He even wrote and published the first printed books in the Americas. He was a true renaissance man, who did not forget his baserritarra roots. Indeed, he may have been the first Basque sheepman of North America. Surprising Zumarraga? You bet!

He was also an early euskalzale. The Basque version of the formula used by the Tertiary Franciscans of Durango to give the religious oaths of poverty, chastity, and obedience is attributed to him, but the paternity is not a sure thing.


What is certain is that on February 15, 1537 he wrote a long letter to Kattalin Ruiz Muntsaratz of Abadi˝o, Bizkaia. This document was discovered in the Archivo General de India, Justicia 1011, no. 2, ramo 2, fol. 214-15 (there is another copy in AGI, Justicia 1011, Cartilla 8).

NOTE: Those interested can read this and other letters with their English version in Richard E. Greenleaf, Zumßrraga and His Family. Letters to Vizcaya 1536‑1548. A Collection of Documents in Relation to the Founding of a Hospice in His Birthplace, Transcribed and introduced by Richard E. Greenleaf, Translated by Neal Kaveny, O.F.M. (Washington, D.C.: Academy of American Franciscan History, 1979).

Kattalin was the lady of the castle of Muntsaratz--the upper class of Bizkaian society--and Zumarraga wanted to marry his nephew Antso Garzia Larrazabal to her daughter Mari Inigez. Larrazabal had been just a tailor in Durango, before he was forced to leave town. He went to Mexico where his uncle secured for him the monopoly of making ornaments for the church.

The bishop tells Kattalin that Antso was no longer a poor tailor but rich. Therefore, he was now an honorable man, and asking for her daughter's hand was not out of his league. The bishop's plan was to set up a foundation in Durango, a hospice for the Franciscan friars, which would be run by Antso and Mari Inigez. The funds would come from Mexico.

Zumarraga calls Kattalin sister ("neba arrebaoc") but that's the Franciscan talking. He always considered himself related to the Muntsaratz, but when Kattalin was asked the question, she declared that she did not know how they were related. Now the bishop wanted to re-connect the Zumarraga-Muntsaratz ties through his nephew Antso.

Zumarraga dictated most of his letter for Kattalin, but at one point, he took the pen in his own hands and this is what he wrote:

"Lo de asta aquÝ se˝ora hermana es de ajena mano lo que se sigue es letra de vuestro hermano fray Juan para con vuestra merced es todo lo que aquÝ dirÚ en especial lo del bascuence."

(What has been written up to this point, dear sister, has been written by another's hand; what follows is in the hand of your brother, Fray Juan. All that I shall write here is for you (alone), especially what is written in Basque).

    "Orayn bada ene arrebea douncsua alan yšango šara paradisuan alcarr dacuscula

    Now, then, blessed sister of mine, you will be such in paradise where we shall see each other

    bidaletan deusudaz An(c)so garcia gaz

    I am sending to you with Antso Garcia,

    onen yšenean doašala gogoan garriac plater bj

    and in his name, the following souvenirs: two plates,

    jarrabat calderetachu bat tašea conteacaz

    a pitcher, a small cooking pot and a cup with beads

    alaba orrendaco orren esposo onec bidaletan deusaz

    For that daughter of yours, her husband is sending her (they were already married by proxy)

    vrra catea eta lau erestun da joyela yru oe onac

    a gold chain, four rings, and a gem, (and) the three good beds

    lepatrapu galantorj nic liburuacaz eta aulquioc eta oeoc pere bay

    That elegant scarf is from me, as well as the books, and those stools, and also those beds

    guichica gujchica maria ruyzen axoarori beteco dogu ebeco gaušaez

    A little at a time, we shall complete the dowry of Maria Ruyz with other things from here

    obatuco ta ondratuco dogu Munšarasco eseorj eta šure alabaen orj

    We shall better and honor that house of Muntsaratz and that of your daughter.

    gollara oc bere onac tira

    Those spoons are good ones also

    guztiocaz asegujn artuco dau šure arima dounsu orrec

    (I hope that) your blessed soul will be pleased with all the things

    aporta bajte orra quisa onean vein ese orreetara eta šure podrera

    if one day they arrive at that house and to your control in good condition

    eta ene erechian oba da guarda ditean exilic, orco miiocaytj

    and in my opinion it is best that this be kept secret because of the gossips around there,

    šerren mylla bider gueyago dala dan vano esango dabee

    for they will surely say that it is worth a great deal more than it actually is.

    ynbidiac aurqui esango bearr eztirean gaušaac

    In their envy, they will be quick to say a number of unwarranted things.

    durangoco gentea bašaut juizio gujchizcoa da gueyaena

    I know the people of Durango; the majority of them have little judgement.

    casulla eta frontal bi doaz orayn joango dira gueyago

    At this time I am sending a pair of chasubles and two antependia; I shall send more later.

    orco elexaoen bere gomuta yšango gara Jaunac bicišea emayten deuscula

    We shall be mindful also of those churches there for as long as the Lord gives us life.

    orayn bada ene arrebea fraydeon ostatuorj

    Now, then, sister of mine, that hospice of the friars,

    šure alabaen ese jauxi orri vrgaši year deusagu ereguj bear dogu

    (and) that deteriorated house of your daughter we must sustain, we must rebuild it,

    šuc eta nic neba arrebaoc jauxiric dago

    you and I, brother and sister; it has fallen into disrepair.

    šure alabea da orren šimjenturic onaena

    Your daughter is the best foundation for it.

    gure llobau bere gišon prestu egin da

    Also, this nephew of ours has become an honorable man;

    asco yrabaztendau eta nic borondate onez emongo deusteet

    he earns a great deal of money and I will gladly give them

    edolaan bere garia errenta

    at least the income from the wheat.

    ene borondatea da ogueta amar edo berroguey mjla marabjdj errenta davela

    It is my intention that they have an income of thirty or forty thousand maravedÝses

    frayde becatarioc acoguetaco

    in order to give shelter to those sinful friars.

    orayn šeuc ene arrebea bear došu artu errentea erjdayteco ardurea njc varriz bidaletaco

    Now, you yourself, my sister, must take upon yourself the task of finding the income, and I of sending one.

    Mjlla ducat bidalduco ditugula vrte onetan njc uste

    I believe that this year we shall send a thousand ducats.

    orayn vere šerbayta voa artuco deue...šataco bildurraren ez gueyago

    We are also sending some now, and it is only for fear that it might be confiscated that we do not send more,

    eta exilic daroaez maestruoc yrureun bana

    and the ships' captains are secretly carrying three hundred (ducats) each.

    memorjan daroaešan gaušac erosita ganecoagaz acudidu

    dagujšuela šurj

    After they have acquired all the items they have on the purchase list, whatever is left they should hand it over to you;

    alaan escribietan deusat Vrtierj Sivilljara

    that is what I am writing to Urti (Abendano) in Seville.

    alegrabidy šure biošz garbiorj andrea šara eta bacardia

    May your pure heart be filled with joy. You are a lady, and alone.

    šeruetaco Jauna yšango da šure faborean

    The Lord in the heavens will favor you.

    Munsarasco eseorj obato dago eta erriorj bere bay

    That house of Muntsaratz as well as that town are better off

    šeruco Jaunagaz eta vere andra naturaleagaz

    with their heavenly Lord and with their natural (rightful) lady.

    olaoc bere gujadu bite ondo

    Make sure those foundries are managed well also,

    edolaan vere yoen azpian egongo edo jauxico ez šara diruacati

    and in any case, you will not be or fall under anyone's control because of the money.

    šeuc yšango došu vear dana šeuretaco ta besteaendaco vere

    You will have what is necessary for yourself and even for others.

    esforša bidj šure biošz noble orj

    Let your noble heart take courage.

    obato lagunetan šaytuela Munsarasco seme lealoc enšuten dot

    I have heard that those loyal people of Muntsaratz are helping you more;

    esquerric asco devstet

    I thank them very much for it.

    ene goraynšiac emon vjte

    Give them all regards on my behalf

    eta alaan eta orayndo obato dagujela oneric aurrera guztioc

    and I hope that they will continue doing well and even improve in the future.

    ese orj vear dogula adelantadu.

    We must advance the cause of that house.

Unfortunately, the original letter is lost or has not been discovered yet. The document in the Archivo de Indias is a copy.

The text transcribed here has been borrowed (with minor alterations) from Antonio Tovar, Enrique Otte, and Koldo Michelena, "Nuevo y mßs extenso texto arcaico vasco: De una carta del primer obispo de MÚxico, Fray Juan de Zumßrraga," Euskara 26 (2.aldia): 5-14. See also Ibon Sarasola, "Fragmento en lengua vasca en una carta de F. Juan de Zumßrraga," Anuario del Seminario de FilosofÝa Vasca "Julio de Urquijo," 17, (1983): 97-103.

After Zumarraga finished the part in Euskara, he switched back to Castilian, and in the first sentence he gave proof of his awareness regarding the sad situation of the Basque language:

"Para que se alegre vuestra merced he escripto en el lenguage olvidado e no como yo quisiera como pude."

(In order to cheer you up, I have written in the forgotten language, not as well as I would have liked, but as well as I could).


Zumarraga had motives to write Kattalin in their native language. First, there were sentimental reasons. Second, some of the news he was revealing to Kattalin were of a rather delicate nature, especially for a Franciscan bishop. He was telling her that they were sending money in secret (by "they" the bishop meant himself and his Basque collaborators, such as Matxin Ibanez Hernani and Antso Garzia Larrazabal). Because the king of Castile often confiscated the silver that came from the colonies, Zumarraga relied on Basque shipmasters, such as Gonzalo Ugarte, Antso Pinaga, Joanes Ypazteco (probable "Ipasterko"), and others to smuggle the money from Mexico into Bizkaia.

Zumarraga did not show any guilt feelings about doing something illegal, because he figured that the king did not have the right to confiscate the silver, either. He continued sending money this way, but once he was caught, and that cost him. Urti Abenda˝o, the bishop's agent and contact in Seville, helped dislodge the money by taking advantage of the Basque network. In any case, the bishop decision to use Euskara minimized the risk of outsiders penetrating the operation.

For more information on the amazing story of Joan Zumarraga, see

J. Mallea-Olaetxe, "J. Zumarraga, Bishop of Mexico, and the Basques: The Ethnic Connection," Ph. D. dissertation (University of Nevada, 1988).

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