Monday, December 21, 2009

The Basque Children of 1937

The Spanish Civil War was a bitter conflict, which divided the nation. Even now, the Spanish people are still learning to come to terms with their past which saw tens of thousands of deaths and millions uprooted and destitute. The plight of the Basque people was particularly tragic following the bombing of the town of Guernica in April 1937 by the planes of the nazi Condor Legion.

The old steamship `Habana` that used to travel back and forth to Cuba, now bringing a cargo of almost 4,000 children to Southampton Docks, 23rd May 1937

The destruction of Guernica, which inspired Pablo Picasso to paint his masterpiece of the same name, also brought nearly 4.000 children to Britain as refugees from the Spanish Civil War. Public opinion was outraged by the bombing of Guernica, the first ever saturation bombing of a civilian population. The Basque government appealed to foreign nations to give temporary asylum to the children, but the British government adhered to its policy of non- intervention.

The Duchess of Atholl, President of the National Joint Committee for Spanish Relief, took up the campaign to urge the government to accept the Basque children and finally, permission was reluctantly granted. However, the government refused to be responsible financially for the children, saying that this would violate the non-intervention pact. It demanded that the newly formed Basque Children’s Committee guarantee 10/- per week for the care and education of each child.

The children left for Britain on the steamship the Habana on 21st May 1937. Each child had been given a cardboard hexagonal disk to pin on his clothes with an identification number and the words Expedición a Inglaterra printed on it. The ship, supposed to carry around 800 passengers, carried 3840 children, 80 teachers, 120 helpers, 15 catholic priests and 2 doctors. The children were crammed into the boat. The steamer arrived at Southampton on 23rd May and the children were sent in busloads to a camp at North Stoneham in Eastleigh that had been set up in three fields. The setting up of the camp in less than two weeks was the result of a remarkable effort by the whole community.

Much more information on the Basque Children can be found here.

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