A Brief history of Catalunya - By Journalist Simon Harris
Introduction to Catalunya
Though Catalonia has formed part of Spain for nearly 300 years, Catalans only grudgingly admit the fact. Current relations with distant Madrid are as good as I can remember, mainly because socialist President Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has a very positive attitude towards the Catalans and their culture, and consequently treats them with the respect they deserve. However, his right-wing predecessor Jose Maria Aznar, who was Spanish President until 2004, was a different matter altogether. During his presidency, continual snipes at the Catalans,,, including a proposal to impose the Spanish humanities and languages syllabus in Catalan schools and a ludicrous plan to divert the River Ebro south before it reached Catalonia brought back the ghost of Franco in many people’s minds. The Principality has suffered too many periods of repression at the hands of the Spanish for the Catalans to ever completely trust Madrid.
Catalonia’s independent streak is also justified by more than 2,000 years of history. When the Romans came to the peninsula, more than 200 years before Christ, they divided their newly-conquered territory into two; Hispania Citerior, which roughly corresponded to modern Catalonia, and Hispania Ulterior, the rest of the peninsula. Tarraco, present-day Tarragona, was the capital of Roman Hispania and when Emperor Augustus made the city his home in 26 BC, it was briefly the capital of the whole of the Roman Empire.
The Making of Catalonia
In 711 the Moors crossed the Straits of Gibraltar and swept through the Iberian Peninsula. They captured Barcelona in 717 and then crossed the Pyrenees and went as far as Poitiers before being checked by the Franks. In desperation the inhabitants of what was to become Catalonia turned to Charlemagne, the powerful Frankish leader for help in return for pledging allegiance to the Carolingian Empire. Girona was retaken in 785 and Barcelona in 801, and the province of the Spanish March, a buffer zone between Christian France and Muslim Hispania, was born.
The Spanish March was governed by local counts, who had political and judicial functions but were ultimately responsible to the Frankish king and were appointed and could be dismissed by him. The most powerful of these counts was Guifre el Pelós who managed to unite the counties of Urgell, Cerdanya, Girona and Barcelona, and so controlled a swathe of land that stretched from Barcelona to Perpignan along the coast and inland to the Pyrenees. It was Guifre’s son, Guifre Borrell, who became the first hereditary ruler of Catalunya Vella, Old Catalonia. The next step on the road to nationhood came in 985 when the Moors, under Al-Mansour, managed to cross the River Llobregat and sack Barcelona. Having received no military support from the Franks, Count Borrell II declared independence, and although not recognised by the Franks until 1258, an independent state called Catalonia was born.
The next two centuries were spent consolidating their territory and pushing the Moors south towards the Ebro, and in 1137 Count Ramon Berenguer IV married Petronella, the infant daughter of the King of Aragon. His son, Alfons I, became the ruler of the most powerful state in Southern Europe, the Catalan-Aragonese Confederation, which consisted of Catalonia, Aragon and the whole of the south of France. With considerable help from the Knights Templar, the Moorish threat became a thing of the past.
Under Jaume I the Conqueror (1213-1276) the Catalans sought to drive the Moors out of the Mediterranean completely. During his reign, Catalonia conquered Mallorca in 1229, Ibiza in 1235 and Valencia in 1238. Furthermore, aware of the need for dialogue between the sovereign and his subjects, he instituted the Corts, a consultative body in which the three classes of the nobility, the clergy and the urban bourgeoisie were represented. Over the next century Mediterranean expansion continued with the conquest of Sicily, Sardinia and Southern Greece, including Athens, and the democratic processes were increased with the founding of the Diputació del General, initially a tax collecting body which was later to become the Generalitat, the government of Catalonia.
The Death of a Dynasty
Just when Catalonia’s Golden Age was at its height, disaster struck the House of Barcelona. In 1410, Martí the Humane died without heir and Fernando de Antequera, second son of Juan I of Castile, was elected king of the Catalan-Aragonese Confederation. As Castilians, he and his successors had little knowledge of Catalonia’s rule by consensus. They rarely visited their kingdom and imposed Castilian legislators who managed to incite the people so much that civil war broke out during the reign of the tellingly named Joan II Without Faith. Things got even worse when Fernando II, who had married Isabel of Castile in 1469, acceded to the Catalan-Aragonese throne. He immediately introduced the Inquisition, expelled the Jews causing an economic crisis, insisted that his subjects proved they had no Arab blood, and even though, after discovering America, Columbus had sailed into the port of Barcelona, Fernando and Isabel prohibited Catalonia from trading with the Americas.
Spaniards claim that the reign of the Catholic Kings marks the beginning of Spain as a nation. However, although from the reign of Carlos I onwards the Catalan-Aragonese Confederation was ruled by the same monarch as Spain, technically it was still an independent state with its own laws, and when it traded with the rest of the peninsula customs taxes were levied.
During the reign of Felipe IV, the monarch came under the influence of the autocratic Count-Duke Olivares, who when war broke out with France in 1635 demanded a disproportionate contribution of money and men. Since, according to her constitution, Catalonia should only pay those taxes which had been approved by her own government, the answer was a firm no. So, determined to bring his rebellious subjects into line, Olivares launched a campaign into France across the Pyrenees from Catalan territory in which 10,000 men who had been recruited against their will were slaughtered. Not satisfied with this sacrifice, he then billeted Castilian troops in Catalonia, who, in the true spirit of friendship, raped and robbed the locals. The situation came to a head in 1640 when the reapers, who gathered in Barcelona to work on the harvest, revolted, burned down government buildings and murdered Felipe IV’s Viceroy. The destructive 19-year Guerra dels Segadors, the three-way Reapers’ War involving Castilian, French and Catalan troops ensued, and in the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659, Felipe IV ceded all Catalonia’s French territories to the French Crown. Medieval Catalonia had ceased to exist.
Things went from bad to worse when Felipe IV’s son, the half-wit Carlos II, died without heir in 1700. There were two pretenders; the Bourbon, Philippe de Anjou, grandson of Louis XIV, and the Habsburg Archduke Charles of Austria. Castile favoured the former while Catalonia the latter and, after allying with England and Holland, who feared a French-Spanish axis, welcomed him to Barcelona as Carles III of Catalonia-Aragon in 1705. The war of Spanish Succession broke out, and just when all seemed to be going well, the Archduke’s brother died and Carles was called back to Vienna to be crowned Holy Roman Emperor. To the English and Dutch a united Austria and Spain was as unpleasant a prospect as a French-Spanish axis, so they pulled out of the alliance leaving Catalonia alone to face 200,000 Franco-Spanish troops.
The Breaking of Catalonia
The Catalans held out well considering the odds against them, but on 11th September 1714 Barcelona finally fell after a long siege, and Felipe V’s retribution was devastating. The Generalitat and the Council of One Hundred were disbanded, Catalonia’s ancient rights and privileges were abolished and speaking, reading or writing in Catalan became an imprisonable offence. All of Catalonia’s universities were closed and replaced by the heavily-censored government-controlled University of Cervera. The Ciutadella, a huge fort, was built in Barcelona along with new city walls, which were designed not to keep invaders out but to keep the people in. Catalonia had ceased to exist and the Catalans had become the lost nation.
Although Catalonia’s great literary tradition would be completely lost for the next century, the Catalans never stopped speaking their own language, which simply went underground and was spoken in secret, and being a canny lot, their economy was soon on its feet again. Now officially part of Spain, the Castilians could no longer excise customs taxes on Catalan products, and Catalan cotton, leather and wine, in particular, began to flood the Spanish market. Aware of the Catalans manufacturing skills, Carlos III allowed the Principality to trade with the Americas in 1778, just in time for Catalonia to take advantage of the Industrial Revolution. The economic boom was so successful that, with its cotton and textile industry at the forefront, Barcelona became known as the ‘Manchester of the Mediterranean’.
Economic success brought increasing confidence and by the early decades of the 19th century, the Catalan language came out of hiding and began to be spoken in public again. The turning point came in 1833, however, when Bonaventura Carles Aribau, who funnily enough was working for a bank in Madrid, published ‘Oda a la Pàtria’, a poem that spoke of the homesickness he felt for his homeland. Although of dubious literary quality, the poem was written in Catalan and was so popular in Catalonia that it soon sparked a flood of imitators. These imitations slowly developed into a fully-fledged literary movement known the Renaixença, and by the mid 19th century Catalan poetry, prose and theatre were in as good a state as they had been 150 years earlier. The booming economy and literary Renaissance also brought the first rumblings of a new Catalan political consciousness. Catalans began to believe that they were every bit as good as the Castilians.
Like a Phoenix from the Ashes
It was in Castile that the next step on Catalonia’s road to political recovery would be taken. Tired of centuries of absolutist misrule, which for most Spaniards resulted in abject poverty, many began to see Catalonia as an example to be followed, so when the First Spanish Republic was declared in 1873, it was not surprising that the first two Presidents of the Cortes in Madrid were Catalan. Although the short-lived republic only lasted a year, this brief period of freedom of expression allowed politicians from other Spanish regions, such as Galicia and the Basque Country, to consider the idea of federalism. These ideas did not disappear with the restoration of the monarchy, and as the century reached its close, a young Prat de la Riba formed the bourgeois Catalanist party, the Lliga Regionalista.
By 1906, the Lliga Regionalista had gained the support of Republicans, Socialists and Carlists as a respectable bourgeois group that could strengthen the cause against Monarchists and against the workers and their anarchist fringe. In 1914, Madrid decided to grant Catalonia some concessions, and the Mancomunitat, with Prat de la Riba as President, was set up. Although it was early days to re-establish the Generalitat, the Mancomunitat of Catalonia was a regional administrative body financed by local taxes, with its seat in the Palau de Generalitat in Barcelona.
The early decades of the 20th century were far from peaceful. The plight of industrial workers and the disaffected poor in Barcelona was taken up by the Anarchists and left-wing Trades Unions with often violent consequences such as the Setmana Tragica, the Tragic Week, of 1909, during which the streets of Barcelona exploded into street fighting and church burning. The whole of Spain was divided between Republicans and Monarchists, but at least Catalonia had gained a modicum of autonomy.
When Miguel Primo de Rivera staged a military coup in 1923 and installed himself as dictator of Spain, disbanding the Mancomunitat and illegalising the Catalan language once again, the divisions in Spanish society were deeply drawn. Primo de Rivera’s dictatorship lasted until 1930, and after a brief return of the monarchy, the 1931 General Election returned Spain’s ill-fated Second Republic. The stage was set for civil war.
With support from Madrid and the working classes in Catalonia, Francesc Macià, the President of the Generalitat, declared the Federal Republic of Catalonia on August 2nd 1931. Two years later a General Election returned a right-wing government in Madrid, which disbanded the Generalitat and called on General Franco to violently put down a miners’ strike in Asturias. On October 6th 1934, the left-wing lawyer Lluís Companys declared the Autonomous State of Catalonia and he and his government were imprisoned. The Spanish General Election of February 1936 was won by the Popular Front, a left-wing coalition, and in Catalonia Esquerra Republicana, the Catalan Republican Left, won a landslide victory, even though its leaders were still in prison. Two weeks later, they were released and Spain’s President Azaña reinstated the Generalitat and the 1932 Statute of Autonomy. On July 18th 1936, General Franco and four other chiefs of staff launched a military coup against the democratically elected Spanish Government. The Spanish Civil War had begun.
In Catalonia, the armed uprising against the Republic was rapidly suppressed by workers’ militias and the Civil Guard, who remained loyal to the Generalitat. There was a lot of infighting amongst loyalist troops, and the Communists finally ousted the Anarchists as the main political and military force in Catalonia. Early in the war, the Spanish Government fled Madrid, first to Valencia and then to Barcelona, so the Catalan capital was effectively capital of Spain for a brief while. Things finally came to a head in the autumn of 1938 when the Catalans stood alone at the Battle of the Ebro against the Nationalist troops, who were aided by their Fascist allies, Italy and Germany. After months of fighting and many deaths, the Fascists swept across the Ebro and Barcelona soon fell. The Spanish Civil war officially ended on March 28th 1939 and on April Fools’ Day of the same year, Franco declared ‘peace’ in Spain.
From Dictatorship to Democracy
The Generalísimo was particularly anti-Catalan, and as soon he was in power, he imprisoned, tortured and executed thousands. President Lluís Companys was captured by the Nazis in France, returned to Hitler’s allies in Spain and duly executed on Montjuic in 1940. Catalonia suffered a period of political, linguistic and cultural repression, which remains the shame of the 20th century.
By the 1950s, though, illegal Catalanist groups began to take their first tentative steps towards organising an underground resistance. By the 60s, Abbot Escarré of Montserrat, who as a religious leader was under the protection of the Vatican, began to stand up to Franco, and act as a focus for moderate Catalans. In 1974, the clandestine Assemblea de Catalunya, in preparation for Franco’s death, came out into the open under the slogan ‘Liberty, Amnesty, Statute of Autonomy’.
When Franco died on November 23rd 1975, all sections of Catalan society were ready to take control of their destiny again. On September 11th 1976, the Catalan National Day, a million and a half people took to the streets. In 1977, President-in-exile, Josep Tarradellas, came back to lead the restored Generalitat, and a new Statute of Autonomy was passed a year later. On March 20th 1980, the democratically-elected Catalan Parliament formally opened under the Presidency of Jordi Pujol, leader of the Catalan conservative party, Convergència i Unió.
El Gran President, Pujol, led Catalonia from dictatorship to democracy, while the Socialist Mayor of Barcelona, Pasqual Maragall, set about repairing the damage done to the Catalan capital. In 1985, Barcelona won the nomination for the 1992 Olympic Games and, in the run up, the city was covered with the slogan ‘Barcelona, Posa’t Guapa’ – ‘Barcelona, Make Yourself Beautiful’. The Olympics were an incredible success and were seen by all Spaniards as an example that the New Spain should follow.
In 2003, Pujol retired and Maragall took his place as President. With the Socialist Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero as President of Spain, there was a government in Madrid sympathetic to Catalonia, and a new Statute of Autonomy was passed in 2005. This allowed the Catalans to describe themselves as a ‘nation within the Spanish state’ for the first time in nearly 300 years, and with another socialist, Jose Montilla, elected president in 2006, the future looks bright, The Lost Nation has found itself once again.
Simon Harris is a journalist, a University lecturer in Barcelona and an author. Simon is married to a Catalan and has been here for over 20 years. His book "Going native in Catalunya" can be purchased via Amazon from the Travel Shop link below.