Catalonia. History. 18th Century.

Political History of Catalonia/ Catalunya. 18th Century.

In the 13th and 14th centuries, Catalonia was a major political and commercial power in the Mediterranean even though officially it formed part of the Crown** of Aragón.(**The umbrella term “Crown” rather than “Kingdom” is more commonly used when referring to the union of Aragón and Catalonia and other constituent realms such as the Kingdom of Valencia or Mallorca, Sicily, Naples. Although kingdoms in their own right they recognised the supremacy of the King of Aragón.)

During the 15th century, Catalonia’s influence within the Crown of Aragón waned significantly when the Aragonese throne passed to a Castilian-born and Castilian-speaking prince, Ferdinand of Antequera (who became Ferdinand/ Ferrán I of Aragón).

The marriage of Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand/ Ferrán II of Aragón in 1469 (aka the Catholic Monarchs) further weakened Catalonia’s role, since Ferdinand’s political interests promoted Castile at the expense of Aragón. Catalonia was further marginalised in 1518, when its fleet was prohibited from trading with the newly discovered Indias (Latin America). This lucrative Atlantic trade was funneled exclusively through Seville and, later, Cádiz.

Catalan discontent simmered throughout the 16th century, and finally erupted in 1640 over Castilian attempts at centralization by Philip IV’s prime minister, the Count-Duke of Olivares.

The Catalans feared the loss of their fueros (local laws) and were hostile to Castilian demands for money and troops to fight a possible French invasion. But what provoked the rebellion was the billeting of Castilian soldiers in Catalonia to deter the invasion. Initiated by the peasantry and  labourers, the uprising was popularly known as the Guerra dels Segadors (the Reapers’ War).

It acquired legendary status with the anonymous, 19th-century ballad, Els Segadors, which recalled events of the rebellion: the cruelty of the Castilians and the bravery of the Catalans. Suppressed under the Franco regime (1939-75), Els Segadors is now Catalonia’s national anthem.

Castilian attempts to crush the revolt failed and the rebels reacted by pledging allegiance to the king of France, Louis XIII, who quickly sent troops to support the rebel cause. The tide turned only after the Catalans became disillusioned by what turned out to be French occupation.

By 1648, most of the French soldiers had withdrawn from Catalonia and in 1652 Barcelona fell to Castilian troops after being starved into surrender. Philip, with little appetite for war now and anxious for Catalan allegiance (and taxes), declared a general amnesty and assured Catalans that their fueros would be recognised.

The 18th Century.
For Catalonia, the beginning of the 18th century represents a political low point. What happened was this: the last Hapsburg king of Spain, Charles II, died childless in 1700 but was persuaded on his deathbed to declare as his successor the 16-year old French Bourbon prince, Philip of Anjou.  This decision was opposed by Britain, Austria and Holland who, fearing France’s expansionist ambitions, favoured the Hapsburg pretender, Charles, Archduke of Austria. 

In Spain, Castile generally supported Philip’s claims but Catalonia (and Aragón and Valencia) backed the Hapsburg cause. The result was a long war –the War of the Spanish Succession 1701-14— eventually won by Philip’s forces. The war concluded with a ten-week siege of Barcelona, which finally fell on September 11, 1714.

Gérard Francois 1770-1837. Recognition of Duke of Anjou as King of Spain.

As punishment for having opposed Philip and supported Charles, Catalonia (along with Aragón and Valencia) suffered the indignity of having its political roots eradicated.

Everything now was centralised as part of the Bourbon master plan –known as the Nueva Planta, 1707– to unify the country. Catalonia’s administration (i.e. the Parliament –Corts— and regional councils) and its language were suppressed. Its laws (i.e. the fueros) were replaced by Castilian laws (although it was allowed to retain its civil law).

Castilian administrators moved in to preside over the twelve newly created provinces, taxes were centralised, and Catalan universities closed with one exception. That was a new university, created at Cervera, an insignificant little town some 100 kilometres (60 miles) west of Barcelona. Cervera was one of the few Catalan towns to support Philip’s cause and the university was a reward for its support. However, the university’s function was to inculcate future leaders of Catalonia with Castilian “values.” All this signified a humiliating loss of autonomy which Catalans did not forget.

The maritime quarter of Barcelona was gutted and a massive citadel of some 150 acres constructed between 1715 and 1720. Its immense size was meant to impress and instil fear, which it did.  It was also a constant and humiliating reminder of Castilian occupation until 1880, when it was finally demolished for the aptly named Citadel Park.

Catalonia as a political entity disappeared in the 18th century, but Catalonia as a social reality did not. In the villages and the countryside, the language continued to be used, traditional customs, songs and dances continued to be performed. In other words, the infrastructure for a future revival stubbornly survived. Catalans even made a national celebration of September 11, the humiliating day when Barcelona was forced to surrender to Philip V’s forces. (This celebration was suppressed during the dictatorship of General Franco –1939-75– but was restored after Franco’s death and remains the national holiday today!)

Although politically weakened, the Catalans got on with what they were good at: commerce and trading (there is an old saying: El Catalán de las piedras saca pan“the Catalan can extract bread from stones“). By and large they prospered thanks largely to the very Bourbon centralism they fretted against.

Loss of political independence was compensated by gaining access through Madrid to the markets of Latin America, traditionally closed to Catalan enterprises. Castilian generosity in this, however, obeyed another imperative: to increase tax revenues for the State and maintain Spain’s pre-eminence against foreign competition (English, French) in the colonies.

As early as the 1740s Catalan ships were allowed to sail from Cádiz. A more permanent step was taken in 1755 with the establishment of the Royal Company of Barcelona to trade directly with certain South American ports. Finally in 1778 all restrictions were lifted, allowing free trade with the Americas to become a vital factor in Catalan commerce in the second half of the eighteenth century.

Two products in particular were in demand in Latin America: cotton goods (textiles) and alcohol! With its commercial tradition, Catalonia was able to satisfy the demand for these products. The cotton industry, boosted by Bourbon protectionism, experienced an increase of some 400% in its exports in less than ten years, from 1784.

Indeed, by the end of the century the cotton mills of Catalonia were second in importance only to the English mills, with their number growing from twenty two in 1768 to at least fifty five by 1773.  An offshoot of the expansion of this textile industry was the introduction or importation of new technology –e.g. weaving machines and water mills.

Barcelona was the engine that drove Catalonia’s economic prosperity and its population grew significantly in response to a demand for workers. From 1717 to 1798, the population jumped from about 37,000 to around 130,000. To accommodate the immigrants, public spending projects were initiated, including the Barceloneta, a grid system of streets begun in 1753 just north of the port.

At the same time, wealthy industrialists displayed their wealth and influence building palatial, neoclassic residences along the Ramblas, a previously unhealthy watercourse filled in and straightened in the last quarter of the 18th century.

By this time, Barcelona had become a city whose “abundance was the stuff of childish dreams” according to the historian Fernández-Armesto (p. 132). It was a time when, for example, the cult of drinking chocolate, a luxury item imported from Mexico, saw the establishment of numerous chocolate shops (chocolaterías), patronised by the wealthy.

In the countryside, cereal fields were transformed into vineyards to satisfy South American thirst. Although the colonies had established vineyards, these were insufficient to keep up with demand. However, wine itself was difficult to export since the long journey turned the wine to vinegar.  The answer was to distil it and send it as brandy (aguardiente). It was a clever move, and aguardiente  became a leading export.

At the end of the 18th century, the vagaries of politics again affected the Catalans. For much of the 18th century, Spain had played second fiddle in the imperial struggles between Britain and France, and generally allied itself with its Bourbon neighbour. 

However, the French revolution of 1789 and the Republic’s hostility to religion and the monarchy prompted Spain to seek an accommodation with England. In 1793, Spain was at war with post-revolutionary France and large parts of Catalonia (which shared a common border with France) were occupied by French soldiers.

Three years later, the pendulum swung again: Spain and France signed a peace treaty and Spain was again an ally of the French against the English. The result was a serious economic setback for Catalan interests with the English immediately blockading Cádiz, Barcelona, and South American ports and causing a commercial collapse. Unemployment suddenly rose, soup kitchens were set up in Barcelona, there were bread riots in the streets and Catalans reacted angrily against the French.

Still, Spain remained allied with the French against the English, but that was to change dramatically within a few years. Following the disastrous defeat of the joint navies of France and Spain at Trafalgar in 1805, the French –under their formidable emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte— obtained permission for a French army to cross through Spain and attack England’s ally, Portugal.

The Portuguese quickly capitulated, but French troops continued to pour into Spain, now under the pretext that they were there to protect Spain from a British invasion. It soon became evident that Napoleon’s troops were, in fact, an occupying force, especially when Napoleon placed his older brother, Joseph, on the Spanish throne in April 1808. 

Catalonia, along with the rest of Spain, resisted Napoleon’s highhandedness, and from 1808 to 1814 the country was embroiled in a war of liberation, known in Spain as the War of Independence and elsewhere as the Peninsular War.

The War of Independence against France was but a prelude for a century of extraordinary political, social and economic instability in Spain. It was a period in which Catalonia was to undergo profound changes and challenge the political authority of Castile. See Catalonia: 19th-Century Politics.

Balcells, Albert    Catalan Nationalism London 1996
Barton, Simon A History of Spain 2nd. ed. Basingstoke, Hampshire 2009
Eaude, Michael Catalonia: A Cultural History Oxford 2008
Fernando-Armesto, Felipe Barcelona: A Thousand Years of the City’s Past Oxford, New York 1992
Hughes, Robert    Barcelona New York 1992
Lynch, John Bourbon Spain 1700-1808 Oxford 1993