Despite repressive government and oppressive taxation, Catalonia's economy began to recover in the mid-18th century. The key opportunity was being allowed to trade with the Americas from the 1770s onwards. Profits from liquor exports were wisely invested in textile machinery. By the mid-19th century was rivalling England in textile production. Economic prosperity brought about a resurgence in the Catalan language and the cultural revival known as the Renaixença brought Catalan literature to the fore.
Crippled by war, overtaxed and politically strangled by a foreign government, in the 1720s Catalonia had also lost its traditional Mediterranean markets and was in the middle of an economic recession. The Principality's lack of natural resources, such as coal, iron and grain, meant there seemed little hope of recovery. However, a better example of the saying 'necessity is the mother of invention' than Catalonia in the middle of the 18th century would be difficult to find.
Spanish historians often claim that the introduction of a modern taxation system such as the cadastre, although unfair, was the reason for Catalonia's economic resurgence. However, the cadastre was in addition to existing taxes not a replacement for them. As the economic recovery didn't happen in Aragon, Valencia or the Balearic Islands, where similar taxes had been applied, we have to dig a deeper to unearth the real reasons.
Although under military occupation, the period of peace allowed the Principality's birth rate to rise while its death rate fell. The demographic growth occurred mainly in the coastal regions that had traditionally been dedicated to vine cultivation.
Catalan grapes were of relatively poor quality. Consequently, its wine was fine for local consumption but had little chance of capturing export markets. However, the introduction of distilleries meant the poor quality wine could be concentrated into a potent liquor, known as aiguardent or fire water. Aiguardent was much less bulky than wine and was easier to export.
At the time, Catalonia could only trade with the Americas through the Castilian monopoly La Casa de Contratación but when in 1778 Charles III finally opened up American commerce to the Catalans, the trade in firewater really took off.
The cheap liquor business soon became the backbone of Catalan exports and brought much needed income to the Principality. Fortunately, prior to the export boom, forward-thinking businessmen had decided to invest in the traditional home-based cloth dyeing industry by importing primitive manual machinery from Northern Europe and opening the first textile printing factories in the 1750s. In 1779, after the trade restrictions with America were lifted, there were 25 textile factories in Catalonia plus nine wool factories.
The renewed commercial activity was exploited by the ever associative Catalans. In 1763 a Junta de Comerç or Chamber of Commerce had been installed in the building left vacant when the Castilians abolished the Consulate de Mar along with the other Catalan institutions. The Junta immediately began lobbying Madrid for better conditions for Catalan businesses and had a big hand in the removal of American trade restrictions.
The Junta's main function, though, was to coordinate the industrial, agricultural and mercantile sectors locally. It also had the foresight to open technical schools to replace the universities that the Castilians had closed down. These escoles tèchniques would become the backbone of an autochthonous business-oriented education system over the next two centuries.
By the end of the 18th century, just 20 years later, the cotton industry employed 80,000 people in Catalonia and the Principality was exporting 700,000 pairs of shoes to Spain and the Americas every year. Furthermore, the liquor industry had stimulated bottle production and Catalan glass factories were beginning to build a reputation for quality.
Apart from coal and iron-rich Asturias and the Basque Country, Catalonia was the only region in Spain able to take advantage of the coming of mechanisation. The Principality threw itself headlong into the modern age. The already marked differences between Catalonia and the regions of Castile and Andalucía, which both remained mainly feudal and agricultural, became more sharply defined. Divergent economic priorities could only widen the social and political gap between Catalonia and the rest of the Spain.
Throughout the 18th century the textile workshops became mechanised factories and spinning machines were initially imported from England. In 1790, Ramon Farguell, a carpenter from Berga, invented a Catalan spinning machine known as the Berguedana. This not only made El Berguedà one of the main textile centres of Catalonia but also paved the way for the advent of steam power.
The Age of Steam
The Catalan textile industry really took off from the 1830s onwards. In 1832, the Bonaplata brothers opened El Vapor, the first steam-powered factory in Spain.
Although the factory was burned down during the uprising known as the Burning of the Convents just three years later, the potential of steam was clear to the Catalan bourgeoisie.
In 1842, the Igualadina Cotonera began production in Igualada and in 1848, Antoni Gaudí's future patrons, the Güell family opened El Vapor Vell in Sants just outside Barcelona. New steam-powered textile factories mushroomed throughout Catalonia. The lack of coal led to the development of hydraulic power and many weaving factories were built next to rivers, such as the Llobregat, Besòs, Ter and Fluvià.
The satellite towns of Sants de Santa Maria, Sant Martí de Provençals and Sant Andreu de Palomar, which are all now districts of Barcelona, not only stood on rivers but their proximity to the Port of Barcelona gave them an early advantage. Their success was so great that, apart from England itself, Catalonia became the largest textile producer in Europe. By the late 19th century, Barcelona had earned itself the nickname of The Manchester of the Mediterranean.
Fortunes were made so quickly that the period was known as the Febre d'Or or Gold Fever. Not only Barcelona but also Manresa, Vilanova, Sabadell, Terrassa, Reus and Mataró all became important manufacturing centres in their own right as industry diversified.
The very first steam-powered railway on the Iberian Peninsula ran along the coast between Barcelona and Mataró and opened in 1847. It was privately funded, by the way, as a commercially beneficial railway line didn't conform to Spanish transport priorities. Predictably, the government-funded lines built a decade later all fanned out radially from Madrid.
A Longing for Language
Although frowned upon by the Castilian administration, Catalan culture and language had never really disappeared, particularly amongst the lower classes. All official business was done in Castilian. The middle and upper-classes adopted Castilian as a sign of social status but it is difficult to stop a worker or peasant from speaking his native tongue to his family and friends.
A Royal Decree of 1799 prohibited 'acting, singing and dancing works that are not in the Castilian language' but the law was impossible to enforce. In the popular theatre of the time, the comic and lower-class characters tended to speak Catalan whilst nobles and government officials were portrayed speaking Castilian.
At the start of the 19th century, the idea of Catalonia being different from Spain was at a low point amongst the population at large. Following the Peninsular War against Napoleon, there was a strong sensation that Catalans and other Spaniards had fought together against a common enemy.
However, a small group of intellectuals, including Antoni de Capmany, Josep Pau Ballot and Antoni Puig i Blanch, began publishing grammars and treatises on and in the Catalan language. In 1832 Josep Melcior published the first translation of the New Testament in Catalan since the Valencian Bible, which had been burned by the Inquisition three centuries earlier. Strangely, though, it was in Madrid that the Renaixença or Renaissance of the Catalan language and literature was to begin.
In 1833, Bonaventura Carles Aribau had been working in Madrid for the Catalan banker Gaspar de Remisa for 7 years. Already a published poet in Castilian, feeling homesick for the Catalan mountains of Montseny, he decided to dedicate a poem to his Catalan boss. The result was Oda a la Pàtria, which with its romantic theme of missing the Catalan countryside, when published in the Barcelona newspaper El Vapor caused such a patriotic furore that a school of imitators writing sentimental poems in Catalan quickly grew up.
As is often the case with patriotic writing, the quality of the poems was generally very low. The common themes of sentimental longing or enyorança for a lost Catalan homeland and an idealised view of a simple pastoral life quickly became popular amongst the industrial urban bourgeoisie.
The fad metamorphosed into a bona fide literary movement when Joaquim Rubió i Ors published 19 poems in Catalan in the Diario de Barcelona between 1839 and 1840. These were later compiled as a book called Lo Gayté del Llobregat in 1841, the prologue of which is considered a manifesto for the Renaixença. It emphasised the importance of writing about the homeland and of spreading the use of the Catalan language. As a call to action, Rubió i Ors proposed the reintroduction of the medieval poetry festival of the Jocs Florals and the Acadèmia del Gai Saber.
The Jocs Florals were medieval chivalry contests that had been held during the reign of Martí the Humane, the last of the Catalan Count-Kings. The events are documented as having involved poetry readings and songs by troubadours so the idea embodied both the call to Catalonia's glorious past as well as a simpler pre-industrial age. In the same way as La Reconquista symbolised the 19th century Castilian nation myth of a warrior race, the Catalan bourgeoisie defined their mythical past in terms of medieval chivalry and courtly love.
Celebrated to this day on the Diada de Sant Jordi on April 23rd, the first modern appearance of the Jocs Florals was in 1859. This marked the point from which the Catalan middle and upper-middle classes began to switch from using Castilian to Catalan as the language of high culture.
In due course, the Jocs Florals stimulated a renaissance in Catalan literature that hadn't been seen since the time of the Catholic Kings. In the Jocs Florals of 1877, playwright Angel Guimerà won the title of Mestre en Gai Saber and Jacint Verdaguer the special prize for his epic poem L'Atlàntida. This literary duo was soon joined by novelist and essayist Narcis Oller. Catalan had returned as a literary language of the highest order.
By the last third of the 19th century, newspapers were being published in Catalan. Catalonia was growing in economic power and had rediscovered its language and culture. It was only a question of time before the Principality would once again seek to express itself again politically.